National Geographic

April, 1991

 

nat geo

 

Perhaps the most notable magazine feature in the history of the minors happened in April 1991, when National Geographic ran a cover story entitled “A Season in the Minors.” The cover photo was of some long-forgotten player named Greg Edge of the El Paso Diablos; presented with his head bowed for the national anthem at Dudley Field. The lengthy story was written by renowned journalist David Lamb, author of Stolen Season, a book about life in the minor leagues that I own, but have not read.

Lamb made his bones working as a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times during the Vietnam War, and spent subsequent years overseas reporting in Africa and the Middle East. There is an underlying theme in the story of how Lamb is seeking to reconnect with what he remembers of America’s pastime after these years abroad. For his reporting on the minors, Lamb drove an RV from northern California to Arizona to Texas to the Southeast and back, stopping at minor league parks at all levels along the way. There is also quite of a bit of ink dedicated to the history and structure of the minors, and as befitting a broad audience like that of Nat Geo, it is written for those who are basically unfamiliar with the concepts.

There must have been some sort of deal worked out with the Brewers’ organization, because about half of the stops were at affiliates of Milwaukee at the time–the Denver Zephyrs, El Paso Diablos, Stockton Ports, Beloit Brewers, Helena Brewers, and Milwaukee’s minor-league training facility in Arizona. Other locations featured in either the narrative or the photos include those of the Bakersfield Dodgers, San Bernardino Spirit, Great Falls Dodgers, Quad City Angels, Bluefield Orioles, Pulaski Braves, Birmingham Barons, and Durham Bulls; as well as numerous briefly-mentioned or “playing against” teams.

Luckily, Lamb’s prose and voice are skillful and engaging, because the content is fairly trite and worn-out. It’s the typical minor league themes of quaintness, purity, novelty, and the struggle of players to become the “one in fourteen” to make the majors. There are a lot of behind-the-scenes vignettes about team ownership, management, fans, and players. This is underlined by the superb collection of photographs by William Albert Allard, many of which are enhanced with time–the clothing and styles the early nineties are on full display. It’s not clear whether or not Lamb and Allard were travelling in concert, and Lamb seems to indicate that he was driving the RV alone. Still, most of the photos relate directly to the vignettes described by the other. The images are so good, that I’d like to share some photos that I’ve taken of them, presented in the order that they appear in the periodical.

 

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The intro page shows a humorous from-the-back shot of John Jaha, the only player mentioned that would go on to a notable big-league career.

 

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The iconic bridge near John O’Donnell Stadium (now Modern Woodmen park) in Davenport, Iowa. The Quad City Angels playing against the Waterloo Diamonds.

 

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A kid rocks a gnarly t-shirt at Dudley Field in El Paso.

 

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Signs of weather in Great Falls (left) and El Paso.

 

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A Billings Mustang smooches his spouse in Great Falls. This is a prime example of the article’s “pull back the curtain” theme.

 

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Beloit’s bus and gear; a map of MiLB teams in 1991.

 

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Let’s take a closer look at this gem. The three Class A levels are bundled together as yellow Single-A dots. Phoenix has a little side key with one red (Firebirds) and seven others for the AZL teams. Similar story in Florida, with everything all jumbled together. Several defunct MiLB cities are listed, including Bakersfield, Medicine Hat, Helena, Denver, Phoenix, Wichita, Springfield (IL), Waterloo, and Baseball City aka Davenport, Florida.

 

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A pretty boring shot of the Brew Crew’s spring training facility in Arizona.

 

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Another pretty boring spread from the AZL Brewers. Feelings are had as a player is let go.

 

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Two cool shots of Diablos. Players counting cash on the left and an on-field wedding on the right.

 

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Helena players in Salt Lake City. It’s funny to think of the Trappers playing in the Pioneer League.

 

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Some tough-guy clubhouse stuff. Baseball seam imprint on the left and poker game on the right.

 

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Very cool shot of some Denver Zephyrs sprawled on the grass watching post-game fireworks shooting off above Mile High Stadium. Note the white bronco above the scoreboard. It’s hard to imagine a Triple-A team sharing an NFL stadium these days, despite there being five cities (New Orleans, Nashville, Indy, Charlotte, Buffalo) where it would be possible.

 

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When an article is so long that you have to dig deep for decent photos. Beloit on the left and the Ports in San Bernardino on the right.

 

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Candid towel shot in El Paso.

 

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Celebrations in the Milwaukee’s system. Diablos on left, Ports on right.

 

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The article closes with the full version of the gorgeous cover shot.

 

 

 

 

 

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