The Hunt for the Rare Nesting Doll Affiliation
How did minor league affiliation come to be? In the early 20th Century, as the major leagues (and baseball in general) were working to gain a solid foothold in the realm of commercially-viable entertainment, the various minor leagues popped up as regional circuits throughout North America. Several of these leagues were included in the National Agreement with the majors, but they still operated independently–signing local players or paying for hotshots as they could afford. Things changed in the early 1920s, when baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis allowed major league teams to purchase minor league franchises. The forward-thinking owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, one Branch Rickey, immediately bought the Texas League’s Houston Buffaloes and began gobbling up more teams over the next few years. Rickey successfully developed his “farm system” idea and other teams followed suit. Though it would take some time until affiliation was the norm, by the thirties, it was definitely a thing.
As the idea of affiliation grew, the American and National Leagues didn’t have a monopoly on the practice. In the Twenties and Thirties, several minor league teams had affiliation agreements with teams in the Negro Leagues or All-Star clubs composed of black players. For example, the NNL’s legendary Chicago American Giants were linked with the American Association’s Columbus Red Birds in 1931. I can’t claim to understand the workings of these agreements–perhaps a subject for future article–but I think that in some cases, the minor league teams were the de facto parent clubs. In a looser era for baseball, the minors were copying the tactics of the majors.
This brings me to the topic of this article. Something that I’ve discovered as I peel back the layers of minor league history is that there have been a few instances over the years of minor league teams affiliating with other minor league teams. The phenomenon is in stark contrast to what we see in today’s minors, where the affiliates are sort of wacky shells of teams that are near-fully controlled by MLB–both the institution at large and the individual major league teams. Players move through the ranks of their parent club systems and the teams (even within a given system) do not autonomously transact players or similarly interface. I mean, can you imagine, say, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs assigning and recalling players from the Lakewood BlueClaws at will? It’s unthinkable in these MLB-heavy days, but arrangements like that have happened in the past. There also exists the rarest of minor league historical treasures: the affiliated minor league team that has its own minor league affiliate(s). This mind-boggling arrangement reminds me of those Russian nesting dolls, so I’ve been calling them “Nesting Doll Affiliations.” Let’s travel through time and look at minor league teams that had minor league affiliates.
Given that the Pacific Coast League was essentially a third major league in the mid-20th Century, it’s hardly surprising that there were a few plucky clubs that chose to take on affiliates. In 1947, only two of the circuit’s eight teams had major league parent clubs. The Oakland Oaks–whose only dealing with the majors in their 50+ years of existence was a three year fling with the Yankees in the Thirties–were a particularly tough nut to crack.
In a 2019 article about the California League for milb.com, writer Josh Jackson profiles the wildly dominant ’47 Stockton Ports, who ran roughshod over the rest of the Cali League. I almost sprayed my coffee when I read one of Jackson’s casual anecdotes: “Affiliated with the PCL’s Oakland Oaks — who were headlined by Vince DiMaggio and managed by Casey Stengel — Stockton had a winning percentage (.679) more than 100 points better than any other team in the league.” While I’m not sure where Jackson got that information (the Ports are listed as unaffiliated on Baseball Reference) I certainly trust the validity of the statement, considering the article was on milb’s front page. So at least for that one year, the Stockton Ports were a feeder team for the independent Oakland Oaks. But that’s not a nesting doll. Or if it is, it’s the lamest nesting doll this side of Moscow.
Another club from the PCL’s golden years, the Sacramento Solons, apparently had the Pioneer League’s Idaho Falls Russets as an affiliate from 1953-1954. I had noticed this anecdote in a few different places, though I’ve found it hard to find definitive proof. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (as well as Baseball Reference) both list the Russets as being simply unaffiliated in these years. The closest to confirmation I’ve come across are articles about Sacramento-area baseball history. One article describes how a player in 1953 “signed a contract with the Sacramento Solons and was optioned to the Idaho Falls Russets of the level-C Pioneer League where he hit .269 as a rookie.” Though I don’t know where the history site got that info, it seems reasonable to assume that the Solons and Russets had a little thing going on. But is this a nesting doll affiliation? Alas, no. Though the Solons were affiliated with the White Sox in 1951 and the Milwaukee Braves in 1959, the Pacific Coast League was designated with “Open” affiliation status (basically a third major league) from ’52-’57. Thus, no nesting.
In that same time period, the mid-20th Century, Dallas was starting to become the major metro it is today. MLB was a handful of years away from making its way to the Lone Star State, so the hottest ticket around was the Texas League’s Dallas Eagles. The Eagles (previously called the Rebels and later called the Rangers) are noted to have had their own minor league affiliate in 1954–the Artesia Numexers of the Class C Longhorn League. Unfortunately, the Eagles were an independent outfit in ’53 and ’54. So it was simply another case of a minor league team getting too big for its britches and taking affiliation into its own hands. Shucks!
In good conscience, I couldn’t write this article without delivering the goods. So here’s the only example that I’ve found of a true nesting doll arrangement. After the 1960 season, our old friends, the Sacramento Solons, were sold to a businessman from Salt Lake City. This was the era when the Dodgers and Giants had just moved to the West Coast, causing teams like the Los Angeles Angels, Hollywood Stars, and San Francisco Seals to be booted out of town. The Pacific Coast League, shortly after making waves as a third major league, was beaten back into submission as a Triple-A circuit with an expanded footprint.
Part of that footprint was wet. The Solons were moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, and became the new Hawaii Islanders. The Islanders were affiliated with a handful of MLB clubs throughout the Sixties, but they retained a strong sense of independence–rare in the high minors, even in those wild west days. Their MLB parent club would only send a handful of players to Honolulu each year, while the Islanders were free to sign free agents and build winning rosters. These spirited island years also included affiliation with one minor league club. Baseball historians on MiLB’s official website describe it this way: “In 1970-72 Hawaii operated its own farm system, owning a club in the Northwest League and signing all the players.”
After the 1969 season, Hawaii bought an expansion franchise in the Class A Northwest League and set them up in Bend, Oregon. They named the team the Bend Rainbows–possibly a pun and/or a reference to Hawaiian rainbows–and assigned their own players to the team. Baseball Reference and other resources list Bend as an affiliate of the California Angels that season, though this seems to be the connection stemming from Hawaii’s affiliation with the Angels. That is to say: the Angels were the big nesting doll with the Islanders inside and then the Rainbows inside of the Islanders.
This arrangement lasted two seasons before two changes happened. One was that the Islanders and Angels broke their affiliation and Hawaii linked up with the San Diego Padres. The other change was that the Islanders switched their NWL team from Bend to Walla Walla, Washington, where they took on the same identity as their (minor league) parent club. Walla Walla is a city in southeast Washington and is certainly not on an island, but nonetheless, the Walla Walla Islanders were a thing for one (and only one) season.
Meanwhile, Hawaii was ready to ease back into being a regular Triple-A team. San Diego, who operated the NWL’s Tri-City Padres, moved operations to Walla Walla and merged the two teams in 1973. But consider that in 1972, Walla Walla and Tri-City (geographic neighbors) competed against each other. One team was composed of Padres prospects and one composed of players under contract of the Hawaii Islanders–the Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres. That’s weird, wild stuff.
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that one of the players that Hawaii had under contract from ’71-’72 was none other than actor Kurt Russell, who suited up for both the Bend Rainbows and the Walla Walla Islanders. But if I’m talking about Kurt Russell, that means I’ve probably exceeded the recommended word count. And this is an appropriate place to wrap it up. The 1972 San Diego-Hawaii-Walla Walla connection was the last true nesting doll affiliation that we’ve seen in the minor leagues.