When it comes to size, scope and longevity, few, if any, sporting bodies can rival Minor League Baseball. With 160 teams in nearly as many markets, there are innumerable nooks and crannies to explore. This marks the first installment in a series dedicated to such explorations, providing one unique, weird,
When it comes to size, scope and longevity, few, if any, sporting bodies can rival Minor League Baseball. With 160 teams in nearly as many markets, there are innumerable nooks and crannies to explore. This marks the first installment in a series dedicated to such explorations, providing one unique, weird, poignant or otherwise memorable fact about each team or city in each of Minor League Baseball’s 14 admission-charging leagues. Remember — it’s about the journey, not the destination. To share your own favorite team or city facts, please reach out via email ([email protected]) or Twitter (@bensbiz).
The International League — once home to teams in Canada and Cuba — is no longer international. But this Triple-A entity is one of Minor League Baseball’s most historically rich circuits, home to some of the most iconic and enduring franchises in all of sports. Let’s take an idiosyncratic trip through the IL’s current landscape, highlighting one unique fact about each of its teams or cities.
If there’s one thing you can be sure of when it comes to the Bisons’ schedule, it’s that they will not be home over Labor Day weekend. Why? Because that’s when the National Buffalo Wing Festival takes place annually at the Bisons’ home of Sahlen Field. While a Buffalo Wing Festival seems like a natural fit for the City of Buffalo, it came about it a most unexpected way. From the festival website:
“The idea … came from a movie called Osmosis Jones. Bill Murray starred as a compulsive eater with a goal of attending the Super Bowl of junk food, The National Buffalo Wing Festival. Ironically, there wasn’t one. That is when native Buffalonian Drew Cerza, now affectionately known as the Wing King decided to make it happen back in 2002. This is a case of Real Life knocking off Hollywood!”
BB&T Ballpark, home of the Charlotte Knights, opened in downtown Charlotte in 2014. This marked the first time the franchise played an International League home game in North Carolina, the state in which Charlotte is, of course, located. The Eastern League’s Charlotte O’s rebranded as the Knights prior to the 1988 season, and in 1989 the franchise moved across state lines to Fort Mill, South Carolina. That season was spent in a temporary facility (Knights Castle), and from 1990 through 2013 Charlotte’s team played at Fort Mill’s Knights Stadium. The Knights joined the International League in 1993.
The history of baseball in Columbus goes further back than a Chris Berman home run call. Luckily, the Clippers have historian Joe Santry to make sense of it all. When this writer visited the Clippers in 2013, Santry relayed these amazing facts about the 1884 Buckeyes, one of Columbus’ most interesting teams: The Buckeyes’ roster included the man who inspired the term “southpaw” (Eddie “Cannonball” Morris), a deaf player who prompted umpires to invent “safe” and “out” calls (Eddie “Dummy” Dundon), the inventor of the chest protector (Rudy Kemmler) and the inspiration for Ernest Thayer’s poem “Casey at the Bat” (Patsy Cahill).
Like Buffalo’s chicken wing festival, the Durham Bulls’ iconic “Hit Bull Win Steak” outfield sign is a case of real life being inspired by Hollywood. The sign was the invention of Ron Shelton, Minor League Baseball player-turned-writer and director of Bull Durham. The original “Hit Bull Win Steak” sign was a movie prop, installed in right field at the Bulls’ then-home of Durham Athletic Park. It’s been an integral part of the Bulls’ gameday experience ever since. The current “Hit Bull Win Steak sign, located in left field at the team’s current home of Durham Bulls Athletic Park, was installed in 1998. It is the sign’s third iteration. To get rid of it now would be a big missed steak.
What happens when someone hits the bull? (wrong answers only) pic.twitter.com/6q0uXy1quz
— Durham Bulls (@DurhamBulls) February 15, 2020
The Atlanta Braves own four of their Minor League affiliates: Rookie Advanced Danville, Class A Rome, Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett. The Gwinnett Braves rebranded as the Stripers prior to the 2018 season, becoming the first and thus far only team owned by the Braves to not be named the Braves. This unprecedented name change was motivated in large part by Gwinnett County’s proximity to Atlanta. The team, “little brother playing in big brother’s backyard,” felt the need to differentiate itself via an identity that was entirely its own.
Indianapolis’ use of “Indians” as a moniker predates the 1915 establishment of the Major League Cleveland Indians. As such, they have the longest-running consecutive usage of a unique team name in Minor League Baseball. The Indianapolis Indians were established in 1902, playing as a member of the American Association, Pacific Coast League, and since 1998, the International League. They are one year older than the Class A Short Season Spokane Indians, now in the Northwest League, who played their first season in 1903.
Lehigh Valley IronPigs
As longtime readers of Pork Illustrated can attest, the Iron Pigs have always put a premium on pig puns and promotions. Here’s one that all but the most fervent fans have probably forgotten: In 2010, the team honored a man named Jeff Olson, who had saved a pig’s life by giving it mouth-to-snout resuscitation. For “porksonally” going beyond the “call of suey,” the IronPigs sent Olson an IronPigs sweatshirt, a bottle of Listerine and a tube of ChapStick.
The Louisville Bats were established as the Louisville Redbirds in 1982 upon relocating from Springfield, Illinois. The Redbirds played at cavernous Cardinal Stadium, which boasted a capacity of over 30,000. This ballpark didn’t seem so cavernous once Louisville’s faithful fans began flocking to the ballpark. The Louisville Redbirds drew 868,418 fans that inaugural 1982 season, setting an all-time Minor League Baseball attendance record. They broke that record in 1983, when they drew a whopping 1,052,438. That mark stood for five years, until the Buffalo Bisons brought in 1,186,651 in 1988 (their inaugural campaign at what is now called Sahlen Field).
Dave Rosenfield, who passed away in 2017, was a legendary Norfolk Tides executive who spent over 50 years with the franchise. Just how legendary? Legendary enough to be depicted in what is arguably the greatest television show of all time. In the 1990 Simpsons episode “Dancin’ Homer,” the owner of the Capital City Capitals is a short-tempered individual named, you guessed it, Dave Rosenfield. The episode was written by Ken Levine, who had served as the Tides’ broadcaster before transitioning to the television industry.
Pawtucket Red Sox
McCoy Stadium — home of the PawSox — is the only Minor League ballpark where one can purchase an “autograph fishing set.” The ballpark’s seating bowl is located 10 feet above field level, while the dugouts are at field level. This unique setup has led to the tradition of “fishing for autographs,” in which fans place the items they want signed into modified milk jugs or buckets and lower them down to the players who are (hopefully) waiting below.
A little #TBT to short sleeves and autograph fishing as we approach single digits on this frigid afternoon! #99DaysUntilOpeningNight ❄️⛄️⚾️ pic.twitter.com/MBkn4acxdf
— PawSox (@PawSox) December 28, 2017
Rochester Red Wings
The Red Wings have retired several numbers over the course of their long history, including 26 for Joe Altobelli and 36 for Luke Easter. They also retired the number 8,222, perhaps the only four-digit number to be retired in professional sports. That’s because 8,222 is the number of Red Wings shares sold by team president Morrie Silver to ensure the team stayed in Rochester. This effort occurred in 1956, and Silver remained the majority stockholder until his death in 1974. (His daughter, Naomi, is currently the COO of Rochester Community Baseball.)
Consisting of 31 characters, “Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders” is the longest team name in all of Minor League Baseball. But did you know? The team’s home of PNC Field is not located in Scranton or Wilkes-Barre. It instead is found in the town of Moosic, Pennsylvania, which is located just south of Scranton and to the northeast of Wilkes-Barre.
Syracuse first fielded a Minor League team in 1934, and over the ensuing 86 years, it’s been affiliated with the Red Sox, Reds, Pirates, Phillies, Tigers, Twins, Senators, Yankees, Blue Jays, Nationals, and beginning in 2019, the Mets. The team changed its name to the Mets prior to the 2019 season, and this marked the first time the team carried the name of its parent club. From 1934-2018, the team was known as the Chiefs (or from 1997-2006, the SkyChiefs).
Toledo Mud Hens
Many great Americans hail from Toledo, a great American city. Three such Americans are Jim Leyland, Katie Holmes and Jamie Farr (who famously wore a Mud Hens hat while playing Corporal Klinger on MAS*H). During the 2008 season, the Mud Hens staged a nightly “Racing with the Stars” promotion that featured Jim Flealand, Kitty Holmes and Jamie Farrmadillo taking part in an on-field between-inning speed competition. This marks the first, and thus far, only time — but hopefully not the last time — that a Minor League Baseball mascot race featured notable city natives reimagined as a flea, a cat and an armadillo.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben’s Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.