An Off-Season of Minor League Research

Last summer, the Rome Braves announced they would be adopting a new name for the 2024 season, dropping their parent club’s with which they had identified since they were the Anderson Braves in 1980. A few months later on November 16th, the team announced they would now be known as the Rome Emperors (and might I just add that it is some spectacular branding). Yet another affiliated ball club would be forging its own identity – a trend that has steadily (and at times rapidly) been underway since the mid-1980s.

Rome Emperors primary logo (2024)

Only twelve teams will take the field in 2024 sharing their parent club’s name: the Dunedin Blue JaysMississippi BravesPalm Beach CardinalsSpringfield CardinalsIowa CubsSouth Bend CubsSan Jose GiantsSt. Lucie MetsSyracuse MetsFredericksburg NationalsSalem Red Sox, and Worcester Red Sox. Then, the M-Braves announced on January 9th that they would be leaving Pearl, MS  (where they’ve been stationed since coming over from Greenville, SC in 2005) for Columbus, GA starting in 2025. They will presumably adopt a new non-Braves name as well, bringing the overall number of MiLB affiliates sharing their parent club’s name down to eleven. And this all got me thinking…

I was aware of this trend of MiLB affiliates creating their own identity as a means of connecting with their local community, but just how does the current landscape of merely twelve teams sharing the name of their parent club compare to affiliated-ball history? Thus, the follow 3+ months of research began! Before getting underway to some results, though, we must set some ground rules and temper expectations.

  • Only exact matches to the parent club name are counted other than the following stipulations:
    • Both “Athletics” and “A’s” were accepted for the Philadelphia/Kansas City/Oakland Athletics franchise’s affiliates.
    • Both “Senators” and “Nationals” were accepted for the second Washington Senators franchise that would eventually become the Minnesota Twins.
  • Due to exact matches being necessary, close misses such as the below do not count as sharing their parent club’s name:
    • Bisbee Yanks, affiliate of the New York Yankees in 1947.
    • Charleston ChaSox, affiliate of the Chicago White Sox in 1959.
    • Clinton C-Sox, affiliate of the Chicago White Sox from 1960-1965.
    • Columbus Confederate Yankees, affiliate of the New York Yankees from 1964-1966.
    • Elizabethton Phils, affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1951.
    • Elmira Pioneer-Red Sox, affiliate of the Boston Red Sox in 1977.
    • Geneva Redlegs, affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds from 1960-1962.
    • Jeannette Little Pirates, affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1936.
    • Lakeland Flying Tigers, current affiliate of the Detroit Tigers beginning in 2007.
    • Modesto Colts, affiliate of the Houston Colt .45s from 1962-1964.
    • Moultrie Colt .22s, affiliate of the Houston Colt .45s from 1962-1963.
    • New Castle Nats, affiliate of the Washington Senators/Nationals from 1949-1950.
    • Orlando Rays, affiliate of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays from 1999-2003.
    • Reading Fightin Phils, current affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies beginning in 2013.
    • Rockford Cubbies, affiliate of the Chicago Cubs from 1995-1998.
    • Vero Beach Devil Rays, affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008.
  • Complex, instructional, and international leagues and teams were not counted. These include:
    • Arizona Complex League
    • Arizona Instructional League
    • Arizona League
    • Cocoa Rookie League
    • Dominican Summer League
    • Florida Complex League
    • Florida East Coast Instructional League
    • Florida East Coast League
    • Florida Instructional League
    • Florida Instructional League North
    • Florida Instructional League South
    • Florida Rookie League
    • Gulf Coast League
    • Peninsula Winter League
    • Sarasota Rookie League
    • Venezuelan Summer League
  • And for some expectation management: historical records, particularly pre-WWII, are not always readily available or accurate. Some sources list affiliations from the 1920s, but others don’t list any prior to the mid-to-late 1930s. I went ahead and counted affiliations where I could find substantial evidence of collaboration between an MLB club and a minor league team.

With all of that aside, my journey into researching the history of minor league baseball began. My first order of business was recording all affiliates from each MLB team’s history in a spreadsheet so I could simply see how many matches there were between a minor league club’s name and its parent’s. As I had thought, 2024’s 10% (12/120) of affiliated teams sharing their parent club’s name was one of the lowest in history, however, I was not expecting it to be quite as low as it was. In fact, 2024 has the lowest mark of all-time other than 1932 and 1933, the first two years that most sources claim affiliations began.

  1. 1932: 4.44% (2/45)
  2. 1933: 5.41% (2/37)
  3. 2024: 10.00% (12/120)

The trend of naming a minor league club for its parent is a near-perfect example of a typical bell curve. In the early-to-mid twentieth century, minor league teams existed independently and would affiliate on-and-off with different MLB teams, thus they would often have their own names and identities that would not change from affiliation to affiliation. However, by the mid-1900s, minor league teams began to often need MLB-affiliation to survive. At this point, brand recognition from the parent club could help sustain a minor league team, thus many began the practice of changing their identity to align with their MLB-affiliate. This trend would grow especially rapidly between 1961, when 30.30% (40/132) shared their parent club’s name, to 1975 ,when 59.22% (61/103) would.

Then came a sharp decline. After plateauing for the next decade, the ratio of minor league teams that used their parent club’s name would drastically drop from 58.65% (78/133) in 1986 to 25.00% (40/160) in 1999 – and it’s continued to drop, albeit less emphatically, since. This is when we saw the first crop of unique brands begin to pop up in MiLB, such as the Lansing Lugnuts in 1996 and the Ogden Raptors in 1994.

One thing I learned at this point that is worth calling out is the St. Louis Cardinals organization’s eagerness and thoroughness to create an MLB-talent pipeline. The 1930s saw the Cardinals collect affiliates unlike any other (again, it is worth calling out that these numbers vary depending on the source):

  • 1930: 3 affiliates
  • 1931: 3
  • 1932: 11
  • 1933: 7
  • 1934: 9
  • 1935: 13
  • 1936: 24
  • 1937: 27
  • 1938: 27
  • 1939: 28
  • 1940: 31 (!)

Their mark of 31 minor league affiliates in a single season remains a record to this day, even if you include complex and international teams. This farm system development can almost solely be attributed to Branch Rickey. Perhaps most famous for signing Jackie Robinson when he was General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey spent nearly thirty years in the Cardinals organization before dawning Dodger-blue. The Cardinals were the team to beat in the National League in the late-1920s, however, they were struggling to translate this success into World Series championships. Thus, the idea to build a talent pipeline was conceived and the Cardinals began making agreements with or outright purchasing minor league teams nationwide. At their peak in the late-1930s, MLB commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis expelled dozens of Cardinals minor leaguers over concerns that the growing farm system would ruin baseball, however, Rickey and the Cardinals persevered and many other MLB clubs eventually followed. Many attribute the continued success of minor league baseball, all the way to how it is shaped today, to this overzealous development as it otherwise may not have survived the advent of the television age. Rickey would leave the Cardinals in 1942, but not before the team won the World Series that year, largely with the help of players who came up through their own farm system.

At this point, a normal person would stop here with the feeling of a job well done, however, I felt the potential of this spreadsheet I had begun had not been realized yet.

While looking through the leagues these affiliated teams played in, there were several examples of teams playing independent clubs. This was overwhelmingly common in the 1930s-1960s, but persisted well past then too. I’m sure many are familiar with the infamous Portland Mavericks, subjects of The Battered Bastards of Baseball documentary, playing in the Northwest League in 1970s, however, unaffiliated teams like the Bakersfield BlazeVisalia OaksButte Copper KingsLethbridge MountiesOgden Raptors, and River City Rumblers competed against affiliated teams in league-play as recently the mid-1990s! Additionally, teams like the Sugar Land Space CowboysSomerset Patriots, and St. Paul Saints made the jump from independent circuits to affiliated leagues in 2021. Are we simply to ignore the history of professional independent minor league baseball? I think not! The spreadsheet would have to evolve.

This is where the cumbersome task began, but first, some more expectation management is needed. It’s worth reiterating that the history of the minor leagues was not always well documented. This is especially true for the independent minor leagues. There is not only a chance, but a likelihood, that I have not accounted for all leagues and teams in history. Fortunately, this spreadsheet is a living document that can be updated at any time!

Now, for why this was a cumbersome mission. There have been many affiliated clubs. We’re currently sitting at 120 after contracting from the 150-160 that MiLB showcased from 1993-2020 after MLB’s last expansion era, but there have been as many as 269(!) affiliated teams in 1948. This may seem like a lot to keep track of, however, that’s number is miniscule when you consider that there have been nearly twenty seasons featuring 200+ independent teams (mostly pre-1932 when affiliated ball is thought to have began), peaking in 1910 with 343 independent professional minor league teams. In all, here are the top ten seasons with the most professional minor league teams (affiliated + independent):

  1. 1949: 457 (238 affiliated, 219 independent)
  2. 1950: 454 (214, 240)
  3. 1948: 451 (269, 182)
  4. 1947: 398 (228, 170)
  5. 1951: 378 (180, 198)
  6. 1910: 343 (0, 343)
  7. 1911: 342 (0, 342)
  8. 1952: 333 (180, 153)
  9. 1912: 319 (1, 318)
  10. 1946: 318 (192, 126)

As you can see, most of those seasons were the years immediately following World War II. Baseball being America’s pastime saw different “booms” throughout its history. From the late-1800s to the mid-1900s, whenever the United States economy was doing well, professional baseball teams popped up all over the country. Similarly, when the economy struggled or when there were greater global issues at play, clubs ceased operations from coast-to-coast. For instance, the number of professional teams minor league teams rose from 3 in 1882 to 343 in 1910, less than thirty years later, before the combination of World War I and the Spanish Flu caused that number to plummet to only 69 in 1918. That number grew once more to a historically-modest 214 in 1928 before stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression caused the number to fall once more to only 109 in 1933. Things picked back up to nearly turn-of-the-century numbers once more in 1940 when 315 professional minor league teams were playing country-wide, but World War II caused the biggest drought yet as nearly all activity ceased and only 67 different teams took the field in 1943. The post-WWII boom was unlike any other, though, as 457 minor league teams played ball in 1949.

This would be the end of such remarkable growth, however, as the number of teams dropped dramatically over the course of the 1950s and began to hover around 110-130 throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. This is largely due to the disappearance of independent professional circuits. Presumably, the growth of MLB, the development of the affiliated minor leagues, as well as the growth of other sports, entertainment, and travel opportunities; caused the interest for independent teams in local communities to wane. Fortunately, all-independent circuits would make a triumphant return in the mid-1990s and continue to flourish today where we are now plateauing at around 200 professional minor league teams annually.

Surely at this point I considered my spreadsheet “complete”? Incorrect. I next became enamored with the timeline and chronology of teams. Teams bounce from city-to-city for a variety of reasons and continue to do so to this day (such as the aforementioned M-Braves departing Pearl for Columbus next year). With this thought, however, comes another disclaimer: the record of teams actually moving cities vs. folding and being replaced by a completely different franchise is wildly inconsistent and required a bunch of inferences on my end. Even teams playing in the same city year-over-year are not always connected (a modern example being the Staten Island Yankees ownership refusing the Atlantic League’s invitation to join their ranks after getting cut from affiliated-play in 2020 and the completely separate Staten Island FerryHawks joining instead). As before, it’s not even worth saying there’s a chance some of my franchise listings could be wrong as there are, probably, many incorrect assumptions on my end. That said, we gave it a go anyway!

At the end of it all, the most notable finding was there are [possibly] seven clubs still playing today whose franchises can be traced back 100+ years! They are as follows:

  1. Albuquerque Isotopes – 123 years
    1. Started as two franchises: the Dallas Giants/Griffins/Submarines/Marines/Steers/Rebels/Eagles of the Texas League from 1902-1957 before being admitted to the American Association as the Dallas Rangers in 1959; and the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association from 1902-1952, who became the Toledo Sox from 1953-1955, who played as the Wichita Braves from 1956-1958, before finally becoming the Fort Worth Cats in 1959.
    2. The Dallas and Fort Worth franchises merged to become the Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers from 1960-1963, before becoming simply the Dallas Rangers once more in 1964. They also shifted from the American Association to the Pacific Coast League after the former’s closure in 1963.
    3. 1965 saw the franchise shipped across borders to become the Vancouver Mounties through 1969.
    4. They’d next play as the Salt Lake City Bees/Angels/Gulls from 1970-1984.
    5. Back across borders they went as they became the Calgary Cannons from 1985-2002.
    6. Finally, the club moved back down south and has been the Albuquerque Isotopes since 2003.
  2. El Paso Chihuahuas – 122 years
    1. Started as the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League from 1903-1957.
    2. Moved up north after the Dodgers came to town and played as the Spokane Indians from 1958-1971.
    3. Shifted back down south as the Albuquerque Dukes from 1972-2000.
    4. Moved north once more and was known as the Portland Beavers from 2001-2010.
    5. Following its pattern, went south again to play as the Tucson Padres from 2011-2013.
    6. But the stay was short, as they’ve been the El Paso Chihuahuas since 2014.
  3. Columbus Clippers – 109 years
    1. They’d join the International League as the Syracuse Stars in 1918 before quickly re-locating and becoming the Hamilton Tigers during the season.
    2. 1919 saw them move over to Pennsylvania where they’d play as the Reading Coal Barons/Marines/Aces/Keystones until 1932.
    3. Another mid-season move saw them ship back to New York and become the Albany Senators through 1937.
    4. Crossing off another northeast state, they’d play as the Jersey City Giants from 1937-1950.
    5. Going international once more, they played as the Ottawa Giants/A’s from 1951-1954.
    6. They’d next begin their first stint in Ohio’s capital as the Columbus Jets from 1955-1970.
    7. Next would be West Virginia as they took the field as the Charleston Charlies from 1971-1976.
    8. Finally, they’d wind up back in Ohio and have been known as the Columbus Clippers for nearly fifty years since 1977.
  4. Gwinnett Stripers – 108 years
    1. Began play as the Jersey City Skeeters from 1918-1933.
    2. Moved up north to become one of multiple incarnations of the Syracuse Chiefs from 1934-1955.
    3. They’d next move down to Florida and become the Miami Marlins from 1956-1960.
    4. They’d begin the 1961 season as the San Juan Marlins before travel expenses became a problem and they’d move to West Virginia during the season as the Charleston Marlins.
    5. Back down south they went as they played as the Atlanta Crackers from 1962-1965.
    6. Displaced by their own parent club, they next went to to Virginia as the Richmond Braves from 1966-2008.
    7. They’d finally head back to Georgia and have been the Gwinnett Braves/Stripers since 2009.
  5. Fresno Grizzlies – 105 years
    1. Another early Pacific Coast League team, the franchise began as the Seattle Rainiers/Indians/Angels from 1920-1968.
    2. Displaced by the short-lived Seattle Pilots, they’d next move to Arizona as the Tucson Toros from 1969-1997.
    3. They quickly found their forever-home, though, and became the Fresno Grizzlies in 1998.
  6. Akron RubberDucks – 102 years
    1. The franchise began its existence with a lengthy stretch as the Binghamton Triplets from 1923-1968. This period also featured a 30-year affiliation with the New York Yankees.
    2. After reuniting with the Yankees towards the end of their time in New York, they moved to New Hampshire and became the Manchester Yankees from 1969-1971.
    3. The stay was short, however, as the tour of New England continued as they became the West Haven Yankees from 1972-1979.
    4. Continuing through the region, they’d next appear as the Lynn Sailors from 1980-1983.
    5. Over to Vermont and onto the field as the Vermont Reds/Mariners from 1984-1988.
    6. They nearly made it to home as they became the Canton-Akron Indians from 1989-1996.
    7. And lastly, they’d drop the “Canton” and become the Akron Aeroes/RubberDucks starting in 1997.
  7. Hartford Yard Goats – 100 years
    1. Celebrating their 100th season in 2024, the franchise began as the Williamsport Billies/Grays/Tigers/A’s of the New York-Pennsylvania League, then the Eastern League from 1923-1962.
    2. Staying in-state, they next became the Reading Red Sox from 1963-1964.
    3. The Red Sox then moved them closer to Fenway as the Pittsfield Red Sox from 1965-1969.
    4. They became the Pawtucket Red Sox from 1970-1972.
    5. They’d make it to their first Connecticut city as the Bristol Red Sox from 1973-1982.
    6. Next for them would be the New Britain Red Sox and Hardware City/New Britain Rock Cats from 1983-2015.
    7. Finally, they’d move to the state capital as the Hartford Yard Goats in 2016.

Just to be super clear, I cannot emphasize enough how possible it is that this could be wrong and the clubs listed could be disconnected entirely. I invite anyone who may know more to correct me!

And there we have it! I hope to continue to learn more about the history of the minors and grow the spreadsheet I’ve started for time to come, but I also want everyone else to enjoy it as well! Here is a link – be sure to play around with the filter views so you can get whatever info you’d like from it.


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