Posts Tagged ‘Eastern League’
At the end of the 1979 season, West Haven (CT) Yankees owners Lloyd Kern and Robert Zeig needed a new Major League affiliation for their Eastern League franchise. The Bronx Bombers decided to relocate their double-A affiliate to Nashville of the Southern league after eight summers in nearby West Haven.
In September, Kern and Zeig inked a deal with the Seattle Mariners and announced plans to re-brand their ball club as the “West Haven Sailors” for the 1980 season. Then they reconsidered. Not the Mariners part. The West Haven part. In late 1979, Kern and Zeig packed up and moved to Fraser Field in Lynn, Massachusetts.
Built in 1940 as Works Progress Administration project during the New Deal, Fraser had seen only limited service as a minor league ballpark, hosting the Lynn Red Sox and Lynn Tigers of the New England League from 1946 to 1949. In the spring of 1980 the hardscrabble industrial city of just under 100,000 on Massachusetts’ North Shore would greet its first minor league ball club in more than three decades.
The Sailors lasted three seasons as Mariners affiliate in Lynn. During the club’s first two seasons under field manager Bobby Floyd in 1980 and 1981, the Sailors finished with the 6th best record in the eight-team circuit. But development, not winning, is the priority in a Major League farm system. More than a dozen Sailors that passed through Lynn in the early 1980’s eventually saw time with the big club in Seattle, including key contributors such as Jim Presley, Matt Young, Dave Valle, Mike Moore and Mario Diaz.
Future Mariners stars Alvin Davis, Harold Reynolds and Spike Owen, the club’s prized first round draft pick, arrived in Lynn in the spring of 1982. This proved to be the Sailors’ best – and final season – with the club posting an 82-57 record en route to a championship series tilt with the West Haven A’s. (In the minor league fashion of the day, West Haven had immediately picked up a new investor and Major League affiliation after the Sailors departed in 1979). The A’s swept the Sailors three games to zero in the 1982 Eastern League finals.
In the fall of 1981, Massachusetts businessman Michael Agganis purchased the team from Kern. Agganis is the nephew of the revered former Boston Red Sox first baseman and Lynn native Harry Agganis who died of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 26 in 1955. After the 1982 season, the Mariners departed and Agganis snagged an affiliation with the Pittsburgh Pirates, which required a re-branding (Lynn Pirates) for the 1983 campaign.
Agganis brought in Rico Petrocelli, a hero of the Boston Red Sox 1967 Impossible Dream in as General Manager. The team was strong once again. The Pirates 77-62 record was second best in the eight-team Eastern League. Attendance once again was awful. Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Don Robinson won 15 games for the big club in 1982, but was sent to Lynn for rehab work in the spring of ’83.
“I counted 18 fans in the stands one night,” Robinson told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in May 1983. “A couple of the guys said there may have been as many as 75, but I don’t know.”
The total gate for the year was reported as a league-worst 31,575 for 70 games. The box office was so bad that the Pirates were asked to play all of their playoff dates on the road so that there would be someone there to watch. Despite this disadvantage, the Pirates swept the Buffalo Bisons two games to zero in the semi-finals. In the Championship Series, the Pirates hit the road again and ran smack into the New Britain (CT) Red Sox and their prized prospect Roger Clemens who fired a 3-hit complete shutout in the fourth and deciding game at New Britain’s Beehive Field. It was to be the final game for the franchise in Lynn.
On September 8th, 1983 Agganis announced an agreement with the city of Burlington, Vermont to relocate his Eastern League franchise to Centennial Field, a 77-year old ballpark on the campus of the University of Vermont. Several days later the Pittsburgh Pirates severed their affiliation agreement with Agannis and shifted to the Eastern League’s Nashua franchise, which became the Nashua Pirates for 1984. Agannis inked a new affiliation with the Cincinnati Reds and began play as the Vermont Reds in the spring of 1984.
Affiliated minor league baseball never returned to Lynn, Massachusetts. A 1990 revision of the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) which governs the partnership between Major League Baseball and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (i.e. “the minors”), raised the minimum standards for playing facilities substantially. The new standards effectively slammed the door on dozens of communities around the country like Lynn, which had dilapidated, Depression-era ballparks and little political will to build new ones with the modern amenities now in demand.
These marginalized communities were effectively shut out of the minor league boom of the late 80’s and 1990’s, but there were enough under utilized ballparks sitting empty that a series of so-called “independent” leagues sprang up to fill the void. Professional baseball returned to Lynn in 1996 with Jonathan Fleisig’s independent Massachusetts Mad Dogs club. The club lasted four years but by the Mad Dogs final season in 1999, Fraser Field had deteriorated to the point that it was condemned by the City of Lynn. Four years later, investment banker Nick Lopardo poured $3 million of his own money into Fraser in return for a $1/year lease for his independent North Shore Spirit team. The Spirit played five years at Fraser from 2003-2007 before Lopardo withdrew his support and folded the money-losing club.
Michael Agganis still owns the franchise that once was the Lynn Pirates to this day. After four seasons in Vermont, Agganis moved his club to Ohio where it continues to play in the Eastern League under the Akron Aeros name. The club now draws over 250,000 fans annually.
“Mariners Sign Pact”, The Associated Press, September 26, 1979
“Robinson’s on rocky road from Lynn”, Bruce Keidan, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 10, 1983.
“Lynn Pirates To Vermont”, Scott MacKay, The Boston Globe, September 9, 1983
“Next Season It Will Be The Nashua Pirates” Gary Fitz, The Nashua Telegraph, September 14, 1983
At the end of the 1979 season, the New York Yankees moved their double-A minor league affiliate from West Haven, Connecticut to Nashville of the Southern League. The West Haven Yankees had made their home in Quigley Stadium for eight summers beginning in 1972. The 1979 club was a particularly strong one, winning the Eastern League title with the help of future Major Leaguers like Dave Righetti, Willie McGee, Joe Lefebvre and Tim Lollar.
West Haven lost the Yankees, but it didn’t lose baseball. New owner David R. Goldstein secured rights to West Haven and signed an affiliation with the Oakland Athletics, who agreed to transfer their Eastern League affiliation from Waterbury, Connecticut. It must have seemed a dubious trade for Western Connecticut baseball fans, living a short commute from Manhattan. Their beloved league champion Yankees were gone, replaced by an Oakland farm system mired in the decrepitude of the dying days of the Charlie O. Finley regime. The Waterbury A’s finished the 1979 Eastern League season in dead last place, thirty-four-and-a-half games back of the West Haven Yankees.
Goldstein’s club adopted the nickname “West Haven Whitecaps” for the 1980 season. Although it would later become a best practice in the minor league industry for Major League affiliates to develop their own local branding in this fashion, it was unusual at the time. The Whitecaps wore the A’s green-and-gold uniforms with their own logo embroidered awkwardly on the right breast (see photo at right).
Ed Nottle managed the 1980 Whitecaps, as he had the 1979 Waterbury A’s. The name change didn’t help. The Whitecaps finished 47-92, by far the worst record in the league and nearly twenty games behind the next club. In fact, it was the second worst record in all of minor league baseball in the summer of 1980, surpassed only by Rocky Mount (NC) Pines (24-114) of the single-A Carolina League.
The team returned for the 1981 season and dropped the Whitecaps name, in favor of the more conventional “West Haven A’s”. Nottle departed to manage Oakland’s triple-A farm team in Tacoma, Washington. 32-year old Bob Didier took over the reigns of a much stronger club and engineered a turnaround on the field. The 1981 A’s finished in third place in their division with a 71-67 record.
The 1982 A’s were stronger yet, finishing with the league’s best record at 86-54 under Didier. The A’s swept the Lynn (MA) Sailors in the championship series. After the championship series finale, West Haven owner David Goldstein vented to the press about his club’s lack of community support: “The Mayor (Lawrence Minichino) wasn’t even here. Neither was anyone from his office. I think that says something about the kind of support we’re receiving from this city.” Goldstein said the A’s would only return to West Haven “if worse came to worse” and that he was exploring a move or sale of the team to Albany, Burlington (VT), Pittsfield (MA) or Portland (ME).
On October 7th, 1982 a group of investors led by Ben Bernard, the former General Manager of the Eastern League’s Glens Falls White Sox, purchased the A’s from Goldstein for a reported price of $100,000. Bernard’s group transferred the club and the Oakland A’s affiliation to Heritage Park in Colonie, New York, a suburb of Albany.
The franchise has relocated and switched Major League affiliations several times since, always retaining its membership in the double-A Eastern League:
- Albany A’s (1983)
- Albany-Colonie A’s (1984)
- Albany-Colonie Yankees (1985-1994)
- Norwich (CT) Navigators (1995-2005)
- Connecticut Defenders (2006-2009)
- Richmond (VA) Flying Squirells (2010-Present)
“West Haven Improved”, The Associated Press, April 18, 1981
“Baseball Notes”, The Reading Eagle, September 10, 1982
“Baseball Notes”, The Reading Eagle, October 8, 1982