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"The old Pacific Coast League was a 'major league' in so many ways, those of us who experienced it have indelible memories of its pleasures. We were very lucky." These words were spoken by Dick Dobbins at his PCL Hall of Fame inauguration. Though not technically accurate, Dobbins’ claim has some merit due to the wide array of talent that existed in the Pacific Coast League during the early 20th century. The Pacific Coast League exists today as a Triple-A minor league affiliate for the MLB, however, there was a time when it was much more.
Formation and First Teams
Originally formed on December 29th, 1902, the Pacific Coast League was an attempt to expand the California State League to new areas on the west coast. Because commercial coast to coast travel was not available during much of the 20th century, the PCL was situated to succeed on the ever expanding west coast. Six teams were added to the league for its inaugural season in 1903, the Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Oaks, Portland Beavers, Sacramento Senators, San Francisco Seals, and Seattle Indians. Although dubbed an outlaw league by the existing Minor Leagues because of its willingness to sign blacklisted players, the PCL immediately began a tradition of success.
Because of warmer, more pleasant year round climates, the PCL was able to offer its players and fans something many of its rival leagues could not; a longer season. With many players financially dependent on game checks and uninterested and oftentimes unable to find offseason alternatives for work, a season of nearly 10 months allowed many players to devote their full time to honing their game and committing to their winter workouts. Likewise, it provided fans the opportunity to attend and support a season that was over 200 games long in an era where alternative professional football and basketball leagues were non existent. The long season, in turn, provided the PCL the revenue necessary to begin more expansion while simultaneously attracting lucrative players, a major necessity if the league was ever to rival its Major League counterparts to the east.
Beginning Commercial Success and Expansion
In 1904, the PCL was finally cleared of its outlaw status by the Minors, and in 1919 it was subsequently promoted to a Double-A level. With the addition of more teams like the Vernon Tigers, Salt Lake Bees, Hollywood Stars and San Diego Padres, the PCL expanded its presence all the way through the 1920’s, seeing a huge spike in commercial success. Though the Great Depression played an impact in reducing player, manager, and employee salaries for the league during the 1930’s, the introduction of the first night games and continued presence of high quality players ushered the league through the economic catastrophe.
With players such as Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Ernie Lombardi, and Ox Eckhardt positioned as stars in the PCL in the 1930’s, the league moved into the post World War II era riding an astounding amount of momentum and increased amounts of revenue. In 1952, league executives voted internally to establish the Pacific Coast League as a Major League, however, the already established American and National Leagues were extremely disinterested in the PCL joining their ranks. The unique challenge the PCL presented to the Major Leagues persisted, however. Because of fanatical support and large increases in revenues, the west coast teams could oftentimes offer its players contracts the same size as American and National League teams, though most players still chose the bright lights of the east coast Major leagues. In 1952, the Pacific Coast League was granted a status one level above the Triple-A, which for many, signaled the eventual acceptance of the PCL as a third Major League.
Sudden Decline and Moving Toward a Modern Era
Had technology not changed the way professional sports operated, the Pacific Coast League might have continued its unprecedented success. However, the introduction of televised Major League baseball games in the PCL markets and cities took an immediate, drastic toll on support for the then still western based league. Fan bases and households suddenly were no longer dependent on the PCL to provide high level baseball, rather they could simply tune in their television set to the major league game being played hundreds of miles away. Although the introduction of televised baseball gravely hurt the PCL following, the knockout blow occurred when the first two Major League franchises moved to the west coast, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants. By 1958, the PCL had been reverted back to its Triple-A status, and quickly diminished from the public eye.
Since 1958, the league has made a variety of moves to continue its expansion, taking in new teams such as the Calgary Cannons, Colorado Springs Sky Sox, Edmonton Trappers, and Las Vegas Stars. By the early 2000’s, the league had stabilized relocations. Despite still maintaining its Pacific Coast name, the league today has as many teams located near the east coast as it does the west.
Impact and Legacy
Although the Pacific Coast League’s dreams of becoming a full fledged Major league was left unsatisfied, the effect the league had on the game of baseball, and the nation that loves the game so much, is unquestionable. In many regards, the PCL is responsible for popularizing and providing the game of baseball on a world class level to nearly half of the United States for much of the 20th century. Generations of Americans who grew up idolizing the league’s great players are undoubtedly grateful for impact and dedication of the Pacific Coast League.
Sam Katulich is a content writer and research intern for Vintage Sports. Originally from Leonardtown, MD, he is currently a student at Samford University in Birmingham, AL and is majoring in Economics/Finance.