The Pacific Coast League and Baseball in the West

A solid source of talent, the PCL didn’t have the money to keep up.

Before 1958 when the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants moved to California, it would be easy to say that baseball didn’t exist in the Wild West, but that wasn’t the case. Major League Baseball didn’t exist, but a rival, and possible third major, league was burgeoning.

The Pacific Coast League was the offspring of the California League and the Pacific Northwest League. The California League, as it says by its name, consisted of teams from California’s biggest cities — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Sacramento –, while the Pacific Northwest League had teams from Oregon and Washington — Seattle, Portland, Tacoma, and Spokane — and even two from Montana — Butte and Helena. Both were doing fairly well at the turn of the 20th century because the closest major-league team was in St. Louis. But in 1902, the leaders of the California League weren’t satisfied.

Henry Harris, the leader of the California League, went to visit Seattle owner DE Dugdale and PNL president William Lucas, but the latter two weren’t all that enthusiastic. They believed their league to be superior, and rightly, they thought Harris was trying to take over their league. Unfortunately for them, Harris was a wily one. Before the 1903 season, he leased out the park that the Seattle team played in, leaving Dugdale’s team without a home. Dugdale, in response, declared his intention to build a new park.

But Dugdale would be undone by the other owners in the PNL. Portland created a new team and signed all their good players over to the new franchise, affiliated with the California League. Then in a direct assault on Dugdale, Harris convinced Lou Cohen to start a team and play in the Seattle park he had leased. Once Cohen agreed, Dugdale had competition. With these new teams, the Pacific Coast League was formed. Just don’t think Dugdale and Lucas took this lying down.

The National Association lent its support to the Pacific Northwest League, but the PNL was a little behind. They intended to expand into California, but they hadn’t decided or organized anything. By the time they organized and started a new Pacific Northwest League, the new league faced fierce competition in Seattle and Portland, and the other towns weren’t big draws. Harris held the upper hand. By mid-March, the PNL hadn’t even signed a player for the two new California teams. After some futile attempts to get players to jump ship, the PNL was looking worse and worse. Once Helena and Tacoma dropped out and two other franchises shut down, the PCL had won.

Over the next half of a century, the PCL would grow and even think of rivaling the two major leagues to the East. It was the dominant league in the West, and as long as the MLB stayed in the East, the PCL would continue to thrive. The PCL would produce some really good players including Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Paul Waner, and Bobby Doerr that would go on to star in the major leagues. That those players left reflected the big problem with the PCL becoming a third major league — the East was richer.

Clarence Rowland would try to find a way to convince Kenesaw Landis and Happy Chandler to bring in his league, but they weren’t exactly enthusiastic. They realized the potential market in the West, but they had no intention of letting someone else share in their revenues. The MLB began balking at starting teams in the West. This crippled the PCL’s attempts to build big, new ballparks. If a major-league team was going to move West and compete with a PCL team, investors would be scarce. They would wait until an MLB team showed up. When the Milwaukee Brewers set up shop in 1952, the rest of the league became copy cats. Six years later, the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants dealt the deathblow to the PCL’s major-league hopes when they moved to California. The new teams, known because of a new invention — the television –, killed attendance in PCL parks. After being an “open” league (between AAA and MLB — like a AAAA league, essentially) for several decades, the PCL was now AAA.

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