Minor league baseball has a long and distinguished history in the United States. Among the more successful leagues today is the AA class Southern League, whose member teams consistently draw close to two and a half million fans each season to the games. Here is some history on the forerunners of the Southern League and some facts about the League as it stands today.
The roots of the modern Southern League stretch back into the latter part of the 19th century. The first baseball association formed in 1885, and operated for fourteen years before folding. In 1901, the Southern Association was formed, promoting what would be called A class baseball. Just a couple of years later, the rival South Atlantic League began operation in the same regional locations.
The two leagues coexisted until 1961, when the Southern Association disbanded. Two years later, the remaining South Atlantic League achieved AA status and the decision was made to reclaim the old Southern League title that had been abandoned in 1899. League records for the reconstituted Southern League have continued ever since the 1964 season.
Beginning with that first season, the Southern League featured a roster of eight teams located across five Southern states. During those first few years, the League operated with a 140 game schedule per season, topped off with an all-star game. Many of the original fields and stadiums were less than desirable venues for the games, which sometimes cut the potential for families to support local teams. This began to change in the early 1970’s, as Billy Hitchcock became the second Southern League president.
An increased focus on the quality of the club venues and the general playing conditions for each team in the league led to structural improvements in some locations, and completely new facilities in others. As another incentive, playoff games were introduced during this period, giving team supporters one more reason to turn out and cheer on their home teams. The end result was a rapid increase in attendance at Southern League games. By the end of the 1970’s, the total attendance for League games exceeded the one million mark for the first time ever.
Over the years, the Southern League has consistently provided the training ground for persons who went on to become major players. During the 1960’s, such notables as Vida Blue, Reggie Jackson and Tony La Russa played on Southern League teams. The trend continued in the 1970s with players like Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker. The Southern League was the site of early successes for Cal Ripken, Jr., Randy Johnson, and Mark McGwire during the 1980s. Among the notable major league players of today that started out in the Southern League are Adam Dunn, Miguel Tejada, Dontrelle Willis, and Chipper Jones.
Continued improvements in facilities and expansion of the number of teams in the Southern League allowed annual attendance to break the two million mark during the 1990’s. None of the stadiums for the current roster of teams is more than twenty years old, with several of the facilities beginning operation since the turn of the century. The geographic locations of the current roster of teams also led to a division realignment in 2004, with the former East and West Divisions becoming the North and South divisions. With a bright future and a solid reputation, the Southern league is poised for more growth as it continues to provide family entertainment for an ever-increasing number of fans.