Diamonds Aren't Forever
By Jeff Berg
Never heard of Sam? He was a baseball player, a pitcher for the Las Cruces Farmers of the Rio Grande Association Baseball League, which was the city's only foray into professional baseball. In fact, it was the only time that professional baseball has ever been played in southwestern New Mexico.
Sam Beer tied with Herb Hall of the Phoenix Senators for the league lead in strikeouts with 99. The wonderfully surnamed Beer had signed on with the El Paso team after the Farmers went back to their other fields. So, by default, he is sort of southwest New Mexico's link to the sport.
The Rio Grande Association Baseball League, which started in 1915, did not even last through its first season. Besides Las Cruces and Phoenix, the Class D minor league also fielded teams from El Paso (Mackmen), Albuquerque (Dukes), Tucson (Old Pueblos) and Douglas, Ariz. (Miners). Sadly, the Douglas and Las Cruces clubs disbanded on May 23 of that year, with the Farmers having a record of 5 wins and 14 losses, dead last in the league. The Rio Grande Association ceased operations entirely on July 5, after the remaining teams had played about 60 games each.
Class D minor league baseball was the lowest classification of professional baseball from 1902 through 1962 except for one year, 1943, in which a Class E league played. D ball was yesterday's equivalent to what is now called Class A (of which there are several levels), which is the lowest minor league and where almost all young players start out. "Independent" league baseball is currently considered one rung lower than A, since these teams are usually made up of unsigned players, plus the occasional aged former major leaguer hoping to play his way back into the "bigs."
The El Paso Diablos, who've suffered from dismal attendance the last few years, lost their contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks and will now be part of the Central League, one of the numerous independent leagues that have sprung up over the years. (And your chance to be a star might be just over the horizon, as the Diablos have scheduled tryouts April 23 at Cohen Stadium in El Paso, 915-755-2000).
New Mexico also occasionally had Class C and B teams, possibly related to how strong the wind blew during spring training. Most professional baseball has taken place in the eastern part of the state and in Albuquerque, where currently the Triple A Pacific Coast League Albuquerque Isotopes are the top farm club for the National League's Florida Marlins.
Across the border in Arizona, Globe and Miami were able to support teams at various times, too. Globe was a member of the Arizona State League in 1929-30 and the Arizona-Texas League in 1931. Miami was also part of the Arizona State League from 1928-30, and the two cities combined to support teams from 1947-50 and in 1955.
The state's history of grooming young people for the major leagues is equally sparse. Just 20 major leaguers in the game's entire history hail from New Mexico, including: Steve Ontiveros, a pitcher from 1989-99 who was born in Tularosa; Wade Blasingame, another pitcher, born in Deming; and, probably the most noted of all former New Mexicans, Ralph Kiner, from Santa Rita.
A former third-baseman for the St. Louis Browns, Al Clancy, was born in Santa Fe. Clancy lasted a whole five days with the club in 1911, playing in three games, batting five times, and ending up with a (drum roll) career batting average of .000. He died in Las Cruces, one day before my birthday, on Oct. 17, 1951. So we never had a chance to meet.
Contemporary players who once called New Mexico home include: Billy McMillon, formerly of Alamogordo, who plays for the Oakland Athletics; Cody Ross, a former Portalean, who had a "cup of coffee" with the second-worst team ever, the 2003 Detroit Tigers, but who is now on the roster of the Los Angeles Dodgers; and Christian Parker, a former Albuquerque resident, who pitched in one game for the New York Yankees in 2001 and is hoping to catch on with the Washington Nationals (nee Montreal Expos) this year. When I did a Web search for information on Parker, I also discovered he has the same name of a young woman who is in the adult film industry, and whose professional stats will always surpass that of baseball's Christian Parker.
The general consensus is that minor league baseball first came about in 1877. Initially, teams were haphazardly organized across the country. Then, according to the official minor league Web site, "The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues [NAPBL], now known as Minor League Baseball, was formed on Sept. 5, 1901, from a meeting of minor league executives at the Leland Hotel in Chicago. The president of the Eastern League, Patrick T. Powers, was elected as the first president of the NAPBL. Fourteen leagues and 96 clubs were members during the first season in 1902. The first NAPBL office was established in Auburn, NY, under President Powers and successfully run by Secretary-Treasurer John H. Farrell. By the time Powers left office in 1909, there were 35 leagues and 246 clubs."
Since 1877, approximately 300,000 players have played professional minor league ball. Only five other New Mexico cities besides Las Cruces and Albuquerque have entertained the sport.
Albuquerque, of course, has been the most active, and has been part of six other leagues in addition to the Rio Grande Valley Association: the Arizona-Texas league in 1932 and again from 1937-41; the West Texas-New Mexico League, in 1942 and 1946-55; the Western league in the 1950s; the Sophomore League in the early 1960s; and the Texas League from 1962-71 (never mind that Albuquerque is not exactly in Texas). Except for 2001-02, when the Albuquerque Dukes had departed and the Isotopes had not yet achieved critical mass, the Duke City has had a minor league team every year since 1959, and since 1970 has been a member of the Pacific Coast League.
It's not entirely clear why only eastern New Mexico communities had teams throughout the 1900s. At various times, mostly in the 1950s, Artesia, Carlsbad, Clovis, Hobbs and Roswell fielded squads. When the Sophomore League slid into oblivion in 1961, it was the end of the line for professional baseball in southern and eastern New Mexico. Trying to find history about these teams meets with a lot of people rubbing their chins, scratching their heads, and eventually shrugging their shoulders. A call to the Clovis Chamber of Commerce revealed that the city's historian had moved to Florida. Roswell historians didn't have much to offer, although the Artesia History Museum and Art Gallery did have some old photos.
Currently, except for the independent league teams, all minor league baseball teams have an affiliation with a major league club. Apart from Albuquerque (at various times), however, few of the other New Mexico clubs ever had contracts with a mother team. Most were "for-profit" entities, which may explain why their histories were so brief. But during the final years of baseball in eastern New Mexico some did have major league affiliations. Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Washington teams all used Hobbs at one time or another, while the Dodgers, Giants, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati and Cleveland bestowed Clovis, Artesia and Carlsbad with a sprinkling of future major leaguers at various times.
Team nicknames changed often. At different times, Artesia teams were known as the Drillers, Numexers, Giants and Dodgers. Carlsbad found a name and stuck with it from 1953 until the team's demise in 1961, and those players had the honor of being called the Potashers. They played at Montgomery Field, which now houses Little League and softball fields. Hobbs sported the Sports from 1955-57, the Cardinals and the Pirates, too. They also tried being the Boosters and Drillers. Roswell players, most often known as the Rockets, were also briefly known as the Pirates and the Sunshiners. Clovis' brief baseball history brought them the Pioneers. Albuquerque, once identified as the Dons and the Cardinals, became the Dukes for many years before latching on to their current Homer Simpson-inspired moniker, the Isotopes.
Some future big league stars did make their way to "The Show" through the oilfields here. Jesus Alou, who played for the San Francisco Giants, among others, played in Artesia. Future baseball Hall of Famer and Pittsburgh Pirate star Willie Stargell played in Hobbs in the 1950s. What an incentive to play well!
For most of the season, a typical baseball roster will have a squad of 25, but often the teams in New Mexico had only 15 players to rely on. This eliminated a lot of the specialty players a current team will have, often requiring pitchers to keep pitching no matter how rocky their outing. "Bullpen" was still a feedlot term for New Mexico.
Bauman, who also played for the 1952 Artesia franchise, was always a remarkable hitter; he had 224 runs batted in during that 1954 season. He is also one of the few batters ever to face an ambidextrous pitcher, when Rudie Malone of Roswell, who was usually a right-handed hurler, switched to his left hand when facing "Joltin' Joe." The southpaw switch worked, and Bauman was held to two singles in that Fourth of July game.
On August 11, 1959, an ex-boxer, Gil Carter, who was toiling for the Carlsbad Potashers (who were, that year, a farm club for the Chicago Cubs), hit the longest home run ever slugged in major or minor league baseball. The shot heard around the state was hit off Wayne Schaper, a pitcher for the Odessa (Texas) Dodgers, over a 60-foot light pole, and landed 730 feet from home plate. The ball was found under a peach tree in a neighboring yard. Carter never made the major leagues, either.
At a West Texas-New Mexico League game on April 28, 1950, Jim Martin, a catcher for the Pampa Oilers, was hit by a lightning bolt. The lightning knocked him unconscious and parked his catcher's mask 20 yards past the pitchers mound.
Abilene, another West Texas-New Mexico League team, in 1950 became one of the first teams to use shorts as part of its uniform. The experiment lasted for two games before being called on account of mosquitoes.
And on July 16, 1958, Albuquerque slugger Haven Schmidt hit the longest foul ball ever recorded—560 feet. No record survives of Schmidt's use of foul language for being so close to fair ball fame.
Silver City and the surrounding communities did have brushes with major league baseball beginning in 1899, when A.G. Spalding, a pioneer in the sport, brought his franchise, the Chicago Nationals (currently the Cubs and also known in the 1890s, confusingly, as the Chicago White Stockings), for one year of spring training. Spalding had purchased a large tract of land to build a utopian community, near the hot springs owned by his friend Andrew Graham—today's Faywood Hot Springs, south of Silver City. But that spring did not qualify as one of Silver City's four gentle seasons, and the idea was abandoned by the next year. Spalding's plan for utopia never came to fruition either, although he died in a community similar to the one he planned, in California.
Major league scouts were a regular sight in the Silver City area during the early 1900s, too. It was well known that many of the mining companies had excellent teams that traveled the area, going as far afield as Arizona and Mexico to meet or challenge other community teams. In 1917 and 1918, the Cubs returned and took on a team from Santa Rita, winning in 1917, 14-5, but losing in 1918, 6-3 (or 6-5, accounts vary). The Cubs, who never have been all that good anyway, haven't been back since.
The famous Black Sox scandal of 1919 also brought another touch of professional baseball to the area. Seven of the Chicago White Sox players had been caught in a plot to throw the World Series. Although the players were found innocent in court, the fiery commissioner of baseball at that time, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, banished them from organized baseball forever. Between 1925 and 1927, however, five of the banished players apparently played in Grant County. Three of the "Black Sox"—Chick Gandil, Lefty Williams and Buck Weaver—played in the Copper League. Others are thought to have played under aliases, with teams from Fort Bayard and Chino among those who used the so-called "outlaw" players, thus faring much better than their opponents. Over the years, other players who were banished for different reasons would occasionally drift into New Mexico and Arizona, where they could play, since the local teams were not affiliated with professional baseball.
After many phone calls last summer to Lipp, and announcements of forthcoming press conferences, I was able to find out from him that the league had been postponed until this summer, since there was nowhere for the Las Cruces team to play. It all seemed a little iffy, and further investigation revealed that Lipp, a native of Wichita, Kansas, had run something called the Arizona-Mexico League in 2003. That league, which did not even last a month, fielded four teams. Despite initial success in attendance, money became an issue and the league went belly-up. It was also odd that the "offices" of the Southwest League were in a Mexican gift shop, and the Roswell Aliens were based at that city's UFO museum. Maybe that's what happened to Bob Lipp. . . .
At this writing, there is no indication that the Southwestern League of Professional Baseball Teams will be operating in 2005 or ever.
Consequently, baseball fans in southern New Mexico are left with the option of going to Tucson, Phoenix, Albuquerque or El Paso to see any kind of baseball above the college level.
But who knows? Maybe with the steroid controversy that is now plaguing the sport, a new Copper League will form from a new generation of outlawed players.
Can you imagine Barry Bonds playing for the Tyrone Smeltermen?
Frequent contributor Jeff Berg lives in Las Cruces.