Thoughts turn to baseball

Pitchers and catchers are about to report for spring training in Florida and Arizona.

The Super Bowl is over, and thoughts turn to baseball.

For decades, Seattle’s professional baseball team played in the Pacific Coast League. Prior to this season, that’s about the only thing Seattle had in common with the Arkansas Travelers.

And even that’s a stretch.

Few people remember it, but the Travelers were members of the Pacific Coast League during the 1964-65 seasons. After attracting fewer than 68,000 fans during a 77-game home schedule in 1958, the Travelers moved to Shreveport for the 1959 season.

Then-general manager Ray Winder never lost faith that professional baseball would return to Little Rock.

Indeed, the team returned to the Southern Association in 1960 following the purchase of the New Orleans Pelicans. Winder was determined not to lose the team again. Thanks to a decision he made 57 years ago, fans of the Travelers don’t have to worry about the club being sold and moved outside of Arkansas.

Winder formed the Arkansas Travelers Baseball Club Inc. in 1960 and led a public stock drive to buy the New Orleans franchise. Each share of stock in the Travelers was worth $5. The price of that stock has never changed, and no dividends are paid to shareholders.

Even though the purchase of the Pelicans was successful, the Southern Association was on its last legs, forcing Winder to scramble yet again. The Travelers affiliated with the Philadelphia Phillies and were scheduled to play in the Class AAA American Association in 1963. That league folded prior to the beginning of the season. Arkansas played instead in the Class AAA International League. In 1964-65, Arkansas was in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League as a Phillies affiliate.

Now, Arkansas finds itself as an affiliate of the Seattle Mariners.

The Seattle Indians were a Pacific Coast League member from 1903-06 before spending the 1907-18 seasons in the Class D Northwest League. The Indians returned to the Pacific Coast League from 1919-37 and stayed in the league as the Seattle Rainers from 1938-64 and the Seattle Angels from 1965-68.

A bid to move the Cleveland Indians to Seattle had failed in 1965, but a consortium led by William Daley won an expansion franchise known as the Seattle Pilots for the 1969 season. Due to financial problems, the Pilots were sold and became the Milwaukee Brewers in 1970.

A long-running lawsuit was filed by the city, the county and the state of Washington against the American League for breach of contract. King County built the Kingdome in hopes of attracting a team, but NFL football came first when the Seattle Seahawks began playing in the stadium in 1976.

Finally, the American League offered Seattle an expansion team in exchange for dropping the lawsuit.

On April 6, 1977, Major League Baseball returned to Seattle when the Mariners took on the California Angels in front of a Kingdome crowd of 57,762.

The Mariners finished that inaugural season with a 64-98 record and then went on to finish 56-104 in 1978 and 67-95 in 1979. The Mariners hosted their first MLB All-Star Game in 1979.

Advance the clock 37 years — from 1979 to 2016 — and one would find a new era of Mariners baseball as general manager Jerry Dipoto took over and hired Scott Servais as his manager. There were numerous roster changes and a new philosophy as the Mariners made a 10-game improvement from the previous season to 86-76 while staying in the hunt for an American League Wild Card berth up until the final weekend of the regular season.

As their season wound down, the Mariners signed a two-year player development contract that made the Travelers their Class AA affiliate. The Travelers had spent the previous 16 seasons as an affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Traveler officials had worked closely with Dipoto and Servais when Dipoto was the Angels’ general manager from October 2011 until July 2015. Servais was the team’s assistant general manager.

Dipoto calls the Travelers “a franchise with great fans, a great staff and a great ballpark, as well as a long and storied history in professional baseball. Both organizations are committed to the community, good baseball and an entertaining ballpark experience.”

In 2016, the Mariners’ seven minor league affiliates combined for a 451-314 record, the best winning percentage in baseball. All seven teams had winning records and qualified for their league playoffs. Jackson, Tenn. — the Mariners’ former Double-A affiliate — won the Southern League championship.

In the Travelers, Seattle finds itself affiliated with a club with one of the richest traditions in minor league baseball. The Travelers first played in the Southern League in 1895, competing against Atlanta, Chattanooga, Memphis, Nashville, Evansville, Montgomery and New Orleans. The club posted a 25-47 record that inaugural season.

After the Southern League folded, professional baseball was absent in Little Rock for five years. The Travelers returned in 1901 with the formation of the Southern Association and finished second, just one game behind Nashville. They finished second again in 1902.

The first championship came in 1920 as the Travelers concluded the season with an 88-59 record. Their final season at Kavanaugh Field (located where Little Rock Central High School’s Quigley-Cox Stadium now stands) was in 1931. The Travelers attracted 113,758 fans that year, their second-highest attendance since the 1920 title. Land near the Arkansas State Hospital was given to the Travelers by the city of Little Rock in 1932, and Travelers Field became the team’s home.

In 1966, the stadium was renamed for Winder, who had started as a ticket taker for the Travelers in 1915 and rose to the rank of general manager. Winder spent more than five decades with the team.

The first official affiliation with a Major League team came in 1937 when the Travelers affiliated with the Boston Red Sox. The Travelers were affiliated with the Red Sox for three seasons. Later affiliations came with the Chicago White Sox in 1946, the Boston Braves in 1947, the Detroit Tigers from 1948-55, the Kansas City A’s in 1957-58 and the Baltimore Orioles in 1961.

Following the period spent in Triple-A baseball as a Phillies affiliate, Winder moved the Travelers to the Texas League in 1966. The long Pacific Coast League trips to places such as Salt Lake City and Portland had taken their toll. The Travelers now would have far shorter trips, and there was a new affiliation with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Arkansas long had been Cardinals country. Major League Baseball had half a century of stability from 1902-52 with the Cardinals (along with the less poplar St. Louis Browns) being the westernmost and southernmost team. Because of this, the Cardinals developed a huge following in the Deep South and in states west of the Mississippi River. The Cardinals won two pennants in the 1920s, three in the 1930s and four in the 1940s while developing the largest radio network in American sports. The Travelers were a Cardinals affiliate for 35 years, the second-longest active affiliation when it ended.

The Texas League was a Class D League in 1902, moved to Class C in 1904, moved to Class B in 1911 and moved up to Class A in 1921. Among current Texas League clubs, the Travelers have been in the league the longest.

Terry Turner writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture that the team found “immediate success. With shorter trips and players provided by the Cardinals, the Travelers placed first in 1966 and 1968.”

During their 16 years as an Angels affiliate, the Travelers won Texas League championships in 2001 and 2008 and also captured five division championships. Mike Trout, Francisco Rodriguez, Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana, John Lackey, Bobby Jenks, Jered Weaver and Juan Segura all spent time in Arkansas uniforms during their time with the Travelers.

The Mariner era now begins for this historic Arkansas baseball club that has played on only three fields in more than 120 years, is one of the few teams in professional sports in which fans were able to buy ownership shares, is the first professional team to be named for an entire state and is among only a handful of minor league baseball teams to have its own museum.

The nickname Travelers is the second-longest-running nickname in minor league baseball, trailing only the Buffalo Bisons.

Truly, it’s a franchise that’s unique in the annals of professional sports.

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