A championship by any other name would still be as sweet to win.
And at the Triple-A level, there have been a lot of names. From the first Little World Series in 1904 to the Triple-A National Championship Game fans know today, hundreds of prospects and farmhands have played for the ultimate Minor League crown.
What started out as a best-of-3 series between the winners of the American Association and the International League quickly turned into a best-of-9 (and best-of-10 in 1924 due to a tie). In 1932 came the Junior World Series, which was typically the best-of-7. There was the Kodak World Baseball Championship in 1972, which shifted the series to Hawaii and featured a round robin of champions from the AA, IL, Pacific Coast League, the local Hawaii Islanders and an All-Star team from the Latin Winter Leagues. In 1983, the Triple-A World Series featured a round robin between the AA, IL and PCL (more on this later). The AA made its last appearances with the Triple-A Classic from 1988 to 1991, which went back to the best-of-7 competition with the IL. From 1998 to 2000, the Las Vegas Triple-A World Series pitted the IL and PCL in a best-of-5 set. And in 2006, the Bricktown Showdown created the single-game matchup still used today.
All that equates to 74 titles in 116 years.
The 2020 Triple-A National Championship Game would have taken place on Tuesday had the COVID-19 pandemic not forced the Minor League season to be canceled. So until a new champion can be crowned, let’s look back on 10 notable numbers and prominent performances from the past century of finals.
1. Maris’ other record
Before Roger Maris became a Yankees legend -- or even a Yankees outfielder -- he was an Indians prospect. In his fourth pro season, Maris helped lead Triple-A Indianapolis to the Junior World Series to face Rochester, which was at the time a Cardinals affiliate. In Game 2 of the series, the 22-year-old collected a record-breaking seven RBIs as the Indians completed a four-game sweep. A month later, Maris got a second ring when he married his high school sweetheart, Patricia. Of course, the kid from Fargo went on to play for the Royals, break the single-season home run record for the Yankees and finish his career with the Cardinals. But before he was a three-time World Series champion, he was a Junior World Series champ.
Speaking of the Indianapolis Indians, the historic franchise has won more Triple-A crowns (of any kind) than any other team. Representing both the IL and AA, as well as several Major League teams, the Indians stand 7-0 in the final game of the year. Indianapolis also won seven other league titles in years in which there was no interleague championship. The club has yet to win since the switch to the single-game format in 2006, though. The crown for most appearances, however, goes to the Louisville Colonels (no relation to the Bats of today). The former squad of Earle Combs and Joe McCarthy went 5-8 from 1921 to 1962, also totaling the most losses by one club.
3. Best fans in (Minor League) Baseball?
Affiliations did not make their way into the Little World Series until 1928, and by the ‘40s, every title contender was affiliated. In terms of parent club success, the three Major League franchises who have won the most Triple-A titles are the same as the trio atop the World Series leaderboard, just in a different order. St. Louis Cardinals affiliates have the most championships, as well as losses, going 11-10 over the years. New York Yankees squads are 7-6 for second-most wins and second-most losses while Boston Red Sox teams rank third in wins and tied with the Yanks in losses at 5-6. But hey, the loser is still the league winner after all.
4. From players to coaches
Stubby Clapp has been involved in three of those Cardinals affiliates appearances. Along with teammates Albert Pujols and Bryan Eversgerd, the former second baseman helped Memphis reach the final iteration of the Las Vegas Triple-A World Series in 2000, though they lost to the aforementioned really good Indianapolis club, three games to one. Seventeen years later, Clapp was back in the final game of the year, but with a new feel. He had become the Memphis manager, Eversgerd was his pitching coach and the title was a winner-take-all single-game format, his personal preference. Although the Redbirds lost the 2017 Triple-A National Championship Game, they faced the Durham Bulls for a second straight year and won in ‘18. Clapp now serves as first-base coach for St. Louis while Eversgerd is the club’s bullpen coach. Oh, and that Pujols guy stands fifth on the Major League all-time home run list.
5. Sit back, we have a winner
As promised, it’s time to go back to the 1983 Triple-A World Series and its double round-robin glory. It pitted the IL’s Tidewater Tides (Mets) against the PCL’s Portland Beavers (Phillies) and the AA’s Denver Bears (White Sox). While normally the champion wins the final game of the series, the Tides weren’t even in the contest. In fact, they won the title from the bleachers. Due to the nature of the tournament, Tidewater was up, 3-1, through the first three days while Portland was 2-1 and Denver was 0-3. The Beavers needed a win to tie the Tides and force another game, but instead, the Bears won and the Tides celebrated. You can’t predict baseball.
6. Devo flirts with perfection
Chris Devenski was not Fresno’s first choice to start the 2015 title game, but it worked out pretty well. After Dan Straily was called up to Houston, the Grizzlies tapped the 24-year-old, who had made just two relief appearances since his promotion from Double-A. In his first Triple-A start, Devenski retired the first 18 batters he faced and set a national championship record with nine strikeouts. It was the longest perfect-game bid since Omaha's Chris Dwyer and Jake Odorizzi combined to retire 20 straight in 2013. After allowing one hit in seven frames, Devenski was crowned the game’s MVP. Two years later, “Devo” added a World Series ring to his collection.
7. Double dynasties
In the 74 years in which a Triple-A title was awarded, the World Series winner has been the parent club of the Minor League winner six times. Given multiple earlier points, it might not surprise you to learn three were the Yankees and three were the Cardinals, but perhaps what is surprising is that all those occurred within a 12-year span. The 1932 and ‘37 Newark Bears and ’38 Kansas City Blues carried the pinstriped tradition while the ’31 Rochester Red Wings, the ’34 and ’42 Columbus Red Birds repped the Gashouse Gang. There has only been one championship matchup that was the same in Triple-A and the Majors, but the result was reversed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Yankees affiliates squaring off in 1953. In this case, it was the Dodgers’ Montreal Royals -- featuring future legendary manager Tommy Lasorda -- who picked up the "W."
8. All in the family
Once upon a time, affiliations were not so straightforward. A Major League club could have two Triple-A squads, one in the AA and one in the IL, leaving the door open for “brother” teams to square off. That scenario played out on two occasions. In 1938, the Yankees’ Kansas City Blues beat the Yankees’ Newark Bears. And then in 1948, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Montreal Royals topped the Brooklyn Dodgers’ St. Paul Saints. Now that has to make for an awkward Thanksgiving.
9. Major League MVP
While there are many Triple-A title alums currently in the big leagues, there are only four former most valuable players actively in affiliated baseball -- A.J. Pollock (Reno, 2012), Devenski (Fresno, 2015), Kean Wong (Durham, 2017) and Caleb Baragar (Sacramento, 2019). Pollock (Dodgers) and Baragar (Giants) are currently in the Majors while Devenski (Astros) is on the injured list with elbow soreness and Wong (Giants) was outrighted to Sacramento.
10. Last and currently least
There are six Major League franchises that have yet to make an appearance in any Triple-A championship -- the Rockies, Angels, Marlins, Twins, Blue Jays and Cubs. Technically, the Texas Rangers and the Washington Nationals have not either, but their respective predecessors (the Senators and the Expos) did have affiliates make an appearance. While Rockies fans have not celebrated a Triple-A crown, the city has with the Denver Bears winning in 1957 and the Denver Zephyrs winning in 1991. Similarly, the Twins have not celebrated after the final Minor League game, but the Minneapolis Miners went 2-2 and the St. Paul Saints went 1-7. Maybe next year.
Kelsie Heneghan is a writer for MiLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kelsie_Heneghan.