Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Brief History of the Southern League

There is an excellent blog post here about the history of Minor League Baseball in the South. It brought back some of my fondest memories as a kid, which was going with my father to the (then) Knoxville K-Jays games of the Southern League.

That was back when the team was a Toronto affiliate playing at the crumbling and decrepit Bill Meyer stadium in the rough section of downtown Knoxville, TN. The players had to walk out of the clubhouse through the stands and onto the field. You could always hit them up for autographs. If you went on one particular night of the week, it was church bulletin night. If you brought a church bulletin you got a cheaper admission ticket. I still think the current Smokies still have that gimmick. They also always ran the "Dirtiest Car in the Parking Lot" contest. They randomly affixed a free K-Jays license plate if you were a winner, the actual description and license plate number of which would be read over the loudspeaker intercom to alert the winner. Free prizes in the form of public shaming. I always found this amusing as it was a polite insult that was rivaled only by little old ladies proclaiming, "Bless your heart!" Only in the South...

The stadium had been built (or at least upgraded) by the WPA in the 30's, had blue wooden backed seats, and smelled like stale beer and cigars. It had the old fashioned Fenway style Grand Stand overhand with metal support beams that often obstructed views in some seats. That was back in the day when they still allows smoking in the stands. About the only thing we could ever afford to eat in those days from the concession stands were the boxes of Cracker Jacks, or occasionally a bag of in-the-shell peanuts. That was back when Cracker Jacks had real prizes.

The Old Bill Meyer Stadium
I vaguely remember when the Knoxville AA team was known as the Knox Sox, but since people were confusing them as a White Sox affliate (which they were not), the name changed to the Knoxville Blue Jays. They were locally known as the K-Jays. I always thought that was pretty catchy. The K-Jay days of that late 80's were really good AA teams, as quite a few of the players on those teams went on to the majors and won a few World Series when Toronto was really good in the early '90s.

Shortly before they moved up the interstate to their current home in Sevierville, Tennessee, they renamed themselves the Knoxville Smokies. I never was a particularly big fan of that name, but the team was called the Smokies back in the early days of the Southern League, so there was history to it at least. They are now known as the Tennessee Smokies and they have a nice newer park that opened when I was in college.

The newer stadium is a lot more open and family friendly these days, and the team is now a Chicago Cubs AA affiliate, but there is something nostalgic about the old Billy Meyer Stadium, as it was locally known. It was a total dump, but, hey, to an 10 year old kid, that stadium and Southern League baseball experience was magical.

And people wonder why I'm a baseball purist...

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