It Happened in Jersey: Baseball
That Unforgettable HIC! Season…
One of the longest standing team-name misnomers is that Houston’s 1962 National League expansion team was named after a brand of liquor. The Colt .45’s (later to become the Astros) were actually named in honor of the pistol that “won the West.” Was there ever a pro sports team that actually named itself after booze?
NBA historians will point to the Sacramento Kings, who trace their roots back to the Rochester Royals in the 1940s. The original club, assembled as an independent pro team in the 1920s, were backed for many years by Seagram’s; players sported the company’s name and logo on their uniforms until 1942. But Seagram’s was not a specific product, it was a company that made spirits.
Does New Jersey get the nod? Back in the late 1970s, a number of national sponsors—including ESPN—got behind a softball organization called the American Professional Slow Pitch League (APSPL). In keeping with the traditional connection between softball and alcohol, APSPL teams included the Kentucky Bourbons, Cincinnati Suds and Milwaukee Schlitz, all of which are good candidates.
In 1979, the Trenton Statesmen found a new team sponsor and changed their name to the Champales. Strictly speaking, the Champales were the first to be named after a specific brand of booze.
The player-manager of the Champales was Joe Pepitone, shown here in a collectible wire photo from the Journal. They went 30--–30 and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Bourbons—who lost to the Schlitz in the APSPL World Series. The Champales’ best player was Gary Richter. Their top slugger, Mike Kolb, slugged 22 homers in 60 games. Alas, 1979 was the one and only season of Champale softball. The club disbanded after the season when a rival circuit—the North American Softball League—was created by Ted Stepien, the spendthrift owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
The 1937 Junior World Series
The greatest team, some say, in the history of minor league baseball was the 1937 Newark Bears. Every player who stepped in the batter's box that season—with the exception of pitcher Jack Fallon—logged time in the big leagues either before or after that season. The Bears were led by sluggers Joe Gordon and Charlie Keller. Gordon would go on to have a Hall of Fame career; two years in the military and a bad back kept Keller from joining him in Cooperstown.
Naturally, when the International League champions squared off against the Columbus Red Birds of the American Association, fans filing into Ruppert Stadium on Wilson Avenue were expecting two or three wins before the series moves west to Ohio. And what fans they were. In the depths of the Depression, the blue-collar workers of Newark showed incredible support for their home team—often outdrawing the Yankees in the Bronx. Farm Director George Weiss delighted in reported attendance numbers to his boss, Jacob Ruppert (for whom the stadium was named), across the river.
The Red Birds, however, were no slouches. Their club featured future Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter, as well as a pair of soon-to-be NL ERA kings, Mort Cooper and Max Lanier. Even so, the smart money was riding on the Bears, who had won 109 regular-season games and then swept four-game playoffs against Syracuse and Baltimore to reach the championship of minor league baseball.
Incredibly, the Bears would leave Newark a few days later without having added to their impressive win total. Fans watched in astonishment as Columbus took each of the first three games—5–4, 5–4 and 6–3. The Bears' defense was uncharacteristically poor, as the team failed to record big outs and committed 11 errors.
Before heading off to meet their fate out west, the players called a team meeting. All evidence to the contrary, the Bears agreed amongst themselves that they were still the better ball club—and that if they played the remaining games as well as they had played all season, they still stood a chance of winning in 7. The three games in Newark were a terrible aberration.
As it turned out, the players’ confidence was well founded. They swept the final four games in Columbus, Two blowouts and a 1–0 thriller evened the series, and the Bears put together a pair of big innings in the finale to win 10–4 and take the series.
Thousands of fans greeted the team upon its return to Penn Station. The city held a parade for the Bears up Broad Street. The players were invited to Yankee Stadium, where the Yankees were playing the Giants in the World Series. They received a standing ovation from the Bronx crowd and were seated in a special section.