By Joey Mellows – @BaseballBrit
Header photo of Clipper Magazine Stadium, home of the Lancaster Barnstormers (Atlantic League)
Independent baseball remains an important, if overlooked, element of the American pastime. Wild, exciting and often misunderstood, the independent baseball leagues represent old-school americana, and more importantly, quality baseball for fans, communities, and numerous towns and cities across the USA and Canada.
In this article, I hope to introduce you to independent baseball (Indy Ball) and explain why it exists, where the leagues are based and which teams & promotions you should look out for.
Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, both former editors of Baseball Prospectus, sum up independent baseball at the beginning of their New York Times bestseller, “The Only Rule Is It Has To Work”, with the following introduction:
“Indy leagues are like the minors, except that they’re even more minor: They employ professional players, but they aren’t affiliated with major league organizations. This means they don’t take orders from above, but it also means that most of them are in perpetually critical financial condition, one down year away from drowning in debt and leaving only ripples behind.”
Whilst this description may hold true for a number of teams it is also important to note that many Indy Ball teams are very successful and well-established. The on-field product is often comparable to that played in the higher minor leagues – although which precise level of MiLB each league equates to is open to debate.
Why does independent baseball exist?
Despite the popularity of MLB and MiLB teams, there are still many reasons why independent teams exist and sometimes flourish.
- Due to the sheer size of the USA and Canada, many communities do not have a local baseball team to support. This, in turn, presents opportunity.
- The costs of attending MLB (and even MiLB) games are often very high. Independent baseball is affordable and provides fans with cheaper tickets, beer and food.
- Fans want to watch teams that are competing to win. This is not always the case in the affiliated minor leagues where managers are instructed to start prospects to develop big-league skills over time, regardless of day to day results.
- Indy Ball allows hundreds of talented players to continue their involvement with the game – providing entertainment for thousands of people, enriching the community through the multiplier effect and potentially leading to profit for the owners.
- The increasing control and monopoly exerted by Major League Baseball over the sport is found irksome to many. Indy Ball teams are still the masters of their own fate. They answer to no-one but themselves.
In summary, supporting independent baseball is one way to stick it to ‘The Man’. And support the local team where the players earn less than you do.
There are a number of leagues spread across the USA (and into southern Canada) that often cover geographical parts of the country previously abandoned or overlooked by affiliated baseball (MLB and MiLB). The main established leagues are shown here:
|League||Location||Founded||Most successful team||Teams||Average attendance ‘17|
|American Association||Midwest, Texas, Manitoba||2006||Winnipeg Goldeyes (3)||12||3,322|
|Atlantic League||North east USA/ Greater Houston||1998||Somerset Patriots (6)||8||3,937|
|CanAm||North east USA, Quebec, Ontario||2005||Québec Capitales (7)||6||2,111|
|Frontier League||Midwest & west Pennsylvania||1993||Schaumburg Boomers (3)||12||2,373|
|Pacific Association||Bay Area, California||2013||Sonoma Stompers (3)||6||239|
|Pecos League||Southwest & California||2010||Roswell Invaders (3)||12||217|
|USPBL||Utica, Michigan||2016||Utica Unicorns/ Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers (1 each)||4||3,300|
Geographical Location of Independent Baseball Teams
The map below shows the location of independent teams (purple) in relation to MLB teams (black).
The independent teams tend to be in, either areas without a major league team, or in heavily populated areas where baseball lovers are willing to watch live baseball games on days when the MLB club may be on the road. For a more detailed league map scroll to the end of this article.
Pay and Living Conditions
The average wage for an independent baseball player is low. Kaleb Earls, previously of the Gateway Grizzlies in the Frontier League, posted information of his salary via Twitter:
I just received my W2 and I made a whopping $3,712.05 during entire baseball season. I feel bad for the players who have a family and can’t pursue their dream because they can’t afford to take care of their families. People wonder why players have to get a job in the off-season.
— Kaleb Earls (@K_Earls32) January 23, 2018
Salaries in the Frontier League range between $600 – $1,600 per month although more experienced players can earn up to $3,000 a month in the Atlantic League.
To save on costs, players regularly stay with host families who are rewarded for their hospitality with free parking and often up to four season tickets to watch the team. The luck of the draw can dictate whether these families extend extra bonuses such as free meals, lifts to the ballpark and a comfortable and private living space – or not.
Popularity (measured by Twitter Followers) – Top 5
|Team||Twitter Handle||Twitter Followers||League||Attendance (2017)|
|St. Paul Saints||@StPaulSaints||23,703||American Assoc.||8,296|
|Winnipeg Goldeyes||@Wpg_Goldeyes||14,020||American Assoc.||4,391|
|Sugar Land Skeeters||@SL_Skeeters||10,116||Atlantic||4,672|
Twitter followers correct as of 10th March 2018
Comparable Minor League attendances
|Triple-A||Double-A||Class A – Advanced|
If we compare the 5 indy teams (above) to the average attendances in the various levels of affiliated minor league baseball (MiLB) we notice that the St. Paul Saints stand out. Their average attendance of 8,296 in 2017 was well above the Triple-A average. In fact, only six AAA teams had a higher average attendance over the season with the Indianapolis Indians leading the minors with 9,159 fans per game.
One of the most effective methods of keeping fans interested in attending indy ball games over the long, hot summer is through innovative (and sometimes controversial) promotion nights. I have selected some of the more eye-catching promotions for the 2018 season:
- Human cannonball night on June 28th (USPBL)
- Midget wrestling championship on July 26th (Kansas City T-Bones, American Association)
- ‘The Office’ Wednesdays – offering a free Dwight Schrute jersey with a 10 game ticket plan (Gary Southshore Railcats, American Association)
- Thirsty Thursdays – $2 dollar draught beers every Thursday (Sussex County Miners, CanAm)
- “Kids Eat Free Sundays”. At all Sunday home games, kids 12 years old and younger receive a free ticket to the game, and a voucher for a hot dog, chips and a drink at the concession stand (Washington Wild Things, Frontier League)
- Meet ‘The Million Dollar Man’, aka Ted Biase from WWE, on July 15th (Somerset Patriots, Atlantic League)
The independent leagues are fun, community-based and offer exciting, competitive baseball. Many of the players continue to dream of making the big leagues whilst others play for the simple love of the game. Tickets and beer are cheap – so why not find (or choose) your local team and give Indy Ball a try?
Indy League Map
American Association: Blue (light = North division / dark = South division)
Atlantic League: Green (light = Freedom division / dark = Liberty division)
CanAm = Grey
Frontier League: Orange = East division / Yellow = West division.
Pacific Association: Maroon (six teams based around the San Francisco area)
Pecos League: Purple/Lilac
USPBL = Brown
Further Reading & Viewing
“The Only Rule Is It Has To Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team” (2016), by Ben Lindbergh & Sam Miller.
- The former editors of Baseball Prospectus take over the Sonoma Stompers of the Pacific Association using their knowledge of sabermetrics to run the team.
“Wild and Outside:How a Renegade Minor League Revived the Spirit of Baseball in America’s Heartland” (1996), by Stefan Fatsis.
- At a time of despair about the national pastime, the Northern League of Professional Baseball is a beacon of hope – an independent league, unaffiliated with the majors. Stefan Fatsis takes you inside the Northern League, and in the process discovers how much baseball still means to America.
“The Battered Bastards of Baseball”, (2014), a Netflix documentary film.
- In 1973, baseball lover and actor Bing Russell, father of Kurt Russell, starts an independent, single-A team composed of players that no one else wanted.