Summer collegiate leagues a unique hobby source

Over the years, articles have appeared in the pages of Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and other print media, as well as television documentaries, on summer collegiate baseball leagues. Many of these articles have focused on the ever-popular Alaska Baseball League and the Cape Cod League, with their stunning backdrops of mountains, glaciers, wildlife and shorelines, while college ballplayers toil in the background with the hopes to catch the eye of pro scouts.

In all these past articles, the focus has been on the ballplayers.
In this article, as in one I wrote for SCD on the Fairbanks Goldpanners card set some 15-plus years ago, the focus is on the collectibles that are available from these teams and leagues.

A little history
The Alaska and Cape Leagues have always been among the most popular, while other leagues operated in relative obscurity until the baseball boom of the last 25 years. Now there are more than 40 summer collegiate baseball leagues operating within the states and Canada. There are leagues and teams from Maine to Florida, Texas to California and Alaska to Hawaii, including most states in between. There are leagues north of the border in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and the Maritimes, operating as either summer collegiate or senior leagues.

There are four leagues in the U.S. sponsored by Major League Baseball, 12 leagues sanctioned by the NCAA and the NBC in Wichita, Kan., runs an “unofficial” national championship tournament, much like the College World Series in Omaha. The AAU and the AABC (Stan Musial World Series for college age and older players) also run national championship tournaments.

The Cape Cod League is one of the oldest baseball leagues of any form in the country, founded in 1885, and it has deep roots in the annals of baseball history. The equally popular Alaska League features its Midnight Sun Game in Fairbanks, played on the summer solstice with the game held up at midnight (in daylight) for celebrations. This league is relatively new in baseball history.

The league was formed in 1974, though organized baseball teams have played in Alaska since the early 1900s, with pros, semipros and amateurs who were servicemen, merchant marines, mariners, pilots of sternwheelers and steamships and gold prospectors. 

The leagues
Through all the Cape League and Alaska Leagues popularity and immense draw to college ballplayers during the 1970s and 1980s (the Cape has sent 198 players to the bigs, with Alaska sending 170 to date), other very successful leagues have been in existence since the 1960s.

The Central Illinois League was founded in 1963 and claims Mike Schmidt among its ranks of alumni. The Valley Baseball League, once known as the Shenandoah Valley League for a beautiful region in Virginia, was established in 1962 and has sent many players to the pro ranks.

The highly competitive Cranberry League, also operating in relative obscurity, is a amateur league that began in 1960. The Atlantic Collegiate League is going 41 years strong and has had success in sending players to the pros. Count the Clark C. Griffith League in the Washington D.C./Maryland area as one of the elders.

Out in the Midwest, the Jayhawk League was formed in 1976, followed by the New York Collegiate League in upstate New York in 1978. The highly regarded Great Lakes Collegiate League got its start in 1986. The hugely popular and well-attended New England Collegiate League was formed in 1993, with teams in all six New England states, gaining a foothold in Cape League territory and taking on the Cape with a few all-star games between the leagues early on.

The equally popular Northwoods League with teams in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Thunder Bay, Ontario, was formed in 1994, followed by the equally popular Coastal Plain League in the Carolinas and Virginia, founded in 1997. Both the Coastal Plain and Northwoods teams play before packed ballparks and operate in many former minor league towns. Both leagues also took the names of former minor leagues.

In the late 1990s and turn of the new millennium, the Pacific International, West Coast League, California Collegiate League, the hugely popular Texas Collegiate League, the MINK League (Missouri, Illinois, Nebraska and Kansas), Cal Ripken League in Maryland, KIT League, Southern Collegiate, Carolina-Virginia League, Hawaii Collegiate and Mountain Collegiate League (Colorado and Wyoming) have vied for players and fans.

The Texas Collegiate League is currently involved in a major lawsuit between its founder, who set the league up as a nonprofit league, and team owners who see huge crowds but large dollar losses. Seven team owners wanting to start a new, for-profit league.
New leagues are springing up yearly around the country, offering fans a chance to see future pro players hone their skills. 

The players
To name a few, the Cape Cod League has had the likes of Rich Aurilia (he played in both the Cape and Alaska Leagues), Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio, Darin Erstad, John Franco, Nomar Garciaparra, Todd Helton, Jeff Kent, Javier Lopez, Tino Martinez, Carlos Pena, Tim Salmon, J.T. Snow, Ben Sheets, Scott Spezio, Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira, Frank Thomas (1988 Orleans), Chase Utley, Jason Varitek, Mo Vaughn, Robin Ventura, Billy Wagner and Barry Zito among its illustrious alumni, with 1,004 players to date who have played in organized pro leagues.

Add that to the Alaska League alumni, which includes the current career MLB home run record holder Barry Bonds (Fairbanks Goldpanners), Bob and Bret Boone, Chris Chambliss, J.D. Drew, Terry Francona, Jason Giambi, Eric Hinske, Randy Johnson, Adam Kennedy, Dave Kingman, Spaceman Bill Lee, former season home run record holder Mark McGwire, Doug Mientkiewicz, Harold Reynolds, HOFer Tom Seaver, J.T. Snow (also with the Cape), Dave Winfield and Jered Weaver, among a host of others. Twelve former ABL players made the 2007 MLB playoff rosters.

Add these to HOFer Mike Schmidt (’69, ’70 Peoria & Springfield) from the Central IL League, along with Bob Brenly, Norm Charlton, Denny Doyle, Joe Girardi, Gary Gaetti, Danny Goodwin, Ken Holtzman, Ryan Howard (Decatur ’99), Art Howe, Don Kessinger, Joe Niekro (’64-’65 Springfield), Steve Ontiveros, Jon Papelbon, Jack Perconte, HOFer Kirby Puckett (’81 Quincy), Dan Quisenberry and Rick Reuschel for a total of 169 major league ballplayers past and present from CICL.
The Atlantic Collegiate League proudly counts Biggio, Rick Cerone, Pete Harnisch, Pat Kelly, Jeff Kunkel, Jamie Moyer, Matt Morris, Terry Mulholland, John Valentin, Frank Viola, Walt Weiss and Eric Young as its MLB contribution.

The Coastal Plain counts Kevin Youkilis and Justin Verlander among its ranks, while the Jayhawk League can proudly name Bonds (Alaska and Jayhawk League), Bud Black, Albert Pujols and HOF’er Ozzie Smith as players who have gone on to the pros.

Add the Valley League alumni such as David Eckstein, Roberto Hernandez, Brandon Inge, Javier Lopez, Mike Lowell, Tom Martin, Sam Perlozzo and Chad Tracy, along with many other players from these leagues, and you have some great ballplayers who passed through the ranks of the summer collegiate leagues.

The collectibles
Just think of the possibilities when it comes to collectibles. If you are a player collector, college collector, card collector (true rookie cards!), program collector, photo collector, media guide collector or schedule collector, the possibilities are endless. Most of these leagues mentioned have all their teams print programs and some even have yearbooks and media guides that rival minor league and MLB teams.

Just about every team in the Alaska (with exception of the AIA Fire), the Cape Cod, Coastal Plain, New England Collegiate, Northwoods, Valley League and Texas Collegiate leagues print programs. The Quakertown Blazers from ACBL always have nice programs chocked with league history. Several teams in the Great Lakes League have had programs over the years. These same teams have other souvenirs such as caps, team photos, T-shirts, pennants and other souvenirs.

A few teams over the years even sell game-used uniform tops and caps at the end of the season. Most teams print pocket schedules, and some even have magnet schedules. However, most teams require an SASE to receive them. Get your hands on the 2007 Fairbanks Goldpanners schedule card, which has a photo of Bonds in his Goldpanners uniform on the front side – a true collectible for a Bonds collector.

The leagues mentioned have high attendance, thus they can afford more souvenirs for their fans. The Kenai Peninsula (Alaska) Oilers give away their game programs. I always pick up one as I go to 10-12 home Oiler games in the summer, as well as volunteer in getting schedule posters and pocket schedules around town, as I live in Alaska from May to November.
I also embark on a road trip to take in home games for the other five teams in the league. The ballparks have a great setting among the wilds of Alaska. Just keep in mind that many of these teams operate as nonprofits, so funds are limited. The Hyannis Mets still receive their game uniforms from the New York Mets.

The independent Humboldt Crabs of the northern California coastal town of Arcata have been around since 1945, having a rich history and drawing in excess of 30,000 paid fans in a seven-to eight-week season. It’s all about “placing butts in the seats,” as a member of the Humboldt Crabs board of directors said. The Crabs are a first-class club, with nice programs (great history), schedules and major league-looking card sets (more on team card sets further along in this article). They also sponsor another summer collegiate team named the Humboldt Stealheads.

From the league offices, the Cape Cod, Coastal Plain, New England, Northwoods and Texas Collegiate leagues annually print league guides/yearbooks. The Cape and New England leagues print season-end guide/record books. The Alaska League has never had a league guide, though the Fairbanks Goldpanners lead the way with great yearbooks, programs and card sets, along with the Anchorage Glacier Pilots. The Central Illinois League used to have basic record books in the 1970s (without photos, but full of season/career stats and records). I haven’t come across other leagues printing league guides, though I am always surprised each year.

Books, videos and the big screen
The following are some of the film and books
based on the summer leagues.
Movies:

  • Summer Catch, 2001 Hollywood release
  • Touching the Game, by Jim Carroll, a 2003 documentary on two-disc DVD set chronicling the 2003 Cape season and league history. Price is $19.95, plus shipping; www.touchingthegame.com. Carroll was in Alaska this year for an ESPN documentary.

Books:

  • Baseball by the Beach by Christopher Price, 1998
  • Baseball on Cape Cod by Dan Crowley
  • Beach Chairs and Baseball Bats by Steve Weissman, 2005. A behind-the-scenes look at the Cape League.
  • Diamonds in the Rough: Baseball Stories from Alaska by Lew Freedman, 2002. A great look at Alaska.
  • The Last Best League by Jim Collins, 2002. A behind-the-scenes look at the Chatham A’s.
  • The Official Minor League Checklist 1970-1990, by Don and Carolyn Harrison; (804) 827-1667.

Reference books
Both are annual directories listing league
and team contacts.

  • Baseball America’s Baseball Directory;
  • www.baseballamerica.com
  • The Sports Address Bible & Almanac;
  • www.sportsbooksempire.com.

The cards
The first known sets are two very limited print run sets from TCMA, which gained its fame in the minor league ranks with highly popular sets that changed the psyche on true rookie card collecting.
Tom Collier and Mike Aronstein (original owners of TCMA before Aronstein bought out Collier) were true card visionaries. Aronstein even printed a card set for me in 1982-83 when I was general manager for the Lancaster Lightning of the CBA champions basketball club.

1974 TCMA Tri-Valley Highlanders:
The first-ever known amateur set
This is a 30-card, black-and-white, nondescript card set that will set you back about $125. It’s rarely seen, with a 750-set print run. Don Harrison, author of Official Minor League Checklist, 1970-1990, lists this set as a semi-pro team from the New York/New Jersey area Metropolitan League. In actuality, the Metropolitan (Met) League’s official status with U.S. Baseball Federation (USA Baseball) was that of “unlimited amateur,” not semipro. This allowed former pros (not paid) to play alongside amateur players without amateur players jeopardizing their amateur status. It is an old term rarely used nowadays.
The now-defunct Met League issued record books, and several teams had nice programs, such as the Clifton Phillies.

1977 TCMA Atlantic Collegiate Baseball Set
This 45-card, black-and-white set was TCMA’s last foray into amateur or summer collegiate baseball. This had a very limited run, and it’s another pricey set if you can find it.
The ACBL league office doesn’t have a set available for collectors.

1988 Cape Cod League Top Prospects
Two sets were issued for this year – a 30-card set by the league and a 198-card set by P&L Promotions, with the 30-card set being the rarer version.
The Frank Thomas and Mo Vaughn cards will set you back. You’ll see them on eBay and PSA slabbed. This set changed the face of collecting summer collegiate team sets in the eyes of the NCAA.

Collecting summer collegiate baseball team and league card sets is very challenging. It is very much like pulling teeth to obtain these sets, which is an attraction to a true collector, unlike MLB-sponsored minor leagues and the independent league sets, which are rewarding to collect but are readily available for sale from teams and card dealers.

What makes collecting card sets from summer collegiate teams so difficult is the NCAA rules and bylaws, which do not allow summer collegiate teams to profit from the sales of card and photo images, autographs, etc., of college players. Doing so would disqualify a ballplayer’s eligibility. Thus, the teams do not sell these card sets, but they are only available at giveaway nights or to children only, meaning collecting these sets is harder for current years than older sets.

The 1988 Cape Cod sets that were sold in 1988 drastically changed the NCAA rules on how it views summer collegiate teams. Check team websites at the beginning of the season to view their promotional schedule for giveaway nights. It is a challenge. I have called and e-mailed teams, and it is tough to get responses, as they can’t sell the sets. Network with other collectors in these towns/cities.

To date, both Corvallis (Oregon) Knights and North Adams Steeplecats of the New England League have failed to return my numerous calls, e-mails and faxes. They simply can’t sell sets to anyone. Keep this in mind when calling on these teams.
A few teams asked for an SASE with proper postage to get a set. The Fairbanks Goldpanners are champions at printing sets – not necessarily sets with rookie cards, but all-star sets, annual player sets, etc.

The Anchorage Glacier Pilots also have printed a number of sets over the years, as have the Peninsula Oilers in their early years. On the whole, the Alaska League has been great for card collectors.

Most of the team and league all-star sets are usually independently printed sets by teams that try to find a sponsor to defer the printing costs. A new player for card printing in summer collegiate ball is Choice Sportscards, which has printed a few quality, top-rate sets for teams. Choice is very active in printing minor league sets and college team sets.
Final thoughts

Summer collegiate baseball collecting is great for the young and older collector. Most items, including cards are rewarding, yet difficult to collect, but can offer much fun without breaking the bank.

Credits: Stephen Greene of STBsports.com image of the Tri Valley Highlanders set; Choice Sportscards for information and images; Jay Sokol of the Delaware Cows; Humboldt Crabs organization; Dennis family with the Fairbanks Goldpanners; league PR directors who sent their league pubs; the GMs of summer collegiate teams that sent along their cards and collectibles; and Jack Whittleton in Canada for his insights on Canadian baseball collectibles.

Ed Kobak, is a former columnist for SCD and a collector since 1965. He is the author/publisher of sports reference books, spending his summer nights in the land of the Midnight Sun watching and hearing the crack of the bat of Alaska League ballplayers. He can be reached at ekobak@yahoo.com.

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