Eastern League (1980-1983)
Born: 1979 – The West Haven Yankees relocate to Lynn, MA.
Died: September 8, 1983- The Lynn Pirates relocate to Burlington, VT.
Stadium: Fraser Field
At the end of the 1979 season, West Haven (CT) Yankees owners Lloyd Kern and Robert Zeig needed a new Major League affiliation for their Eastern League franchise. The Bronx Bombers decided to relocate their double-A affiliate to Nashville of the Southern League after eight summers in nearby West Haven.
In September, Kern and Zeig inked a deal with the Seattle Mariners and announced plans to re-brand their ball club as the “West Haven Sailors” for the 1980 season. Then they reconsidered. Not the Mariners part. The West Haven part. In late 1979, Kern and Zeig packed up and moved to Fraser Field in Lynn, Massachusetts.
“West Haven would not upgrade the lighting system at the park on a timely basis or improve our clubhouse facilities,” Kern told Fun While It Lasted in 2011. “Lynn was willing to put in a new lighting system and do some upgrades at the ballpark. Unfortunately, there were no other alternatives at the time.”
Built in 1940 as Works Progress Administration project during the New Deal, Fraser had seen only limited service as a minor league ballpark, hosting the Lynn Red Sox and Lynn Tigers of the New England League from 1946 to 1949. In the spring of 1980 the hardscrabble industrial city of just under 100,000 on Massachusetts’ North Shore would greet its first minor league ball club in more than three decades.
The Sailors lasted three seasons as Mariners affiliate in Lynn. During the club’s first two seasons under field manager Bobby Floyd in 1980 and 1981, the Sailors finished with the 6th best record in the eight-team circuit. But development, not winning, is the priority in a Major League farm system. More than a dozen Sailors that passed through Lynn in the early 1980’s eventually saw time with the big club in Seattle, including key contributors such as Jim Presley, Matt Young, Dave Valle, Mike Moore and Mario Diaz.
Future Mariners stars Alvin Davis, Harold Reynolds and Spike Owen, the club’s prized first round draft pick, arrived in Lynn in the spring of 1982. This proved to be the Sailors’ best – and final season – with the club posting an 82-57 record en route to a championship series tilt with the West Haven A’s. (In the minor league fashion of the day, West Haven had immediately picked up a new investor and Major League affiliation after the Sailors departed in 1979). The A’s swept the Sailors three games to zero in the 1982 Eastern League finals.
In the fall of 1981, Massachusetts businessman Michael Agganis purchased the team for “less than six figures” according to outgoing owner Lloyd Kern. Agganis is the nephew of the revered former Boston Red Sox first baseman and Lynn native Harry Agganis who died of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 26 in 1955. After the 1982 season, the Mariners departed and Agganis snagged an affiliation with the Pittsburgh Pirates, which required a re-branding (Lynn Pirates) for the 1983 campaign.
Agganis brought in Rico Petrocelli, a hero of the Boston Red Sox 1967 Impossible Dream in as General Manager. The team was strong once again. The Pirates 77-62 record was second best in the eight-team Eastern League. Attendance once again was awful. Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Don Robinson won 15 games for the big club in 1982, but was sent to Lynn for rehab work in the spring of ’83.
“I counted 18 fans in the stands one night,” Robinson told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in May 1983. “A couple of the guys said there may have been as many as 75, but I don’t know.”
The total gate for the year was reported as a league-worst 31,575 for 70 games. The box office was so bad that the Pirates were asked to play all of their playoff dates on the road so that there would be someone there to watch. Despite this disadvantage, the Pirates swept the Buffalo Bisons two games to zero in the semi-finals. In the Championship Series, the Pirates hit the road again and ran smack into the New Britain (CT) Red Sox and their prized prospect Roger Clemens who fired a 3-hit complete shutout in the fourth and deciding game at New Britain’s Beehive Field. It was to be the final game for the franchise in Lynn.
On September 8th, 1983 Agganis announced an agreement with the city of Burlington, Vermont to relocate his Eastern League franchise to Centennial Field, a 77-year old ballpark on the campus of the University of Vermont. Several days later the Pittsburgh Pirates severed their affiliation agreement with Agannis and shifted to the Eastern League’s Nashua franchise, which became the Nashua Pirates for 1984. Agannis inked a new affiliation with the Cincinnati Reds and began play as the Vermont Reds in the spring of 1984.
Affiliated minor league baseball never returned to Lynn, Massachusetts. A 1990 revision of the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) which governs the partnership between Major League Baseball and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (i.e. “the minors”), raised the minimum standards for playing facilities substantially. The new standards effectively slammed the door on dozens of communities around the country like Lynn, which had dilapidated, Depression-era ballparks and little political will to build new ones with the modern amenities now in demand.
These marginalized communities were effectively shut out of the minor league boom of the late 80’s and 1990’s, but there were enough under utilized ballparks sitting empty that a series of so-called “independent” leagues sprang up to fill the void. Professional baseball returned to Lynn in 1996 with Jonathan Fleisig’s independent Massachusetts Mad Dogs club. The club lasted four years but by the Mad Dogs final season in 1999, Fraser Field had deteriorated to the point that it was condemned by the City of Lynn. Four years later, investment banker Nick Lopardo poured $3 million of his own money into Fraser in return for a $1/year lease for his independent North Shore Spirit team. The Spirit played five years at Fraser from 2003-2007 before Lopardo withdrew his support and folded the money-losing club.
Michael Agganis still owns the franchise that once was the Lynn Pirates to this day. After four seasons in Vermont, Agganis moved his club to Ohio where it continues to play in the Eastern League under the Akron Aeros name. The club now draws over 250,000 fans annually.