International League (1955-1970)
Born: January 1955 – The Ottawa A’s relocate to Columbus, OH.
Died: 1971 – The Jets relocate to Charleston, WV.
Stadium: Jet Stadium
Owners: Frederick E. Jones, et al.
Columbus, Ohio faced the prospect of a summer without pro baseball when the St. Louis Cardinals packed up and moved their triple-A farm club to Omaha following the 1954 season. But in January 1955, a syndicate of Columbus businessmen led by Frederick E. Jones of the Buckeye Union Insurance Company put up $110,000 to purchase the Ottawa A’s of the International League and put a down payment on Red Bird Stadium, owned by the departing Cardinals.
Columbus opened the 1955 baseball season with a new team in a new league playing in a re-named stadium. Re-dubbed the Columbus Jets, the club joined the triple-A International League as a farm club of the Kansas City Athletics. 23-year old Red Bird Stadium was re-branded as Jet Stadium.
The Jets spent two unhappy seasons affiliated with the Athletics, finishing in 7th place in 1955 and again in 1956, and sniping publicly with Kansas City officials in 1956 over the quality of players delivered to Columbus. In October 1956, the Jets signed a new Major League affiliation deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates, launching a decade-plus partnership that brought a slew of future Pirates stars to Columbus throughout the 1960’s.
The 1962 Jets featured two future Hall-of-Famers in slugger Willie Stargell and journeyman pitcher Pat Gillick. Stargell bashed 27 homers and knocked in 82 runs for the Jets that summer before earning a September call-up with the Pirates. “Pops” led the Pirates to World Series crowns in 1971 and 1979 and earned election to Cooperstown in 1988. Gillick, by contrast, was winding down an unremarkable minor league career in Columbus – he would retire after the 1963 season without ever appearing in a Major League game. After his playing days, Gillick became one of the most successful front office executives in baseball, engineering World Series champions in Toronto (1992-1993) and again in Philadelphia (2008). He entered the Hall of Fame in 2011.
At the time though, the most buzzed about figure on the 1962 Jets was 19-year old bonus baby Bob Bailey. The Bucs plucked Bailey straight out of high school in 1961, offering him the largest signing bonus in Major League history at that time – variously reported at $135,000, $150,000 or $175,000. Bailey lived up to the hype at Columbus in 1962. The Jets’ youngest player – teammate Gene Baker was nearly twice his age at 37 – Bailey hit 28 homers and drove in 108 runs en route to International League Rookie-of-the-Year and Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year honors. Like Stargell, Bailey debuted with the Bucs during September call-ups in 1962. Bailey’s 17-year Major League career lasted nearly as long as Stargell’s, but he never lived up to the huge expectations formed by his bonus and his breakout season in Columbus. Bailey did pick up a World Series championship ring as a part-time player with the Cincinnati Reds in 1976. He finished his career in 1978 and later became a minor league manager during the 1980’s.
The Pittsburgh Pirates became one of the dominant teams in the National League during the 1970’s and much of their homegrown talent came through Columbus in the mid-to-late 1960’s. Steve Blass, Dave Cash, Dock Ellis, Rich Hebner, Bob Moose, Al Oliver, Manny Sanguillen and Luke Walker all spent time at Jet Stadium on the road to Pittsburgh.
Don Hoak, who played third base for the Pirates 1960 World Series champions team, managed the Jets to a second place finish in the International League in 1969. Hoak coveted the Pirates big league job after manager Larry Shepard – himself a former Jets manager – was fired during the final week of the 1969 campaign. But Hoak was passed over in favor of Danny Murtaugh, his former skipper on the Pirates teams of the early Sixties. Just three hours after Murtaugh was introduced as the Pirates new field manager, Hoak was dead at age 41. Hoak died of a heart attack while pursuing a car thief who stole his brother-in-law’s car.
Following the 1970 season, the directors of Columbus Baseball Club, Inc. sold the franchise back to the Pittsburgh Pirates, citing lack of interest in the ballclub by the public and the City’s unwillingness to make needed repairs to 38-year old Jets Stadium. The Jets drew 141,000 fans in 1970, which was on the low end of the spectrum for the club’s 16-year tenure in Columbus. The Jets high water mark came in the first season of 1955 (204,531 fans) and yo-yoed up and down throughout the Sixties, bottoming out with 134,448 in 1964 before rebounding to just under 200,000 fans when the Jets won the International League pennant in 1965.
The Pirates subsequently moved the farm club the Charleston, West Virginia (the Charleston Charlies) for the 1971 season.
In 1976, Franklin County stepped up and renovated the former Jets Stadium, installing a new Astroturf surface among other changes. The improvements were enough to lure back triple-A baseball and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Charleston Charlies moved back to Columbus for the 1977 season. The Columbus Clippers played as the top farm club of the Pirates for two seasons (1977-1978) before settling into a long-time relationship with the New York Yankees in 1979.
Jets Stadium was renamed Franklin County Stadium when it re-opened for minor league baseball in 1977. In 1984, the stadium was re-dedicated as Cooper Stadium, in honor of Harold Cooper, the former Franklin County commissioner who served as General Manager of the Jets from 1955 to 1968. The Clippers played in Cooper Stadium through 2008, when a new state-of-the-art ballpark was built in downtown Columbus for the team.