The strange and debated death of the Denver Bears, who paved the way for the Colorado Rockies
If it weren’t for the Denver Bears, there might not have been a Colorado Rockies baseball team.
Many people have heard of the Bears. People born before 1993 may have even gone to a game. Few though may have realized how long they lasted after they were no longer a part of the Mile High City and may not have realized that, in a way, the Denver Bears have finally passed on.
As minor league baseball season draws near, I plan on doing a series of articles surrounding the Colorado Rockies’ affiliates. To start, I want to put focus on the absolutely insane and convoluted topic that is team history in the Minor Leagues, and how, to some, the Denver Bears have finally died.
First, I want to show just how confusing Minor League history can be by using my hometown team, the Round Rock Express, currently in Triple-A, as an example. The team was originally founded as a Double-A team in the Texas League. For some, that’s where the franchise history starts. But, technically, they replaced the Jackson Generals, who are still playing today so, in theory, the franchise started in 1968 with the Memphis Blues. For the record, I think of them as their own franchise at the beginning, but that doesn’t mean things don’t get more complicated.
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In 2005, MiLB moved the Round Rock Express up to Triple-A, but yet another wrinkle is added here. Technically, the Double-A Express moved to Corpus Christi and became the Hooks. The Triple-A Express was technically the relocated Edmonton Trappers. This is a fact, once the Express came up to Triple-A the Trappers’ affiliation with the Expos and their players were all supposed to play for Round Rock. Now, before the season started, the affiliation was actually negotiated to be swapped with the New Orleans Zephyrs (the former Denver Bears!), but that was the initial plan.
So now, we have two teams that are technically the same team but different … and also have four different origin points. Like I said, franchise history in the Minor Leagues is a messy thing to track.
The reason I bring this up is to show how common it is to have a web of history rather than a line in MiLB.
It is very similar to the story of the Denver Bears. Technically, the team started in both 1888 and 1900. It just depends on how you look at things. The Denver Bears were a team in the Western League that started in 1900 and they played until 1954, when the new Denver Bears came into town and started playing for the American Association. This is where the split is.
The Kansas City Blues were a team that started playing as early as 1888. They were always in the highest level of the Minor Leagues and even were briefly in the American League for one season in the pre-antitrust days. In 1955, MLB forced the team to relocate because of the new Kansas City Royals. They chose Denver as their landing spot. Again, this can be tracked using the affiliation to none other than the New York Yankees (I know, ha ha, get your “Colorado Rockies are a Yankees farm team” jokes out here).
From here, the Bears’ history is a bit of a straight line … until the franchise’s end at least. The Bears were wildly successful in Colorado, bringing the big league’s attention to Denver as an expansion team. The team rebranded to the Zephyrs in 1984 to help show how the city would react to sudden branding shifts as expansion came closer until, finally, Denver was awarded its expansion franchise.
This version of the Bears/Zephyrs won seven championships across their 39 years, but the story does not end there.
The Denver Zephyrs lived on and directly relocated to New Orleans, becoming the New Orleans Zephyrs. They kept the Zephyrs name and the Brewers affiliation that the Denver Zephyrs had. The team was finally rebranded in 2016 to a more localized New Orleans Baby Cakes, but as the attendance number failed to rise and the ballpark deteriorated, the team announced that, in 2020, the Baby Cakes would move to Wichita, Kansas.
This is where the end of the Denver Bears starts. They announced the team in Wichita to be named the Wichita Wind Surge and would be the Triple-A affiliate of the Miami Marlins. Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, the Wind Surge could never play before MLB killed them. The team that was the Denver Bears, with its history stretching all the way back to 1888, was no more … except it is kind of still around.
The Wichita Wind Surge will still play in 2021, but there are arguments about whether it is actually the same team. Based on the forced through changes to the minor league structure by MLB, they moved the Wind Surge to Double-A in what used to be the Texas League. The Wind Surge is also technically an expansion team for the league itself, now called the Double-A West.
If you want to believe that the Wind Surge is the same as the Denver Bears, that’s fine, but the team has played at the highest level of Minor League ball possible for about 130 years. It’s finally getting demoted, and that is something to mourn.
So, in short, the Denver Bears are both active and folded, stuck in limbo. As this era ends, I think it is important to look back at the franchise, and see how much it has done for the city. If it weren’t for them, we might not have a Colorado Rockies to root for. So let’s raise one up to the Denver Bears.
Born: ???? Died: ????. You can be the judge of that.
Note: History for this article was found using Baseball-Reference and Wikipedia.