Jackie Robinson steps up to bat in a packed stadium.
Jackie Robinson steps up to bat in a packed stadium.
Getty Images

9 Noteworthy Minor League Debuts

Jackie Robinson steps up to bat in a packed stadium.
Jackie Robinson steps up to bat in a packed stadium.
Getty Images

On Sunday, Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg will make his minor league debut for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators against the Altoona (Pa.) Curve. (And as a big Nats fan, I'm making the trip.) Just how big is the hype surrounding the No. 1 overall pick of last year's amateur draft? ESPNEWS has announced it will broadcast every half-inning that Strasburg pitches. As the former San Diego State star prepares for his big day, here's a look back at nine other hype-worthy minor league debuts.

1. Jackie Robinson

Perhaps no minor league debut was as significant as Jackie Robinson's. Signed by Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey in 1945, Robinson appeared in several exhibition games during spring training and made his minor league debut with the International League's Montreal Royals on April 18, 1946. Playing in front of a capacity crowd at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, N.J., Robinson had four hits in five at-bats, including a three-run home run, to lead the Royals to a 14-1 win. "Eloquent as they were, the cold figures of the box score do not tell the whole story," Joseph Sheehan wrote in the New York Times. "He looked as well as acted the part of a real ball-player and on the base paths was a positive demon."

Jersey City's fans greeted Robinson warmly, but the reaction in other cities wasn't always so positive. Robinson, who attracted large crowds throughout the season, led the league in hitting and fielding percentage and was named MVP. He broke the major league color barrier the following season.

2. Michael Jordan

What does the world's greatest basketball player do when winning a championship becomes a bore? He takes up baseball. After winning three straight NBA Finals MVP awards during the Chicago Bulls' first three-peat, His Airness announced his retirement from basketball in October 1993 and signed a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox a few months later. Jordan made his minor league debut on April 8, 1994, with the Birmingham Barons, Chicago's Double-A affiliate. He went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in the Barons' 10-3 loss. More than 10,000 fans and 150 media members, including television crews from across the world, attended the game. "They told me that there would be nights like this," Jordan told reporters after his debut. "But what I learned in basketball was that you have to have resiliency. Every great athlete has had one bad day, or two, or three or more. How you bounce back determines what kind of person you are."

Jordan hit .202 with three home runs, 51 RBI, and 30 stolen bases that season. He officially quit baseball in March 1995 and returned to the Bulls—and winning championships.

3. Bo Jackson

A baseball and football star at Auburn, where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1985, Bo Jackson was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the first pick of the 1986 NFL draft. Jackson decided to pursue a professional baseball career instead and signed with the Kansas City Royals, who assigned him to their Double-A affiliate, the Memphis Chicks. Jackson made his minor league debut on June 30, 1986, before a less-than-capacity home crowd of 7,026. "I feel great," Jackson said during a news conference before the game. "There's some people nervous but I'll let them worry. I'm just going to go out there and play baseball." Jackson hit an RBI single in his first at-bat and finished 1-for-4 with two strikeouts in the Chicks' 9-5 loss to the Columbus Astros. The Memphis fans, many of whom came early to watch Jackson take batting practice, gave the rookie a standing ovation before his first at-bat and again after his professional hit. Jackson hit seven home runs in 53 games for the Chicks and became a regular with the Royals the following season. That year, the Los Angeles Raiders drafted Jackson in the seventh round and he joined the team when the baseball season ended.

4. Willie Mays

Willie Mays made his minor league debut with the Trenton Giants on June 24, 1950, at Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, Md., home of the Hagerstown Suns. Mays' line that day was forgettable—he went hitless—but the hateful atmosphere he endured was not. Fans yelled racial epithets at the outfielder, who was the first black player to play a minor league game in Hagerstown and was forced to stay at an all-black hotel. Mays hit .353 with four home runs in 81 games for Trenton that season. In 2004, the Suns invited Mays back to Hagerstown and he accepted, announcing that all was forgiven.

5. Todd Van Poppel

A can't-miss prospect, or so most people thought, Van Poppel was drafted 14th overall by the Oakland Athletics in the 1990 amateur draft. The only reason the Texas high schooler, who turned down a scholarship to the University of Texas to go pro, wasn't drafted higher was because teams were afraid of his contract demands. After receiving a $600,000 signing bonus from the A's, Van Poppel made his minor league debut for the Southern Oregon A's, Oakland's Single-A affiliate, on July 23, 1990, in front of 4,600 fans. Van Poppel didn't disappoint, allowing one hit and striking out five in three-plus innings against the Bend Ducks. Held to a 60-pitch limit in 100-degree heat, Van Poppel's best fastball was clocked at 94 mph and he left with a 6-0 lead. "It felt cooler than Texas to me," Van Poppel said afterward. "It was still hot, but not as hot as I'm used to." The phenom moved quickly through the minor leagues but never lived up to the hype in the majors.

6. Ken Griffey, Jr.

After he batted .478 with seven home runs as a senior at Cincinnati's Moeller High School, the Seattle Mariners selected Ken Griffey Jr. with the first pick in the 1987 amateur draft and assigned him to their rookie league affiliate in Bellingham, Washington. Griffey made his minor league debut on June 16, 1987, and went 0-for-3 in a 5-4 loss to the Everett Giants. Incidentally, left-handed pitcher Eric Gunderson, the No. 2 pick in the 1987 draft, made his professional debut in the same game. Griffey received a huge ovation during pregame introductions. "I wasn't expecting all of that," Griffey told reporters after the game. "I was expecting maybe a few people (would cheer), but not that many. That helps knowing you have the fans behind you." The future star hit a three-run home run for his first professional hit in the Mariners' next game.

7. Darryl Strawberry

The No. 1 overall pick in the 1980 amateur draft, Darryl Strawberry made his minor league debut for the New York Mets' Single-A affiliate in Kingsport, Tenn., on July 14, 1980. Strawberry went 1-for-4 with a single in a 9-3 loss to the Paintsville (Ky.) Yankees. The fanfare that followed his debut was a baseball promoter's dream, as teams throughout the Appalachian League capitalized on Strawberry's celebrity and recognizable name. According to a New York Times article, promoters in Elizabethtown, Tenn., sold old-fashioned strawberry sundaes when Kingsport visited. Paintsville offered free admission to anyone holding a strawberry, dropped strawberries from a helicopter, named the area beyond right field the "Strawberry Patch," and served only strawberry soda at the concession stands. "I enjoy it," Strawberry said of the hype. "I know people are aware of my name, and I think that's going to help me throughout my career."

8. Ben McDonald

The Baltimore Orioles selected Big Ben out of LSU with the first pick in the 1989 amateur draft. After 10 weeks of contract negotiations, McDonald was signed and sent to Baltimore's Single-A affiliate, the Frederick Keys. McDonald made his minor league debut on August 23 against the Winston-Salem Spirits in front of a sellout crowd of more than 5,000. The lanky right-hander, who led the United States to a gold medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics, allowed five hits and one run over three innings. His only strikeout came against the first batter of the game.

"I think I could have done a little better," said McDonald, who balked, threw a wild pitch, and was the beneficiary of a triple play. "But I was reasonably pleased." McDonald made his major league debut two weeks later.

9. Roger Clemens

Okay, so we're cheating a little with this one. The Rocket made his official minor league debut for Winter Haven back in 1983, but his first appearance with the Lexington Legends after coming out of retirement for a third time in 2006 was more memorable. Adding to the intrigue of Clemens' return to the Houston Astros was the fact that his oldest son, Koby, was a third baseman for the Legends, Houston's Single-A affiliate. Koby Clemens had an RBI double, while his dad allowed one run in three innings and walked off the field to a standing ovation. More than 9,000 fans packed the stadium—3,000 more than the listed capacity—and 120 media credentials were issued for Clemens' first start in Lexington. Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane and president of baseball operations Tal Smith both attended the game, for which ESPN provided live look-ins.

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Jackie Robinson steps up to bat in a packed stadium.
General Mills
10 Winning Facts about Wheaties
General Mills
General Mills

Famous for its vivid orange boxes featuring star athletes and its classic "breakfast of champions" tagline, Wheaties might be the only cereal that's better known for its packaging than its taste. The whole wheat cereal has been around since the 1920s, becoming an icon not just of the breakfast aisle, but the sports and advertising worlds, too. Here are 10 winning facts about it.

1. IT WAS INVENTED BY ACCIDENT.

The Washburn Crosby Company wasn't initially in the cereal business. At the time, the Minnesota-based company—which became General Mills in 1928—primarily sold flour. But in 1921, the story goes, a dietitian in Minneapolis spilled bran gruel on a hot stove. The bran hardened into crispy, delicious flakes, and a new cereal was born. In 1924, the Washburn Crosby Company began selling a version of the flakes as a boxed cereal it called Washburn's Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes. A year later, after a company-wide contest, the company changed the name to Wheaties.

2. ITS JINGLE FEATURED A SINGING UNDERTAKER AND A COURT BAILIFF.

Wheaties sales were slow at first, but the Washburn Crosby Company already had a built-in advertising platform: It owned the Minneapolis radio station WCCO. Starting on December 24, 1926, the station began airing a jingle for the cereal sung by a barbershop quartet called the Wheaties Quartet. The foursome sang "Have You Tried Wheaties" live over the radio every week, earning $15 (about $200 today) per performance. In addition to their weekly singing gig, the men of the Wheaties Quartet all also had day jobs: One was an undertaker, one was a court bailiff, one worked in the grain industry, and one worked in printing. The ad campaign eventually went national, helping boost Wheaties sales across the country and becoming an advertising legend.

3. WHEATIES HAS BEEN TIED TO SPORTS SINCE ALMOST THE BEGINNING.

Carl Lewis signs a Wheaties box with his image on it for a young boy.
Track and field Olympic medalist Carl Lewis
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Wheaties has aligned itself with the sports world since its early days. In 1927, Wheaties bought ad space at Minneapolis's Nicollet Park, home to a minor league baseball team called the Millers, and in 1933, the cereal brand started sponsoring the team's game-day radio broadcasts on WCCO. Eventually, Wheaties baseball broadcasts expanded to 95 different radio stations, covering teams all over the country and further cementing its association with the sport. Since then, generations of endorsements from athletes of all stripes have helped sell consumers on the idea that eating Wheaties can make them strong and successful just like their favorite players. The branding association has been so successful that appearing on a Wheaties box has itself become a symbol of athletic achievement.

4. WHEATIES HELPED KICK-START RONALD REAGAN'S ACTING CAREER.

In the 1930s, a young sports broadcaster named Ronald Reagan was working at a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa, narrating Wheaties-sponsored Chicago Cubs and White Sox games. As part of this job, Reagan went to California to visit the Cubs' spring training camp in 1937. While he was there, he also did a screen test at Warner Bros. The studio ended up offering him a seven-year contract, and later that year, he appeared in his first starring role as a radio commentator in Love Is On The Air.

5. ATHLETES' PHOTOS DIDN'T ALWAYS APPEAR ON THE FRONT OF BOXES.

Three Wheaties boxes featuring Michael Phelps
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Although a Wheaties box wouldn't seem complete without an athlete's photo on it today, the cereal didn't always feature athletes front and center. In the early years, the boxes had photos of athletes like baseball legend Lou Gehrig (the first celebrity to be featured, in 1934) on the back or side panels of boxes. Athletes didn't start to appear on the front of the box until 1958, when the cereal featured Olympic pole vaulter Bob Richards.

6. THE FIRST WOMAN ON A WHEATIES BOX WAS A PILOT.

Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton became the first woman to appear on the front of a Wheaties box in 1984, but women did appear elsewhere on the box in the brand's early years. The first was pioneering aviator and stunt pilot Elinor Smith. Smith, whose picture graced the back of the box in 1934, set numerous world aviation records for endurance and altitude in the 1920s and 1930s.

7. IT USED TO HAVE A MASCOT.

Though we now associate Wheaties with athletes rather than an animal mascot, the cereal did have the latter during the 1950s. In an attempt to appeal to children, Wheaties adopted a puppet lion named Champy (short for "Champion") as the brand's mascot. Champy and his puppet friends sang about the benefits of Wheaties in commercials that ran during The Mickey Mouse Club, and kids could order their own Champy hand puppets for 50 cents (less than $5 today) if they mailed in Wheaties box tops.

8. MICHAEL JORDAN IS THE WHEATIES KING.

Of all the athletes who have graced the cover of a Wheaties box, basketball superstar Michael Jordan takes the cake for most appearances. He's been featured on the box 18 times, both alone and with the Chicago Bulls. He also served as a spokesperson for the cereal, appearing in numerous Wheaties commercials in the '80s and '90s.

9. FANS ONCE GOT THE CHANCE TO PICK A WHEATIES STAR.

MMA star Anthony Pettis on the front of a Wheaties box.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The public hasn't often gotten a chance to weigh in on who will appear on the Wheaties box. But in 2014, Wheaties customers got to decide for the first time which athlete would be featured nationally. Called the Wheaties NEXT Challenge, the contest allowed people to vote for the next Wheaties Champion by logging their workouts on an app platform called MapMyFitness. Every workout of 30 minutes or more counted as one vote. Participants could choose between Paralympic sprinter Blake Leeper, motocross rider Ryan Dungey, mixed-martial-artist Anthony Pettis, lacrosse player Rob Pannell, or soccer player Christen Press. Pettis won, becoming the first MMA fighter to appear on the box in early 2015.

10. THERE WERE SEVERAL SPINOFFS THAT DIDN'T CATCH ON.

Three different Wheaties boxes featuring Tiger Woods sitting together on a table
Tiger Woods's Wheaties covers, 1998
Getty Images

Faced with declining sales, Wheaties introduced several spinoff cereals during the 1990s and early 2000s, including Honey Frosted Wheaties, Crispy Wheaties 'n Raisins, and Wheaties Energy Crunch. None of them sold very well, and they were all discontinued after a few years. The brand kept trying to expand its offerings, though. In 2009, General Mills introduced Wheaties Fuel, a version of the cereal it claimed was more tailored to men's dietary needs. Wheaties Fuel had more vitamin E and—unlike the original—no folic acid, which is commonly associated with women's prenatal supplements. Men didn't love Wheaties Fuel, though, and it was eventually discontinued too. Now, only the original "breakfast of champions" remains.

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Jackie Robinson steps up to bat in a packed stadium.
TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
The Sandlot Is Returning to Theaters for Its 25th Anniversary
TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Few films from the 1990s have grown in stature over the years like The Sandlot. Though it gained respectable reviews and box office receipts when it was released in April 1993, the movie's standing in pop culture has since ballooned into cult classic territory, and you can still find merchandise and even clothing lines dedicated to it today.

Now you can revisit the adventures of Smalls, Ham, Squints, and The Beast on the big screen when Fathom Events and Twentieth Century Fox, in association with Island World, bring The Sandlot back to theaters for its 25th anniversary. The event will be held in 400 theaters across the U.S. on July 22 at 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m., and Tuesday, July 24 at 2:00 p.m and 7:00 p.m. (all times local).

Each screening will come complete with a preview of a new documentary detailing the making of the movie, so if you wanted to know even more about how this coming-of-age baseball classic came to be, now’s your chance.

For more information about ticket availability in your area, head to the Fathom Events website. And if you want to dive into some more trivia about the movie—including the fact that it was filmed in only 42 days—we’ve got you covered.

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