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April 22, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Tales in a Minor Key

by Jay Jaffe

While I'm hardly an authority on the topic, I've always had a soft spot for minor league baseball, probably because my formative years were spent in minor league towns. I grew up attending ballgames in Salt Lake City, Utah, a city with a rich history as a minor league outpost dating back to the old Pacific Coast League and its 200-game seasons. During my childhood and adolescence it played host to the Triple-A affiliates for the Angels and Mariners in the modern-day PCL, and I got my fill of stars like Dickie Thon and Phil Bradley, high-altitude boppers like Ike Hampton, and future flops like Al Chambers. Additionally, every summer I would visit my grandparents in in Walla Walla, Washington, the site of the Padres' Low-A Northwest League affiliate, where I watched Tony Gwynn and John Kruk take their first steps toward major league stardom.

As such, I'm hooked on the recent addition of the SABR Minor League Database to the already amazing collection of data at Baseball-Reference.com. This awe-inspiring mother lode provides access to the minor league records of over 175,000 players from over 4,000 leagues (majors, minors, and foreign). While a great deal of the data currently on B-R is incomplete, and some of it is redundant with the minor league data on The Baseball Cube, like Retrosheet this statistical horn of plenty holds the promise of delivering ever more down the road. As it is, it's still a treasure trove, particularly when its information is integrated with other sources, be they Retrosheet, the wiki-based Baseball Reference Bullpen, or trusty old books, magazines, and newspapers.

To start with, it's fascinating to match up the minor league data of early 20th-century stars such as Lou Gehrig and Lefty Grove with their occasionally tangled narrative arcs. For Gehrig, his time as a collegian, a minor leaguer, and a Yankee is a chronological jumble. In the summer of 1921, before he matriculated at Columbia University, he began his professional baseball career with the Hartford Senators of the Eastern League as a 17-year-old playing under the name Lou Lewis so as not to jeopardize his amateur status. Columbia officials nonetheless learned of his stint, and he was banned from intercollegiate competition until the following year. Once he played, he met with considerable success as both a pitcher and a hitter. On April 18, 1923, the same day that Babe Ruth christened Yankee Stadium with a home run, Gehrig struck out 17 Williams hitters, and soon afterward his prodigious home runs attracted Yankees scout Paul Kritchell, who signed him to a contract. He made his major league debut on June 15, 1923 but played sparingly with the Yankees, garnering just five at-bats in seven games over the course of his first five weeks. He returned to Hartford and bashed 24 homers while slugging .749 in 59 games, then rejoined the Yankees in late September. He spent most of 1924 with Hartford as well, hitting .396 and slugging .720 with 37 home runs in 134 games before joining the Yankees for good later that year.

As for Grove, while playing semi-professionally in Maryland, he was scouted by former major league infielder Baldy Louden, skipper of the Martinsburg Mountaineers of the Class D Blue Ridge League. Grove joined the Mountaineers in 1920, going 3-3 in six appearances with a 1.68 ERA in 59 innings; some sources say he actually pitched in seven games, making the innings-per-appearance total less heroic. Nonetheless, his handiwork came to the attention of Jack Dunn Jr., son of the manager of the International League's Baltimore Orioles. For the price of a new outfield fence-the old one had been razed in a storm-he was sold to the Orioles in June of that season. Grove spent the next four and a half years pitching for the powerhouse club, going 108-36 with a 2.96 ERA. He led the league in strikeouts in each of his full seasons, though the data at B-R curiously doesn't include strikeouts, another source cited online lists his totals as 254 in 1921, 205 in 1922, a league-record 330 in 1923, and 231 in 1924. Despite plenty of interest from major league teams, Dunn refused several offers before selling his rights to the Philadelphia Athletics' Connie Mack for $100,600 in 1925, the most money ever paid for a player at that time. Though he didn't reach the majors until the age of 25, Grove went on to win 300 games and two World Championships in 17 major league seasons.

With the anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking of the major league color barrier having recently passed, it's worth examining the pioneers of pro baseball's integration as they played on some of the most important minor league teams in baseball history. The 1946 Montreal Royals featured Robinson the year before his promotion to Brooklyn; he hit .349 and slugged .462 in 124 games while leading the Royals to the International League championship. Also on that team at various points during the season-in part to provide Robinson with a black roommate-were a pair of pioneering Negro League pitchers whom Dodger GM Branch Rickey signed but who never made the majors, John Wright and Roy Partlow. Wright, a star with the Homestead Grays, lasted only six weeks with the club and pitched just twice before being demoted to nearby Trois Rivieres of the Class C Canadian-American League. He was immediately replaced by Partlow, a 35-year-old Negro Leaguer from the Philadelphia Stars. Partlow spent two months with the team, pitching in 10 games but compiling a gaudy 5.59 ERA before joining Wright at Trois Rivieres, where he went 10-1 with a 3.22 ERA in 14 games. He resurfaced a few years later in the Quebec-based Provincial League, which at times was an independent league, and at others an affiliated one.

Concurrent with Robinson, Wright, and Partlow's Canadian adventures, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe were playing for the Nashua Dodgers of the New Hampshire League. Managed by future Dodger skipper Walter Alston, Campanella hit .290 with 13 home runs and a .477 slugging percentage, while Newcombe went 14-4 with a 2.21 ERA and helped his cause by batting .311. Campy spent 1947 with the Montreal Royals and the early part of 1948 with the St. Paul Saints before joining the Dodgers. Newcombe took a slower path to the majors, much to his chagrin; he returned to Nashua in 1947 and spent 1948 and part of 1949 in Montreal before getting the call. As for Alston, whose major league playing career consisted of a lone at-bat with the 1936 Cardinals, the details of his 13-season minor league career are here too; he hit .295 and collected 1,344 hits while beating the bushes in such long-forgotten circuits as the East Dixie, Middle-Atlantic, Western, and Interstate Leagues.

It's not just baseball Hall of Famers lurking in these minor league stats, either. Elsewhere in West Virginia, a few years after Grove passed through, future Pittsburgh Steelers founder and Pro Football Hall of Famer Art Rooney and his brother Dan (not to be confused with Art's son Dan, the current chairman of the Steelers who was recently nominated to be the US Ambassador to Ireland) played minor league ball together in the mid 1920s, most notably for the Wheeling Stogies of the Middle-Atlantic League. B-R lists Art as hitting .369 and slugging .523 in 106 games with the 1925 Stogies; he apparently led the league with 109 runs, 143 hits, and 58 stolen bases while finishing second in the league batting race. Not all of those categories are listed, and neither is an entry for his brother, who according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette finished third in the league in batting average at .359. According to son Art Rooney, Jr. (not to be confused with grandson Art Rooney II), Rooney pere spent a brief spell with the Chicago Cubs but never got into a game, and later turned down a contract with a Southern League team, saying, "I can make more money at the race track." He was right about that; in 1933 he parlayed $2,500 in track winnings into the entry fee for Pittsburgh's NFL franchise.

The professional baseball careers of a few other Pro Football Hall of Famers are immortalized on B-R, though not always to flattering effect. Slingin' Sammy Baugh-who acquired his nickname due to his throwing prowess as a shortstop and third baseman at Texas Christian University-hit .200 and slugged .254 in 1938, his lone season as a shortstop in the Cardinals chain. He split the year with Columbus of the American Association and Rochester of the International League; at the latter stop he was stuck behind Marty Marion, who two years later would take up residence as the perennial All-Star for the Cardinals. Needless to say, Baugh's decision to deprive the world of one more good-field/no-hit shortstop and instead popularize the forward pass was the right one. Elsewhere, "Papa Bear" George Halas hit .274 and slugged .321 in a brief stint with the 1919 St. Paul Saints of the American Association, though that was more auspicious than his 2-for-22 showing as a member of the Yankees that year. More recently, John Elway hit .318/.432/.464 as an outfielder with Short-season Oneonta of the New York-Penn League in 1982. Drafted by the Baltimore Colts the following spring, he committed himself to football, if not the Colts.

Several popular writers have had minor league roots, with some even drawing upon their experiences in their work. Novelist Zane Grey starred on the diamond at the University of Pennsylvania and then briefly played for the Newark Colts of the Atlantic League in 1898; though no statistics have been published on B-R, the site notes that he was only with the team from April 27 (presumably the start of the season) until June 2. Upon taking up writing, Grey specialized in adventures of the Old West, though he published a couple of baseball novels as well.

On the other hand, Pat Jordan's first book, A False Spring, was an autobiographical account of his three years as a pitcher in the Milwaukee Braves' system-a frustrating three years marked by the characteristic loss of control that would come to be known as Steve Blass Disease. Over the course of 273 harrowing minor league innings, Jordan walked 270 hitters; the strikeout totals aren't published, though he must have had his share of them to keep his career ERA down to 4.98. Jordan was a teammate of 20-year-old Phil Niekro in 1959 with the McCook Braves of the Class D Nebraska State League. That was both hurlers' first stop in organized ball. One developed a knuckleball and went to the Hall of Fame, the other turned to high heat as a sportswriter.

Eliot Asinof made his name writing about the 1919 Black Sox scandal in Eight Men Out, but for his first novel, Man on Spikes, he drew more directly on his two years in the Phillies' chain before joining the Army at the outset of World War II. Spikes' long-suffering protagonist, Mike Kutner, was loosely based on one Mickey Rutner, a fellow Phillies' minor leaguer whose major league career lasted all of 12 games with the 1947 Philadelphia A's; he spent the better part of a decade beating the bushes waiting for another shot. A lesser-known Asinof protagonist, from the never-anthologized short story "The Secret Life of Rocky Perone" has his own page on B-R as Richard Perone, which is half right. In 1974, 36-year-old Richard Pohle, a former amateur star in Maine who lost out on a pro contract due to illness, passed himself off as 21-year-old Rocky Perone from Sydney, Australia, and briefly got away with it thanks to the ineptitude of the Padres' front office. He played one game for the Walla Walla Padres and went 1-for-2 with a walk, but the jig was soon up. Asinof's tale ran in Sports Illustrated in 1979, and the following year, the 42-year-old "Perone" made a cameo appearance for Salem of the Northwest League.

Pohle's assumed identity was just the tip of the assumed-identity iceberg. According to newspaper clippings from a previous version of Pohle's website (he has worked as a scout for several major league teams and now works as an instructor), he helped a handful of other over-age players get contracts under false pretenses during the 1970s. Barry Stace was a 38-year-old lefty pitcher from Australia who posed as a 22-year-old and became the first Aussie to play baseball in the US. He pitched 82 innings for three low-level Royals affiliates in 1973, going 6-4 with a 2.52 ERA. Twenty-one-year-old Thomas Anthony (actually 24-year-old Tom Rowan) spent four years in the Giants' system (1977-1980), playing 335 games in all. He tore up the Pioneer League in 1977, hitting .333 and driving in 62 runs in 63 games, and climbed as high as Double-A Shreveport. One of Anthony's Pioneer League teammates, 21-year-old Nicholas James, was in reality 31-year-old former University of Arizona player Mark Worley, but he only lasted 31 games while hitting a thin .227. Even baseball lifers like Phoenix Giants manager Rocky Bridges, longtime Giants scout Jack Schwarz, Padres minor league director Mike Port, and Padres scout Jim Marshall were conned by the assumed identities of Pohle or his proteges. (For more on Asinof and Pohle, see here.)

No list of bush-league authors would be complete without including screenwriter/director Ron Shelton of Bull Durham fame. He's got not one but two pages on the site, apparently due to a database quirk that hasn't been corrected yet. Drafted by the Orioles in the 39th round in 1966, he spent parts of two seasons as a pitcher, going 4-6 with a 4.23 ERA in 25 appearances before shifting to the infield. Switching his throwing arm from left to right, he spent four more years in the Orioles' chain, primarily as a second baseman. He climbed as high as Triple-A Rochester, where he played with Bobby Grich, Don Baylor, Terry Crowley, Johnny Oates, and future Orioles' pitching coach and manager (but never major league pitcher) Ray Miller, among others. Shelton only hit .251 and slugged .315 during his minor league career, though he did steal 32 bases once.

Meanwhile, Shelton's muse, the real Crash Davis has his own page, too. Lawrence Columbus Davis was a North Carolina native who starred at Duke University and went on to spend parts of three years with some dreadful Philadelphia A's squads, hitting .230/.289/.279 in 148 games as an infielder. Drafted into the Navy during World War II, he spent his first year stationed at Norfolk, Virginia, where he played on a team with Dom DiMaggio and Pee Wee Reese. After being discharged, he played for seven seasons (1946-1952) in the minors, five of them in the Class B Carolina League and one (1948) with the real Durham Bulls, who were affiliated with the Tigers. Davis, a second baseman, hit .317 and slugged .476 while clubbing 10 home runs and a league-record 50 doubles for the Bulls. Shelton came across his name when thumbing through an old Carolina League record book for inspiration, and the rest is history. Davis even turned a brief cameo as Sam Crawford in Shelton's movie Cobb.

Speaking of the movies, and of the entertainment industry in general, a rather diverse handful of personalities are represented in the minor league register. Actor and game-show host Bert Convy spent time with a pair of low-level Phillies affiliates in 1952 before going the show-biz route. Actor Kurt Russell spent three years as a minor league second baseman in the early Seventies, mostly knocking around the Northwest League in places like Portland, Walla Walla, and Bend, Oregon. He was off to a 9-for-16 start with the Angels' Double-A affiliate in El Paso in 1973 when he tore his rotator cuff in a career-ending collision with a runner, which at least made his unforgettable portrayal of Snake Plissken possible. Actor Scott Patterson spent seven years (1980-1986) pitching in the Braves' and Yankees' organizations, including parts of five seasons at Triple-A Columbus, though his 5.43 ERA there stalled his career. He went on to greater success as Luke Danes, the diner owner and sometime love interest of Lorelei Gilmore on Gilmore Girls. Singer Charley Pride spent time pitching in the Negro Leagues as well as the minors, though injuries and a stint in the Army derailed his career; suffice it to say he had more hits on the country music charts than he did in organized baseball. Professional wrestler Randy "Macho Man" Savage spent four years as an outfielder in the St. Louis and Cincinnati organizations under his given name, Randy Poffo, though he hit just .232 and spent the majority of that time trying to escape the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

Jumping from the entertainment industry to what may be the average baseball fan's least entertaining subject-player agents-Scott Boras' minor league numbers are here, too. Boras spent four years as an infielder in the Cardinals' and Cubs' systems (1974-1977), hitting a combined .288 and showing good plate discipline; for the one year in which walk totals are available, he's got a .277/.397/.373 line with 60 walks and just 24 strikeouts in 360 plate appearances for the Florida State League's St. Petersburg Cardinals. Knee injuries got the better of him, so he retired, got a law degree, and by 1983 was wreaking havoc on the amateur draft and baseball owners' pocketbooks.

From power within the baseball industry to power granted democratically, we close our little tour with Mario Cuomo. While attending high school and later St. John's University, Cuomo played semi-professionally under several assumed names (including Glendie LaDuke, Matt Denty, and Lava LaBretta) so as not to threaten his amateur standing. Playing as Connie Cutts, he came to the attention of a Pirates' scout working for Branch Rickey, and was signed with a $2,000 bonus, nearly double the money Mickey Mantle received from the Yankees a few years earlier. Dispatched to the Bucs' Brunswick, Georgia affiliate in the Class D Georgia-Florida League in 1952 upon completion of his school term, he played center field and hit .244 with a lone home run. Alas, he suffered a hematoma via a beaning, and his career ended after just 81 games. He returned to school, got a law degree, and eventually entered politics, rising to national prominence as the Governor of New York from 1983 to 1994.

Anyway, at the risk of boring you with tales of childhood minor league heroes such as Ike Hampton and Floyd Rayford, that's one writer's zig-zagging route through the amazing array of minor league data now available. While it's easy to find fault with the incompleteness of the statistical information in this early stage-wild man Steve Dalkowski's numbers lose their punch without his punchout totals-it's best to have patience; neither Rome nor Retrosheet was built in a day. What's available now to the general public is exponentially greater than that which was there before, a vast hyper-linked heaven for lovers of the game's lower circuits.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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