When I was an adolescent baseball fan in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the primary way I learned about “old” baseball players was through the APBA baseball game. (“Old” in my world meant they played before 1966, when I started following baseball.) I started playing APBA in 1967, and within a few years I was buying (or, rather, my parents were buying for me) great teams of the past or full seasons from the early ’60s that APBA was closing out. I’d see guys with APBA cards I’d never heard of, I’d consult the ground-breaking Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia that came out in 1969 (another gift from my parents, bless them), and I’d learn something.
At some point in the early 1970s I acquired a photocopied set of APBA cards from the 1959 season…a lot of guys I’d never heard of. One I HAD heard of was the second baseman for the Phillies, George “Sparky” Anderson, who was then managing the Cincinnati Reds. First I was intrigued by the fact that he had played in the majors, I hadn’t known that. Then I was intrigued by what a crappy hitter he was, batting .218 with no homers.
But then, after I went to the Encyclopedia, I was really intrigued. Sparky played 152 of the Phillies’ 155 games…but he never played in the majors before that season, and he never played in the majors after that season. How was that possible? How could you be good enough that somebody let you play every day one year, and yet not be good enough to play ever again?
That thought spent almost 40 years rattling around in my brain until I read of the death of Art Mahan in December 2010. Mahan played 146 games for the Phillies in 1940, his only season in the big leagues.
That’s when I decided to put together the Sparky Anderson All-Stars…guys who played one and only one season in the major leagues. No cup of coffee the year before, no fleeting appearance the year after…just one and done. Why didn’t they get another chance?
Of course, it’s taken me more than two years to actually do this, but so be it.
One of the things that made Sparky Anderson seem so unusual to me as a teenager — and continues to make him unusual today — is that there’s been nobody remotely like him since. The only player since Anderson to play at least 100 games in his only major league season was Jesus Figueroa, but he was primarily a pinch-hitter for the 1980 Cubs, starting just 25 games. The only player since Anderson to get at least 300 plate appearances in his only major league season was Jamie Allen, but even he started just 77 games for the 1983 Mariners.
But prior to Anderson, there were a number of players who never got a second shot after playing regularly in their first season. Although none of them played as much as Sparky, who holds the record for most games played in his only season in the majors.
So here are the Sparky Anderson All-Stars: the single-season players since 1920 (my kind of arbitrary cutoff point) who have played the most games at each position, although I will exclude the World War II seasons (1942-45) because, well, things were unusual then. I’m also excluding players like Bryce Harper who debuted in 2012 as I assume all of them will be back in the majors. At the end of the article I’ll include a list of all players who have played at least 100 games in their only major league season since the start of the National League in 1876, in case you want to put together a different team. (I’d like to thank SABR member Pete Ridges for showing me how to use Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index to generate the list. I’d also like to express my gratitude that SABR membership includes access to the digital archives of The Sporting News.)
FIRST BASE: Art Mahan (1940 Phillies)
Before Sparky came along, this team would have been the Art Mahan All-Stars, as it was Art’s record for most games played in a single season that Sparky broke (well, unless you count Al Boucher in the Federal League in 1914). And Mahan was quite an unlikely big leaguer, given that he wasn’t even starting for his minor league team when he went to the majors.
Mahan began his professional baseball career in 1936 after graduating from Villanova. To start the 1940 season he made the jump from Little Rock of the Southern Association, where he hit .307 in 1939, to Louisville of the American Association, but he was on the bench behind Paul Campbell, who had been the first baseman on the Colonels’ Junior World Series champion of ’39. (Campbell had also beaten out Mahan for the first base job at Little Rock in 1938.) Mahan had appeared in just four games with the Colonels, all as a pinch-hitter, when the Phillies purchased him to replace veteran Gus Suhr at first base.
What’s odd is the Phillies’ manager was Doc Prothro, who had chosen Campbell over Mahan when he managed Little Rock in 1938. And according to a story by Louisville Courier-Journal sportswriter Tommy Fitzgerald in the May 23, 1940, issue of The Sporting News, Prothro had tried to buy Campbell for the Phillies both during and after the 1939 season, only to be rebuffed by the Colonels.
According to Fitzgerald, the Phillies bought Mahan on a 30-day option, and the newcomer took advantage of his opportunity. He made his big league debut on April 30, stroking a single and a double, and he had three three-hit games in his first six major league appearances. And he played every game the rest of the season, starting at first base in all but one of them; in the one game he didn’t start he pitched a shutout inning of relief in a blowout loss.
But his hitting tailed off badly after his hot start, with his batting average sinking below .220 by mid-June; he was still below .230 in early September before hitting .323 in his last 25 games. He finished at .244, with two home runs and 39 RBI in 146 games, although he did lead the team in stolen bases with the grand total of four. He had the most plate appearances (591) of any player who appeared in just one season in the majors.
Later in life Mahan could laugh at his struggles at the plate. “The Augustinian priests kept telling me to have faith in the saints and to ask St. Jude for help when I would step up to bat,” he said in an interview with Philadelphia’s Catholic Standard & Times in 2010. “After trying this, it was quickly obvious that St. Jude couldn’t hit a curve ball either!” (There are a number of factual errors in the story, likely due to the fact that Mahan was 97 years old when he gave the interview, but I love the quote.)
The following February the Phils sold Mahan to Little Rock and replaced him with another Villanova alum, Nick Etten. Mahan spent the 1941 season at Little Rock, hitting just .243. After that season he enlisted in the Navy and “served as a Naval officer during World War II, training new recruits at the Quonset Point (R.I.) station while also coaching and instructing in physical education,” according to his obituary on the Villanova website.
Mahan was in professional baseball for one year after the war, as player-manager for Providence of the Class B New England League in 1946. He returned to Villanova in 1950 as baseball coach, a job he held for 23 seasons, with winning records in 20 of them. In 1961 he took on the additional job of athletic director and stayed in that post until he retired in 1978. He was married for 54 years, preceded in death by his wife, and had 11 children.
“He had a great Irish wit and found humor in everything and good in everybody,” said Larry Shane, Mahan’s successor as Villanova’s baseball coach. His son Edwin added, “I think he should go into the hall of fame for fathers.”
Honorable Mention: Dutch Schliebner hit .271 in 146 games for the Dodgers and Browns as a 32-year-old rookie in 1923…Johnny Sturm hit .239 in 124 games for the Yankees in 1941 and started all five games of the World Series. He might have played again if not for World War II; he was the first married major leaguer to be drafted, in January 1942, and reportedly lost the tip of his right index finger in a tractor accident. He was in spring training with the Yankees in 1946 but lost the first base job to Nick Etten, the same man who replaced Art Mahan with the Phillies (Etten had been the Yanks’ first baseman from 1943-45). Sturm was the last player to have more than 500 at-bats in his only major league season (again, excluding the 2012 crop)…Tony Bartirome was 19 when he debuted with the Pirates in 1952. He finished the season with no home runs and a .220 batting average in 124 games, then spent the next two seasons in military service. He played in the minors until 1963 followed by a long career as a trainer and coach.
SECOND BASE: Sparky Anderson (1959 Phillies)
In 1951 17-year-old George Anderson (not yet tagged with the nickname Sparky) had about the best year of baseball a high school kid could imagine. His team at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles had a perfect 42-0 record to win the city championship, and his Crenshaw Post American Legion team, made up of players from Dorsey and Loyola high schools, won the national championship. George was the shortstop and leadoff hitter on the Legion team, but while he was highly regarded, he was not considered the star. That recognition went to third baseman Billy Consolo, who went right to the major leagues when he signed a big bonus contract with the Red Sox after graduating from high school in 1953. (Consolo was a barber after his playing career until his old teammate Sparky hired him as a coach when he became manager of the Tigers.) Seven members of that Legion team went on to play professional baseball, including second baseman Joe Maguire, outfielder Don Kenway, catcher Bill Lachemann (whose brothers Rene and Marcel both played and managed in the majors), pitcher/center fielder/cleanup hitter Frank Layana (whose son Tim pitched in the major leagues) and pitcher Paul Schulte, who turned in a complete game victory in the national championship game.
In January 1953 Anderson and Consolo, still high school students, were among the featured speakers at a Pasadena Elks Club awards banquet and “told of their hopes,” according to an item in The Sporting News. Among the other speakers was Dick Williams, then a major league player, who would later manage against Anderson in two World Series.
After graduating from high school in 1953, Anderson turned down a partial baseball scholarship at the University of Southern California (he had been a batboy for the Trojans in his youth) to sign a minor league contract with the then-Brooklyn Dodgers for what The Sporting News later reported was a $3,000 bonus (Consolo had received a reported $60,000 from the Red Sox). He worked his way up the ladder, moving to second base in 1954 and picking up the nickname Sparky in 1955 in Fort Worth. After playing two years at the highest minor league level he was on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster in 1958, their first year in Los Angeles (a brief profile with a photo is in the Dodgers’ first-ever Los Angeles yearbook).
Sparky didn’t make the major league team that year, with Jim Gilliam and Charlie Neal ahead of him in the pecking order, and was sent back to the International League where he posted what at first glance were ordinary-looking batting statistics: a .269 average with two home runs and 78 runs scored. Yet he impressed observers enough to finish a close second in the league most valuable player voting, behind Toronto first baseman Rocky Nelson, who had merely won the league’s triple crown, batting .326 with 43 homers and 120 RBI. In a poll of league managers Anderson was named “best hustler” and “smartest player” in the league, and with only 10 errors in 155 games he tied the league record for highest fielding percentage by a second baseman. And his Royals won both the regular season pennant and league playoff. Sparky was still just 25 years old and seemed bound for the majors.
But Gilliam and Neal were still in Los Angeles, blocking Sparky’s path to the Dodgers. Two days before Christmas 1958 the Dodgers traded Anderson to the Phillies for veteran outfielder Rip Repulski and two minor league pitchers. “I’m convinced that Anderson is the best available second baseman in the minors who is ready for the majors,” Phillies general manager Roy Hamey said after the deal. “He’s definitely a [Eddie] Stanky-type guy. He takes charge on the field. I think he can help the club speed-wise, fielding-wise and he’s no automatic out at bat.”
“Day in and day out, Anderson gives you the good ball game and that is the mark of a real pro,” said his Montreal manager, Clay Bryant. “He’s developing as a hitter. He’s learned how to push the ball and how to bunt. He’s got a good eye and seldom bites at a bad one. Anderson is the pesty type and most major league second basemen are that way. George is an intelligent ball player.” Bryant compared Sparky to both Stanky and Billy Martin, also second basemen who went on to be successful managers.
But the Phillies don’t seem to have been deluded about the skills of their new second baseman. John Quinn, who succeeded Hamey as general manager a month after the trade, said Anderson was “a good defensive man and a holler guy, and the only question about him is his hitting.” Phillies’ beat writer Allan Lewis called Anderson “a none-too-robust hitter” who “apparently has everything else needed to play in the big leagues.”
It was clear hitting was going to be Sparky’s challenge. “Sure, I wish he was hitting more than he is, but I’m really not too worried about him,” Phillie manager Eddie Sawyer said late in spring training. “This may not sound reasonable but I know he’s going to hit enough to hold the job. He does everything else so well, I really believe he can hit .250 up here. In the field, there’s no question about it. He’s the best we’ve had in a long time.” The Sporting News went so far as to make Sparky the front-runner for the National League Rookie of the Year Award, if only because he was the one newcomer in the league who would have a regular job. (Midseason call-up Willie McCovey of the Giants would go on to win the honor.)
“The Phillies will be happy if he can hit .250,” Roy Terrell wrote of George in Sports Illustrated’s preview of 1959’s rookies. “For that matter, so will George.”
“I think I’m ready,” Sparky said in spring training. “I don’t know whether I’m a big leaguer or not, but I want to find out, and if I can’t do it, then I’ll be a minor leaguer for the rest of my life. It’s now or never for me.” Very prescient of Mr. Anderson, as it turned out.
Sparky delivered at the plate in his major league debut, batting leadoff. His two-out single in the eighth inning drove in the run that turned out to be the margin of victory in a 2-1 win over Cincinnati. And he followed up with a pair of two-hit games in his next three appearances. But the hits soon stopped coming and he slid to the seventh spot in the order; a 6-for-56 slump dropped his season average to .163 by mid-May, with just one extra-base hit in his first 93 at-bats. The high point for his average after that was just .222, and he finished at .218, with just 12 extra-base hits and no home runs. But manager Sawyer gave Sparky every chance, starting him in 145 of the Phillies’ 155 games.
That winter the Phillies drafted Bobby Malkmus from the Senators after he had a good year with the bat at Denver in 1959, in a clear sign the team wanted more offensive production at second base. They actually opened the 1960 season with Pancho Herrera, who won the International League triple crown in 1959 and had never played an inning at second base in his professional career, as their second baseman. He and Malkmus split the job until the Phils traded for Tony Taylor of the Cubs in May.
Late in spring training 1960 the Toronto Maple Leafs won a bidding war against International League rival Buffalo, paying $25,000 to acquire Anderson. An item in The Sporting News of April 20, 1960, said both the Toronto and Buffalo franchises were looking to strengthen their roster in anticipation of joining a proposed third major league, the Continental League, that was in the discussion process. According to Cindy Thomson’s biography of Sparky in the SABR book “Detroit Tigers 1984: What A Start! What A Finish!” (her source for this is not specified), Toronto owner Jack Kent Cooke gave Sparky a 25% raise over what he was making with the Phillies and told Sparky he planned to sell him to a major league club.
The Continental League never launched, but the American League did add two teams in 1961 and the National League added two in 1962, creating more opportunities for Sparky to return to the majors, including a new team in his hometown of Los Angeles. Unfortunately for him Sparky didn’t hit in Toronto either, batting just .227 in 1960. He was, however, named the IL’s all-star second baseman and was voted the league’s smartest player, best hustler and best defensive infielder. And the Maple Leafs won both the regular season pennant and league playoffs, just as Sparky’s Montreal team had in 1958. And in both cases the teams had finished in last place the previous season!
Sparky’s offensive struggles continued in 1961. New Leafs manager Johnny Lipon benched him on May 11 when his average had fallen to .188, and Sparky even tried wearing glasses after it was found his right eye was not as strong as his left. He bounced back and lifted his average to .240, but he dislocated his left shoulder trying to make a diving catch on August 13 and was out for the rest of the season. He played in just 97 games, the fewest of any season in his career, but he was once again named the league’s smartest player.
Sparky regained the regular second base job at Toronto in 1962 but, almost exactly a year after dislocating his shoulder, fractured an ankle on August 12 and was done for the season. It wasn’t enough to keep him from winning “smartest player” honors again.
In 1963 Sparky served as a player-coach for the Maple Leafs under manager Bill Adair and was still their regular second baseman. He managed the team in a July 7 doubleheader when Adair went home to Alabama to pick up his family. Anderson won a Silver Glove as the second baseman with the highest fielding percentage in the minor leagues (he had also won the award in 1958), and was named smartest player in the league once again. (The man selected as the league’s most dangerous hitter was Deacon Jones, who had played against Sparky in the 1951 American Legion national championship game and was chosen as most valuable player of that tournament.)
On January 7, 1964, six weeks before his 30th birthday, Sparky was hired to manage the Maple Leafs, the start of one of the most successful managerial careers of all time. Not that he was necessarily ready for it; he was fired after the season, despite an 80-72 record, in large part because of an inability to control his temper. “I was possessed with winning,” Sparky wrote in one of his autobiographies, “Sparky.” (Broadcaster Ernie Harwell famously said that Sparky wrote more books than he read.) “I was a raving maniac — I mean really wild. I went crazy over everything.” He was replaced by Dick Williams, his future World Series adversary. Sparky also managed in Venezuela that winter and was fired from that job a month into the season after his team got off to a 2-14 start.
In October 1969, when many of his fellow rookies of 1959 were still playing, the 35-year-old Anderson was named manager of the Reds and went on to win World Series titles in 1975, 1976 and 1984. His 2,194 career major league wins ranked third on the all-time list, behind Connie Mack and John McGraw, when he retired after the 1995 season (he has since been passed by Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre). He is a member of both the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame (as most of his playing career was actually in Canada).
Honorable mention: Herman “Ham” Schulte started 115 games at second base for the 1940 Phillies as a teammate of Art Mahan and led National League second basemen in fielding percentage (a third rookie, Bobby Bragan, was the team’s regular shortstop)….Jim Baxes started 48 games at second for Cleveland and played a total of 88 games for the Dodgers and Indians as a 31-year-old rookie in 1959. He made the Topps rookie all-star team with 17 home runs in just 280 at-bats, making him one of just two single-season players to reach double figures in home runs (the other will be discussed here eventually). Baxes also hit 228 minor league home runs even though he missed two years due to military service.
SHORTSTOP: Gair Allie (1954 Pirates)
Not to be confused with Gene Alley, who was an all-star shortstop for the Pirates a decade later, Gair Allie was a North Carolina native who attended Wake Forest where, according to Rich Marazzi and Len Fiorito’s book “Baseball Players of the 1950s,” he was a next-dorm-room neighbor of golf great Arnold Palmer. Allie was one of the numerous bonus players signed during Branch Rickey’s tenure as general manager of the Pirates, getting a bonus reported at different times by The Sporting News as $30,000 or $35,000. At that time “bonus babies” weren’t required to go directly to the major leagues, so Allie started his professional career as a 20-year-old with New Orleans of the Southern Association in 1952.
Allie played all 155 games at shortstop for the Pelicans under first-year manager Danny Murtaugh but hit just .216 (although he did lead the league in walks with 125). Pirates manager Fred Haney planned to promote Allie to the majors as a backup infielder for 1953, but Allie suffered a complete fracture of the bone above his right ankle while sliding into home during a spring training intrasquad game. It was thought at the time Allie might miss the entire season, but he recovered enough to report to New Orleans in mid-June and played in 32 games for the Pelicans.
The Pirates had relied on other college bonus babies to play shortstop in previous years. Dick Groat, the all-America basketball player from Duke, took the job as soon as he signed a contract after graduating in 1952 but then went into the military and missed the next two seasons. In 1953 the Bucs went with Eddie O’Brien, who along with his twin brother Johnny had been a basketball star at Seattle University before both signed bonus deals with the Pirates. Johnny was the Bucs’ regular second baseman in 1953, but both brothers went into the service after the season, leaving both middle infield jobs wide open, although Dick Cole, who had started 65 games at short in 1953, was returning.
In spring training 1954 manager Haney auditioned Allie at short and fellow rookie Curt Roberts, the Pirates’ first black player, at second. Allie got off to a slow start at the plate in spring training while Cole was hitting the ball well, and a trip back to New Orleans was not out of the question for Gair. But on opening day Allie was Pittsburgh’s shortstop, with Roberts at second.
As might have been predicted, things did not go well at the plate for Gair. He started the first 20 games of the season at shortstop and batted just .161 with only two extra-base hits and 22 strikeouts; Cole then took over at short. But a couple of weeks later Allie was back in the lineup and stayed there most of the time until he was sidelined by an extreme allergic reaction to penicillin in late July and early August.
On August 22 Allie made his first appearance at third base. “Haney said he was looking to the future, as his thoughts on Allie as a big league shortstop weren’t too high,” Jack Hernon wrote in the September 1 Sporting News. Gair started only six games at shortstop after that while continuing to get a look at third.
Allie ended the season in a 2-for-29 slump, and when he flied out in his final at-bat in the final game of the season at Brooklyn his season batting average slipped to .199, the first time it had been under .200 since early June. He played in 121 games, starting 92 at shortstop and 18 at third, and with 23 errors at short he finished last in the National League in fielding percentage among shortstops who played at least 70 games. He did have the distinction of grounding into the fewest double plays of any N.L. regular, three.
With Groat back from the military in 1955, Allie went back to New Orleans, and for the first time in his professional career showed some promise with the bat, hitting .272 with 15 homers, 77 RBI and 105 walks. He was still just 23 years old. In 1956 he was sent to Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League as a third baseman and was hitting .292 when he was inducted into the Army on June 22. (The Sporting News reported he was “once classified 4-F because of a trick knee.”)
Allie spent 1957 stationed at Brooke Medical Center in San Antonio and played for the Sinton Plymouth Oilers team that won the national non-professional championship. Gair batted .370 in the national tournament, as the Oilers won all seven of their games, but the team’s star was one-time major league phenom Clint Hartung. Allie also played with the Brooke team in the All-Army tournament in September after winning the Fourth Army championship.
Gair returned to civilian life in 1958 and went to spring training with the Pirates but was farmed out to their International League farm club at Columbus. He hit only .248 there and would not appear on a major league 40-man roster again. He ended his playing career in 1961 and settled in San Antonio, where he was a beer salesman and later owned a bar and restaurant. He is still alive at this writing. Would he have returned to the majors had he not been inducted into the Army? Hard to know, but he might have had a chance. [ADDED 10/10/16: Alas, Gair passed away October 4, 2016…his obituary has more details of his life after baseball.]
Honorable mention: Bill Jennings started 64 games at shortstop for the 1951 Browns…Bobby Kline, a veteran of eight previous minor league seasons, started 44 games at shortstop for the Senators in 1955.
THIRD BASE: Hector Rodriguez (1952 White Sox)
James A. Riley’s “The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues” lists Hector Rodriguez as having played for the New York Cubans in 1939, but I’m inclined to doubt it. No other source shows Rodriguez as having played professionally in North America until 1943. Also, Riley says Rodriguez hit .286 for Miami of the Florida State League in 1948, apparently confusing him with Antonio Rodriguez, who hit .286 with Miami of the Florida International League that year (Miami did not have a team in the Florida State League).
Rodriguez was born in Cuba and began his North American professional career in the Mexican League in 1943, leading the league in stolen bases. In 1944 he apparently did play with the New York Cubans of the Negro National League before returning to Mexico in 1945 and playing there in the summers through 1950. Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria’s book “The Pride Of Havana: A History Of Cuban Baseball” says Rodriguez married a Mexican woman and settled there.
According to an article in The Sporting News on August 8, 1951, Rodriguez had also played eight years of winter ball in Cuba for the Almendares team and led the league in RBI in 1949-50. He would continue to play in Cuba for many winters after that. I also saw a note in The Sporting News in 1953 that Rodriguez set the season record for stolen bases in the Venezuelan winter league, apparently in the winter of 1947-48.
After the 1950-51 Cuban season, in which Rodriguez again led the league in runs batted in, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him to a contract for their Montreal farm team, reportedly at the recommendation of Dr. Julio Sanguily, the owner of the Almendares team. Rodriguez was dark-skinned and was considered “colored” or “Negro” for segregation purposes; of course, in 1951, Organized Baseball was purportedly integrated, even if not all teams or leagues were. Rodriguez was one of three “Negro” players who started the 1951 season with the Royals, along with African-Americans Jim Gilliam and Joe Black, both future Dodgers (Black would finish the season with St. Paul of the American Association).
Rodriguez was 31 years old when he joined the Royals in 1951, and the story at the time was the only English he knew was “I got it.” He had a sensational season playing for future Dodgers manager Walter Alston, finishing fifth in the International League in batting average (.302), third in RBI (95), second in triples (10) and first in stolen bases (26). He was the oldest player ever to win the IL’s rookie of the year award, was named the all-star third baseman and was third in the most valuable player award voting (some articles in The Sporting News later said he finished second, but the paper had details of the vote in its September 12, 1951 issue showing he finished third behind Archie Wilson and Don Richmond). Montreal won the regular season pennant by 11 games, then won eight out of nine postseason games to take the league playoff championship. Rodriguez hit .348, with three extra-base hits in six games, as the Royals lost the Junior World’s Series to the American Association champion Milwaukee Brewers.
Montreal reporter Lloyd McGowan described Rodriguez as “strikingly agile” in a story in the November 14, 1951 issue of The Sporting News. “He isn’t exactly orthodox in his movements, taking a hop, skip and jump before whipping the ball across the diamond, but he has a good, accurate arm,” McGowan wrote. In “The Pride of Havana,” Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria described Rodriguez as the best defensive third baseman Cuba ever produced, “a magician at third, with quick reflexes and a strong arm. He was as swift and graceful as a ballet dancer coming in on a bunt or a slow roller.”
On December 6, 1951 the White Sox acquired Rodriguez from the Dodgers in a trade for cash and Rocky Nelson, a slugging first baseman who had already spent three seasons in the big leagues; he would go on to win International League MVP honors three times as well as see further action in the majors. (Nelson and Rodriguez were apparently teammates for a time, although I don’t have exact years, in winter ball in Cuba.) By adding Rodriguez, the Sox were able to move another Cuban, Minnie Minoso, to the outfield after he had struggled at third base during his first season with the team in 1951. The Sox also had another Latin American starter in Venezuelan shortstop Chico Carrasquel and two other Cubans on the roster in pitcher Luis Aloma and infielder Willie Miranda, and there was speculation that the team’s interest in Latins was in part because they were exempt from the U.S. military draft that was conscripting young American players.
Carl Hubbell, the Hall of Fame pitcher who was then farm director of the New York Giants, offered this scouting report on Rodriguez to his new manager, Paul Richards of the White Sox (the quote appears in the book “Crossing The Line: Black Major Leaguers, 1947-1959” by Larry Moffi and Jonathan Kronstadt, without a scource):
You won’t like him at first. He isn’t colorful. He can’t speak English at all. But he can throw strikes to first base, he’s an uncanny fielder and he can run faster than players ten years his junior. You’ll just get to depend upon him, like an old shoe or an old mule.
I wonder how many white players Hubbell compared to an old shoe or an old mule…
Rodriguez apparently was not impressive in spring training in 1952. He “started out so badly that Richards was ready to give up on him,” Edgar Munzel wrote in The Sporting News of April 9, 1952. Team officials blamed it on the fact that he had played winter ball. General Manager Frank Lane acknowledged money was a factor in the decision to play in the winter:
Rodriguez, for instance, made around $12,000 a year, playing in Peru and Argentina in the summer for $7,000 and Cuba in the winter for $5,000. He received around $7,500 from Montreal last summer, including his bonus. It’s hard selling him on quitting winter ball when it would mean virtually a 40 per cent cut in income.
I’m intrigued by the reference to “Peru and Argentina.” I’ve literally never seen any other reference to anyone playing professional baseball in those countries. Rodriguez’s career statistics in Baseball America’s 1994 “The Minor League Register” show him playing just 52 games in Mexico in 1949 and only 20 there in 1950. Could he also have been playing in South America?
During spring training the White Sox played the Pirates in an exhibition game at New Orleans. Rodriguez and Minoso were reported to be “the first men of their race to play baseball with white men in the history of the sport in New Orleans,” according to an item in The Sporting News.
Regardless of how manager Richards felt about Hector’s spring performance, the rookie was in the White Sox’ opening day lineup at third base, batting eighth, and stroked a double off Cleveland’s Early Wynn. In the first 16 games of the season he had six multi-hit games, was held hitless just three times, and had a batting average of .377, although he had just three extra-base hits. He scored 14 runs in those 16 games even though he was batting eighth, which is hard to do.
Rodriguez started all but six of the Sox’ first 60 games, but there are references in The Sporting News to his having leg injuries. His teammate Minoso mentioned it in his book “Just Call Me Minnie”:
Hector Rodriguez was the best third baseman Cuba ever produced. He had a terrific glove but was never really able to impress Frank Lane with his play. He opened the season at third base for us, and for a while he hit the hell out of the ball. Hector got hurt one day and sat out a few days. He was prone to getting a “charlie horse” now and then; he’d stiffen up and it would affect his play.
When he wasn’t feeling better, I went to the doctor with him. The doctor said he should get more rest, but Hector did not want to listen. I agreed with the doctor. “Hector!” I said. “Don’t play. You won’t be able to move the same way as if you were OK.” He still wouldn’t listen; he was a rookie and wanted to play. He felt he had to. “Minnie,” he answered. “I’m leading the league in hitting. I’ll be all right.”
He wasn’t. We were playing at Philadelphia and Gus Zernial hit one hard. Gus was big and strong, one of the strongest guys in baseball. He hit a ground ball to third. Hector moved over and the ball hit him on the shoe, and shot into the outfield. I began yelling at Hector. “These guys over here eat a lot of T Bone steaks! What’s the matter with you I told you you shouldn’t be out there today. These guys are strong. They don’t hit the ball here like they do in the minor leagues.”
When I came to the dugout at the end of the inning, I asked, “What happened?” “Damn!” Hector said pointing to his foot. “That hurts!” He could not move well again all year.
If Minoso’s memory of this incident is accurate, it would have happened on May 2, where the play-by-play shows Zernial hitting a single to left field in the seventh inning of a game at Philadelphia, the White Sox’ 16th game of the season. That was the only hit Zernial had against the Sox during the period when Rodriguez was hitting well.
At any rate, after that May 2 game Hector went almost six weeks without an extra-base hit and his average steadily declined although he did move up in the batting order; in mid-May manager Richards put him in the third spot for a spell. By early June his average had fallen all the way to .248 before he perked up again.
By early August the defensive-minded Richards had grown dissatisfied with Hector’s play at third base and called up Rocky Krsnich from Seattle, where he hadn’t hit much but had earned raves in the field. Frank Lane brought up the winter ball issue again in comments quoted in the August 13 Sporting News:
[Rodriguez] looks like the best we have [at third base] when you consider all departments. I have an idea that Rodriguez would be a lot better if he wouldn’t play in the Cuban Winter League. Do you know that he has played 120 consecutive months of baseball? He has played the year round for ten straight years.
We may try to do something about it next winter. Perhaps we can get him to quit around the first of the year and take two months off, at least, just as we did with Minoso this year.
Rodriguez remained the regular for a time after that, but he started only five games after August 27; Krsnich started at third in Chicago’s final 16 games. Hector finished the season with a .265 batting average in 124 games, 108 of them starts. He hit just 14 doubles and one home run in 407 at-bats, but he showed some selectivity at the plate with 47 walks against only 22 strikeouts.
Hector returned to Cuba after the U.S. season to play for Almendares. He signed a new contract with the White Sox over the Christmas holidays, but in January the Sox traded him to Syracuse of the International League as part of a transaction that delivered pitcher Bob Keegan to Chicago.
Rodriguez was 32 years old when he went to Syracuse, and he would never return to the majors. But his baseball career was far from over. He spent the next nine years playing at the Class AAA level, six of them (1954-59) with Toronto where he was primarily a shortstop. He hit .293 in 100 games at San Diego in 1961, the season he turned 41. After that he went to Mexico, played two seasons for the Mexico City Reds, then became a player-manager in the Mexican minor leagues. The last year he played, in 1966 with Tabasco of the Mexican Southeast League, he hit .316 in 95 at-bats when he was 46.
“The Minor League Register” shows Hector with a total of 2,390 hits in the U.S. minors and the Mexican leagues.
I must confess I have not pored through The Sporting News archives of 1953 and ’54 to see if there was any chatter about Rodriguez possibly returning to the major leagues; he hit better than .300 in the International League in both seasons. That’s a project I can tackle in the future.
Two notes I did glean from The Sporting News about Rodriguez during his time in Chicago: he and his friend Minnie Minoso were avid domino players and apparently spread the popularity of the game among teammates, and Hector was considered a very sharp dresser. He passed away in Mexico in 2003.
LEFT FIELD: Carlos Bernier (1953 Pirates)
Bernier actually played more in center and in right than in left during his time in the majors, but he played some left in the minors, and besides there’s nobody else who was primarily a left fielder who fits the bill. So this will be Carlos’ spot in the lineup. Bernier was a base-stealing sensation both before and after his career with the Pirates and had a long, excellent career in the Pacific Coast League.
Carlos is the subject of a major essay by Steve Treder on The Hardball Times website. I hope I can add to that here, thanks to access to The Sporting News archives.
A story in The Sporting News of May 13, 1953, quotes Bernier as saying he left school after sixth grade in his native Puerto Rico. He worked in the sugar fields and as a plumber’s helper before joining the Army when he was 13. “Stay 16 months but my mother, she no like,” Les Biederman quoted Bernier as saying in TSN. “I too young.”
According to Thomas E. Van Hyning’s book, “Puerto Rico’s Winter League: A History of Major League Baseball’s Launching Pad,” Bernier began playing winter ball in Puerto Rico in the 1946-47 season, the first of 19 he would play in the league over a 20-year period (he sat out 1961-62 as a salary holdout). I’ve not found what brought him to the mainland after his second Puerto Rican season, but in 1948 he played for the Port Chester, New York, team, in the Class B Colonial League, a fairly high level for a first-year player in Organized Baseball who was thought to be 19. (He was actually 21, having engaged in the time-honored baseball tradition of shaving a couple of years off his age.) He hit only .248, but he was fifth in the league in stolen bases with 24. According to his 1989 obituary in The Sporting News, Bernier suffered a fractured skull when he was hit in the head by a pitch during the season.
Port Chester dropped out of the Colonial after the 1948 season, but Bernier stayed in the league with a new team in Bristol, Connecticut (yes, that Bristol), and ran wild. He stole 89 bases and scored 136 runs in just 120 games, leading the league in both categories, while finishing fourth in batting average at .336 and second in walks with 107. He even hit 15 home runs. It was enough to earn a late-season look with Indianapolis of the Class AAA American Association, but after two pinch-running appearances he was returned to Bristol. (Treder writes that Bernier started the season at Indianapolis, but that’s not true; an item in the August 31, 1949 issue of The Sporting News says Indianapolis returned Bernier to Bristol. I have not found the box scores of the games he played, but I haven’t looked that hard.)
That winter Bernier set a Puerto Rican league record for stolen bases that would last until Rickey Henderson broke it more than 30 years later, and in the summer of 1950 he stole even more bases than he did in ’49, although he did it in two leagues. He started the season back with Bristol and stole 53 bases in 52 games (he also scored 67 runs!) before the league folded on July 16. Bernier was one of three Bristol players sold to the team in St. Jean, Quebec, of the Class C Provincial League, and he tore that league apart, hitting .335 with 15 homers and 41 steals in 64 games. That brought his totals for the year to 94 steals, 24 homers and 136 runs in 116 games.
And yet in 1951 Bernier was back in Class B, with the Tampa Smokers of the Florida International League. (Perhaps you’ve seen their jersey, with the cigar on it.) Bernier led the league in steals (51, including six steals of home), triples (21) and runs (124 in 135 games) as Tampa won the pennant. “It is almost a cinch that every time Bernier gets on first, he’ll eventually wind up at second or third without too much help from the batter'” Smokers owner Tom Spicola said. “He’ll either steal the bases or force the pitchers and catchers to throw wildly trying to pick him off.”
That winter Bernier was drafted by the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League and had another great season, this time at the highest level of the minor leagues, in 1952. He was successful in his first 27 stolen base attempts on his way to a league-leading total of 65 while also leading the league in runs (105) and batting .301. What’s more, the Stars won the PCL pennant, meaning Bernier had played on a pennant winner in all five of his seasons in Organized Baseball.
The Pittsburgh Pirates purchased Bernier from Hollywood after the season. Also going from Hollywood to Pittsburgh was manager Fred Haney, who was happy to have Bernier with him. “Bernier can run, throw and go get a ball.” Haney said during spring training in 1953. “The first time I saw him last spring I didn’t think he could hit, but he fooled me. Once he gets on base, he’s hard to stop. He’s a streak.”
Bernier didn’t become a regular in the Bucs’ lineup until the end of April, but when he did he was a sensation. On April 30 he hit a double and a triple. The next day he had a single and a double. And the next day, May 2, in just his fifth major league start, he had a single and three triples in a game against the Reds at Forbes Field. The three triples remains tied for the major leagues’ all-time single-game record, and they came in consecutive at-bats.
“I no like heet home run, except when game she close, home run win,” Bernier was quoted as saying in The Sporting News of May 13, 1953 (in the typical manner in which Latin American players were quoted at the time). “I like single, double, treeple. I like run bases.” (Yes, TSN used “treeple.”)
Bernier also stole a base in that May 2 game, the first of his major league career, but he was thrown out in four of his first five attempts. For the season he led the league by being caught stealing 14 times, against only 15 successful steals.
Carlos kept hitting for another week after his three-triple game but then went in a terrible tailspin. From May 14 through the end of June he had just one multi-hit game in 34 starts and batted just .167 during that stretch. He started just 10 games in August and only six in September as Frank Thomas took over in center field and Cal Abrams saw regular duty in right. Bernier finished the season with a .213 batting average and three home runs, starting 77 games and playing in 28 others. Immediately after the season he underwent what The Sporting News called minor surgery in Pittsburgh “for removal of small growths from both eyes.”
Pirates general manager Branch Rickey didn’t seem to be giving up. “Bernier can’t be judged on his record this year,” Rickey said in an interview in the July 29 Sporting News. “He’s a first year player, strange to the language [even though Bernier had spent most of the previous five summers playing in the U.S.], nervous in the big leagues. He simply needs orientation.”
But Bernier was not even mentioned in the Street and Smith’s Baseball Yearbook preview of the 1954 Pirates. Rookie Jerry Lynch, who had never played above the Class B level, and 23-year-old Dick Hall (the future pitcher), who in the minors and two brief earlier trials with the Pirates had not accomplished anything like what Bernier had, joined Thomas and newly-acquired veteran Sid Gordon as the Bucs’ primary outfielders.
An interesting survey of baseball writers published in The Sporting News of January 6, 1954 tabbed Bernier as the “most temperamental” player on the Pirates. It was a distinction he shared with future Hall of Famers Ted Williams of the Red Sox and Eddie Mathews of the Braves. (I’ve posted the fascinating full results here.)
Bernier played in the Puerto Rican winter league season of 1953-54 and finished second in the league in stolen bases and tied for sixth in batting average (with the same mark as future Pirates Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente). But Carlos would not get a second chance at major league pitching. On the eve of the 1954 season opener, he was purchased by the Hollywood Stars. I’ve not found anything in The Sporting News that sheds light on why the Pirates didn’t keep Bernier. Steve Treder, in his Hardball Times article, points out any number of Pirates youngsters got second (and third) chances in the ’50s after falling flat on their faces in their debuts, and several went on to excellent major league careers (Bob Friend, Vern Law, ElRoy Face and Bob Skinner among them); even Clemente as a rookie was hardly the Clemente we came to know. Yet Carlos Bernier, after such an outstanding minor league career, got only one chance to prove his worth in the majors.
Bernier made headlines for his temper at Hollywood in 1954. He was suspended for five days by league president Clarence “Pants” Rowland for starting a free-for-all in a game against the Los Angeles Angels on June 13. Then on August 11, in a game against San Diego at Hollywood’s Gilmore Field, Bernier took a called third strike in the bottom of the eighth inning. He turned around and bumped home plate umpire Chris Valenti, who ejected him from the game. Bernier then slapped Valenti across the face. Rowland was at the game, and the next day he suspended Bernier for the rest of the season, saying Bernier had also “used filthy language.” (Apparently “filthy” was in the mind of the beholder. According to Dennis Snelling’s book about the PCL, “The Greatest Minor League,” Bernier called Valenti “Sweetie.”) At the time Carlos was leading the league with 38 stolen bases and batting .313.
Dick Dobbins’ book about the PCL, “The Grand Minor League,” includes some quotes from the Los Angeles Times in the wake of Bernier’s suspension.
Hollywood manager Bobby Bragan: “There is no justification for what he did. Carlos is highly emotional and quick-tempered. All of us have talked with him several times this year, Branch Rickey included, and each time he assured us he could keep himself in hand. Then he blew his top anyhow.”
Bernier: “I am not mad at anybody but myself. Mr. Rowland was good to me. I was afraid I might be banned for life. I am not well. I was beaned in 1948 and have been nervous and aching in the head ever since.”
In mid-September, while still under suspension from the PCL, Bernier joined a team in the Dominican Republic league during their playoffs. For that he was placed on Organized Baseball’s disqualified list. He applied to National Association president George Trautman for reinstatement so he could be eligible to play winter ball in Puerto Rico and said “he would behave himself and never again get into arguments with umpires,” according to an item in The Sporting News of October 13, 1954. “As if to emphasize his promise to change, Bernier remarried his former wife, Emma Betances, on October 2.”
Did Bernier’s suspensions keep him from getting another chance in the majors? Perhaps. In any event it appears some baseball men weren’t impressed by Bernier’s attitude. In “The Grand Minor League,” Dick Dobbins quotes Buddy Peterson, who played against Bernier for several years in the PCL:
Carlos Bernier was an intense guy. He was a guy that opposing players didn’t like. He had a lot of fights with opposing players. I think he bordered on being a major league player, but some things just held him back. He did some crazy things, and in those days they didn’t go for crazy things. He would make little bonehead mistakes. But he could run and he could play.
Bernier did wear a Pittsburgh uniform again in spring training in 1955. The Sporting News included a note that he was part of what was believed to be the first all-Puerto Rican outfield (along with Clemente and Roman Mejias, neither of whom had yet made his regular season major league debut) in an exhibition game against the Phillies on March 13 in Clearwater, Florida. But Bernier was not on the Pirates’ 40-man roster, and I’ve not been able to learn whether he was ever thought to have had a realistic chance of making the team.
The headline on a small item in The Sporting News of June 15, 1955: “Hollywood’s Fiery Bernier Has Cigar-Smoking Mamma.” The item by Jeane Hoffman noted Carlos had given a box of cheroots to his mother when she made her first-ever visit to the U.S. to see him in Hollywood. “My mamma, sure, she smokes cigars,” Bernier said. “Maybe two, three a day. I have to watch her or mamma will raid my supply. So I see to it she has her own. I buy her boxes for holidays, birthdays, any occasion.”
After his 1953 season in Pittsburgh Bernier played another 11 seasons at the highest minor league level, all but one in the Pacific Coast League, and was named to the PCL Hall of Fame. During those 11 seasons he led the league in steals twice (giving him a total of six minor league stolen base championships, plus five in the Puerto Rican winter league), triples twice, walks twice, runs once, hits once and batting average once with a .351 mark for Hawaii in 1961. In his last year in the U.S., as a 37-year-old, he hit a career-high 27 home runs for Hawaii in 1964, with 22 stolen bases and a .294 batting average. He finished his minor league career (including a year in Mexico in 1965) with a .297 average, 2,374 hits, 212 homers and 594 stolen bases.
Bernier was found hanged at his home in his birthplace of Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, on April 6, 1989. He was 62. Given some of what we’ve learned about head injuries since then, I wonder if some of what led to Bernier’s displays of temper as a player and his suicide could be traced to the beaning he suffered in 1948.
Of all the players on The Sparky Anderson All-Stars, Bernier is the one I feel most deserved a second shot at the majors. It’s hard for me to believe he couldn’t have been a regular, and a good one, if everything went right for him.
Honorable mention: Ernest “Tex” Vache played 110 games, with 50 starts, for the 1925 Red Sox as a 35-year-old rookie and batted .313. Vache was a former cop and World War I veteran who didn’t play Organized Baseball until he was 31 years old. Bill Nowlin tells his interesting story in the SABR Bio Project.
CENTER FIELD: Ernie Sulik (1936 Phillies)
Ernie Sulik is the one player on this team I’d never heard of before researching this post. Unfortunately, my resources and web searches aren’t turning up anything remotely insightful or interesting about him (with one glaring exception I’ll note below), so I’m pretty much forced to stick with the numbers.
A San Francisco native, Sulik signed with the hometown Seals of the Pacific Coast League in 1930, the summer he turned 20. In 1931, his first full season of professional baseball, he hit .329 and tied for the league lead in triples with 16, even though he played only 123 of the Seals’ 187 games. The next year he hit .313 (teammate and future major league Augie Galan hit .291) with what would be a career-high 14 homers.
That would turn out to be the high point of Sulik’s minor league career. In 1933, playing alongside teen sensation Joe DiMaggio in the Seals’ outfield (Corbis Images has a nice photo of the two of them together), Sulik slipped to .293, which was actually just below the league average. And in 1934 he hit just one home run and fell all the way to .246; only three PCL players who appeared in at least 100 games had lower averages.
The next year, 1935, Sulik was with Kansas City of the American Association. I haven’t checked Sulik’s contract card at the Hall of Fame to see if the Seals had sold him to the Blues, or perhaps to the Pittsburgh Pirates, as an item in The Sporting News after the 1935 season indicated Sulik had been recalled to the Pirates. At any rate Ernie had a better year with Kansas City, batting .291, just below the league average, with 11 triples.
Then in 1936 Sulik found himself in the big leagues, with the Phillies. According to The Sporting News of May 21, 1936 the Phillies dropped veteran outfielder George Watkins in favor of Sulik, “a youthful free agent who was signed after the team returned north from its training trip.” I have no idea where Sulik spent spring training.
Sulik was used as a pinch-hitter and substitute outfielder until making his first major league start on May 10. In the month of June he started 22 of the Phillies’ 23 games, typically batting in the second spot in the order, was held hitless only three times, and batted .337 with four home runs with 18 runs and 15 RBI — a pretty productive month. He hit over .300 in July as well, moving into the leadoff spot, and had a pair of four-hit games, although he didn’t hit any homers. He tailed off a bit in August, hitting .277 with just two extra-base hits in 94 at-bats, then started just one game after September 7, although he continued to be used as a pinch-hitter and substitute outfielder.
Sulik finished the season (and, as it turned out, his major league career) with a respectable .287 batting average in 122 games, starting 58 games in center field and 35 in left.
In February 1937 the New York Giants purchased Sulik for their Jersey City farm club; he got off to a poor start with Jersey City and was sent to Nashville of the Southern Association. After playing just 58 games for New Orleans in that same league in 1938, Sulik’s career in Organized Baseball came to an end after 12 games with Dallas in 1939; he was not yet 29 years old.
The end of Sulik’s career came in mysterious fashion…here’s an item from The Sporting News of May 25, 1939 (reproduced at left; I was tipped to this by Carlos Bauer’s Minor League Researcher blog):
Identified by means of a telegram from the Jersey City club, found in his pocket, Ernest Sulik, outfielder recently transferred by the Dallas Rebels to the International League club, was released from a hospital at Fresno, Cal., where he had been taken, suffering from amnesia. He was sent to the hospital when he was found in a Fresno bus station, unable to identify himself.
Sulik and his wife lived in Oakland, where she was from; he listed himself as a “baseball player” in the 1940 census. He died in Oakland in 1963, just 52 years old, and according to his obituary he had been a member of the Oakland fire department. His cause of death was not given; he was survived by his wife and three children.
Maybe there’s more to be found about Sulik in The Sporting News; the paper’s broadsheet format of the 1930s seems to make the digital archives a little tricky to search. As it stands I really don’t know why the Phillies were attracted to Sulik in the first place or why they didn’t think he was worthy of a second chance. I’d certainly like to know about his life both before and after he played professional baseball, and I can’t help but be curious about how he wound up in Fresno not knowing who he was. But for two months at least, he seemed to be a solid major league ballplayer.
ADDED 1/24/15: Thanks to Christian Trudeau for adding a little more information about Ernie Sulik in the comments below…Christian says after the “amnesia” incident Ernie joined Quebec City in the Provincial League (then outside of Organized Baseball) and played his first game on May 29, 1939, then remained there for the rest of the season.
Honorable mention: Dutch Hoffman started 81 games, including 60 in center, batting .258, for the 1929 White Sox. He actually started the most games in center of any one-year player.
RIGHT FIELD: Buzz Arlett (1931 Phillies)
Good lord, I’ve written 10,000 words so far and could probably write 10,000 more about Buzz Arlett, but I won’t. I’ll send you to Cort Vitty’s biography in the SABR Bio Project for further details. (Also take a look at this piece by Gabriel Schechter.) But that won’t keep me from writing something…
Bill James referred to Arlett as “the Babe Ruth of the minor leagues,” for obvious reasons. Like Ruth, Arlett started his professional career as a pitcher, and a good one, leading the Pacific Coast League in wins with 29 for Oakland in 1920. Like Ruth, Arlett switched to the outfield and became a slugging sensation, although in Arlett’s case the switch came when he developed a sore arm. Also, James wrote in his biography of Arlett in “The Baseball Book 1991,” “Like Ruth, [Arlett] was a friendly, outgoing man who liked to have a drink and was free with his money.”
A Northern California native, Arlett starred for Oakland through the 1920s, with his most eye-popping season coming in 1929: 70 doubles, 39 homers, 189 RBI, a .374 batting average, and even 22 steals in the Pacific Coast League’s 200-game season. After his season with the Phillies, he led his minor league in home runs three straight years, with a high of 54 for Baltimore in 1932; he had four home runs in a game twice that season.
For his minor league career Arlett had a .341 batting average with 432 home runs, the most of any player in U.S.-based minor leagues. (The only players who hit more homers in the minors, Hector Espino and Andres Mora, hit almost all of theirs in Mexico.) In 1984 the Society for American Baseball Research named Arlett the greatest minor league player of all time. He was no doubt a better player than the vast majority of his contemporaries in the major leagues. Here’s how James characterized him in “The Baseball Book 1991”:
Arlett would have hit, as a major league player, somewhere between .290 and .315 for his career, depending on which park and which part of his career. Obviously, he was not Babe Ruth, but he was probably as good a player as some of the marginal Hall of Fame outfielders, including Chuck Klein, Hack Wilson and Heinie Manush. He may have been as good as Goose Goslin, but probably was not.
The obvious question is why Arlett didn’t reach the major leagues before 1931. The short answer is, Oakland didn’t have to give him up, as at that time there was no mechanism for drafting players from the minor leagues. He had value to the Oaks as a star performer and popular gate attraction, and no major league team was willing to meet their asking price through the 1920s.
Arlett almost made the jump to the majors when he was still a pitcher. He averaged almost 24 wins a year for the Oaks from 1919 to 1922, and the Detroit Tigers took an interest. “Detroit took out an option on him after he won 29 games in 1921, but failed to exercise it the following year when he slumped to 19-18 with a 4.37 ERA,” John Spalding wrote in his book “Pacific Coast League Stars,” but Spalding has the years wrong; the numbers he quotes are actually for 1920 and 1921. An item in The Sporting News of February 5, 1931, after Arlett was purchased by the Phillies, said, “Detroit had Buzz in 1921, but returned him to Oakland without a trial,” which corresponds to Spalding’s statement if the option was taken after the 1920 season and renounced after the 1921 campaign. Cort Vitty wrote in Arlett’s SABR bio, “Detroit opted against pursuing the youngster, since his primary pitch was the recently outlawed spitball.” (Bill James wrote that Arlett’s exemption to continue throwing the spitter after the pitch was banned in 1920 applied only in the PCL, where he was pitching at the time, and did not extend to the majors.)
The Tigers’ interest may have been earlier. Harry Brundidge wrote a story about Arlett in The Sporting News of December 17, 1931, that has enough factual errors in it that I’m not sure how seriously to take it, but he quotes Arlett as saying this (I have no doubt Brundidge did some considerable doctoring of Arlett’s actual words, and I fear he may have modified some of the facts as well):
I returned to Oakland in 1919 and won 22 games, losing 17, and Detroit was going to buy me until they learned I was a spitball artist. The moist ball was being frowned on and I was passed up. I decided to abandon the spitter and spent the winter learning new tricks, new curves and a change of pace…
In this version, Arlett’s 29-win season in 1920, and his 25-win season in 1922, would have been spitball-free.
Vitty writes that the Reds were interested in 1922 “when his ‘gameness’ became an issue; it seemed Buzz didn’t concentrate when contests were badly out of reach.” At any rate the major leagues stopped showing interest in Arlett as a pitcher after his arm went bad.
But the interest resumed once Buzz’s bat started booming. Here’s how The Sporting News described it in that 1931 story:
Buzz, probably, has been watched more closely by scouts than any other player in recent years, but, although there never was any question as to his ability to hit, his fielding had always left much to be desired. The price asked for the Coast slugger had also been held to be too high and numerous deals for his services in the consequence fell through.
Brooklyn was all set to deal for Arlett in the summer of 1930 when he was injured in a post-game fight with an umpire. Although the tale is oft told, the date is never included, but I’ve confirmed through Sacramento Bee microfilm it was June 12. Dennis Snelling tells the story in some detail in his book “The Greatest Minor League”; I’ll let you read his account and Vitty’s for the complete story. The scrap was with umpire Chet Chadbourne, a longtime player who had been an umpire in the PCL in 1929 and had just returned for a stint as a fill-in arbiter. Arlett was hit over the left eye with Chadbourne’s mask and needed twelve stitches. Brooklyn then backed out of the deal; whether it was because of Arlett’s injury or because Oakland insisted on receiving players in addition to cash is a matter of debate. At any rate the Robins (as the Brooklyn team was then known) acquired another PCL slugging star, Ike Boone, who was hitting .448 (!) for the Mission Reds.
The Oaks were supposedly unwilling to sell Arlett in the 1920s unless they could get the $70,000 to $100,000 that other PCL teams were getting for their stars at the time, but in early 1931, with a depression on and with changes in the draft rules making it more likely that Oakland would lose him for a smaller amount, the team sold him to the Phillies for what The Sporting News reported was $15,000. Harry Brundidge quoted Arlett in that December 1931 article as saying he had threatened to quit baseball when the Oaks proposed to cut his pay for 1931 and told the team president to accept any offer from a major league team. Arlett also said he learned in spring training with the Phillies that he had been sold on option and was not guaranteed a spot on the roster.
Reports were the 32-year-old Arlett had a slow start in spring training, but he heated up near the end and was in the Phils’ opening day lineup, batting fifth and playing right field. And he got off to a good start, with a single and a double in his first game and a home run in his second. In his first 10 games he hit .366 with four doubles, a triple, three home runs and 10 RBI, looking every bit like the slugger who had feasted on Pacific Coast League pitching, and soon after he moved into cleanup spot.
The hits kept coming for Buzz, as he started all of the Phillies’ first 52 games. In that stretch he hit .348 with 11 home runs, 42 RBI and a .627 slugging percentage. But his consecutive games streak came to an end when he broke his thumb. Vitty’s bio says the injury happened “in Philadelphia, trying to steal second base,” which is almost certainly wrong; the Phillies’ last home game had been on May 30, Arlett had played in 14 road games since then, and there are no stolen base attempts in his record since May 15. The Sporting News of June 25 reported Arlett had broken his thumb in a series at St. Louis, which makes sense, as his last three games had been in that city June 14-16.
Arlett missed two weeks with the injury and when he returned wasn’t the same hitter, although he moved right back into the cleanup role. From July 1 to August 17 he started 47 of Philadelphia’s 50 games, appearing as a substitute in another one, and hit .276 with six home runs. After that he started just six games, with a little use off the bench.
Vitty writes, “He probably sealed his fate on a hot August day, when he misplayed a routine fly to right. Pitcher Jumbo Jim Elliot was livid with the miscue and recommended an on-field rocking chair for the aging player.” Perhaps that was a game on August 12, when Elliott was knocked out in the fifth inning of a 12-1 loss to the Cubs.
Still, when the season was over Arlett had by far the strongest record of any one-year major leaguer ever. His final batting average was .313, his 18 home runs ranked fourth in the National League (he hit only one after August 13) and his .538 slugging percentage ranked fifth; all four players who finished ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame. He even ranked third in the league in outfield assists, with 14, although he also ranked third in outfield errors with 10.
But the Phillies had seen enough. In December they sent him to Baltimore of the International League; in exchange The Sporting News reported the Phils received former Red Sox outfielder Russ Scarritt, who went on to play just 12 games for Philadelphia. “Buzz proved fully that he could clout big league pitching,” according to TSN of December 24, 1931 (just a week after Harry Brundidge’s big feature on Arlett). “But never better than passing fair in the field, his defensive performance finally relegated him to the bench.”
Arlett played another five seasons at the highest level of the minors, two in Baltimore and three in Minneapolis, where he married the team owner’s secretary and made his home for the rest of his life.
Honorable mention: Jack Daniels played 106 games, starting 53, for the 1952 Braves but hit just .187…Elliot Bigelow played 100 games, starting 48, as a 31-year-old rookie for the 1929 Red Sox. Bigelow was a three-time minor league batting champion who had a .349 career average in the minors and died of meningitis when he was 35. Bill Nowlin tells his interesting story in the SABR Bio Project.
CATCHER: Paul Florence (1926 Giants)
Catcher is the thinnest position on the Sparky Anderson All-Stars. Apparently if you were good enough to catch very much as a rookie, you were good enough to come back. So our choice is Paul “Pep” Florence, even though he started just 62 games and played in 14 others in his lone major league season.
A Chicago native, Florence was a star athlete at Loyola Academy and played briefly for the Chicago Cardinals of the new National Football League in 1920 before heading east to attend Georgetown University. (It says something about the state of professional football at the time that a 20-year-old just out of high school could be considered as a player.) Perhaps word of his professional football experience had not preceded him, perhaps college eligibility rules weren’t as strictly defined or enforced in those days, but Florence was a three-sport star for the Hoyas despite having played in the NFL. He was one of the basketball team’s top two scorers all three seasons he played, was captain of the 1923 football team and was the catcher on the 1922 Georgetown baseball team that was unbeaten and claimed a mythical national championship. For his accomplishments he was in the first class of inductees to Georgetown’s Athletic Hall of Fame and was named as an end on Georgetown’s all-time football team in 1940.
The New York Times of December 15, 1923 reported Florence had signed with the Giants. The item said Florence “probably will report at the close of his final year next June,” but he left school before that. He did not play on Georgetown’s 1923-24 basketball squad, and the Times has several stories from spring training 1924 indicating Florence was on hand.
It’s not clear to me where Florence spent the 1924 season. The New York Times of March 29, 1924 said Florence was sent to Pittsfield of the Eastern League on option; SABR does not have a minor league record for Florence in 1924, but the 1925 Reach Guide lists him as a less-than-five games player for Pittsfield. I looked through the other leagues and did not see him listed anywhere else. Items in The Sporting News in December 1924 indicated Florence was going to Indianapolis from the Giants without mentioning where he had played in 1924 or that he had been injured.
At any rate Florence was the backup catcher at Indianapolis in 1925, hitting .314 in 55 games, then took over as the regular and got off to a torrid start in 1926, batting .368 in 30 games before the Giants acquired him in exchange for veteran catcher Grover Hartley. Florence reported to the Giants in Pittsburgh on May 20 and got his first start behind the plate the next day, stroking a two-run single in a loss at Pittsburgh.
The newcomer was the Giants’ primary catcher from that point on, except for a two-week stretch in early August, and then in the final week of the season manager John McGraw took a look at another rookie backstop, Jack Cummings. Florence’s batting average was at a respectable .318 in late June, but from June 30 through September 3 he was in a 10-for-72 funk and he finished the season with a .229 mark.
That wasn’t good enough for McGraw. “The catching was terrible,” McGraw was quoted as saying in the December 3, 1926 New York Times. “If I had had any idea that Florence and [Hugh] McMullen would be so weak, I might not have let [Hank] Gowdy and Hartley go, although Hartley’s hitting had died way to nothing. I violate no confidences when I say that the Giant catching next year will be a 100 per cent improvement.”
McGraw’s comments came on the occasion of acquiring catcher Al Devormer from Louisville of the American Association. He hoped that the combination of Devormer, Cummings and Jim Hamby, all of whom had strong years with the bat in the minors in 1926, would yield an upgrade over Florence. Those three were among five catchers McGraw used in 1927, with only Cummings (who started just 15 games) hitting much more than Florence had.
By then Florence was long gone, having been sold back to Indianapolis in January 1927. But while his major league career was finished, he spent the rest of his life in baseball. He played another ten years in the minors, all at the highest level. He was with Rochester of the American Association from 1929 to 1935 and was the catcher on the Junior World’s Series champions of 1930 and 1931; he is a member of the Red Wings Hall of Fame.
In 1937 Florence retired as a player to become president and general manager of the Reds’ farm club at Durham, North Carolina. The Reds transferred him to the same position at their higher level farm team in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1940, then in 1945 he became a Reds scout. From 1957 to 1961 he was an assistant to Reds general manager Gabe Paul, then he went to the new Houston Colt .45s (later Astros) as a scout and remained in that position until he retired in 1976. After that he was a scouting consultant for the Astros until his death at age 86 in 1986.
According to SABR member Rod Nelson, among the players Florence signed were Ed Bailey, Orlando Pena, Jim O’Toole, Joe Adcock, Dave Bristol (who managed in the major leagues), Leo Cardenas, Mike Cuellar, Tony Gonzalez, Johnny Edwards and Tommy Helms. The last player he is credited with signing to reach the major leagues was Bruce Bochy, winner of two World Series as manager of the Giants.
Honorable mention: William “Chink” Outen, a .334 career hitter in the minors, played 93 games, with 30 starts behind the plate, for the 1933 Dodgers…Ben Huffman started 36 games behind the bat among his 76 games with the 1937 Browns…Don Wheeler had 54 starts for the 1949 White Sox. Stew Thornley tells his story in the SABR Bio Project…More recently, Kevin Higgins started 47 games at catcher for the 1993 Padres.
STARTING PITCHER: Randy Tate (1975 Mets)
Randy Tate, who almost opted for a career in welding after his professional career got off to a terrible start, started 23 games for the Mets in 1975, the most of any pitcher in his only season in the majors. (Well, Michael Pineda started 28 games for the Mariners in 2011, but I’m assuming he’ll return to the majors at some point.) And if it hadn’t been for one game at the right time in his minor league career, he likely never would have reached the majors at all.
Tate was a four-sport star in high school in Alabama who opted to attend junior college in Decatur to study welding, according to the Mets’ 1976 yearbook. In January 1972 he was drafted by the Mets and dropped out of school, signing a professional baseball contract in May and reporting to the Mets’ Appalachian League rookie-level team in Marion, Virginia. The 19-year-old right-hander had a disastrous debut season; in 60 innings he allowed 68 runs (!), walked 54 batters, threw 20 wild pitchers and posted an 0-9 record. The story in the Mets’ yearbook is he went home after the season and got a job as a welder; his mother talked him into giving baseball another try in 1973.
It went better that year, although not a lot better, as Randy went 4-10 with a 4.38 ERA for Pompano Beach of the Class A Florida State League. The next year, 1974, he shifted to another Class A league, the Western Carolinas playing for Anderson, South Carolina, and while he struck out 153 batters in 159 innings and lowered his ERA to 3.68, he also walked 150 men, threw 23 wild pitches and had another losing record at 7-11.
But on August 15, 1974 Tate got a huge break. The Mets had an exhibition game in Norfolk, Virginia, against their Class AAA Tidewater farm club. Rather than waste one of their regular pitchers in a meaningless game, Mets general manager Bob Scheffing called on Tate to pitch for the Mets. According to that 1976 yearbook, Tate drove all night to get to Norfolk and shut out the Tides over seven innings, allowing just two hits and striking out seven. That prompted Scheffing to give Tate a late-season call-up to Tidewater, where he pitched two complete game victories, giving up two runs in the first and hurling a shutout in the second. The Mets took Tate with them on their trip to Japan after the season.
In 1975 Tate — 22 years old, with 17 innings of experience above Class A, a minor league record of 13-30 and 300 walks allowed in 453 professional innings — went to major league spring training. “He throws hard,” Mets manager Yogi Berra said. (The 1976 Mets yearbook said Tate had “the fastest curve in the league.”) “Of course,” Yogi added, “he is also wild. If he gets control, he could be a big help.”
His season with the Mets was as dismal as his previous record might have indicated. He finished with a 5-13 record, a 4.45 ERA, and 86 walks allowed in 137-2/3 innings, and there was some discussion in early June of sending him to the minors. But while the overall record was poor, he had his share of good performances. In his debut he shut out the Phillies for seven innings before allowing three runs in the eighth. He had nine starts in which he pitched at least six innings and allowed no more than two earned runs, including a complete-game four-hitter in which he struck out nine to beat Steve Carlton and the Phillies, 5-2, on June 28.
But his most memorable performance came on August 4 at Shea Stadium against the Expos. For seven innings Tate held the (admittedly woeful) Expos hitless, giving Mets fans hope they would see the first no-hitter in team history (something that wouldn’t happen for another 37 years). Tate struck out pinch-hitter Jose Morales to start the eighth, then pinch-hitter Jim Lyttle knocked an opposite-field single. Pepe Mangual walked, Tate fanned Jim Dwyer for the second out, then Gary Carter singled to spoil the shutout and Mike Jorgensen ripped a three-run homer that would be the margin of victory in a 4-3 Expos win. Tate finished with 13 strikeouts; only John Montefusco, who struck out 14 Expos on August 27, registered more Ks in a National League game that season.
Tate made just one start after a complete-game win over the Padres on August 26. He explained to Bob Teitlebaum nearly two years later for a story in The Sporting News of May 28, 1977:
While pitching in relief late in the 1975 season, Tate apparently injured his shoulder.
“I must have awakened 15 times that night from the pain in my shoulder,” said Tate. “I never really complained because I wanted to pitch, but I could tell it wasn’t right.
“When I did say something, all anybody told me was to take two aspirin and get some rest.”
Despite the injury, Tate pitched winter ball in Puerto Rico and may have made things worse. In the spring he was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff. But there was no surgery for Tate. Instead he was sent to Tidewater to pitch in 1976 and got hammered, going 7-14 with a 6.20 ERA, walking 93 in 122 innings.
In 1977 Tate was sent back down to Class A, at his request, to try to get things straightened out, and he had the only winning record of his professional career, going 11-8 for Lynchburg of the Carolina League. But control was still a major issue, as he walked 100 in 141 innings and led the league in hit batsmen while striking out only 79. He was still just 24 when the season ended, and the Pirates saw enough to convince them to select him in the minor league draft that winter and invite him to spring training.
Things didn’t go any better for Tate in 1978, as he went 3-10 with 83 walks in 124 innings between Class AAA Columbus and Class AA Shreveport, and his baseball career came to an end, with a professional pitching record of 39-75.
But while Tate’s pitching career may have been forgettable, his hitting career is in the record books. As a Met in 1975 Tate went 0-for-41 at the plate, with one walk. He holds the all-time major league record for most at-bats and plate appearances (47) in a career without a hit. An explanation came in an item in The Sporting News of September 6, 1975:
Tate…thinks his problem stems from an overzealous manager when he was playing in a Babe Ruth League in Alabama. In an effort to break Tate’s habit of stepping into the bucket, the manager drove a stake into the batter’s box and tethered Tate’s front (left) foot to it. “Then he started throwing to me,” Tate recalled. “He wasn’t throwing hard or anything, but one of the pitches hit me in the face and since then it seems I haven’t been able to hit the ball at all.”
I have no idea what Randy Tate has done since leaving baseball. If you know, leave it in the comments.
Honorable mention: Three pitchers started 22 games in their only major league season: Ken Hunt (who gets extra credit for doing so for the 1961 National League champion Reds after making the jump from Class A ball), Mike Bruhert (1978 Mets) and Wade Taylor (who was 7-12 with a dismal 6.27 ERA for the 1991 Yankees). Hunt’s 9 wins is the most for any post-1920 one-season pitcher.
RELIEF PITCHER: Bill Wakefield (1964 Mets)
Bill Wakefield, like Randy Tate, would seem an unlikely candidate for promotion to the major leagues based on his previous record. He never had a winning season in professional baseball, either before, during or after his time in the majors. And he came close to not qualifying for the Sparky Anderson All-Stars; the Cardinals called him up at the end of the 1963 season, and the Mets brought him up at the end of the 1965 campaign, but he didn’t get into a game either year.
While Wakefield has not yet been the subject of a biography for the SABR Bio Project, there is a 2009 interview with him online that is the source for some of my material. [ADDED 8/26/17: There’s now a very informative bio of Wakefield in the BioProject that offers much more information about his life and career.]
Wakefield grew up in Kansas City, the son of a doctor, and earned an academic scholarship to Stanford. He pitched two no-hitters in high school but it’s not clear he pitched for Stanford. During his freshman year (1959-60) he broke his right (pitching) wrist playing intramural basketball, and he seems to have signed a professional contract in the fall of his sophomore year. Stanford officials confirmed Wakefield did not earn a varsity letter in 1960. An item in the October 12, 1960 issue of The Sporting News says he received a $50,000 bonus from the Cardinals. (The bonus was later reported in TSN as $30,000; in the 2009 interview I referred to above Wakefield said he “signed a $60,000 contract,” which could have included salary and other considerations in addition to the bonus.) He had earned attention from pro scouts — and a writeup in The Sporting News — in the summer of 1960 when he pitched back-to-back no-hitters in an amateur league for college-age players in Kansas City. (The last pitcher to throw a no-hitter in that league had been Ray Sadecki, who went on to pitch in the majors.)
Wakefield continued to attend Stanford while playing pro ball. An item in The Sporting News of December 7, 1963, refers to him as a student at Stanford; later it was reported he arrived at spring training on March 14, 1964, “with a fresh diploma from Stanford University in hand,” and the 1965 Baseball Register lists him as having a B.A. in economics from Stanford, although in a 2006 interview Wakefield said he graduated in 1966.
He was knocked around as a first-year pro with Lancaster of the Class A Eastern League in 1961 (9-11, 5.25 ERA), but things went better when he made the jump to Class AA Tulsa in 1962. He struck out 135 batters in 167 innings for the Texas League pennant winners, and a note on the back of his later Topps baseball cards said he struck out 17 batters in a game, but I have not been able to find details of that performance. (UPDATE 4/9/13: SABR member Dennis VanLangen tells me Wakefield struck out 17 San Antonio batters in an 11-inning game on June 6, losing 1-0 on a home run. A sadly fitting outcome for a pitcher who never had a winning record.) He finished the year with a 10-12 record and a 4.42 ERA.
A return trip to Tulsa in 1963 saw Wakefield primarily used as a relief pitcher for the first time. An item in The Sporting News of June 8, 1963, said the move was the idea of former major league pitcher Clyde King, then the Cardinals’ minor league pitching coach. “Cardinal officials feel that Wakefield, gifted with extreme speed, is destined to be a reliever in the majors and want to prepare him for the role,” according to TSN.
Despite an unimpressive record at Tulsa in ’63 (3-7, 5.40), he was bumped up to Class AAA Atlanta at midseason, and even though his record was less than flattering there too (1-3, 5.36) and his strikeout numbers were mediocre at both stops, he finished the year in the big leagues. The numbers weren’t great, but clearly something about him impressed his evaluators.
After that season, Wakefield was traded to the land of opportunity for a young ballplayer of that era: the New York Mets, who had been in existence only two years, had been terrible both seasons, and were giving all kinds of youngsters a shot just in case any of them turned out to be good. The Cardinals packaged Wakefield with outfielder George Altman and sent them to New York for veteran pitcher Roger Craig.
“When we were negotiating the deal,” Mets president George Weiss was quoted as saying in The Sporting News, “[Cardinals general manager] Bing Devine gave us a choice of six pitchers. Our scouting report on Wakefield was so high, despite his losing record, that we didn’t hesitate to pick him.” Mets manager Casey Stengel, like Wakefield, was from Kansas City, and apparently had heard good reports on the young pitcher from friends there.
Wakefield made the team in spring training; he said in the 2009 interview a spot opened up after veteran Carl Willey suffered a broken jaw when he was hit by a line drive in an exhibition game. In the April 25, 1964 issue of The Sporting News Mets manager Casey Stengel said, “Some of our young men who we sent out throw harder, but this fellow gets the side out.” In the issue two weeks later Stengel described Wakefield as a “go get ’em pitcher” and said, “He’s got a lot of heart.”
Perhaps that was the reason Stengel selected Wakefield to make his first major league start in a milestone game in Mets’ history: the first night game at then-brand-new Shea Stadium on May 6. Bill shut out the Reds for the first three innings, then gave up a two-run homer to Frank Robinson in the fourth and was charged with three runs in the fifth to take the loss in a 12-4 Reds win.
Wakefield pitched in three more memorable games that season. He was the starting pitcher, going only two innings, in the Mets’ 23-inning loss to the Giants in the second game of a Memorial Day doubleheader…he pitched to one batter in relief in Jim Bunning’s Father’s Day perfect game at Shea Stadium…and in the annual Mayor’s Trophy exhibition game against the Yankees on August 24, he got Hall of Famer Yogi Berra to hit into a double play. Berra was managing the Yankees at the time but put himself in as a pinch-hitter to please the crowd.
Wakefield appeared in 62 games that season, which would remain a team record until Skip Lockwood broke it in 1977. He started four games, going 0-3 with a 9.82 ERA, but in relief he was effective: a 3-2 record with two saves, a 2.74 ERA in 105 innings and a .221 opponents’ batting average. His overall 3.61 ERA was the lowest on the team for anyone who pitched more than 50 innings.
But when he had a rough spring training in 1965, allowing six runs in eight innings, the Mets sent him to their Class AAA Buffalo farm club. An item in The Sporting News on April 24, 1965 said Wakefield took the demotion “quite hard.”
It didn’t go well at Buffalo (0-4, 5.82) or Salt Lake City (2-9, 5.19) in ’65, even though, as mentioned, the Mets brought him back to the majors late in the season. Then in 1966 he was dropped down to Class AA and had a terrific season at Williamsport of the Eastern League, with a 1.91 ERA in 80 innings. But now Wakefield was 25 years old, the Mets system was loaded with promising young pitchers, and he decided that using his Stanford degree in the business world might be a better ticket to his future than his pitching arm.
In 2009, the Mets’ first season at the new Citi Field, Wakefield approached the Mets about possibly throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before a game that season to commemorate his starting the first night game at Shea. And on July 10, he got to do just that:
Bill Wakefield is still alive at this writing, living in Marin County, California, north of San Francisco.
Honorable mention: Jon Coutlangus holds the record for most relief appearances in an only season, with 64 for the 2007 Reds…Lloyd Merritt holds the record for most saves in a single season, figured retroactively in his case, with seven for the 1957 Cardinals.
And with that, I present the list of all players in major league history who played in 100 or more games in their only major league season: