Minor Things, Major Things

Earlier this week, I had an epic-length free piece on Baseball Prospectus about the sudden flood of historical minor league data available online via the recently upgraded Baseball-Reference.com:

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.

My meandering journey through the new/old stats takes us past not only Hall of Famers but celebrities from other walks of life:

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 in 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 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 homers 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 League, Middle-Atlantic League, Western League and Interstate League.

…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. 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 homers 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.

Fun stuff, and like I said, free. The roll call of other players featured in the piece: Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove, Art Rooney, George Halas, John Elway Sammy Baugh, Zane Grey, Pat Jordan, Eliot Asinof, Rocky Perone and friends, Bert Convy, Kurt Russell, Scott Patterson, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, Scott Boras, and Mario Cuomo. One of these days I’ll write a sequel with those long-threatened memories of Ike Hampton, but until then, this will have to do.

As an aside, writing the piece led me to watch Bull Durham again – I’ve had a shrinkwrapped DVD sitting in my collection for at least two years and it was high time to bust it out. The movie never fails to make me smile, and I’ve been particularly cracking up over this scene because it seemed to answer the rhetorical question posed in a recent BP headline:


Anyhoo… elsewhere on BP, here’s this week’s Hit List, still topped by the Dodgers, and here’s my contribution to a staff piece I participated in for BP and ESPN about “What We’ve Learned” in the first three weeks of the season, even given the normal small-sample caveats:

While I don’t want to get too worked up as to the degree to which it will be true because of the impact of warm weather on a couple weeks of games, it certainly looks like this will be a year in which home runs increase. By itself, that’s not terribly interesting given the fluctuations we’ve seen over the past decade and a half, but it finally seems likely that whatever spike occurs won’t be blamed as steroid related.

I’ve been carping for years — since contributing a chapter to Will Carroll’s The Juice: the Real Story of Baseball’s Drug Problems that it’s the ball that’s juiced. Such a mechanism more easily explains the various peaks and valleys we’ve seen over recent years, and the continuous introduction of new ballparks has been a contributing factor as well. It appears as though both of those components are on display thus far, and by the end of the year we might actually have learned something about fluctuating offense levels that has nothing to do with speculation about who’s sticking needles into their butts.

I’ll be examining that topic more closely in an upcoming Hit and Run.

Update: Oh, and my latest radio appearance on Boston’s WWZN “Young Guns” show.

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