Before roughly 1955, it was possible for a fine baseball player to have a long and successful professional career even without ever playing in the major leagues or playing in the Show only very briefly. The main reasons for this were that minor league teams had a lot more independence and thus were able to maintain loyal fan bases and hold onto star players and also the fact that the number of major league teams (16 and all east of the Mississippi River) compared to the total number of minor league teams was tiny.
In those days there were three of what we would now call AAA leagues (the Pacific Coast League (“PCL”), the American Association and the International League) and four of what we would now call AA leagues (the Texas League, the Southern League, the Eastern League and the Western League), compared to two and three such leagues today. There were also far more lower minor leagues and teams than now, with teams playing in cities with populations as small as 10,000 or 20,000.
Because the number of minor league teams relative to the number of major league teams was so much greater than today, you had to be both great and lucky to have a long-term major league career. (You also had to be white, since black players were excluded from “organized baseball” until 1946 and instead played in their own segregated leagues).
As a result, many excellent ballplayers became minor league stars. As a general rule, the greatest minor league stars of that era fall into these categories:
(1) spitball pitchers who weren’t in the majors in 1920 and thus were not allowed to throw one of their best pitches at the major league level (Frank “Shelly” Shellenback, Rube Robinson, Paul Wachtel and Buzz Arlett are examples — they could continue to throw the spitter in the high minor leagues in which they pitched during the 1920 season thanks to grandfathering, but could not throw it in the majors);
(2) players who hit like major leaguers but didn’t play major league defense (Ike Boone and Smead Jolley are examples — Bill James once wrote that these players had their defensive failures overstated by sportswriters of the era as a way to explain why they weren’t major league stars; however, there is enough objective evidence/stats to suggest their defense was pretty bad);
(3) players who fielded like major leagues but didn’t hit enough or hit with enough power for their positions (Joe Riggert, and Jigger Statz are examples — in fairness to Statz, his most valuable skill, on base percentage, was not as highly valued in his day as it is now; however, while Statz was fast, he was not an effective base stealer at the major league level);
(4) players who were good all-around players but a shade below major league regulars — particularly in the Pacific Coast League, these players had more value to their minor league teams playing in major league-size cities than they did to major league teams (examples are Dick Gyselman, Truck Hannah and Billy Raimondi);
(5) players who had major injuries at the wrong time in their careers (Joe Hauser and Ray Perry are great examples);
(6) players who didn’t take advantage of their major league opportunities, which were fewer than today’s minor league stars get (examples are Bunny Brief (birth name Anthony Grzeszkowski), a fantastic minor league slugger who didn’t hit in any of his three significant major league trials, Nick “Tomato Face” Cullop and Spence Harris);
(7) players who developed late, i.e., after age 27 (Ollie Carnegie and Ox Eckhardt are great examples of a common type of minor league star); and
(8) players whose careers were interrupted by World War II.
In fact, a majority of the great minor league stars of this era and most of those listed above fit into more than one of the categories I’ve identified above, along with others not mentioned. Perhaps the one all-encompassing factor for minor league stars was simply bad luck.
For example, Buzz Arlett, probably the quintessential minor league star of this era, started his career as a pitcher whose best pitch was a spitball. He was still establishing himself as a PCL ace in 1920, the only league in which he could throw his best pitch after that season. He converted to a full-time hitter in 1923 at age 24, and by the time he had established his bona fides as a top PCL slugger, he was no longer young.
Further, his team, the Oakland Oaks, rightfully recognized Arlett as their franchise player and wouldn’t sell him to a major league team for less than $100,000, too high a price for a hitter his age. When the Oaks’ price finally came down, Arlett was past 30 and had put on weight, which negatively impacted his outfield defense. Despite a great year at the plate for the 1931 Phillies in his only major league season at age 32, this Phillies team sucked eggs, and Arlett spent almost all of his remaining professional career in Baltimore and Minneapolis, big cities with major league caliber fan bases and ballparks taylor-made for left-handed sluggers like Arlett.
Since about 1978, the Society for Advanced Baseball Research (“SABR”) has done a great job of educating today’s baseball fandom of the great minor league stars who played in this bygone era. The purpose of this article, notwithstanding my long introduction, is to identify the minor league stars, if any, playing today.
I decided that in order to qualify as a contemporary minor league star, a player had to have at least 4,000 career minor league plate appearances in AA and AAA ball, based on the premise that you can’t have been a minor league star unless you spent a long time playing in the high minors. Bear in mind, that given the shorter playing schedules of even the top minor league teams today, it takes nearly eight full seasons at the AA and AAA levels to meet this requirement.
[A couple of notes here: organized baseball (and thus baseball-reference.com) treat the Mexican summer league as a AAA league (the quality of play is probably closer to AA ball) but do not consider Japan's NPB (a true 4-A league) and South Korea's KBO (probably between AAA and AA in terms of level of play) as AA or AAA leagues. I have followed the OB/baseball-reference definition since I'm interested in identifying American minor league stars, neither NPB or KBO is really a "minor league" regardless of the level of play (the countries' top players play in these leagues and are not readily available to MLB the way the best Mexican League players are), and it makes it much simpler to calculate who qualifies.]
At first, I thought that there would not be a lot of players meeting this requirement, because a number of the most well-known 4-A players since 2000 don’t qualify — specifically, Dan Johnson, Dallas McPherson, Tag Bozied, Brad Eldred and Joe Borchard don’t have enough plate appearances to qualify. I also figured that there wouldn’t be a lot of player in today’s professional game who could play for years and years at a high level without substantial major league careers cutting into their high-minors playing time.
Turns out I was wrong. There are a great number of contemporary players who qualify as minor league stars under my definition. In no particular order, the following are the contemporary minor league stars I was able to find.
1. Jack Cust (3758 AAA plate appearances, 568 AA, and 2581 MLB). Cust is clearly the best of the contemporary minor league stars, and he has had a significant major league career. Even so, he spent years and years in the high minors before the money-ball Oakland A’s decided his OPS was too high ignore, no matter how low his batting average or how many times he struck out, and he’s now back in the high minors since his major league run ended in 2011. Cust’s career minor league OPS of .936 and major league OPS of .813 are far and away the best of any contemporary minor league batting star.
The player Cust reminds me most of in baseball history is Ripper Collins. Collins was a slugging 1Bman for great Cardinals and Cubs teams from 1931 through 1938, playing for three pennant winners and two World Champions and leading the NL with 35 HRs and 128 RBIs in 1934. Ripper was a great minor league star before and after his long major league career.
Collins slugged 135 HRs in the Show and 193 HRs in the minors. Cust has hit 105 in the Show and 225 in the minors. Collins hit for a much higher average, but Cust has a slightly higher on-base percentage at the major league level.
This type of player was much more common in the pre-1955 era than today, in part because major league careers were more precarious than today (one bad year and the team often decided to give someone else a shot, sending the veteran back to the minors for good) and also because it was easier to accumulate plate appearances in the high minors which had schedules as long or longer than the major league schedule. See Dale Alexander, Smead Jolley, Jack Bentley and Joe Hauser as examples.
2. Mike Hessman (4530 and counting AAA plate appearances, 1008 AA, 250 MLB). Mike Hessman is a great minor league slugger who has been identified as the real life “Crash” Davis because he is the active minor league home run leader by a wide margin. Hessman has hit 369 minor league home runs (plus six in Japan and 14 in the Show) in his professional career, which likely places him in the bottom of the top ten all-time (I haven’t been able to find any information on the top Mexican League sluggers other than Hector Espino, who at 484 career HRs, is the all-time minor league HR leader).
However, Hessman has also struck out a whopping 2,168 times in his professional career. His chronic inability to make contact has limited him to a career minor league batting average and OPS of .230 and .773 (.188 and .694 in the Show). His ability to slug the long ball has kept him around in the high minors for years, but he’s clearly not a major league player unless a bunch of guys on the parent club get hurt.
Stay tuned for part two of this series.