From Chapter 1:

1956-1960: The Judgment of 8,000 People


It was a quiet off-season for the Red Wings, but not for the International League. The minors were still embroiled in a dispute with the majors over several issues, the most prominent the transmission of major league games into minor league markets via television. IL President Frank Shaughnessy felt the best chance for his league to prosper was to apply for status as a major league. The 1957 departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers (to Los Angeles) and the New York Giants (to San Francisco) left New York City with only one major league team for the first time since 1884. With major league status in mind, Shaughnessy hoped to gain a foothold in the lucrative New York City market by making plans to move back into Jersey City, which lost its team in 1950. The Triple-A Pacific Coast League had earlier petitioned for major league status, forcing baseball Commissioner Ford Frick to list three conditions under which a league could apply to become a major league: eight cities with an aggregate population of 15 million; each franchise playing in a stadium with a minimum seating of 25,000, and aggregate league attendance of 3.5 million for the previous three seasons.

The International League had other worries as well. The move of the Giants and Dodgers made a mess of minor league alignment and wholesale changes were being proposed. Some plans had the IL expanding by two or four teams, a move which Shaughnessy vehemently opposed. League franchises in Miami and Havana were still not stable and continued political unrest made several teams hesitant to travel to Cuba. The Buffalo Bisons originally refused to travel there to open the season and rumors, later denied, held that the league purchased $1 million in insurance for the first four clubs (including Rochester) to play in Havana.

News from a different sport intrigued Rochesterians during the time when talk of spring training usually dominated discussion. The Harrison brothers had lost $25,000 in Cincinnati with the Royals, and the poor season and low attendance pushed the pair to sell the franchise and get out of the professional game after over 25 years.

City resident and Red Wing concessionaire Norman Shapiro was the first potential buyer. By the end of March he and the Harrisons signed a purchase agreement and all that was needed to return the Royals to Rochester was the approval of the league. The NBA stalled the deal however, wanting a Cincinnati interest to get the club and keep it there. The league's owners were in the midst of negotiating a television deal and felt that teams in "major league cities" were more attractive to the network. Rochester wasn't, in their eyes, such a city. The deal was cancelled and the Royals sold to a Cincinnati group.

In Rochester, things at least looked promising for its baseball team. The Cardinals, aware of fans' complaints the previous season, promised to "go all out" in the new season. The defense looked to be markedly improved. Tony Alomar was shifted to third base and Ruben Amaro installed at shortstop. Amaro was a weak hitter, but his defensive prowess was needed to anchor the infield. His keystone partner was another fellow rookie from the Texas League, Alex Cosmidis, a Silver Glove winner with Houston in 1957. Ed Stevens returned at first base, and Frank Verdi was designated as the utility man.

There was a glut of outfielders, but Sisler was not pleased with the balance. Allie Clark was sold in the off-season, but Tommy Burgess returned for another year in right field. Right-handed slugger Don Lassetter, who had a brief stint with Rochester in 1955, came over after a .289, 27, 84 season with Omaha. Center field was again an unsettled spot. Rookie Don Brown, making the jump from Class C Winnipeg, offered a good glove, but Sisler wanted a proven bat at the spot. Fellow rookies Bob Burda and Joe Christian were the other possibilities.

Catching was the primary question mark. Gene Green was expected to stick with the parent club so newcomer Gene Oliver would start. Backing him would be Neil Watlington, who had spent the last three years with Richmond.

Deal planned on keeping nine pitchers, with his status depending on the final cuts. Returning hurlers included Dick Ricketts, Bill Greason, Cal Browning, Mel Wright and Kelton Russell. The staff was bolstered late in spring training when Gary Blaylock was returned from the Boston Red Sox (to whom he was conditionally sold the previous fall) and Lynn Lovenguth came down from St. Louis. Unlike the previous season, the 34-year-old Lovenguth had no complaints about his demotion, predicting, "I'll win 20 games."

Newcomers on the mound staff included 19-year-old bonus baby Bob Miller, veteran Bob Kuzava, and Joe McClain (14-7 with Class A Columbus, Georgia). Kuzava was expected to team with Wright to give the Wings a pair of top closers. The Wings closed out the exhibition season at 10-11 and rated a first-division club by Sisler and Deal. League observers agreed, but just barely, tabbing the Wings for fourth. The club was improved, but so was the entire league, and Rochester would be starting rookies at shortstop, second, center field and catcher.

The defense displayed in the team's opening road trip legitimized Amaro's spot in the lineup. Rochester opened with a strong performance through Miami and Havana. The season opener was a 2-1 victory at Miami, a Ricketts' win featuring three double plays and three Marlins erased on the basepaths. The trip included a doubleheader sweep in Cuba and the Wings came home at 5-2, tied for first.

Red Wing Stadium had been spruced up for the April 23 opener. Seats were repaired, along with the annual paint touch-up. New to the ballpark was an ad for an auto agency to the left of the scoreboard. Any ball hit by a Red Wing which sailed over or shattered the glass letters of the billboard (which also lit up after home runs) would win the hitter a new car. There was no limit to the number of cars that could be awarded, although it was pointed out that a winning homer would be a poke of at least 415 feet. The Red Wing uniforms also saw a slight modification: a winged ball patch on the left sleeve on which was stitched 8,222, the number of RCB stockholders.

Fans were behind ropes on the field some 70 minutes before the first pitch. A crowd of 16,935 filled the stadium, the largest Opening Day crowd since 1950's 18,027. (It was also the largest Opening Day count among the 27 leagues across the entire minors). Lovenguth was the starting and winning pitcher in the 4-1 triumph over the Richmond Virginians.

The strong pitching and defense continued. The team stood last in the league in hitting, but first in fielding and double plays, sparking a 15-4 start. Deal was blessed with the luxury of too much pitching, so in order to boost the offense Kelton Russell was demoted to Houston and outfielder Leon "Duke" Carmel added. The strapping 6' 2", 205 lb. Carmel was considered one of baseball's brightest young prospects off his .324, 29, 121 year at Class C Billings. Swift of foot and blessed with a strong arm, there were those who felt he could be the next Ted Williams. The lefty was soon installed as the starting center fielder. Verdi was inserted into the lineup as well, replacing the struggling Cosmidis at second base.

Carmel's addition went against a developing trend, as the Wings slowly subtracted young back-ups and added veterans. Outfielders Burda and Brown were dropped from the roster, as well as pitcher Miller. Veteran utility infielder Loren Babe, 30, was signed as a free agent on May 20; two days later a player with similar credentials, Roy Smalley, was also inked to a contract. Babe had played parts of two season with the Yankees, while the 31-year-old Smalley was a 10-year veteran of the National League.

Alomar was hitting only .214, and Cosmidis and Amaro were under .200. Despite winning on defense, Deal revamped his infield. Alomar was shipped out, with Babe was installed at third base and Smalley at second. Cosmidis was subsequently traded for another veteran utility infielder, 31-year-old Wally Lammers. Carmel became the only rookie in the starting lineup (catcher Oliver was out with a sore arm) and he was having trouble, hitting in the low .200s and in one game losing a fly ball in the sun after forgetting to wear his sunglasses.

The pitching staff remained the foundation, helping the squad to 15 wins in 19 one-run games. Lovenguth was still mysteriously hovering around the break-even mark (5-6), but Blaylock (6-2), Ricketts (6-5 with a pair of 1-0 losses) and Browning (6-3, league leader in strikeouts) were off to quick starts. However McClain slumped after winning his first five decisions and was dropped from the rotation; in mid-June he was sent to Denver. His spot was to be filled by veteran right-hander Frank Barnes; however Barnes expressed a preference to play at Omaha. Instead the Wings were given a 22-year-old right-hander who was 3-3, 3.04 with Omaha: Bob "Hoot" Gibson, a former basketball All-American at Creighton University.

The Wings also acquired catcher Ray Katt, a veteran of major league action with the Cards, Cubs and Giants. His batting line for his last full Triple-A season was .326, 28, 98. Called the "most important one player shipment in several years," the acquisition looked to fill both the right-handed power hole and the catching problem. The team had stumbled along, winning only 19 of 40 games since the 15-4 start, with the opposition continually starting southpaw pitchers against the unbalanced Rochester lineup. The acquisition of Katt added a potent right-handed bat and gave an outfield spot to Oliver's stick. Deal proclaimed, "We can win the pennant now," and with an overwhelming pitching staff of Browning, Ricketts, Blaylock and Gibson (cumulatively valued at $500,000 by baseball gurus), his prediction did not seem outlandish.

The Wings arrived home from Richmond on June 24 in third place with a 37-30 record, 2 1/2 games from the top spot. A stretch of 17 games in 14 days at Red Wing Stadium - where the team was 22-9 - was on tap.

The homestand was full of memorable incidents. Gibson made his first appearance in a Rochester uniform with a two-inning relief stint on the 26th. Four days later he made his first start, in a doubleheader against Miami. His mound opponent was the ageless Satchel Paige. Gibson gave up six hits, three runs in four innings, and took the loss in a 4-3 game. Paige did not figure in the decision. On July 2, in a loss to Toronto, Smalley slammed a home run over the distant center field wall, the first ball to clear the barrier since Allie Clark in the 1957 season opener. The next night Browning won his ninth, a complete game in which he threw 173 pitches. On the 6th, Gary Blaylock hurled a one-hitter in the nine-inning opening game of a doubleheader against Buffalo, the only hit coming on a Luke Easter lead-off single in the seventh. The subsequent sweep, helped by Katt's 10-game hit streak, moved the Wings into second behind the surprising Montreal Royals.

Rochester hit the road, where it had struggled all season. The Canadian swing (four in Montreal, three in Toronto, then another four in Montreal) was dismal, as the team lost nine of 12. The trip left the Wings "virtually eliminated" as pennant contenders (at least in the eyes of one reporter) and not too securely in third place, 10 1/2 games from the Royals.

The Rochester and St. Louis brass huddled. The slumping squad was a concern, but of more immediate attention was the backlog of doubleheaders upcoming. Shortstop Ruben Amaro had been recalled during the road trip, with veteran utilityman Johnny O'Brien, formerly of Pittsburgh, sent to Rochester. Veteran pitcher Johnny Mackinson rejoined the club out of retirement. Outfielders Wilcy Moore and Lenny Green (on option from the Baltimore Orioles) were also added and the disappointing Duke Carmel (.231) sent to Houston.

The one bright spot during the skid had been Browning. By the end of July all-star break, he had raised his record to 13-5, with a 2.81 ERA. He became almost unhittable, giving a demonstration of his overpowering fastball as the Wings' only representative in the all-star game against the Milwaukee Braves in Toronto. Browning pitched the final two innings of the 3-2 loss, retiring all six hitters he faced, three on strikeouts.

The pitching started to fade when the dog days of August rolled around. The staff's depth was further tested on Aug. 3. After allowing an unearned run in the first inning of a game against Miami, starter Lovenguth came back to the dugout complaining in general about the lack of defensive support. Deal warned him of the consequences - "shut up or it'll cost you money" - but Lovenguth persisted. He was pulled from the game and told to leave the dugout. He went further, packing his gear and walking out on the team. Three days later Lovenguth was suspended and on Aug. 10 the disgruntled hurler was sold to Columbus, stating he "couldn't stand the manager's brand of baseball."

Gibson won his first game in relief of Lovenguth that night. The victory sent him on his way. He captured his next two starts, running his streak of scoreless innings to 25, before giving up two runs in the ninth inning of his third consecutive win (a no-hitter through 8 1/3). On Aug. 18 in Montreal, he dueled with Royal ace Tommy Lasorda for 13 innings. The Wings pushed across a run in the top of the 14th, but the home grounds crew was predictably slow in covering the field when the rains came and the game was officially washed out at 2-2.

Browning went in the other direction. He was knocked from the hill in five straight starts, elevating his ERA to 3.65. He was finally sent home to Rochester, then to St. Louis to check the aching hip and lower back that was the suspected cause of his inability to win. The diagnosis was a "possible ruptured disk" with estimates of his absence ranging from several days to the rest of the season.

The position players were in no better shape. Once again the older players were in and out of the lineup with nagging injuries. Except for Oliver, who had been shifted to first base, all four infielders - Babe, Smalley, Verdi and O'Brien - were hurting. Joe Christian was playing third for the first time in his career as there was no help available from either the majors or Omaha, the latter in playoff contention.

Browning came back relatively quickly but the results were still the same. Ricketts and Blaylock were pitching well, but when Gibson was hit in the hand by a pitch in a knockdown war with Toronto, he changed his throwing motion, leading to arm and shoulder pain. The hold on fourth dwindled to two games after an early September eight-game losing streak. But the Wings recovered. Montreal came in to close out the season and a Rochester 12-5, 5-1 doubleheader sweep on the second-to-last day of the season clinched third place for the Wings. (Between games of the twin bill Morrie Silver was honored by the International League sportswriters for his efforts in Rochester. He had also been inducted into the Press-Radio Club Hall of Fame during the previous winter. He was joined during the season by past-Red Wing greats Warren Giles, James "Rip" Collins and John "Pepper" Martin.)

On the final day, a 6-3 loss, Deal pitched two innings (only his seventh and eighth innings of the year) to tune up for the playoffs. He surrendered a home run to Royals' hurler Lasorda, who circled the bases with "great hoopla" before dancing to the mound to shake hands with the Rochester pitcher/manager. The Wings closed out the season at 77-75, in third place, 12 1/2 games behind pennant-winning Montreal.

Injuries still hampered the lineup as the team headed into the post-season. O'Brien (.323 in 96 at-bats) was questionable; the sparkplug shortstop wasn't expected to play but begged Deal "with tears in his eyes" to put him the lineup. Deal gave in, but put him at second base. Toronto was the first-round opponent and captured Game One at Maple Leaf Stadium, 6-3. The Wings lost an opportunity to knot the series the next night. The Maple Leafs scored two in the seventh to erase a 2-0 lead and ended the game with a two-run home run in the bottom of the 10th.

The series shifted to Rochester and Gibson pitched a complete-game 3-2 victory to give Red Wing fans some hope. But Toronto came back the next night with a 6-2 triumph, during which the gutsy O'Brien finally had his season finished when he suffered torn ligaments in his knee on a take-out collision at second base. The Leafs duplicated the score in Game Five, taking the series 4 games to 1.

Including playoffs, the team lost 13 of its last 16 games. After its 15-4 start, Deal's squad went 63-75. The early post-season exit was the same old story of "plate paralysis." One Toronto scribe described Rochester as the only team in the IL with "seven eighth place hitters and a lead off man." The Red Wings finished seventh in the league with a .245 team batting average. There was no legitimate big stick in the lineup, but Ray Katt (.285, 11, 42), Gene Oliver (.282, 18, 64), Tommy Burgess (.280, 19, 62), Don Lassetter (.270, 16, 73) and Ed Stevens (.262, 14, 47) all posted respectable numbers. But none of the mid-season additions had done much, other than Johnny O'Brien.

Power pitching had carried the team as far as it could, but Cal Browning's late-season struggles hurt the club. He finished at 13-12, with a 3.54 ERA and a league-leading 173 strikeouts, the latter the second-highest total in Red Wing history behind Walter Beall's 227 in 1924. Gary Blaylock (14-10, 3.17) and Dick Ricketts (15-13, 3.22) were solid while Bob Kuzava and Mel Wright had formed a strong bullpen. Bob Gibson finished with a 5-5 mark, a 2.53 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 103 innings. He also had a growing reputation as the league's hardest thrower.

Manager Cot Deal's status for 1959 was not clear. Fans had begun to ride him during his club's late-season collapse. The club suffered more injuries than could be reasonably expected, and several older team members were clearly "playing out the string" at the end of the season. (George Beahon was less charitable, writing that the team was "old and creaky and couldn't score runs to save their social security.") Nonetheless Deal was still second-guessed, mainly for his pitching moves. In retrospect the loss of Ruben Amaro and Alex Cosmidis proved costly to his team; their replacements, Smalley and O'Brien, did not add enough to the offense to make up for their defensive shortcomings.

The Cardinals and their farm teams had an organizational meeting in October, with Sisler and President Frank Horton representing the Red Wings. Among the issues were the renewal of the working agreement, and the selection of a manager for 1959. Redbird General Manager Bing Devine stated he was "in favor of continuing the pact. I enjoy the relationship." Also boding well for the Wings was the fact that the Cardinals' Double-A Houston franchise would be dropped. Sisler admitted that the "situation looks pretty good for the Wings to obtain some good players from the Cardinals."

The agreement was routinely renewed on Oct. 8. Deal was rehired the same day and immediately promised fans a new look: "The team will be almost completely rebuilt with accent on youth and speed. We finished last year with too many veteran players, many of whom were injured in the last month. They did their best, many of them playing on guts alone, but were not up to a strong finish."

It was not long before evidence of the youth movement was noticed. Later in the month vets Loren Babe, Roy Smalley and Neal Watlington were released and Don Lassetter assigned to Sacramento. Ruben Amaro was traded, Johnny O'Brien lost and Ed Stevens sold. Assigned to the Rochester roster was 20-year-old Charlie James, considered the Cards' best prospect. He was a power-hitting outfielder who put together a .279, 19, 104 year at Houston.

The annual stockholders' meeting was held in December. RCB announced a paper loss of $6,607.58. The paid attendance of 265,261 (282,259 counting post-season) was second highest among U.S.-based minor league teams behind Buffalo, and fourth overall in the minors. The Red Wings also announced a May 4 date for an exhibition game with the parent Cardinals, one which they expected would pump close to $15,000 into the club's coffers. President Horton did, however, sound a sobering note, reminding shareholders that minor league baseball remained a "touch-and-go" proposition."

Copyright © 1997 Brian A. Bennett. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system - except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a magazine or newspaper - without permission in writing from the publisher. For information, please contact Triphammer Publishing, P.O. Box 45, Scottsville, NY 14546-0045.