From Chapter 2:

1961-1965: Birds of a Different Feather


Spring training commenced on March 15 and for the 15th time in 17 seasons the Wings trained at City Island Park in Daytona Beach. The only absent players considered part of Manager Darrell Johnson’s plans were Joe Altobelli, Mickey McGuire (holdout), Alex Castro (trouble leaving native Cuba), Ron Kabbes (recovering from a bout of pneumonia), and Dave Vineyard.

Altobelli was present on the morrow, with McGuire inked on the same day. Vineyard was another story.

During the off-season, while working construction on a pipeline project near Weston, West Virginia, the pitcher suffered a devastating injury to his left leg. He had locked the brakes of the bulldozer he was operating, but somehow it rolled, pinning him for 45 minutes. The leg was not broken, yet horribly gouged and mangled below the knee, with much of the calf muscle and flesh gone. He endured three hours of initial surgery that night. Six weeks later he was back in with an a serious infection. In January he entered a third hospital, to begin a series of skin grafts. His season, and perhaps his career, were probably lost.

The new manager was a quiet figure, but confident and self-assured in his attitude. Johnson’s first game as manager was less than inspiring, even considering it was an exhibition game, as the Wings lost to fellow IL member Columbus by the score of 13-0. Yet less than two weeks into the pre-season, talk was of the best team in a decade and Sisler was touting a “big, big chance to win the pennant.”

Even without Vineyard there was an exceptional crop of pitchers, with Johnson’s background as a major league catcher seen as a key to their development. Returning hurlers included Tom Baker, Nat Martinez, Bill Short, John Miller and Herb Moford. Short, after a year of arm problems, was the sensation of camp.

Another familiar face was Pat Gillick, who started the previous campaign with the Wings before being sent down. Additions were Herm Starrette (14-10, 2.65 at Single-A Elmira), 19-year-old Frank Bertaina (13-10 at Aberdeen), Ed Hobough, and Nelson Chittum. Bertaina finished 12 of his 24 starts at Class C, striking out just over one batter an inning. Righty Hobough was on option from the Washington Senators after splitting 1962 between the nation’s capital and Syracuse. Chittum was seemingly a dubious acquisition, a journeyman 33-year-old righty who was 1-14 between Triple-A Omaha and Spokane. Sisler picked him up cheaply as a free agent.

In the infield, a trio of veterans — Altobelli, Steve Bilko and Luke Easter — were competing at first base. The massive Bilko (jersey size 50) had the inside track with Easter tabbed for pinch-hitting and third base coaching duties. Altobelli was expected to also see time in the outfield. He had a decent 1962, hitting .271, 13, 67 for Omaha and would be recognizable to Rochester fans. He was a member of the 1956 Indianapolis team that took the Junior World Series over the Wings. He had International League experience as well. In 1960 he played for Montreal and led the league in home runs (31) and RBI (105).

The 34-year-old Bilko’s numbers had declined since his glory years with Los Angeles of the PCL. In 1956 he won the circuit’s Triple Crown, batting .360 with 56 home runs and 164 RBI. The next season he hit .300, 56, 140, his third straight season of leading the circuit in home runs and the second consecutive campaign he was tops in RBI. Before that he played all or parts of four seasons in Rochester from 1948-52; his best year being 1949, when he hit .310 with 34 home runs and a league-leading 125 RBI. His power figures had drastically dropped, but he was hoping for “just one more good year.”

At second base was Don Brummer, acquired in a trade with the Yankees for Joe Durham. A premier defensive player, Brummer performed for Richmond the previous season, hitting .291. Ozzie Virgil was back, versatile enough to play outfield, any infield spot, or catcher, but hoping to latch onto a permanent home at third base. Ron Kabbes likewise returned, but off his poor batting performance in ’62 was no longer projected as a starter at short. That hole seemed to be solved in mid-spring, when Ken Hamlin was assigned to Rochester by the Washington Senators as payment for a “look” at pitcher Tom Baker. Hamlin hit .253 in 98 games with the Senators and was expected to hit .260-.270 at the Triple-A level.

The outfield harbored a number of familiar flannels. Joining Altobelli were Fred Valentine, Sam Bowens, Earl Robinson and Ray Youngdahl. Youngdahl (CF), Robinson (LF) and Bowens (RF) were the opening day starters. Nate Smith was highly touted at catcher after a .262 year with Omaha. He was a strong receiver with exceptional speed for a catcher, but he tore up his knee in the last exhibition game. A quick call brought in John Griffin, who would back starter Chris Krug, but neither had played before at the Triple-A level.

The Wings ended their exhibition schedule with an 8-12 mark. The pre-season gave Johnson a sure handle on his team’s strengths and weaknesses, stating, “I know where we can be strengthened and if we are, we can win the pennant.” IL President Tommy Richardson was putting a positive spin on the season as well. Despite earlier complaints about having to field a 10-team circuit, Richardson claimed his league to be in “perfect condition.” Rochester was placed in the Northern Division, along with Buffalo, Syracuse, Toronto and Richmond. The team would play each of those foes 18 times, with 16 games against the Southern Division members. The two top finishers in each division would advance to the playoffs.

Arkansas, one of the transplanted American Association franchises, made for the Wings’ Opening Day opposition. Little Rock was not hospitable to the visitors, as the Travelers defeated Billy Short, 4-2. Red Wing Stadium played host to the same two teams for Rochester’s April 24 home opener. As usual the ballpark was spruced up for its inaugural contest. The box seats glistened with a fresh coat of blue paint and the dugouts and bullpens were finally connected by phone. A visual reminder of the league’s expansion was present on the scoreboard — with four other league match-ups, the board could no longer display the inning-by-inning developments of the other IL games, just the score and inning.

The Wings came in on a five-game winning streak, spurred by Virgil’s .360 average and eight RBI in the first six games. A decent crowd of 14,156 filled the stands in 45-degree cold. The weather didn’t chill the visitors’ bats, however, as Arkansas drilled the Red Wings by a score of 17-5.

Shaky pitching caused Johnson’s squad to drop another pair on the opening homestand, but there seemed little need for panic. With reliever Starrette and swing lefty Steve Dalkowski sidelined (Dalkowski opened the season on the DL), pitching help was expected from Baltimore. It looked as if Dave Vineyard, wearing a brace and specially-designed shoe on his left leg, would also be ready to take the hill. Meanwhile the offense was producing with surprising power; 30 of its first 71 hits were of the extra-base variety.

Dalkowski came off the DL at the end of April, costing Herb Moford (“The Kentucky Colonel”) his roster spot. The bespectacled Dalkowski was of the stuff that southpaw legends were made. He was blessed with one of baseball’s most magnificent arms, but control had not come with it. He was once clocked on Army equipment as throwing at 93.5 miles per hour (Bob Feller had the highest mark at 98.6), but claimed to be holding back, as he had pitched the night before. His walk and strikeout totals were almost always equal, witness 1960, his fourth year of professional ball, when he punched out 262 batters but issued an equal number of free passes. He once opened a game by walking the first trio of batters before setting down the next three on strikes. He repeated that pattern for the next four innings before walking off the mound and straight into the clubhouse. He showed some improvement in 1962 for Elmira, walking only 114 and striking out 192, to accompany a 7-10 record and 3.02 ERA.

Needless to say, his wildness intimidated hitters and there were other idiosyncrasies that struck fear in batters. An occasional warm-up toss was known to find its way onto the screen behind home plate. In the twilight he switched to glasses with yellow-tinted lenses, giving him a rather surreal look as he bent down and near-sightedly peered in to get the signs. If he could harness his talent, he could become one of baseball’s great pitchers. As it was, he was already one of its legendary figures.

Vineyard did return and the pitching settled. The Wings captured four straight, all on complete games. Miller, Chittum and Bertaina were off to strong starts and when Buster Narum (12 wins for the Wings in ’62) came down from Baltimore the staff looked solid. The bullpen remained shaky, however, with Alex Castro still stranded in Cuba. Changes were also in the offing among the position players. Brummer went out with a broken thumb, but Kabbes stepped in adequately at second base. Catcher Danny Kravitz was re-acquired from Richmond, giving the team a experienced receiver and sending Chris Krug back to the Cardinals. After 35 games (21 on the road) the Wings were 18-17, yet due to injuries and the bullpen gap, Johnson proclaimed himself satisfied to date.

Virgil, Bowens and Youngdahl, the latter installed as the leadoff hitter, continued to hit and the Wings acquired another veteran receiver in Joe Pignatano, purchased from the Mets’ farm club in Buffalo. Despite the Wings’ early fourth place standing in the five-team division, Pignatano’s addition, as well as the arrival of Castro, meant to many the Wings were ready to take off. When the dust cleared on the roster moves, Pat Gillick, Tom Baker and John Griffin had been sent out, with Ed Hobough returned to Washington.

The revamped staff sparkled in June. On the 6th Short notched his sixth straight win. The next night Chittum hurled a one-hitter in the seven-inning opener of a doubleheader against Jacksonville. It was the sixth complete game and third shutout in 10 starts for the pitcher who won only one game the season before. He tossed another seven-inning shutout in his next start. Miller was hot as well, pushing his record to 8-4, with seven complete games through mid-June. But for one evening, Nat Martinez topped them all.

Forced into his first start of the season due to a backlog of twinbills, the 21-year-old right-hander threw a seven-inning no-hitter against Jacksonville in the second game of a June 9 home doubleheader. The performance launched the team onto a 12-game winning streak, the end of which found the Red Wings tied for first place.

The relievers turned stingy, not allowing a run in almost two weeks. Johnson’s credo of pitching low in the strike zone had won disciples. The team had its share of luck as well. In a June 18 game against Toronto the Wings rallied with three runs in the last two innings to tie the score before winning it on a Pignatano grand slam in the 13th. The next night the catcher played a different role in a win. Ahead 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth, a Dalkowski offering glanced off his glove with two out and a runner on third. The Toronto runner tried to score, but Pignatano scrambled for the ball and flipped to Dalkowski in time for the final out and the win.

The roster continued to take shape during the tear. Brummer and Vineyard came back off the DL, replacing Easter (deactivated in order to concentrate on his coaching duties) and Bertaina (sent to Double-A Elmira). Brummer’s return coincided with a knee injury to Kabbes, so hardly a beat was missed.

Altobelli played a crucial role as well. Bilko had not supplied the expected offense and without his bat his fielding deficiencies were glaring, so the smooth-fielding Altobelli was installed at first. He had a game-winning two-run home run in the eighth inning of one game and less than a week later was involved in a bizarre ending of another victory. He struck out for the final out against Toronto; however the pitch was a particularly nasty knuckleball by former Wing Bob Tiefenauer. The ball eluded the Maple Leaf catcher, with Altobelli going down to first. Kravitz pinch-hit for Brummer and hit a 1-1 pitch over the right field wall for a 4-3 victory. The good fortunes of the Wings were evidenced by their 16-7 record in one-run contests.

Rochester was 43-32 and hovering near the top of the Northern Division on June 29, when reliever Herm Starrette and center fielder Fred Valentine were called up to Baltimore. Starrette was 6-2, with seven saves and a league-leading 1.15 ERA. Valentine, after a cold start, was hitting at a .309 clip, with eight home runs and 34 RBI. The Wings were promised 32-year-old reliever Dean Stone, as well as another player in return. But Stone refused to report and nagging injuries to Robinson, Virgil and Hamlin put the Wings short on manpower.

The loss of Starrette was felt immediately. With a chance to tie first place Syracuse, Vineyard took a 3-0 lead into the eighth before being relieved. The Chiefs rallied against the Wings’ bullpenners, scoring a pair in the eighth, one in the ninth and three in the 10th to take the game. But Baltimore went to great lengths to replenish the Wings, “decimating” its Double-A squad at Elmira by sending three players to Rochester.

Two were pitchers: lefty Dick Tetrault and right-hander Bobby Scott, and the third, infielder Dave Johnson. Steve Dalkowski was sent down. On the three, Johnson was particularly impressive. He was hitting .324, with 13 home runs and 45 RBI for the Pioneers. His home run total was second in the league. He quickly impressed the Red Wings faithful, one sportswriter raving about his “great arm, fine speed and tremendous power for a relatively little guy.”

Rochester was in a pennant race and attendance was ahead of the previous season’s pace (and leading the minors by a healthy margin), yet the franchise was the exception among the circuit’s teams. The International League’s directors were finding that the two-division set-up was ruinous for attendance, as clubs from the opposing division had no gate appeal. Columbus General Manager Harold Cooper went on record in early July as saying, in his opinion, only Rochester and possibly Syracuse were guaranteed to be in position to operate in ’64. “The majors just refuse to pay a fair share of the cost of developing players,” he said, while admitting Baltimore to be an exception. He felt his peers — “Gutless do-nothing directors of the International League” — to be largely responsible for their self-created quandary.

Despite Baltimore’s best efforts, the Red Wings dropped off the pace. After the 12 consecutive wins, Rochester dropped 13 of its next 20 contests. The offense slumped (Youngdahl was in the midst a hitless stretch that would balloon to 35 at-bats) and the bullpen returned to its futile form. In a home loss to Buffalo that cost the Wings second place, Miller had a shutout through 8 2/3 innings, only to watch three straight hits off two relievers give the Bisons a 4-2 win. Nate Smith, who had seen little action after returning from his knee injury, was optioned out, and Easter reactivated in an effort to revive the offense.

The pitching and defense began to crumble under the pressure of low-scoring contests. Miller lost another hard-luck game in his next start. He allowed only one hit through five and had a 3-0 lead, but four errors helped Columbus climb back to win 4-3 in 10 innings. Two nights later saw even greater ignominy as Narum lost a one-hitter. Buffalo scored its only run in the eighth on a walk, sacrifice, infield out and error. At that point the Wings had lost 12 of 14 and five straight.

It was a case of “not enough meat and potato guys,” said Johnson, meaning players hitting in the .260-.270 range. Virgil and Bowens were the only Red Wings among the league’s top 50 in hitting stats. Hamlin, despite his low average, was “helping,” but there were few other tough outs in the lineup. The slump forced Johnson to return Bilko to the lineup. Yet the aging slugger could only muster two RBI in six weeks, and his presence hurt the defense at two positions, as Altobelli was forced to play in the outfield. Johnson turned to Easter, who responded with five hits and five RBI in his first three starts.

Altobelli was subsequently taken out of the mix when he severely sprained his ankle in a second base tangle with Toronto infielder Sparky Anderson. His roster spot was taken by reliever Dean Stone, who finally reported.

Despite the slump, Buffalo and Syracuse had only managed to tread water themselves, and the Wings were still in the chase. Youngdahl snapped out his funk (he and Easter each hit a pair of homers in a doubleheader game against Atlanta) and Chittum continued to sparkle, raising his record to 13-5. Virgil had a 17-game hit streak and on the last day of July the Wings moved back into first place, with a 60-53 mark.

Yet Rochester continued to struggle on its home turf and Altobelli’s damaged right achilles tendon refused to respond to treatment. The Wings dropped off the pace as quickly as they had climbed back to the top, despite the efforts of pitchers Short, who won his 11th by going all 12 innings against Buffalo, and Stone, who hit a three-run home run two nights later to clinch another extra-inning win in the Bisons’ home park.

Buffalo came east on Aug. 16, the occasion of Luke Easter’s birthday. The RCB brass, hoping to settle the long-time mystery of his actual age, offered him $10 for every year. “Torn between the fiction of the record books (they say he’s 42) and the chance at almost untold wealth,” Easter admitted to being 52 and pocketed $520.

Altobelli returned, despite a noticeable limp, and immediately paid dividends. He smacked two out of Red Wing Stadium in an Aug. 18 overtime win against the rival Bisons, including the game-winner in the 10th. Dave Johnson was restored to the lineup as well, but in left field, replacing Youngdahl, who was again struggling with the bat. After a day off for the all-Star same in Buffalo against the Yankees (Bowens and Chittum represented the Wings), Rochester returned to the diamond in Richmond, where Johnson’s squad lost two consecutive twin bills. The disastrous trip dropped the team into third place behind Buffalo, with recently-revived Toronto lurking nearby.

The Wings reclaimed second on Aug. 23 on the strength of a dramatic 5-4 win against division-leading Syracuse. Down 4-2 heading into the bottom of the ninth, Pignatano had a clutch two-run triple to tie the game and then scored the winning run on a Virgil single. After its final home game of the season, Rochester still stood in second, its hold on the last playoff spot a mere half-game over the Maple Leafs.

The Red Wings closed their season on the road in Syracuse. They lost the opener in dramatic fashion on a game-ending home run, dropping the team into a tie with Toronto. The Chiefs took both ends of a doubleheader the next night, giving the Maple Leafs sole possession of second heading into the season’s last day. A Rochester win, combined with a Toronto loss, would tie the teams and (shades of ’61) force a playoff. A coin flip was held, just in case, with Toronto winning the rights to host the potential game.

It was unnecessary. Toronto beat Richmond, the news announced over the loudspeaker at MacArthur Stadium in the middle of the eighth, with the Wings up 4-2. They went on to win the game, but finished with a record of 75-76, good for third place in the Northern Division, one game short of the playoffs. Across the entire league, the record was only seventh best out of the 10 teams.

In his post-season comments, Sisler felt that six players were severe disappointments and their performances, more than any injuries or recalls, were the reason for the sub-.500 year. Buster Narum and Steve Bilko were the major flops, with Ray Youngdahl, John Miller, Danny Kravitz and Alex Castro just slightly less so. “Because of their [Narum’s and Bilko’s] poor to so-so seasons, we couldn’t finish any higher. In this game, we’re all inclined to lay off our troubles to injuries and player recalls. But this is a fairly normal condition, especially injuries,” said the Red Wings’ general manager. “The more honest analysis is that a couple of guys we counted on failed to come through.”

Sisler was pleased with Darrell Johnson, stating the rookie skipper did “an outstanding job, and I’m not qualifying this in any way by saying an outstanding job for a first year manager.” Johnson did find a strong trio of starters by the end of the year. Nels Chittum and Billy Short made spectacular come-backs, each finishing at 13-8. Chittum fashioned a 3.18 ERA, had 12 complete games and shared the league lead with six shutouts. (He was Wings’ property and estimates of his value to a major league club went as high as $30,000.) Short, an intense competitor, had a 3.52 ERA and 11 complete games. Dave Vineyard made a miraculous comeback from his off-season injury and finished a respectable 8-6, 3.70. But Narum was a bust (6-12, 4.83) and Miller completely collapsed over the second half. A win on June 11 gave him an 8-4 mark, but it was his last. He dropped his last 11 decisions to finish at 8-15, 3.85. A key loss for the staff was Herm Starrette (6-2, 1.13). No one matched his performance and after his recall the team won only 30 of its last 75 games.

Fred Valentine went up the same time as Starrette, just after the 12-game winning streak, and the spirit of the club seemed to go with them. Despite Valentine’s formidable stats (.309, 8, 34) some felt the loss of his infectious spirit hurt even more than the loss of his switch-hitting bat. Ozzie Virgil (.309, 11, 74) and Sam Bowens (.285, 22, 70) carried the offense after his departure. (Partial credit for Virgil’s success was given by some to Vineyard, whose skill at stealing signs was taken advantage of by the guess-hitting Virgil.) Sisler felt that by season’s end, rookie Dave Johnson (.246, 6, 23) might have been the team’s best player. Behind them, however, were a number of players who failed to produce at expected levels, among them Kravitz (.228), Youngdahl (.210) and Bilko. In what would be his last professional season, Bilko went out under less than ideal circumstances. He managed only eight home runs and 38 RBI and was a notable loser with the fans, who would have preferred to see Luke Easter in the lineup. The best of the rest included Joe Altobelli (.246, 15, 44), Ken Hamlin (.247, 13, 50) and the ageless Easter (.270, 6, 35). Hamlin was an iron man, starting every single game of the season at shortstop. Altobelli was noted for playing while hurt, his attitude described by one local writer as “intense professional honesty.”

The team’s standing off the diamond was a cause for pride. Paid attendance was 245,080 (271,968 total), tops in all the minors, although Hawaii (PCL) made a late-season run and staked a claim to the crown, until it was noted that their official figure included all admissions. Sisler didn’t have the final figures, but felt the franchise would be one of few in the minors to finish in the black. “Economically we are not in too bad a situation,” he explained. Lack of playoffs hurt income, but the new system of calculating gate receipts helped. Sisler’s informal estimates were accurate, as RCB’s year-end fiscal statement showed a profit of $6,729. “Stuck” with this profit, the club used depreciation of fixed assets to the tune of $17,000 in order to establish a book loss of $10,348. This allowed the club to avoid paying taxes on the profit.

Sisler was rehired two days prior to the public release of the statement and Johnson’s return was said to be routine. The club did lose one of its key behind-the-scene personnel when Eddie Bastian, the assistant general manager since 1957, resigned to take the general manager’s post with Fort Lauderdale, the Class-A affiliate of the New York Yankees. In January the Wings named Johnny Clapp as his replacement.

Clapp had spent the last four years as an account executive with Coca-Cola, yet he was a familiar name to Rochester sports fans. He was business manager of the Wings in 1955 and had been affiliated with the Amerks’ front office from 1955-59.

The departure of Morrie Silver was expected; even so it was still hard to accept. He retired after his second term as club president. He would remain on the club’s board of directors and active in leadership of the International League. As well as the franchise had drawn, the outgoing president was sure the counts would increase with a contender. “I am convinced,” said Silver, “that a pennant winner or a club here that fights for it up to the finish, can draw 350,000 fans here. We haven’t been higher than third in our seven years as a fan-owned club and it’s 11 years since we won a pennant. So the fan reaction to a winner should be fabulous....” His successor was Times-Union Business Manager Joseph T. “Red” Adams.

The choice of Adams was revealed to the public days prior to the Jan. 11, 1964 shareholders’ meeting. His position with the local newspaper promised business talents; however, the Rochester native also had strong connections with the local sports’ scene. Of considerable athletic ability in his younger days, Adams was a star in baseball, track, soccer and basketball at East High, and later played baseball, track, basketball and football at the University of Rochester. After transferring to DePauw University, he lettered in football, baseball and track.

Adams joined the staff of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle after graduation. His newspaper career consisted of stints at the both D&C and T-U, including a time as sports writer and sports editor. He was promoted to the position of business manager in 1954 after serving in the same position with the D&C. In 1951 the Press-Radio Club of Rochester, paying tribute to his earlier work in sports reporting, named him as Rochester’s “all-time baseball writer.”

His selection to the unpaid post of Rochester Community Baseball president was hailed by Silver, who stated, “The club is lucky that Joe Adams accepted the job.” In the same announcement, the outgoing president made it clear that he was not divorcing himself from the Red Wings: “If asked, I will be happy to serve in any advisory capacity.”

It had perhaps snuck up on everyone involved, but Rochester was one of, if not the, most stable franchises in the continually-troubled International League. The detested 10-team format looked to be a continued source of debate during the off-season. An alignment of one 12-team Triple-A league and one eight-team league continued as an option, with the sticking point as to which league would number a dozen, the IL or the Pacific Coast League. (There was even talk of a revived American Association.) In September it looked as if eight would be the magic number for the IL, but two weeks later baseball Commissioner Ford Frick stated he foresaw 12 IL teams in 1964. November meetings between IL leaders and Frick produced no agreement; the IL wanted a return to eight, while Frick remained frozen at 12.

One sticking point was the major’s decision to discontinue the travel reimbursement payments paid to the IL in 1963. The IL would consider remaining a 10-team league only if the major’s reinstated the travel payments. The majors instead offered another $50 per month toward each player’s salary and a payment of $2,500 for every player recalled during the season. Silver was one of the league’s hawks and urged an aggressive fight against the forced realignment. His peers promised full support if he faced up the majors at the upcoming December meetings. “I will recommend,” said Silver, “that we fold up rather than yield to dictator-type pressures and costly lack of cooperation from the majors.” In early December Silver was elected vice president of the International League.

The IL won the battle, or so it seemed. The league returned to eight cities for 1964, as the PCL agreed to pick up two teams and become a 12-team circuit. The majors got in the last shot, however, by bequeathing to the PCL the travel monies it had refused to give to the IL.

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.