From Chapter 3:
1966-1970: Prosperity, and Finally, A Pennant
Much of the pennant-winning roster would return to Rochester, but the uncertain status of two players left Earl Weavers plans less than concrete. Mike Epstein was blocked at first base by Boog Powell in Baltimore, but talk centered on converting him into an outfielder. There were hopes he would be sent back to Rochester to learn the trade, yet as spring rolled on, that possibility became less likely. It was likewise assumed that the Os would rather have Mark Belanger continue to develop by playing full time at the Triple-A level. However his pre-season play gave him the chance to stick at the big league level as a utility player.
The absence of those two players were crucial, as their potential replacements were unproven at the Triple-A level. Bobby Floyd was the heir apparent at short, but hit only .248 at Elmira and was at best adequate in the field. There was no clear favorite at first base, where John Mason, Ron Stone (.280 at Elmira), and late-spring acquisition Charlie Leonard (.307, 12, 71 at Double-A Asheville) were all looking for playing time. The other two infield spots were in the steady hands of Steve Demeter and Mickey McGuire. At least the group was versatile; Floyd and Mason could play other infield spots and utility man Frank Peters (.258, 11, 64 at Elmira) was comfortable at any infield position.
The outfield situation was more settled, with Mason and Stone available, along with Dave May, Curt Motton and John Scruggs. Scruggs was perhaps the best defender in the league and after a disappointing 1966, led the team during the spring in hitting and home runs. He and May brought great speed to the lineup. As far as catching, the Wings were deep actually too deep with the returning Vic Roznovsky and Camilo Carreon, and newcomer Owen Johnson (.280, 13, 49 with Toronto).
Pitching was expected to carry the team. Ed Barnowski and Dave Leonhard were back as starters, reinforced by Gene Brabender (4-3, 3.55 with Baltimore) and Tom Fisher (14-6, 1.88 for Elmira). Harley Anderson and Paul Knechtges were the sole lefties, joined in the bullpen by Rick Delgado, Ken Rowe and newcomers Jim Hardin (8-2, 3.44 with Elmira) and Gerald Herron (0-7 between Pittsburgh and Toronto). Weaver would only predict a first-division finish, stating my pitching can make us No. 1. Our hitting makes us two or three. Our defense makes a fourth-place finish possible. Without Belanger the defense was shaky, and the absence of Epstein left the Wings without a legitimate power hitter.
The 1966 IL champions opened at Jacksonville, where defense of its crown began on a positive note. Barnowski carried a no-hitter into the fifth and Scruggs added a home run and four RBI in a 9-2 romp. After Florida, the opening swing continued in Richmond, with the Wings splitting four games in each city. Weaver still had no clear winners in his search for regulars at shortstop, first base and center field, alternating players at all positions. The catching log-jam was settled when Roznovsky was shipped out.
Red Wing Stadium had a decidedly different look for the home opener on May 3. Extensive repairs and improvements had been made at the park. The fresh look started outside, where a new facade had been added to the building that housed the team offices and ticket booths. Inside the stadium, a bright coat of red paint highlighted the structural ironwork. The bleachers in left field had been refurbished and the old, broken-down bleachers in left center were gone, with new battery of outfield signboards in its place. The clock atop the scoreboard was ornately crowned by a cupola. There was a new set of lights, with $40,000 spent to improve field illumination. Less obvious to the fans were the tons of dirt brought in to rebuild the infield, hundreds of dollars in seed and fertilizer to thicken the turf, and a new hot water tank which would assure that every Red Wing could have a steaming shower after the game. Silver put the total cost of the upgrades at over $100,000.
The allure of the improvements couldnt overcome an icy 45-degree day, as only 5,723 appeared for the opener, a 5-3 win over Toledo. Among those missing the contest were the two umpires both thought the game was scheduled for evening and didnt show. Local resident and league alternate Ken Kaiser stood-in as base ump. After an off-day, the new lights were put to the test. The 380 bulbs in the towers had been swapped for replacements fewer in number (only 136) but were much brighter and fans found it a noticeable improvement. A case could have been made otherwise, as the both teams could manage only one run, the single tally fortunately scored by the Wings.
Six regulars over .300 and a pitching staff with an ERA under 2.00 helped the Wings capture all three games played on the opening homestand. The success continued when the squad took to the road. Interrupted only by a number of rainouts, Weavers team ripped off eight consecutive wins, staking the team to a 12-4 start and a one-game lead. The Red Wings played through a potentially distracting incident when Mike Epstein was sent down by the Os but refused to report. The stance was consistent with what the slugger had said all along: he would not return to the minors. The affair caused ever-widening ripples. The Orioles made an unprecedented guarantee that if Epstein joined the Wings, he would be in Baltimore in 1968 or be traded. A Newark, New Jersey wrestling promoter, president of the Worldwide Wrestling Federation, jumped into the fray. He offered Epstein $25,000 to train and learn the wrestling business and $100,000 a year thereafter.
Since Epstein had been optioned to Rochester, Red Wing brass found themselves with a decision to make. Weaver took a hard-line stance, stating, Mike Epstein cant help us with the attitude he has right now. Silver, while admitting how much he and the Rochester fans would like to have the first baseman back, said I can not and will not make him any special promises and Rochester doesnt need to beg. On May 16, six days after the demotion, Silver with a great deal of personal regret, suspended Epstein without pay, putting a stop to his $9,000 yearly salary. Epstein could not be reached for comment, reportedly in the midst of a cross-country drive to his California home.
There would have been a hole for him too. Charlie Leonard was gone to Columbus and the first base spot was still unsettled. The rest of the infield was upset when McGuire had to miss a weekend on military reserve duty, but Peters filled in admirably. Floyd was unexpectedly solid at shortstop and the teams defense, which had been a concern, was steady. The Wings continued to win, taking a 17-9 first place mark into the May 25 exhibition game against Baltimore.
The home side won the game by a 5-2 count in front of a crowd of 7,028. Despite the disappointing attendance, the RCB coffers swelled by $15,000. The contest was broadcast by Channel 10, which helped explain the attendance drop from 14,330 the previous season. (That game had also been televised, but only after Silver was assured of a sell-out.) The Epstein situation continued to be the talk of the local sporting community, rumor and fact fanning the debate. The wrestling offer had been withdrawn (fact) and word had it that he was about to be dealt to the Washington Senators (rumor). When Epstein resurfaced in California he asked to work out with the Os farm club in Stockton, but was refused permission. That led him to reaffirm his decision to retire from baseball, stating he would return to school, get a degree and work in another field. The situation was finally resolved on May 29, when Epstein and pitcher Frank Bertaina were traded to Washington for pitcher Pete Reichert. One Red Wing reacted to the deal by saying, The Os traded two flakes for a pretty good pitcher....
There were few down spots in the early going for the Wings, other than two losses to Toronto hurler and former teammate Dave Vineyard, one a no-hitter on May 23. Barnowski raised concerns with control problems, but the end of May found the team with a 21-11 record and a 4 1/2-game cushion on second place. The team was balanced (seven players had between 11 and 14 RBI, and five pitchers had ERAs under 1.50) and lucky (3-0 in extra inning games; 8-3 in one-run games). A dark cloud looming in the future were the military commitments: Leonhard was gone for two weeks at the end of May, Barnowski and Floyd had similar tours due in July, and McGuire faced a draft call in the same month. But for right now, said Weaver, I wouldnt trade any club in the league for mine.
The versatility of the club and the depth of the Os system helped. The adaptability of Stone, Mason and Peters was invaluable and when Leonhard went on duty, Fred Beene was recalled. Local interest in the Wings was climbing to unheard-of heights; evidenced by the Democrat & Chronicles new telephone scores line, which registered a majority of callers dialing in for Red Wing results. The annual Pony Night, from which a young fan went home with a horse, drew 16,019 on June 3, the highest turnstile count in the history of community ownership.
Yet there was no way for any club to avoid a poor stretch, even a team so free of problems or personality clashes. An early-June slump of five losses in seven games included a 17-5 home loss to last place Jacksonville in which Suns pitcher Nolan Ryan struck out nine Red Wings in four innings. The game also cost them the services of starting catcher Carreon, sidelined with a damaged finger. His loss set off a number of injury-related roster moves. Pitcher Gerry Herron, still struggling from the effects of a 1966 sore arm, was sent down, with Tommy Arruda up from Elmira to take his spot on the staff. Owen Johnson took Carreons duties and less than a week later suffered his own finger injury, a broken digit on a foul tip. Even worse, iron-man Demeter had a torn tendon and bone chips in his right ring finger, an injury that left his finger bent, twisted, swollen and red. Only an operation, not rest, would correct the problem, but he decided to wait until seasons end to have surgery.
Some of those negatives turned into positives, helping the Wings to eight straight wins in mid-June, all on the road. Arruda had a seven-inning one-hitter in his second appearance. Demeter was in constant pain and had trouble gripping a bat, yet he went on a 14-for-25 run which took his average up to .315. On June 20 the third baseman, labeled as the most feared clutch hitter outside the majors, stroked a two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the ninth to give the Wings a 2-1 triumph over the Columbus Jets. It gave the Wings a 14-5 record in one-run games and a 6 1/2-game cushion, the franchises largest hold on the top spot in over a decade.
Some of the problems worsened, however. Mason filled in for a game at catcher, then returned to his spot in center field when the Wings called up George Farson. Farson managed a few games before blood poisoning from an infected blister sidelined him. Outfielder May, who took over the league lead in RBI (40) and had a 18-game hit streak, was sidelined with a sprained ankle. Absent an extra catcher or outfielder, pitcher Beene saw a few innings in the outfield in order to save a pinch hitter. Hurler Delgado was on the sidelines as well, with a sterno-clavicular separation.
His injury coincided with the loss of reliever Jim Hardin (5-3) to Baltimore. Pitching reinforcements were in the form of Delano Hill (4-0 at Elmira) and Jim Palmer from the Orioles. Palmer, who went 15-10 in 66 and added a shuout win in the World Series, was troubled by a sore shoulder and had yet to regain his form. (In his first start for the Wings, he allowed seven hits and four runs before leaving with a no-decision in the fifth inning.) Catching help was added when 32-year-old veteran Ken Retzer was purchased from Clevelands Triple-A Portland squad.
The club still had a hold on first, but a new competitor was stalking it. Richmond, in last place on June 4, won 14 of 18 games and when the Braves easily swept three at home (7-1, 8-0, 5-2) from the Wings later in the month, Rochesters lead was down to 2 1/2. After the Richmond debacle, Weavers troops traveled to Buffalo, where racial disturbances in the neighborhood of the stadium caused a postponement. Subsequent games were moved to Niagara Falls and played in tiny Hyde Park, with the first contest drawing only 117 fans.
The long-dreaded July drain to the military came and cost the Wings the services of Floyd, Barnowski, and indirectly McGuire, who was called up to Baltimore when Mark Belanger went on army duty. Second baseman John Sepich came up to take McGuires spot and lasted only two innings before tearing a hamstring. Pitching woes continued (Knechtges had a sore arm, Palmer went back to Baltimore and Delgado was still sidelined) but the Wings continued to win. Lloyd Fourroux, a converted outfielder, was brought up from Elmira, where he was 8-2, with a 1.84 ERA. The recall of outfielder Curt Motton (.335, 11, 41) forced the Wings to go outside the organization, acquiring veteran first baseman Ray Barker from Syracuse. Barker, who had 15 home runs for the 1961 Wings, was an excellent defensive first baseman and his presence moved Stone to Mottons left field slot.This is a good ballclub, said Weaver, at least partly because our guys dont moan. They come to play. As long as we can put nine guys on the field, were a club that has a chance to win.
A four-game losing streak again dropped the Wings lead to 2 1/2 games heading into a Norton Street showdown with second place Richmond. The Braves won the opener and, after taking the first game of a doubleheader the next night, were within a win of first place. Actually the Braves got within two innings of the summit, carrying a 2-0 lead into the eighth inning of the nightcap. Fourroux, who took the loss in Game One, was called on to pinch hit, and smacked a two-run home run to tie. The Wings pushed across the lead run in the same inning and held on to the top spot with a 3-2 win. A 6-4 Rochester triumph to close the series pushed the lead back to 2 1/2. McGuire was back, Floyd and Barnowski due in a few more days and outfielder Mike Fiore available after being released early from his six-month military tour. It looked as if the Wings had weathered the storm, symbolically accented by the ceremonial raising of the 1966 pennant in front of the home fans on July 21.
The Wings had played much better on the road all season, winning 29 of its 45 road games as it headed to Richmond for a late-July meeting. But just as before, the Braves took all three contests on their home field, two in extra innings. A subsequent loss in Jacksonville once again dropped the Red Wing lead to a half-game. But the team rebounded to win the next two in Florida, one on the strength of a four-run ninth, to rebuild the lead to two heading into the all-star game.
The format of the affair had changed from an all-league team challenging a major league club, to a competition between teams from the North and South. Weaver had been named skipper of the North squad back in July, and Demeter, Stone, May and Fisher were chosen to start for his squad. (May couldnt play as he was recalled by the Orioles two days before the game, with Motton returned to Rochester). Weaver also added pitchers Rowe and Delgado to his roster. The South took the game 4-3 in 11 innings.
Noticeably absent for the event in Richmond was Morrie Silver. There was a league meeting scheduled and the RCB president was to be honored in pre-game ceremonies, but he chose to remain in Rochester. There was no agenda for the meeting, he said, so there was no reason for him to be there. (This is not to say there was nothing for the IL directors to discuss. Maple Leaf brass had already let it be known they would not operate in Toronto the next season, and the Jacksonville, Toledo and Buffalo franchises were all in varying stages of disarray.) We have one of the most important homestands of the season [upcoming], said Silver. There is too much necessary work to be done here to miss for the sake of a plaque.
The one preparation Silver couldnt manage was rest for his beleaguered pitching corps. The bullpen was nearing collapse, as the starters had managed to complete only two of their last 28 starts. Hardin and Brabender (recalled June 21) had combined for 13 wins before going to Baltimore. Their replacements (Hill, Palmer and Mike Adamson) were 1-9. Knechtges remained the only southpaw and his arm was not completely sound. Beene, Delgado, and Fisher were ailing as well. Beene was placed on the DL to make room for catcher Johnson, who returned after sitting out two months with his hand injury. Johnsons return meant the demotion of Carreon to Elmira; however less than a week after his return, Johnson slipped on the dugout steps and injured his ankle. Carreon was dispatched for, but hurt by the demotion, refused to return unless a starting job was promised. Weaver wouldnt budge, and Retzer remained the only catcher until Johnsons return, 10 days later.
The Wings managed only six wins in the 13-game stretch at Norton St. The homestand included Steve Demeter Night, during which Silver presented him with a $2,000 check from the club. Richmond surged back to within a half-length but cooled, and, after Rochester swept a Aug. 10 doubleheader at Columbus, its lead was back at three. But the Wings were just buying time. An Aug. 17 twin bill loss at Syracuse was the fifth defeat in seven games and finally, the club dropped into second place. Both losses were by a single tally, a growing trend, as the team had lost 10 of its last 11 one-run games.
Rochester regained the lead briefly (by .001 percentage point) but the deficit was two when the Braves came into Rochester for a pair of games in late August. The Wings won the first in front of 9,641, Leonhards seventh consecutive win and 12th overall. The visitors reclaimed their two-game margin the next night, scoring four in the ninth to take a 6-1 win in front of 10,212. With one day left in August the Wings were 1 1/2 games back, with three consecutive rain-induced doubleheaders to play against Buffalo.
The Wings took three of the four in Niagara Falls, then returned home. After beating the Bisons 5-1 in Game One of the final twin bill, the Wings found themselves down 3-2 in the nightcap with two outs and nobody on in the last of the ninth. Scruggs beat out an infield hit, followed by a walk to the gimpy-legged Motton. On a full-count pitch to Demeter, the pressure performer lined a double to the gap in right center. Motton slid in under the tag for the winning run and with two games left in the season, the Wings were tied for first place.
Both of Rochesters remaining contests were at home versus the Bisons. The Wings dropped the first 11-5, but Richmond cooperated by losing to visiting Toledo. The seasons last scheduled day would possibly determine who would cop the flag. A crowd of 10,218 came out to see if a decision would be made, as well as to fete the Red Wing manager on Earl Weaver Day. The Wings presented him with a check for $5,000 (to truly appreciate Silvers generosity, consider that in October the St. Louis Cardinals winning World Series shares were a little over $8,000) and Silver called him the finest manager and one of the finest men Ive ever known. In a display of the oppositions respect, all of the Buffalo players were on the top step of the dugout to applaud the Rochester skipper in pre-game ceremonies. Afterwards, Leonhard dominated the Bisons 5-1 for his 10th straight win. But Richmond matched the result and hopped on a plane to Rochester for a one-game playoff to determine the 1967 International League champion.
For the second consecutive year, Wings pennant hopes were left for the last day. Surprisingly, in the long-standing history of the league, it would be the first-ever playoff for a pennant. The stands were crowded with 11,459 Rochester faithful and they witnessed a tense pitching duel. Richmond right-hander Jim Britton carried a no-hitter into the sixth. Rochester starter Adamson was only marginally less effective, allowing only three hits heading into the seventh, when the Braves pushed across the games first two runs.
The margin was still a pair when Britton stepped to the plate in the ninth. During his at-bat, his father, sitting in the stands behind the visitors dugout, suffered a heart attack. While first-aid personnel attended to him, his son strode to the mound for the bottom of the ninth. He was pulled by his manager with one out and men on first and second not because of the potential rally, but to help attend to his ailing parent. Still half-dressed in his uniform, he helped his father on a stretcher into the ambulance. The Braves stifled the rally, won the game 2-0 and the pennant. Their celebration was tempered when word came back to the clubhouse that Brittons father had been pronounced dead on arrival at Rochester General Hospital. The win was Brittons sixth of the year against the Wings, exactly half of his season total.
There was little time for reflection, as the playoffs opened the next night. Columbus was the opponent and in stark contrast to the night before, only 1,719 were in the stands on a rainy, stormy night. The Jets scored five in the second inning, knocking starter Fisher out of the game, and held on for a 6-5 win. The team rebounded the next night to win 3-0. Arruda pitched a one-hitter, and Demeter drove in all the Red Wings runs with a double and a home run.
The victory appeared to give Rochester the edge heading back to Ohio. Game Three seemed secure with ace Leonhard taking a 3-1 lead into the home half of the ninth inning. Yet after retiring the first batter, the Rochester righty surrendered a single, walk and then, shockingly, a home run which gave the Jets a dramatic 4-3 win. Columbus jumped out early the next night, scoring three in the second with the help of two second-inning Rochester errors, to finish off the Red Wings 3-2.
Weaver was philosophical about the loss of the pennant and the early elimination. You go as far as you can go with the talent you have, he stated. When youre not quite good enough to win, well then you lose. It was widely-believed that Weaver had the team playing above its head, with the pennant defeat to Richmond written off to the fact that the Braves clearly had a better club.
The teams depth and versatility took it as far as it did, but three players stood out from the rest. Curt Motton and Steve Demeter were named all-stars at their respective positions. Motton hit .323 with 18 home runs and knocked in a league-leading 70 runs. Demeter batted .317 and topped the circuit handily in two-baggers with 32. Dave Leonhard split the top right-handed pitcher balloting for all-league honors. His 15-3 record led the circuit in winning percentage (the third consecutive Red Wing hurler to top the league in that category) and wins, and he added a fine 2.61 ERA.
Dave Mays stats for his partial season were among the league leaders as well. His .316, 11, 57 batting line helped the team to a .253 cumulative average, the ILs second-best. Other than Ron Stone (.283, 9, 33) however, the rest of the position players hovered in the .250s and .240s and below.
Tom Fisher (10-6, 3.04) was the only other Rochester pitcher to reach double figures in wins, although Gene Brabender (8-6, 2.77) was on course had he not been recalled. Ed Barnowski was easily the Wings biggest disappointment of the year; coming off his 17-win season he went 4-7 with a 4.92 ERA. Jim Hardin (5-3, 2.04), Fred Beene (5-1, 2.95) and Rick Delgado (9-4, 3.47) led a deep and usually effective bullpen corps.
In late September, Weaver and Morrie Silver were honored at a testimonial dinner at the Rochester Club. Weaver flew in from St. Louis, amidst speculation that the Baltimore job would be his at the end of the major league season. Oriole Manager Hank Bauer did manage to keep his job after the disastrous sixth place finish, but three of his four coaches got the axe. On Oct. 3, Weaver filled one of those openings, becoming first base coach with Baltimore. Early speculation on candidates for the Red Wing managerial job centered on two Baltimore farm pilots: Billy Demars and Joe Altobelli, both of whom were, interestingly enough, Rochester residents. Silver threw in the name of coach Herm Starrette, as well as several other experienced managers across the country.
Baltimore offered Silver a list of replacements suitable to them, but DeMars emerged as, in Silvers words, the leading candidate. On Nov. 14, the Wings announced that Billy DeMars would indeed manage the club for 1968. The 42-year-old DeMars called the opportunity to manage in his hometown the biggest thrill of my baseball life. Coming off a division championship with Elmira in 1967, he admitted to being a stricter boss. I try to be fair, he said in describing his leadership style, but I want my ballplayers to do the best they can all the time theyre playing for me.
Not only familiar due to the fact that he had called Rochester home for the past 12 years (he worked at McCurdys Northgate Plaza store in the off-season), the 42-year-old DeMars had also been part of the IL opposition over the years. He played with Buffalo in 1949 and 1956 and spent the years of 52-56 with the archrival Maple Leafs. His full-time playing days came to an end in 1958, when he was named player-manager of Baltimores Class-C Aberdeen club. He made all the stops in the Orioles chain, managing in Leesburg, Florida; Stockton, California; Tri-Cities, Washington; Appleton (Fox City), Wisconsin, and Miami before his one-year stint in Elmira.
DeMars appointment came after the news that one of his former employers had folded. On Oct. 17, the Toronto president gave formal notice that the Maple Leaf franchise was for sale. Within a day a buyer was found, who paid $65,000 and moved the franchise to Louisville, Kentucky. (The new owner, Walter Dilbeck, was not unknown to Silver. In February of 66, Dilbeck had approached the RCB president with a spot in his proposed third major league. For $50,000 in cash Rochester would play in the Global League, along with teams in Manila, Tokyo and Havana. Needless to say, the scheme fell through for the moment, although the idea didnt leave Dilbecks head.)
The loss of Toronto, a league member since 1894, meant that for the first time in 74 years, the International League would not live up to its title. It was a sad ending for the proud franchise, which had died a slow death in a deteriorating stadium. Nor did its relocation solve the leagues chronic problem of shaky franchises. Jacksonville and Buffalo were still question marks. The major leagues were moving ahead with plans for expansion in 1969, forcing a growth of the minor leagues. New plans were formulated that would change the format of the IL; one such idea had the league absorbing four PCL clubs (two of the new teams would be in Seattle and San Diego and it was expected that the loss of these markets would spell the end of the west coast league) and split into two six-team divisions.
In whatever configuration the International League would be found, Rochester would undoubtedly continue as its flagship franchise. At the end of November, Silver announced a staggering pre-tax profit of $160,922; after property levies the figure was still an impressive $85,422. Operating income (paid attendance, concessions, advertising, radio, and program sales) topped half a million dollars, continuing an upward trend which saw it almost triple in three years. The income figure was, according to Silver, probably an all time high for a minor league baseball operation. All debts had been paid in full and the Wings counted almost $90,000 in the bank. The book value of stock was at $12.10, although Silver admitted that if stock were available, it would probably sell for as much as $30 a share. Despite that, Silver, the largest stockholder, stated there would be no dividend.
Total paid attendance was 279,348. The regular-season average of 4,616 represented an increase of over 500 fans per game from 1966. The figure again led both the IL and American minors in attendance. The gate increase was the major factor in the growth of operating income and concessions. Total income had grown $130,000 since 1965, yet the operating expenses had increased only $14,697 over the same period under Silvers close and frugal supervision. Even some of the six-figure outlays for stadium and field work came back to the club in reduced costs. The new $40,000 light system cut annual utility bills from almost $6,000 to just under $4,000.
Silver gave special recognition in his report to the contributions of the Orioles and the support of local business and industry. He also paid tribute to the finest baseball fans in the world, and reiterated that future hopes would center on where the success of our past has been in the loyalty, support and concern of the fans for the Red Wings and baseball in Rochester. His only concession to the ILs continued problems was the admission that he was holding off on major outlays for stadium improvements until the leagues future was better defined. Needless to say, at Decembers shareholders meeting, Silver was re-elected as president of Rochester Community Baseball.
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