From Chapter 3:
1966-1970: Prosperity, and Finally, A Pennant
The last season of the decade was a year of transition for both the majors and minors. At the big-league level, expansion added four new teams: Seattle and Kansas City in the American League, San Diego and Montreal in the National. Each league split into two six-team divisions and added a round of playoffs to determine league champions. Whether these specific developments had or were hoped to have any influence on baseballs popularity is unknown; however in April, a Harris Poll announced that for the first time, football had passed baseball as Americas favorite sport.
The draft to stock those teams redistributed talent throughout every farm system and brought youth up into every classification. The four new teams necessitated major changes at the Triple-A level as well. The American Association, dormant since 1963, was revived, with franchises in six cities. The Pacific Coast League returned to eight teams from its 1968 number of 12, bringing the number of Triple-A teams to the required 22.
The Red Wings opened camp on March 20 in Daytona Beach under the hand of new manager Cal Ripken. The early line on the club was that it lacked speed, but had good pitching and power, and an abundance of spirit. (An example of this positive attitude was displayed on the second day of camp when pitcher Tim Sommer was married in the morning, and started an intrasquad game that afternoon.) Other prognosticators felt it to be an iffy year for the Wings; a lot of questions would have to be answered in the positive for the team to contend.
Most of the ifs centered around the infield. Frank Peters was expected to hold down the third base job, but was a holdout. Chet Trail was slotted as the second baseman, but that was contingent on him failing to making the parent club. Mickey McGuire was on the roster, yet his status was uncertain due to a bum knee that made a late arrival to camp. First base was wide open, with newcomers Elijah Johnson (.277 at Triple-A Oklahoma City) and Jim Campbell (.231 at Elmira) under consideration. The shortstop post was in the hands of Elmira grad Art Miranda.
The outfield picture was less fuzzy. Switch-hitting Fred Valentine, 34, who had seen time in a Red Wing uniform from 1961-63, returned to Rochester after five seasons in the majors with Washington and Baltimore. Left fielder Steve Hovley was on loan from the expansion Seattle Pilots organization after a .240, 7, 32 season as a California Angels Triple-A farmhand. Two players who ended the previous season with Rochester Terry Crowley and Billy Scripture would duel for the right field spot.
The starting rotation would be staffed by four returning hurlers: Bill Dillman, Paul Campbell, Gerry Herron and Rick Delgado. Herron reported 30 pounds lighter and Ripken was touting the big right-hander as a potential 15-game winner. The potential sleeper was the one newcomer southpaw Marcelino Lopez. He had been bothered by arm problems in 68, splitting time between Miami and Elmira. Yet the Os were willing to stay with him and for good reason: in 1965 the Cuban was the American Leagues Rookie of the Year after 14-13, 2.93 campaign with the California Angels. Returning relievers Fred Beene and Al Severinson led the bullpen roster, along with Sommer, John ODonoghue and Ron Cayll. The glut of hurlers forced 1968 Red Wings Aubrey Gatewood and Tom Fisher to open the season on the inactive list.
The catching situation changed drastically during the spring. One of the early uncertain spots, the Wings originally slated Vic Roznovsky as their number one receiver. However he promised to retire if cut by Baltimore, so Rochester picked up two catchers on loan from other organizations. Arlo Brunsberg, who hit 12 home runs in 81 games with Toledo, came over from Detroit. Three days later the Wings added another receiver with good power when John Sullivan came on option from Philadelphia. He had split the previous season between the Phillies and their Triple-A affiliate in San Diego. The acquisitions led Ripken to change his mind and keep three catchers, so George Farson returned.
The Wings lost their first four exhibition games; however by the end of spring training they stood at 11-10. Morrie Silver visited the team in Florida and came away convinced the team was a pennant contender. What Bob Hyatt felt about the teams chances is unknown; still, on the final day of spring training the proprietor of Hyatt Stereo Center of Rochester offered a $10,000 cash award for the players if the Wings captured the IL flag.
Changes in league structure and rules were on tap. The IL decided to experiment with a designated pinch-hitter, who would occupy a spot in the batting order and hit for a pre-selected player (most likely the pitcher), but not play a defensive position. The idea was increase offensive production as well as quicken the games pace by reducing the appearance of pinch hitters. Another speed-sensitive mandate set the length of all doubleheader games at seven innings.
The league roster itself saw a new city Norfolk, Virginia the home of the transplanted Jacksonville franchise. The team was renamed the Tidewater Tides. The Louisville club became an unexpected trouble spot late in the spring. With less than a week before the openers, IL Commissioner George Sisler Jr. revoked the franchise. The club owed over $70,000 in debts and stadium rental, and owner Walter Dilbeck (who was still involved in dubious and doomed-to-fail Global League scheme) had failed to meet the deadline for completing the sale of the club to an Indianapolis businessman. The Boston affiliate was subsequently awarded to a Louisville shopping center developer (and nephew of Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey), who assumed the debts and kept the team in Kentucky.
Rochester was scheduled to open on April 18 in Columbus with Dillman on the mound. Circumstances had already solved, at least temporarily, some of Ripkens lineup dilemmas. Peters and Trail were in their respective infield positions and, with Johnson on weekend National Guard duty, reserve Campbell would start at first base. But the opener was rained out and the following day was froze-out as high winds and snow whipped Columbus park. Finally, on April 20 the Red Wing season began with a doubleheader sweep of the hometown Jets, 7-5, 6-2, as Campbell hit three home runs.
The Wings came to Silver for their April 24 opener, but disagreeable early-spring weather pushed the opener back a day. Before his first home game as manager, Ripken predicted his squad would finish in the leagues top three. That said, the Wings went on to lose their opener to Tidewater 7-6 in 11 innings, before 5,496 fans. One inconvenience (besides the cold weather and the loss) was the residue of sand present in the stadium. Workers recently finished sand-blasting and painting (an off-green) the steel roof girders and had yet to complete clean-up of the large quantity of sand used in the process. Some box-seat holders were less likely to be bothered those sitting in the two sections that had been replaced with modern, contoured seats. Another switch was on the home uniforms. It was the centennial season of professional baseball ( the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first openly-paid team, was formed in 1869) and the majors adopted its logo as a commemorative sleeve patch. Minor league affiliates were also directed to wear the patch, which, on the Rochester flannels, displaced the 8,222 winged-baseball sleeve decoration.
The Wings dropped their first four at home and inconsistent pitching marked their efforts in the first part of the season. Even the highlight, a seven-inning no-hitter on May 5 by Lopez, was less than an exemplary effort. The 5-1 win earned a doubleheader split against Richmond; however Lopez walked five, and lost the shutout in the last inning on a walk, error and sacrifice fly.
A major roster shift was made on the last day of April. Red Wing pitchers John ODonoghue and the inactive Tom Fisher were packaged with a Double-A catcher and shipped to Seattle for a pair of Triple-A players pitcher Gerald Schoen and infielder Mike Ferraro. Schoen was sent to the Southern Leagues Dallas/Ft. Worth Spurs (which had replaced Elmira as the Os Double-A affiliate), with reliever Aubrey Gatewood activated. But for Rochester fans, Ferraro was the key to the deal. The 24-year-old third baseman had been an IL all-star with Syracuse in 1968 on the basis of his unparalleled glove work and .293 average. Seattle picked him in the expansion draft but he failed to make the team and was sent to the Pilots Triple-A farm team in Vancouver. He refused to report and was placed on the Pilots inactive list.
Ferraro likewise balked at joining the Red Wings, stating from his home in Kingston, N.Y. that he wasdisenchanted with the whole business of baseball and would likely retire. GM Bob Turner placed him on suspension and filled that roster spot with veteran lefty reliever Dick Rusteck from Tidewater. But it was not long until Ferraro reconsidered. After talks with Turner and Os Director of Minor League Clubs Jim McLaughlin, he decided to report, admitting I just cant stay out of the game for very long its in my blood I guess. His presence couldnt help but improve the team; on the same day his return was announced, the Wings dropped into the league basement with losses in 12 of their first 19 games.
Roster adjustments were far from finished. Lopez won his first two decisions in impressive fashion and his contract was purchased by the Orioles, with Mike Adamson sent down in his place. With a roster spot needed for Ferraro, Chet Trail was loaned to Tacoma of the PCL, with Mickey McGuire taking his place at second. The final lineup changes saw Gatewood released and catcher Farson activated.
Ferraro had a triple in his first Red Wing plate appearance, and a six-game win streak launched the team from the basement all the way into fourth place. The expected power helped spark the success. The team hit 30 home runs in its first 23 games and by late May, Crowley had already reached double figures in home runs. But a run of injuries, the most damaging to Valentine and McGuire, found the team short-handed. Pitcher Beene had to be used in right field during one game and the situation worsened when infielder Frank Peters was sent to Vancouver. Personal problems and an increasing discontent over his playing situation led to his departure.
Unusual events on the road also marked the month. The May 1 game with Tidewater in Portsmouth, Virginia had to be cancelled because of a surprise march on City Hall by 200 students from a predominantly black high school. The students, calling for curriculum reform, demanded to see the city manager, who was out of town; however an emergency curfew was called and the Tides-Wings game postponed. During the eighth inning of a game against the Buffalo Bisons in Niagara Falls, Manager Ripken collapsed in the dugout. He was taken to the hospital, where it was found he was having a negative reaction to a penicillin shot administered before the game. He was released that same evening and returned to the dugout the next night, but left the managing duties to player/coach Chico Fernandez. He described the feeling as like Id pitched a doubleheader, one game with each arm.
Less than a week before, a fire at Syracuse's MacArthur Stadium burned out the entire center section of the ballpark, from ground to roof. The blaze was discovered at 1 a.m., just hours after Rochester and Syracuse had finished a game. Syracuse scrambled to make playing arrangements, scheduling some home games in the visitors parks, and others in near-by stadiums in Oneonta and Auburn of the New York-Pennsylvania league.
The Wings had a series scheduled with Syracuse starting on the last days of May. GM Turner offered Syracuse two nights of gate receipts to hold the series at Silver, but Chiefs management wanted the proceeds from all four nights, along with concession money. Turner's refusal caused the Chiefs to schedule the series for Auburn, and led to bad feelings between the clubs. (Chiefs GM Don Labbruzzo considered asking new baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn to force Rochester to take the series, feeling IL head George Sisler Jr. had not been man enough to exercise his authority.) A statement printed in the program for the games in Auburn contained the following caustic and cryptic comment: "Syracuse management wishes to thank the Red Wings for their deep concern of our problem. The score now reads, Rochester 10, Syracuse 50,000." The Wings returned home after the Sunday series-concluding game to find a "nasty" sign stretched across the gates of Silver Stadium. A smaller, less offensive sign was erected two days later in the same spot.
The Chiefs had the last laugh, however, taking three of the four games, by scores of 10-7, 11-3 and 12-9. The latter returned the Wings to the cellar of the International League with an 18-23 record. Ripken hinted at changes, particularly in his pitching staff: Based on past performances, our pitching should not be this bad. But some of the fellows just havent pitched up to capabilities. He had already shifted Dillman back to the bullpen, but injuries limited his options. Herron and Delgado were suffering from arm problems and during a June 6 game, Moose Severinson injured his back and had to leave the contest in severe pain.
Ripken made good on his promise and in the space of 10 days the staff had five new members. Ed Barnowski was activated, rejoining the team after finishing his spring semester at Syracuse University, where he made the Deans List. Right-handers Mike Herson (from Single-A Miami), Gerry Schoen (Double-A Dallas/Ft. Worth) and Buzz Stephan (on option from Seattles Triple-A club) were likewise added. But the biggest acquisition was made on June 17, when the Wings sent Paul Campbell and cash to Buffalo for Frank Bertaina. The big lefty had only been sold to the Bisons by the Washington Senators the week before. He was fondly remembered in Rochester for his partial season in 1966, when he went 9-2, 2.84 and struck out a record 17 batters in one game. Due to injuries, the only roster casualty to the additions was Tim Sommer, shipped to Elmira.
Bertaina joined a team that was treading water with a record of 30 wins and 30 losses. But the Wings displayed signs of life even before he joined the staff. The offense continued its early-season production and when all were healthy it was a potent everyday lineup. Johnson, Crowley, Ferraro and Campbell were all at or above the .300 mark, and Hovley was lurking in the vicinity. Miranda was a solid lead-off man, near the league lead in hits. The first indications of a resurgence came in mid-May, when the seventh place Wings traveled to league-leading Louisville. The Wings swept all four games only the last contest was close moving the team to third place and the .500 mark, the first time since April 26 the Wings had been at the break-even level.
The torrid pace continued. A late-June streak in which the team won eight in a row, 12 of 13, and 15 of 17 left the Wings at 37-30, just 1 1/2 games behind Louisville. Most impressive in the revival were the nine consecutive wins away from home and the 11-1 record against first-division clubs. The keys were the new-found depth in the pitching staff and the elevation to regular status of veteran catcher Sullivan. He helped steady the new pitchers and resuscitated his own batting statistics. The Wings won 12 of the 14 games he started, and he hit .292, with 14 RBI in the same span. His emergence allowed for the return of Arlo Brunsberg to Toledo. Other offensive players found June to their liking as well. Crowley had his home run total up to 15, and McGuire hit in 21 of 22 games. The climb up the standings reached as high as second, with Ripken explaining, Weve got the pitching, hitting and defense now. Its as simple as that.
Yet Rochester fans were given little time to appreciate the new arrangement. In June, Bertaina left on a two-week military stint, and Steve Hovley (.294, 8, 24) was recalled by Seattle. The latters departure left the Wings with only three outfielders on their roster Crowley, Valentine and Scripture and none were completely healthy. Infielder McGuire and pitcher Delgado were likewise nursing injuries. At the end of June, with Bertaina still absent, the Orioles, 11 games ahead in the AL East and playing .724 ball, recalled relief ace Al Severinson to replace injured starter Jim Palmer. Morrie Silver stated that it was the first time a O's recall made no sense.
Player/coach Chico Fernandez was sidelined with influenza and inflamed tonsils and the Wings had only 19 players, injured or otherwise, on their 23-man roster. There was talk that an extra outfielder would be called up from Joe Altobelli's Dallas/Ft. Worth squad either youngsters Roger Freed or Don Baylor but the Wings only added pitcher Carroll Moulden. They went outside the organization to get outfielder Bernie Smith from Tidewater, and he stepped in as the Wings right fielder and number-two hitter.
After winning 21 of 31 in June, the Wings cooled in July. They started the month in second place, but within two weeks the team was back near .500 and dropping perilously close to the second division. Power and pitching both disappeared, the pitching in some cases literally, as four different hurlers had army commitments to fulfill. At one point, the Wings hit only six home runs in 18 games and the pitchers completed only four games in 19 starts. Ripken used 11 different lineups in a stretch that saw his team lose 16 of 25, the juggling partly necessitated by the injury to Elijah Johnson which kept him out of the lineup. Campbell, in a slump that saw his average drop 60 points, changed his jersey number from #5 to #19, a jersey previously worn by one of the bat boys.
Ripkens squad lost 19 of 33 July contests. (Not included in the tally was the 5-4 loss to the Orioles in the July 28 exhibition game. Despite storm warnings and a tornado watch, the game drew 9,184.) The first day of August found them at 53-51, tied for fourth place, 4 1/2 games out of first, behind Toledo, Louisville and Tidewater. Regardless of the slide, several Wings continued with outstanding seasons. Beene already had four shutouts (including a seven-inning one-hitter), 10 wins and 10 complete games. He, Crowley, and Ferraro were named to play for the International League in its all-star game versus the Washington Senators. (The angular hurler was also a fan favorite for his competitive nature. Earlier in the season he dove into the Red Wing dugout in order to catch a foul pop. In August, he would be hit in the throat by a line drive, but throw out the runner before leaving for medical attention.) Crowley remained among the league leaders in home runs (18) and total bases, McGuire was tied for most doubles, and Miranda was competitive in the total hits category. Valentine, despite being the IL's oldest player at 34, was also in the middle of a fine campaign.
The final full month of the season began on a frightening note. In a Aug. 3 loss to Tidewater that dropped the Wings to fifth place, Chico Fernandez was hit with a sidearm fastball above the left ear and taken immediately to Rochester General. (The beaning was unintentional the pitcher, Larry Bearnarth, was in the minors mainly due to his apparent refusal to consistently pitch inside to batters.) Surgery was performed that night and the player/coach listed in serious condition with a compound skull fracture. A few nervous days passed, until the word came that signs indicated a slow but complete recovery was expected, although some brain damage had occurred, which would limit his speaking and writing skills.
The Wings stretch-run prognosis was as favorable as Fernandez's. The schedule had them playing 19 of their remaining 32 games at Silver, although they would have to reverse the seasons pattern of winning only half of their home contests. The IL race was extremely competitive, as six teams still held hopes for the pennant, or most certainly one of the four playoff slots. When Severinson returned from the O's on Aug. 11, the Wings were in fifth place, but only three games from first. Baltimore further helped by picking up a sorely-needed left-handed reliever, Bill Edgerton from Vancouver.
Rochester fans no doubt hoped that a Aug. 17 game versus last place Richmond would prove to be a positive omen for pennant success. Leading 5-2 at home going into the ninth, with relief ace Severinson on the mound, the Wings proceeded to give up four runs to trail 6-5. However Rochester rallied to win in the bottom of the ninth, scoring two charity runs when the Braves' shortstop threw a double-play ball into right field. Another win the next day put the Wings at 66-59, 2 1/2 games from first and only a half-game from second.
The race was so close, however, that a win or loss could jump a club up or down two or more spots. The pressure of the pennant race erupted days later when "normally soft-spoken" Campbell, in a late-night tirade after a loss, verbally ripped into his teammates in the lobby of Richmond's Raleigh Hotel, calling the team "gutless." One ticklish issue was the status of McGuires injury. The second baseman had decided to rest his ailing knee, keeping him out of the lineup when some felt he could play. His absence considerably weakened the defense. Several players were disgusted by the lack of a utility infielder (although Fernandez had finally left the hospital on Aug. 19, he would obviously not play any more that season); without one Ripken was forced to use Elijah Johnson at second. Ripken praised Johnsons efforts, but his lack of infield experience obviously hurt the team. Bertaina, who earlier in his career had a reputation as a hell-bent-for-leather playboy, suggested deeper problems when he reacted, Ive been in this game nine years and Ive been around. But Ive never seen anything like some of the things that have happened here.
Ripken quickly moved to dispel any rumors, giving a public statement before an Aug. 25 game against Tidewater. There is no dissension, no disenchantment, no dont care attitude and no dogging-it on this ball club, he reaffirmed. Ive got complete control of this team. I havent lost it for a minute and Im not about to. Things did not improve during the evening, an 8-2 loss. Ripken was thrown out of the game after a close play at the plate in the Tides decisive five-run eighth inning. Pitchers Bertaina and Severinson had to be restrained from charging umpires after other dubious calls.
Another loss in Norfolk gave the Tides a four-game sweep, and mathematically eliminated the Wings from the pennant. Finding themselves in fifth place, after losing six of eight, the Wings were suddenly concerned with merely capturing a playoff spot.
An 11-1 victory over Columbus days later sparked some hope, but the skid had dug the Wings a hole from which they could not rise. The team at least got to play spoiler, eliminating Louisville from the top spot on the second-to-last day of the season. On the season's final day over 4,000 people turned out to honor Chico Fernandez. Along with the ceremonies, the Wings Board of Directors had earlier presented Fernandez with a check to help defray current and future medical costs.
After losing 10 of their last 15 games (nine of 13 without McGuire), the Wings finished fifth at 71-69, three games short of fourth place. In terms of record, it was a winning year, but Ripken would not use it as a defense. You cant be pleased with a losing season, and it was a losing season even though we finished two games over .500. We didnt win the pennant or make the playoffs.... At the same time, he was not entirely displeased. At the beginning of the season our pitchers couldnt get anyone out, said Ripken in evaluating his first season at Triple-A. Then we stopped hitting. We just couldnt put it all together. Most damaging were the recalls of Hovley and Severinson, the drain of pitchers due to military duty and McGuires absence from the lineup down the stretch.
The performances of Mike Ferraro and Terry Crowley were recognized by their selection to the leagues post-season All-Star squad. Crowley hit .282, led the team with 28 home runs and 83 RBI, and his 268 total bases was the league best. Ferraro slumped late to finish at .279, with four homers and 40 RBI, but he was acknowledged as the leagues best gloveman at third. Fred Valentine finished strong and was the only regular over .300 (301), with 14 home runs and 63 RBI. He received a handful of all-star votes in the outfield, as did Mickey McGuire at second base. First baseman/designated hitter Jim Campbell hit home runs in each of the last two games to finish with 20.
Fred Beene, who started the season in the bullpen, ended the campaign as the teams most effective starter. He went 15-7, 2.98, led the league in innings pitched (193) and tied for most wins. He topped the Rochester staff as well in starts, complete games and shutouts. Beene a tied for second in the leagues Most Valuable Pitcher balloting and added the organization's Barney Lutz Award for excellence by a Baltimore minor leaguer. Mike Adamson went 11-8 and edged Beene by one strikeout (133) for the league crown. Bertaina, one of four pitchers who missed time due to military reserve duty, finished 7-3 with five complete games, and a 2.57 ERA. Relief ace Al Severinson led the staff with a 2.03 ERA and there were those who held that if Bertaina and Severinson were present the entire year, the Wings would have played into the post-season.
At the end of September, despite local grumblings of discontent, the Wings renewed their working agreement with the Orioles for another season. The only thing we could could find fault with the Orioles for was recalling Al Severinson, said Turner. He was our whole bullpen at the time and we didnt feel Earl Weaver needed him with his big lead. The one-year extension called for Baltimore to play an exhibition game in Rochester or make a cash payment. A month later Ripken was rehired, after only his second non-playoff club in eight years of managing.
Despite missing the playoffs for the first time in four years, the franchise led the league in attendance with 243,885 paid, well ahead of the second place draw, and trailing only Hawaii in the entire minors. In December, RCB President William Lang announced net earnings of $34,079, remarking that despite another year of poor weather, increased costs, and the fifth place finish, we have a reasonable good financial picture to report. Yet there were some negatives to be gleaned from the financial statement.
Attendance was up over 12,000, but rising operating costs had eaten into the profit. The team was likewise faced with increased competition for the public entertainment dollar, which caused fans to buy the less-expensive tickets. It was the lowest net profit since 1966, but the Wings decided to hold the line on ticket prices. Some felt the situation the start of an inevitable decline. The Democrat and Chronicle commented, So despite the black ink, minor league baseball crept closer to the brink of defeat in Rochester.
As pessimism crept into the Rochester camp, the league picture was brightening. At the directors meeting over the August all-star break, attention had focused on the financial difficulties of a number of franchises. Attendance was down in most league cities and some clubs were delinquent in league dues.
President George Sisler Jr. expressed hope for another season, but warned it was not a given. The situation was quite changed at the end of November. Sisler was given a new five-year deal as the leagues chief executive officer. There was talk of a revived Junior World Series with the American Association, as well as a IL vs. AA All-Star game. Four clubs would start the new decade in ballparks that were either new (Tidewater) or renovated (Buffalo, Columbus and Syracuse). Most importantly, all eight clubs were reportedly on sound financial footing and ready to go in 1970.
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