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Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather

By Justin Murphy

This feature originally appeared in the 2009 Red Wings yearbook

As any Red Wings fan knows, one of the great attractions of Minor League Baseball is the possibility that the hometown stars of this season could become the national heroes of the next. In the last several years alone, Red Wings alumni such as Justin Morneau, Francisco Liriano, Matt Garza and Michael Cuddyer have starred in the majors. It is not as widely known, however, that this relationship between minors and majors did not always exist, nor that Rochester, thanks to a famous baseball visionary, played a major role in its development.

Although Branch Rickey is best remembered today for signing Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in 1947, he was already well known in the 1920s as an innovative front office executive, first with the St. Louis Browns, then with the cross-town Cardinals. His nose for talent was conspicuously acute: whenever he appeared at a game to scout a player, that player’s team would report Rickey’s interest to wealthier Major League clubs, who would proceed to outbid St. Louis, sometimes without even having seen the player themselves. Frustrated with his self-defeating efforts, Rickey envisioned a system of teams under the Cardinals’ control, where players could be brought along slowly with a shared organizational philosophy, and without the threat of piracy from other big league clubs. This was the kernel of the farm system, and all Rickey needed to implement it was money.

Enter, in 1920, Sam Breadon, a local car dealer who had accumulated significant stock in the ballclub. With the Cardinals foundering under the control of an apathetic board of directors, Rickey named Breadon the team president, and stayed on himself as general manager. As one of his first orders of business, Breadon signed an agreement with Browns owner Phil Ball for the Cardinals to play in Sportsman’s Park, the Browns’ home field, for $35,000 a year. With this deal in place, Breadon next sold the site of the old stadium, decrepit Robison Field, for the princely sum of $275,000. The Cardinals were suddenly flush with cash, and Rickey took the opportunity to implement his plan.

The first true farm team was the Class A Houston Buffaloes of the Texas League, purchased by Rickey in 1921. The Cardinals quickly added teams in the Nebraska State League and the Arkansas-Missouri League, as well as a top-level affiliate in Syracuse. This team, named the Stars, was able to graduate a number of key contributors to the successful Cardinals teams of the late 1920s, including Pepper Martin and Hall of Famers Jim Bottomley and Chick Hafey. The more time Rickey spent in upstate New York, however, the more convinced he became that Rochester, not Syracuse, was the ideal location for his highest farm team. In September 1927, the Cardinals visited Rochester to play an exhibition game. Four months later, on January 16, 1928, Rickey cut ties with Syracuse, announced a new relationship with Rochester, and soon purchased the team for $120,000.

For Rochester fans, this was more than a new affiliation; it was a new life for baseball in the city. The 1927 Rochester Tribe had finished in sixth place, and previous owner Sam Weidrick filed for bankruptcy. Adding insult to injury, fans of the inept club were forced to sit in the rotting wooden bleachers of Bay Street Park, long due for a replacement. At the close of the 1927 season, the survival of professional baseball in the city was precarious at best. The Cardinals not only bought the failing franchise, they provided funding for a brand new stadium, which Rickey boasted would be “the envy of not only the minor leagues, but of several major league cities as well.” Red Wings Stadium would be inaugurated on May 2, 1929. Renamed Silver Stadium in 1968, it served the club with distinction for 67 years.

Before ground was broken on the new ballpark, however, the Cardinals moved to assure Rochester of a successful 1928 season. First, they signed 31-year-old Warren Giles as general manager. The eight successful years Giles spent in Rochester were only a prelude to his Hall of Fame career as a baseball executive; he became president and general manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 1937, then reigned for 14 years as president of the National League. Besides winning four titles with Rochester, Giles made another lasting contribution—on February 28, 1928, after perusing 1,700 submissions in a name-the-team contest, he announced that the club would henceforth be known as the Red Wings.

Perhaps even more important was the announcement of the team’s new field manager, Billy Southworth. “Billy the Kid,” approaching the tail end of a 13-year playing career, jumped at the chance to stay involved in baseball. Like Giles, he was able to translate his success in Rochester to a Hall of Fame career in the majors, managing the Gas House Gang of the early 1940s to three consecutive pennants.

With these two men at the helm and an influx of talent from the St. Louis organization on the field, the 1928 Red Wings, who had not won a league title for 17 years, became instant contenders. 22-year-old shortstop Charlie Gelbert hit .340 with 21 home runs, veteran second baseman Specs Toporcer hit .298, and player-manager Southworth hit .361 while playing 124 games in the outfield. The Wings battled through injuries all season, and on the last day of the year needed to sweep a doubleheader in Montreal to win the league title. Southworth tabbed Herman ‘Hi’ Bell to pitch both contests, and the gutsy right-hander responded with a three-hitter in the the first game and a shutout in the second, clinching the pennant.

The 1928 team was the first of four consecutive champions in Rochester, most notably including the legendary 1930 squad. True to Rickey’s vision, the Red Wings shipped their stars to St. Louis annually, but were replenished by talent from the lower levels. Among those who honed their skills with Rochester in the 1930s were Hall of Famers Johnny Mize, Red Schoendienst and Stan Musial.

By that time, the notion of a farm system was universally accepted. The Cardinals’ success in the 1930s (a .566 winning percentage and three pennants) had convinced baseball that an exclusive talent network was crucial, especially for low budget teams. Conversely, minor league franchises saw the opportunity to ensure survival in the difficult financial climate of the 1930s. Major league clubs scrambled for control of teams and players, setting off a power struggle that continues to this day. In hindsight, some historians have taken as prophetic the warning of commissioner Keneshaw Mountain Landis that farm systems would destroy the minor leagues’ sovereignty, leaving instead a mere “chain gang.”

Others point to the ever-increasing economic development of minor league franchises, as well as the higher quality of play at all levels, as proof of the value of such affiliations.

From Stan Musial to Cal Ripken Jr. and Justin Morneau, from Bob Gibson to Curt Schilling and Francisco Liriano, the Red Wings have been both beneficiary and benefactor of Branch Rickey’s long-ago insight. Even now, eighty years after first joining with the Cardinals, Red Wings fans pore over their stat sheets, trying to predict the next Wing to make it big. As Branch Rickey knew so well, Rochester can very easily be the beginning of great things.

Justin Murphy is a freelance journalist who writes about baseball history at www.seamheads.com. Born and raised in Penfield, he graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in linguistics.  

Sources: The St Louis Cardinals, by Rob Rains; Silver Seasons; New York Times archives; www.baseball-reference.com.