Prime Nine: Best in the Bigs
Prime 9: Best in the Bigs
by Scott Pitoniak
This feature originally appeared in the 2010 Red Wings Yearbook
We asked award-winning sports columnist and baseball author/historian Scott Pitoniak to pick his top nine Red Wings alumni of all-time, with the stipulation that Rochester was their last stop before playing in the big leagues - thereby eliminating Hall of Famers George Sisler and Jim Palmer as well as current Minnesota Twins superstar Joe Mauer, who played for the Wings on a rehab assignment. Here are Scott’s prime nine:
I know what many of you are thinking. No. 1 is a no-brainer. Just has to be the tall shortstop/third baseman with the two American League MVP awards, the 431 homers and the major-league record streak of 2,632 consecutive games, right?
Well, you’d be right in thinking that picking the No. 1 Wings graduate of all-time is indeed a no-brainer – but you’d be wrong in choosing the Iron Man over Stan the Man.
Yes, Cal Ripken Jr.’s resume is bronzed in Cooperstown. But the Wings all-time valedictorian is Stan Musial. Try these achievements on for size: In 22 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, Stan the Man clubbed 475 homers, drove in 1,951 runs, batted .331, played in 24 All-Star Games (there were a few seasons when the majors staged two all-star galas), won seven National League batting titles and three MVP awards. Not bad for a batter with a cork-screw stance so unorthodox and so ugly looking that it convinced one scout to predict that Musial never would be able to hit big-league pitching.
After finishing with 10 doubles, four triples, three homers, 21 RBI and a .326 batting average in just 54 games with Rochester, Musial was promoted to the Cardinals and embarked on a career every bit as impressive as his mega-watt contemporaries – Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio.
Ripken is my choice for salutatorian, barely edging one of baseball’s most fearsome pitchers, Bob Gibson. Ripken’s Hall-of-Fame big-league career was preceded by a 114-game stint in Rochester in which he won International League Rookie-of-the-Year honors with a .288 batting average, 23 homers and 75 RBI. (And, in a foreshadowing of the Streak, he didn’t miss a start in Rochester.)
Gibson’s brilliant career, meanwhile, was preceded by a 1958 season with the Red Wings in which he went 5-5 with a respectable earned run average of 2.45. The flame-throwing right-hander would be sent back down to Rochester in 1960, but that was his last taste of the minors on his way to a big-league career that saw him go 251-174 with a 2.91 earned run average and 56 shutouts.
The fourth spot on our list belongs to slugging first baseman Eddie Murray. Like Musial, he was here just briefly, hitting 11 homers and driving in 40 runs in 54 games before being called up by the Baltimore Orioles late during the 1975 season. The next season he won the first base job and American League Rookie-of-the-Year honors en route to a Hall-of-Fame career that would see him join Willie Mays and Hank Aaron as the only players in baseball history to accumulate at least 500 homers and 3,000 hits.
Murray is followed in our prime nine lineup by Johnny Mize. Known as the Big Cat, the slugging first baseman led the league in home runs four times and finished his big-league career in 1953 with 351 homers, 1,337 RBI and a .312 average. Mize hit .352, .339 and .317 in his three seasons with the Wings before earning a full-time job with the Cardinals in 1936.
This is where the choices become more difficult. In the sixth spot, I’m going with Curt Schilling. A six-time All-Star, he led the NL in wins in 2001 (22) and the AL in wins in 2004 (21). Although he had a solid 216-146 record (.597), the thing that sets him apart from the others is his 11-2 won-lost record and 2.23 ERA in the post-season. He helped pitch the Diamondbacks to a World Series title against the Yankees in ’01 and his courageous, bloody-socked performance in subduing the Bronx Bombers and ending the Curse of the Bambino in ’04 make him an all-time Boston Red Sox folk hero. Schilling went 13-11 with a 3.21 ERA for the Wings in 1989.
Red Schoendienst, another Wing from the Cardinals era who often gets overlooked, is seventh on my list. The infielder batted .337 in 1943 and .372 in 1944 for the Wings before shipping out to serve in World War II. Schoendienst batted over .300 10 times in his 19 big-league seasons and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989.
Mike Mussina, who went 10-4 with a 2.87 ERA for the 1991 Wings, is our No. 8 most productive alum. A five-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove winner, Mussina’s .638 winning percentage (270-153) ranks among the best in baseball history.
Limiting this list to just nine was about as easy as trying to sneak a fastball past Stan the Man. You could make a strong case for Boog Powell, Dennis Martinez, Bobby Grich, Steve Finley or current Twins slugger Justin Morneau to be among the prime nine. But I decided to go with Don Baylor by the narrowest of margins. His numbers – 338 homers, 1,276 RBI, .260 – compare favorably to the numbers compiled by Finley and Powell. But the thing that gives the 1979 AL MVP a slight edge is his combination of hit-by-pitches (267) and stolen bases (285).
So, there it is – my Wings prime nine. Let the debating begin.
Scott Pitoniak has authored 13 books, including two about Red Wings history. You can read more of his work at www.scottpitoniak.com.