Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
This American Association champion was led by a pair of players who combined to win the triple crown. One of the pair went on to major league stardom, while the other found glory playing across the sea.
The city of Denver, Colorado, located a mile above sea level in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, joined the minor league structure in 1886 when a team called the Mountain Lions joined the Western League. In its first foray into Organized Ball, the team won the pennant with a 54-26 record. In its remaining five years in the league, the team won one more flag in an abbreviated 1888 campaign. The city closed out its 19th century baseball involvement in 1895, when it fielded a replacement team for Omaha in the Western Association, which was in turn replaced by Dubuque.
In 1900, Denver rejoined the Western League, this time for an 18-year stay. The high point of this run was a three-in-a-row championship cluster from 1911-13, including a Top 100 team in 1911. Following a four-year absence from 1918-22, Denver returned to the Western League in 1923. As the only Colorado entry, they had to give visiting teams an additional share of the gate receipts to make up for the extra travel costs. This time the Bears stayed until 1932. In 1933, the low point of the Great Depression, Denver and Pueblo, which had returned to the Western League in 1928, were dropped to cut travel expenses. Denver owner Milt Anfenger sued the league for $150,000 for the loss of his franchise, but he lost the suit.
In the 1930s, the Denver Post sponsored a semi-pro tournament that attracted the strongest teams in the country and drew good crowds. In 1941, Denver was a member of a Class D organization, also called the Western League, which had changed its name from the Nebraska State League two years earlier. That circuit disbanded after the 1941 season.
In 1947, the Class A Western League was revived with U. S. Senator Edwin C. Johnson (D-CO) as president. With one exception, Lincoln replacing St. Joseph, it was the same six cities that comprised the league in 1900. Denver played in old Merchants Park until August 14, 1948, when new 16,000-seat Bears Stadium opened. It was enlarged to 25,000 in 1963 and expanded through the years until it reached a capacity of 76,000 in 1977. The facility, which had also become the home of the NFL Denver Broncos, was renamed Mile High Stadium in 1969. It remained the home of Denver baseball, minor and major league, until the opening of Coors Field in 1995. On July 4, 1982, the Bears drew 65,666 for the annual Fireworks Game, a minor league record for a single game.
During its final eight years in the Western League, Denver won a regular season title in 1952 and a playoff championship in 1954. In 1955, Denver upgraded to the Class AAA American Association, along with Omaha. In 1957, as an affiliate of the New York Yankees, the Bears, under Ralph Houk, won the playoff and the Junior World Series. In 1960, Denver, then a Detroit farm club, finished first, but lost in the playoff finals. The American Association suspended operations after the 1962 season and Denver joined the far-flung 10-club Pacific Coast League. The following season the PCL added two more teams and the Hawaii-Indianapolis road trip became the longest in minor league history. The Bears never finished higher than fourth in their six-years in the PCL. When the American Association returned in 1969, Denver, along with Indianapolis, Tulsa and Oklahoma City transferred from the PCL. In 1970, Denver, now affiliated with Washington, won the Western Division, but lost the playoff. In 1971, they captured the championship, then lost the Junior World Series. As a White Sox farm club, Denver won a division title in 1975. In 1977, the Bears joined the Montreal organization and won the American Association championship.
Three years later, still a member of the Expos family, the Denver Bears reached their apogee. The 1980 Bears rolled to the West Division crown with a 92-44, .676 record, 21-½ games better than Oklahoma City. On April 19, eight days after the season opened, they took over first place and remained there. They clinched the title two weeks before the season closed. The Bears were especially formidable at Mile High Stadium, winning 21 consecutive home games in mid-season. In May, in one 19-game stretch, Denver pitchers had a 1.99 ERA and hurled 31 consecutive scoreless innings. Fourteen of those games were at hitter friendly Mile High Stadium. Denver led the American Association in batting by a 17-point margin over Oklahoma City, .296 to .279. They also led in runs (865), hits (1,383), total bases (2,146), doubles (231), home runs (146), RBI (806) and walks (567). The pitching staff ERA was edged out by Springfield, 3.86 to 3.87, but led the league in shutouts with 14. In the playoff, Denver met East Division winner Springfield, over whom they had a regular season 11-5 advantage. However, the Bears were upended, four games to one. Uncharacteristically, they lost the first two games at home. All four Springfield wins were behind left-handed starting pitchers.
The Bears were managed by 53-year-old former major league infielder Billy Gardner, originally signed by the Giants at 17, out of New London, CT. He played for ten years in the majors (1954-63) with the Giants, Orioles, Senators, Twins, Yankees and Red Sox, batting .237. In 1959, with Baltimore, he led American League second basemen in double plays. He began his managerial career in the Boston organization in 1967 at Pittsfield (Eastern) and managed AA and AAA clubs for Kansas City from 1972-76. Gardner was a major league coach for Montreal in 1977-78 and managed their AA Memphis (Southern) club in 1979. At the end of the 1980 season, veteran Denver Post writer Frank Haraway said “Gardner’s low-key managerial approach produced an extremely happy, confident ball club and player after player expressed the opinion that Gardner was responsible for the winning attitude, spirit and congeniality that marked the 1980 Bears.” Gardner started the 1981 season as a Minnesota coach, replacing John Goryl as manager on May 22. He remained at the helm of the Twins until June 21, 1985, when he was replaced by Ray Miller. In 1984, when Minnesota finished tied for second in their division, Gardner was named American League Manager of the Year by USA Today. In 1987, he was slated to be Kansas City’s third base coach, but when manager Dick Howser became ill during spring training, Gardner took over the reins of the Royals. He was replaced by John Wathan on August 27. Gardner never had any luck where playoffs were concerned. Six times in his minor league managerial career his teams won division or half-season titles, but never once won a playoff. His son, Billy Gardner, Jr., is following in his father’s footsteps. A former minor league infielder, Billy, Jr., is in his second season as pilot of Boston’s AA farm at Trenton (Eastern).
The American Association batting title was won by 20-year-old second baseman Tim Raines, who beat out Oklahoma City’s Orlando Gonzalez by .0002, .3543 to .3541. In addition, Raines set a league record by stealing 77 bases and tied for the league lead in triples (11). His stolen base total would have been higher had he not spent 18 days with Montreal in July-August. He was named to the American Association and National Association Class AAA All-Star teams, was voted the league’s Rookie of the Year and was chosen The Sporting News’ Minor League Player of the Year. In 1981 he moved up to the majors where he stayed for 19 years, the first ten with Montreal. Raines led the National League in stolen bases his first four seasons. In the strike-shortened 1981 season he stole 71 bases in 88 games, hit .304 and was named The Sporting News’ National League Rookie of the Year. From 1981-86 Raines stole 454 bases. He led the National League in batting (.334) and on base percentage (.413) in 1986. He played in seven consecutive Major League All-Star Games, 1981-87, and was the 1987 game’s MVP, going 3-for-3. He was traded to the White Sox in December, 1990, played five years with Chicago, three with the Yankees and one with Oakland. He was named outfielder on The Sporting News’ National League All-Star Team in 1983 and 1986. Raines had a .295 major league average with 1,548 runs, 2,561 hits and 807 stolen bases. He holds the major league career record for the highest stolen base percentage (300 or more attempts), .847. While with the White Sox, he set an American League record by stealing 40 consecutive bases without being thrown out. In 2001, Raines attempted a comeback with Montreal, his stated goal to play in the majors with his son, Tim Raines, Jr., who was signed by the Orioles and played for Frederick (Carolina) in 2000.
Designated Hitter Randy Bass (.333) completed the Triple Crown for the Bears, leading the league in home runs (37) and RBI (143), as well as in runs scored (106) and slugging percentage (.644). His home run total topped the minors. Bass was named to the league and National Association Class AAA All-Star teams, was voted the American Association’s Most Valuable Player, a rare distinction for a DH, and was the National Association’s Minor League player of the Year. Bass was signed by Minnesota when he was 18 and led his league in homers his first three years in pro ball: Florida East Coast, 1972 (10), Midwest, 1973 (21) and Carolina, 1974 (30). He was with the Twins’ AAA Tacoma club in 1975-76-77 and on June 9, 1977, against Phoenix, became only the second Pacific Coast League player to hit four homers in one game. Kansas City purchased him in 1978 and sold his contract to Montreal a year later. He got into nine games with the Twins and two each with the Royals and Expos, going 2-for-22 (.091). As soon as the Association season was over in 1980, Bass was dispatched to San Diego to complete a trade for John D’Acquisto, and hit .286-3-8 in 19 games for the Padres in September. He was with San Diego all of 1981, batting .210-4-20 in 69 games. After hitting .200-1-8 in 13 games at the start of the 1982 season he was claimed on waivers by Texas. He batted .208-1-6 in 16 games for the Rangers and was shipped back to Denver, finishing the year there with a .290-18-45 record in 68 games. Bass then went to Japan where he starred for 5-½ seasons for the Hanshin Tigers of the Central League. Randy won the Triple Crown in 1985 (.350-54-134) and 1986 (.389-47-109). His 54 homers in 1985 fell one short of the Japanese record held by the legendary Sadaharu Oh. In the last days of the season, Bass was intentionally walked several times to avoid the embarrassment of a Gajin (foreigner) breaking such a sacred mark. Bass’ .389 average and .777 slugging percentage in 1986 are Japanese major league records. He was the Central League’s MVP in 1985.
Shortstop Jerry Manuel (.277) didn’t make much of a mark as a major league player, batting .150-3-13 in 96 games over parts of five seasons with Detroit, Montreal and San Diego, but he has been very successful as a manager. Manuel, 47, is one of five major league pilots to grow up in the Sacramento (CA) area, the others being Stan Hack, John McNamara, Larry Bowa and Dusty Baker. He began managing in 1990 for Montreal’s AA Jacksonville club and was voted the Southern League’s Manager of the Year. He started 1991 managing Indianapolis and was promoted to being third base coach for the Expos on June 3 when Tom Runnells was named manager. He held that position under Felipe Alou for the next five years and was the Florida Marlins bench coach in 1997. Manuel was appointed manager of the Chicago White Sox on December 4, 1997. The Sox finished second in the American League Central Division in 1998-99. In 2000, Manuel led Chicago to the division title, dethroning the Cleveland Indians, with a 95-67, .586 record, best in the league, before losing to Seattle, 3 games to none, in the first round of the playoffs. Manuel was named American League Manager of the Year by the Baseball Writers Association, receiving 25 of a possible 28 first-place votes.
Bears third baseman Tim Wallach hit .281-36-124, led the American Association in total bases (295) and was second to Bass in homers, RBI and slugging percentage (.576). He was named to the league and National Association Class AAA All-Star teams. Wallach was Montreal’s first round selection in the June 1979 free agent draft after a stellar collegiate career at Cal State Fullerton. In 1979 he was The Sporting News’ College Player of the Year and won USA Baseball’s Golden Spikes Award. He went up to Montreal for five games at the end of the 1980 season and hit a homer in his first major league at bat on September 6. He was the Expos’ third baseman for the next 12 years. Wallach led National League third basemen in fielding (.968) in 1991, led in putouts six times and in assists and total chances twice. He won three Gold Gloves (1985, 1986, 1990), was named third baseman on The Sporting News National League All-Star team and the National League Silver Slugger team in 1985 and 1987. He played in five Major League All-Star Games (1984-85, 1987, 1989-90). Wallach was traded to the Dodgers in December, 1992 and was voted National League Comeback Player of the Year in 1994. He played for Los Angeles in 1995 and for the Dodgers and Angels in 1996. In 17 major league seasons he batted .257-260-1,125 in 2,212 games. In 2001, he is managing the Angels’ California League farm club at Rancho Cucamonga, CA.
There were nine .300 hitters in the American Association and Denver boasted four of them. In addition to Raines and Bass were center fielder Art Gardner (.317-14-64) and right fielder Dan Briggs (.316-13-74). Both saw major league service, Gardner with the Astros and Giants, Briggs with the Angels, Padres, Expos and Cubs.
Denver’s leading pitcher was 26-year-old right-hander Steve Ratzer (15-4, 3.59) who led the league in wins and percentage (.789). Ratzer started the season in the bullpen and was a perfect 6-0 with two saves before moving into the starting rotation where he went 9-4. He was named to the league All-Star team and was chosen the American Association Pitcher of the Year, giving Denver a sweep of the circuit’s end-of-the-season individual honors. He made only a brief appearance in the majors, going 1-1, 7.17 in 13 games for Montreal in 1980-81.
The Denver pitcher who went on to the most successful major league career was 21-year-old, 6’3”, 225-pound right-hander Bill Gullickson. When reporting to spring training in 1980, Gullickson was 20 pounds underweight and complained of being tired. Tests revealed he had diabetes. After undergoing treatment in the hospital for a week he rejoined the club and soon regained the lost weight and his strength. He started the season going 6-2, 1.91 with five complete games and two shutouts in nine starts, striking out 64 and walking 29 in 66 innings. On May 30 he was promoted to Montreal and finished the season with a 10-5, 3.00 record, winning nine of his last eleven starts. On September 10, at Montreal, he struck out 18 Chicago Cubs batters, a major league record for a rookie. He was named The Sporting News’ National League Rookie Pitcher of the Year and was runner-up in the Baseball Writers Association Rookie of the Year voting. Gullickson was traded to Cincinnati in December, 1985 and traded by the Reds to the Yankees in August, 1987. He spent 1988-89 with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants and in April, 1988 became the first non-Japanese pitcher to win the Central League’s Player of the Month award. He returned to the majors in 1990 with Houston and was signed as a free agent by Detroit in 1991. In that season he went 20-9, 3.90, tying for the American League lead in wins. Gullickson finished his major league career in 1994 with the Tigers. He had a major league record of 162-136, 3.93.
The Bears’ top reliever was 27-year-old, 5’8 ½ “ left-hander Jamie Easterly who had a 9-8, 3.63 record with 15 saves. Easterly pitched 13 years in the majors with a 23-33, 4.62 record and 14 saves. On July 14, 1979, he pitched only the third perfect game in American Association history, for Denver against Iowa at Des Moines, a seven-inning game in which he struck out four batters. He was signed originally by Atlanta in 1971, reaching the majors in 1974. He was sold to Montreal in 1979. During the time Easterly was in the Braves organization he was on the disabled list seven times because of arm problems. After the 1980 season he was sold to Milwaukee and pitched for the Brewers and Indians through 1987.
Denver placed seven players on the 14-man American Assocation All-Star team: Raines, Manuel, Wallach, Bass, Art Gardner, Briggs and Ratzer. The Bears swept the Topps’ American Association Player of the Month awards: pitcher Hal Dues in May, Wallach in June, Raines in July and Bass in August. Off the field, Denver executive Vice President-General Manager Jim Burris was named The Sporting News’ Minor League Executive of the Year. Burris had been president of the American Association in 1961-62 before it suspended operation and had been the Bears’ GM since 1965.
The Denver Bears remained in the American Association through the 1992 season, winning titles in 1981, 1983 and 1991. In 1993, the team made way for the National League Rockies, who play in Denver to this day.
Tim Raines and Randy Bass helped the 1980 Denver Bears win the regular season championship with ease. In doing so, the duo helped the team compile the American Association’s best record in the last 60 years of the circuit’s existence.
|1980 American Association Standings|
|1980 Denver Bears batting statistics|
|Thomas Mutz (Omaha)||C||91||267||36||68||46||20||2||5||40||43||1||.255|
|1980 Denver Bears pitching statistics|