Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
Featuring a hard-hitting infield and the league’s top pitcher, the California League entry from Reno in 1961 easily bested the competition. Two members of the infield would go on to the majors, but the pitcher was left behind, his career cut short by tragedy and misunderstanding.
Semi-pro ball had been thriving in Reno on the western edge of Nevada when the self-proclaimed “Biggest Little City in the World” entered Organized Baseball in 1947 as a charter member of the Sunset League. Joining the Silver Sox in the Class C circuit were four teams from Southern California as well as a club from Las Vegas, the only other Nevada city ever to sponsor a pro team. In the league’s inaugural season, as a farm team of the New York Giants, Reno finished fourth with a record of 69-69. On June 1, one of minor league baseball’s historic games was played at Reno. In the first game of a doubleheader in which Reno beat Ontario, 22-19, two Silver Sox players--1B Vince Pascale and OF Phil Alotta--each hit four home runs, the only time two players on the same team accomplished the feat in the same game. In addition, manager/C Tom Lloyd hit three homers for a total of 11 by three players. All of the long balls were off the same pitcher, Morris Encinas, who hit a grand-slam himself!
In 1948, the team finished third in the regular season before defeating Mexicali and Las Vegas in the playoffs to win the championship. After a seventh place finish the next year, Reno left the league, principally due to the travel costs.
The following year, the Silver Sox jumped to the Class D Far West League, whose clubs were in Northern California and Southern Oregon, closer to home. During their two-year stay, Reno finished third twice. After the Far West League's’ demise following the 1951 season, Reno was without pro ball for 3-½ years. Midway through the 1955 season, a Reno group acquired the floundering Channel Cities California League franchise and moved it to the Nevada city for the second half. Without a major league affiliation the Silver Sox finished seventh (22-49). The next year, in 1956, the team became a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers family of clubs, beginning a rise through the ranks. From a fourth place spot in 1956, the Silver Sox landed in second in ’57, losing the playoff finals to Salinas. After a dip to sixth, the team rebounded strongly to finish second overall in 1959 before winning both halves of the pennant in 1960 with an 89-51, .636 record. The Sox would improve upon that fine mark in the very next campaign.
The 1961 Silver Sox posted a 97-63, .693 record, setting a California League record for most wins in a 140-game schedule (later tied by another Top 100 club, the 1978 Visalia Oaks). In the first half, Reno won 52 and lost only 18. They were 26-5 in June with 12- and 8-game win streaks. They trailed Bakersfield most of the second-half, but closed with a 16-6 rush to edge the Bears by two games. Reno led the league in most categories including average (.285), home runs (149), runs (912) and hits (1,303). Because the team won both halves, no playoff was held.
The Silver Sox were managed by 35-year-old Roy Smalley, a shortstop with the Cubs, Braves and Phillies from 1948-58. It was his first managerial assignment after one year as a player-coach for the Dodgers’ Spokane (PCL) club. Smalley returned to Reno in 1962 and won another pennant, then retired from baseball to concentrate on operating his building maintenance business in Los Angeles. Smalley married the sister of longtime major league manager Gene Mauch. His son, Roy Smalley III also was a major league shortstop with the Rangers, Twins, Yankees and White Sox for 13 years, 1975-87.
Reno was led by a solid infield corps, each of whom led the league in one or more catagories. First baseman Dick Nen (.351) finished fourth in the batting race, winning the other two portions of the Triple Crown with 32 homers and 144 RBI. Second baseman Louis Ertle (.289) played in the most games (140) while slashing the most doubles (34), tying Nen for the honors. Shortstop Don Williams (.363) won the batting title, while finishing with league highs in runs (132) and hits (197). Finally, third baseman Ken McMullen (.288) received the most walks (107). They were a durable quartet. Nen missed only one game, Ertle and McMullen two each and Williams four. In addition, Hector Valle caught 112 games and hit (.325), sixth in the league.
Only Nen, McMullen and Valle reached the majors. McMullen played the longest, 16 years with the Dodgers, Senators, Angels, A’s and Brewers, batting .248 in 1,583 games with 156 homers. Valle went 4-for-13 for the 1965 Dodgers. Nen reached the majors two years earlier and played six seasons with the Dodgers, Senators and Cubs, batting .224. He had only one hit in a Los Angeles uniform, but it made him a hero for a day. On September 18, 1963, with the Cardinals only two games behind first-place Los Angeles, the Dodgers were trailing St. Louis 5-4 after eight innings. In the top of the ninth, in his first major league game and second at-bat, Nen hit a game-tying home run. The Dodgers went on to win 6-5 in the 13th and stayed ahead of St. Louis the rest of the season. These days, Nen is best known as the father of San Francisco star closer Robb Nen.
The California League’s first-half mound sensation, 18-year-old rookie Joe Moeller went 12-3, 1.82 with a league-leading five shutouts in only 14 starts before he was promoted in July to Class A Greenville (South Atlantic). He finished the year with AAA Spokane and in the next season, only 19, went 6-5 for Los Angeles. He pitched for the Dodgers in eight seasons between 1962 and 1971 with 26-36, 4.01 record.
Over the full season, the pitching star was the ill-fated Bruce Gardner (20-4), who led the league in wins, ERA (2.82), percentage (.833) and complete games (18). Gardner, a 22-year-old left-hander, was in his second pro season. He never reached the majors, but made headlines ten years later when he committed suicide on the baseball field of his alma mater, the University of Southern California. His body was found 15 feet from the pitcher’s mound. Nearby was his All-America plaque. In his right hand was his USC diploma. Gripped in his left hand was a .38 caliber revolver. One bullet hole was in his left temple.
Gardner was a star at Fairfax High, student body president and was chosen “student mayor for a day” of Los Angeles. It was reported that the White Sox offered him a $50,000 bonus, a lot of money in 1956, but his mother refused to sign the contract because she wanted him to go to college. He went to USC where he had a 50-5 record. When Gardner graduated in 1960, the Dodgers signed him, but for a bonus smaller than his earlier offer. He went directly to AAA Montreal (International) where he was 0-1, 3.97 in 16 games. After the 1961 season, he went into the Army for six months under the reserve training plan and while at Ford Ord he suffered an injury to his pitching arm. Gardner was never the same pitcher again.
In 1962 he was 1-5, 6.00 at Spokane and in 1963 1-2, 9.00 at Salem (Northwest) and 10-4, 4.07 at Great Falls (Pioneer). During spring training in 1964 he broke his ankle practicing sliding and after going 2-2, 5.40 at Salem that season he was released. After baseball, Gardner tried other things. An accomplished pianist, he performed at clubs in several cities. There were jam sessions at parties in Los Angeles with, among others, two high school friends who had become famous in the music business, Herb Alpert and Phil Spector. Gardner was restless. He worked in the brokerage business and was apparently successful, but quit to become a substitute teacher. In 1971 he became JV baseball coach at Dorsey High in Los Angeles and led his team to a league championship, but on June 7, Gardner decided to end his life. Friends said he always was bitter about not having been permitted to sign when he was 17.
Gardner, Moeller, Nen, Ertle, Williams and Valle all made the California League All-Star team in 1961. Williams was voted the league’s MVP and Nen the Rookie of the Year.
Following the 1962 championship season, the Dodgers left Reno for Santa Barbara and the Silver Sox became a Pittsburgh farm club for 1963-64. The franchise took an inoperative, but dues paying, status in 1965 because of an uneven number of clubs in the league, but was back again in 1966 for nine years as a Cleveland affiliate. In 1975-76 Reno had partial working agreements with Minnesota and San Diego. They won the pennant both years and are the only team in California League history to win back-to-back championships twice. San Diego was Reno’s parent club from 1977-87. The Silver Sox operated independently from 1988-91 and were affiliated with Oakland in 1992. Following the 1992 season the club’s owners moved the franchise to Riverside because the city refused to spend any money to upgrade aging Moana Stadium.
The 1961 Reno Silver Sox have a secure place in minor league history. Behind their quartet of infielders and ill-fated pitcher, the team finished with the second-highest win total in California League history.
|1961 California League Standings|
|1961 Reno Silver Sox batting statistics|
|1961 Reno Silver Sox pitching statistics|