Minor League Baseball is known for its rich history dating back more than 100 years. While much has been written about the best teams and top players who have graced the Minors, there remain many stories either untold or largely forgotten. Each week, MiLB.com will attempt to fill that gap
Minor League Baseball is known for its rich history dating back more than 100 years. While much has been written about the best teams and top players who have graced the Minors, there remain many stories either untold or largely forgotten. Each week, MiLB.com will attempt to fill that gap and explore these historical oddities in our new feature, "Cracked Bats."
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Rochester Community Baseball. When the St. Louis Cardinals decided to cut Rochester as its Triple-A affiliate in 1957, the people of Rochester, led by Morrie Silver, rallied to purchase the team and raised the cash by selling 8,222 shares of stock at $10 apiece. The number 8,222 shares a spot on the outfield wall at Frontier Field alongside the club's retired numbers. The franchise is staging a season-long celebration of Rochester Community Baseball. To help mark the anniversary, this week's addition of Cracked Bats will take a look back at the 1971 Red Wings, the Joe Altobelli-led team that won the International League crown and the Junior World Series, cementing its place as one of the most prominent teams in the history of Minor League Baseball.
ROCHESTER, New York -- If anyone had told Joe Altobelli in April 1971 that Rochester was going to be not only the hub of the Minor League Baseball universe but home to one of the greatest teams ever assembled, he would have laughed. Frankly, if they had had made the same proclamation to the Red Wings' manager in May or early June, the response would have been the same.
There was really nothing special about Rochester in the early going that year. Altobelli was in his first season as the Red Wings' skipper, having spent the previous five years managing several teams deep in the Baltimore system. A popular player in the mid-'60s with Rochester, Altobelli seemed like the logical choice to lead the Red Wings and help groom the players who would contribute to the Orioles' domination at the Major League level.
But from the outset, there seemed to be problems, whether it was because some players were unhappy or because the team was just playing poorly. Don Baylor was coming off a spectacular 1970 season with Rochester, one in which he was named Minor League Player of the Year after hitting .327 with 22 homers and 107 RBIs. Close friend Bobby Grich also had a big 1970 season in Rochester, so big, in fact, that he was called up to Baltimore and appeared in 30 games for the parent club that went on to win the World Series.
So it came as more than a bit of a shock in the spring of '71 when the O's told Grich and Baylor that they were headed back to Rochester instead of breaking camp with Baltimore. But the Orioles were coming off a World Series victory over Cincinnati and were one of the most powerful clubs in baseball. As a result, roster spots and locker space at Memorial Stadium were hard to come by.
"Grich and I probably should have been in the big leagues that year," Baylor said. "Bobby and I left Spring Training after we got cut when the O's were breaking camp. I was the Minor League Player the Year before, and I was angry. I thought I should have been a big league player. [Baltimore general manager] Harry Dalton sat Grich and me down and talked to us, and after that we took a couple of days off. There was no free agency or anything like that and we had no other option, so we had to go back."
Altobelli's presence made going back to Rochester more palatable. He had managed Grich and Baylor throughout much of their careers after the duo were selected with Baltimore's top two picks in the 1967 Draft. He knew his players, what they were feeling and helped avert what could have been a major crisis before the season even began.
"I had them right out of school, so I knew them," Altobelli said. "I told them, I know you think you're losing a year on the pension plan by being here. And I know they thought they might be losing a World Series check too. But I told them if you play the way you're capable of playing, within three or four years, you'll make up for that lost year. Just go out and play like hell. And they did and both became free agents and the rest was history."
While Altobelli quieted that firestorm, he could do nothing to help the team overcome its poor start. The Red Wings dropped their season opener, 12-3, at Louisville, and were 0-5 by the time they returned to Rochester for the home opener. While shortstop Grich fulfilled his military duty, second baseman Ron Shelton was out with a bladder infection. (Shelton, incidentally, went on to make movies, including Bull Durham, which was based on his experiences with that Rochester club.)
Altobelli said he was embarrassed at the club's welcome home dinner, but the fans in Rochester hadn't lost faith in their team. Despite their performance on the field, the buzz surrounding the Red Wings remained strong.
Though Rochester won its home opener over Richmond, the struggles continued for some time. The club made a few runs at .500 and played a bit better, but by the time it was nearly halfway through the 140-game schedule on June 25, its record was 33-33 and the great expectations of March were fading fast.
At that point, however, the Red Wings seemed to decide that remaining on the road to mediocrity was unacceptable. Maybe they got fed up with playing poorly as often as they played well. Maybe the overwhelming talent on the club, led by International League All-Stars Baylor and Grich, finally started to show its mettle. Or maybe the rest of the league just fell apart.
Whatever happened, it happened in a hurry for Rochester, because from that point on, the club began playing as if every game would be its last. The Red Wings exploded through July and August, going 53-21 over their final 74 games to run away with their division and steamroll into the playoffs.
Baylor finished the season by hitting .313 with 20 homers and 95 RBIs, while Grich was named IL MVP and Minor League Player of the Year after batting .336 with 32 homers and 83 RBIs in 473 at-bats. Rich Coggins connected for 20 homers from the leadoff spot while Don Fazio, a school teacher in the Rochester area whom the Red Wings coaxed out of retirement in May, provided some glue in the infield and a .272 average in 95 games.
Roric Harrison led a dominating pitching staff by going 15-5 with a 2.81 ERA en route to being named the league's Most Valuable Pitcher. Fred Beene went 7-1 and Ray Miller added 11 saves as the Wings cruised to a division title by seven games over Tidewater.
"We played some tremendous ball and we just caught fire," Altobelli said. "Fazio likes to take credit because we added him, but we just had a very good club. We had guys who would sit in the same seats on the bus if we were winning. Roric Harrison would imitate John Wayne. We had other guys who would imitate African birds. I used to have to pull the hanky out because they had me in stitches.
"And no pitcher on that team ever made it big, though I thought Harrison would. We just caught fire when we did, and I don't know why. I knew we could score runs. And if the pitchers gave up runs, then we had the ability to come back."
Tearing through the second half of the season was only part of what made that year special for the Red Wings. Winning the division was all well and good, but an early exit from the playoffs would have made for an ending as unsavory as the season's beginning. Rochester dispatched Syracuse in four games in the opening round, but lost Harrison for the remainder of the postseason after he damaged ligaments in his left knee while sliding into second base in the series opener.
So the Wings did not have their star pitcher when facing Tidewater, which swept Charleston, for the Governors' Cup. The Tides had plenty of their own stars who were healthy, lead by future National League Rookie of the Year Jon Matlack (11-7, 3.97) and IL ERA leader Buzz Capra (13-3, 2.19).
The title series proved to be a seesaw affair. The Tides trounced Rochester in the opener, 12-1, but the Wings rebounded with a 5-4 victory in Game 2 and a thrilling 2-1 win in Game 3 at Norfolk. Wayne Garland, who had been called up from Double-A Dallas/Fort Worth, where he was 19-5 with a 1.70 ERA, was brilliant in the third game. He scattered eight hits and struck out seven while pitching into the ninth.
Tidewater rallied to win Game 4, setting the stage for the decisive fifth game. Right fielder Sam Parrilla belted a pair of homers with Grich and Terry Crowley also going deep to give the Wings an 8-5 victory and their first Governor's Cup in seven seasons.
Rochester was slated to face Denver -- the American Association winner -- in the Junior World Series. But because the NFL's Denver Broncos were scheduled to play in Mile High Stadium, all seven games would be played at Silver Stadium in Rochester, giving the Wings a decided advantage.
Richie Scheinblum led the Bears with a .388 average and 25 homers, taking full advantage of the altitude in Denver. Garland Shiffert, Denver's best pitcher, went 12-7 with 18 saves to earn the Double-A Most Valuable Player Award that year.
"I marveled at that team because they had a lot of hitters on that club," Baylor said. "They came to Silver Stadium, though, and it was quite an experience. Guys put off going to the big leagues [as September callups] for the moment because we all wanted to win this thing. We were the best Triple-A team. We felt that. We knew that. And that's how we approached it."
It certainly looked that way in the opener as the Wings, powered by Crowley's two-run homer in the eighth, rallied from a 4-0 deficit to an 8-5 victory. Rochester won the following night, 6-4, and it appeared as though the Wings were headed for an easy sweep. Denver rebounded to win the third game, 3-2, but after Rochester's 11-3 rout in Game 4, the fans at Silver Stadium were set for a huge party.
The Bears, however, had other ideas, staving off elimination with a 9-5 victory in Game 5. That wasn't the worst of it for Rochester, though. Baltimore shortstop Mark Belanger had gotten hurt that night and the O's were calling up Grich prior to Game 6. Grich had been 9-for-21 with three homers and five RBIs in the series.
"I remember telling Grich he was going to Baltimore, and he didn't want to go," Altobelli said. "He wanted to stay. That's the difference between players then and today. We had to move Fazio to short and put the catcher at second base."
Grich was in the Marine Corps Reserve that season and left often on weekends to fulfill his military obligation. The team didn't fare well with him out of the lineup, going 0-10 during the regular season while he was away. The Wings fared no better in Game 6 without their star shortstop, dropping a 12-11 decision to force a decisive seventh game.
The Wings, however, sealed their place in baseball annals with a thrilling 9-6 victory in Game 7. Coggins had four hits and scored five runs to make Rochester the best team in Minor League ball.
"You never think you're going to be in the big World Series, so at the time it was my World Series," said Baylor, who hit .481 against Denver. "It rated and still ranks as one of my all-time accomplishments as a team, because I was there from start to finish. It's not like when I joined the Twins [who won the World Series in '87] with a month and a half left in the year.
"We started out together in the Minor Leagues, guys like me and Grich and Shelton and Alto. We all started out in Bluefield together, and four years later, we were Little World Series champs."
Altobelli managed the Wings for five more seasons, winning another Governors' Cup in 1974. He served as skipper for the Giants, the Orioles and the Cubs, winning the World Series with Baltimore in 1983. His experience in Rochester, particularly in 1971, remains special.
"It rates very high," Altobelli said. "When you win, the feeling is no different in Rookie ball or the Major Leagues. You feel a sense of accomplishment. You did what you set out to do in Spring Training and that's win everything.
"It's never a bed of roses to manage, but that was an easy team to manage because everyone played their part."
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MiLB.com.