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 "Cracked Bats" feature. Know of any stories to be considered for this feature in the future? Send an email and let us know.
Ron Kittle's place in history is safe for another year. The former White Sox slugger remains the last player to connect for 50 home runs in a Minor League season, and he will probably hold that distinction for quite some time.
Kittle clouted 50 home runs while playing for Edmonton of the Pacific Coast League in 1982, and has been waiting patiently for new half-century club members to arrive ever since. But the quarter of a century that has elapsed between then and now represents the longest stretch that the Minor Leagues has gone without someone going deep 50 times in one season. The longest 50-homer drought prior to the current one lasted 17 years (1957-1974), before Bill McNulty and Gorman Thomas slammed 55 and 53, respectively, while playing for the Sacramento Solons of the PCL.
That particular drought followed the golden age of the home run in the Minor Leagues, a true decade of destruction. It was a time when sluggers racked up long balls with surprising ease, and no one questioned their power or from where it came. The 10-year period beginning in 1947 was like no other in Minor League history, simply because of the home run. The 50-home run mark was breached 29 times during the decade, with an eye-popping seven contributions in both 1947 and 1957.
But since Sept. 1, 1982, when Kittle connected for his 50th homer, he has remained the last man to gain entry into the club. Oh, there have been several players who have come close to joining him. Ryan Howard hit 46 homers in 2004 while playing for Double-A Reading and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Phil Hiatt had 44 for Las Vegas of the PCL in 2001. And Brandon Wood had 43 in 2005 at Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga.
This year, it looked for awhile as if Omaha first baseman Craig Brazell might get there, but ultimately he fell short. Spotlighting, again, how difficult a task it is to collect 50 homers in a Minor League season, Brazell had 30 at the All-Star break, but hit only nine over the final 53 games of the season.
Even Kittle, who averaged a homer every 9.4 at-bats that season, almost didn't make it. He didn't get his 50th until his final game of the season, sending a Butch Edge slider into history.
"These people that are playing now in A-ball and Double-A are getting moved up the ladder, but they are still playing in a [shorter] Minor League season, and it's a hard number to reach," Kittle said. "You have to have a pretty damn good year. You have to have everything working in your corner. I'm not even sure how many times I batted that year [472 with 74 walks]. It's a tough number to get to.
"You've got to stay healthy because it's a long season. And I wasn't up there to walk, because I wasn't going to steal too many bases. I think I was walked with the bases loaded a couple of times that year because they would rather give up one than four. They were definitely pitching around me, but I was still trying to hit pitches I normally wouldn't swing at. I wasn't trying to hit home runs, though. That's only worked about five times in my whole life."
The surprising thing about Kittle's performance is that at one point he wasn't healthy. He broke his right thumb during the season while attempting to make a diving catch in Portland, Ore. He'd been out of the lineup for nearly two weeks when he put a splint on his finger and returned to action because he was "bored sitting around not doing anything."
Upon returning to the lineup, Kittle remained hot, taking his streak into the final game of the season, where Edge and Portland were waiting. Ironically, Edge had played in Edmonton the previous year, before the White Sox traded him to the Pirates in March of '82. A 2-2 slider caught too much of the plate and Kittle turned it into a little (though now increasingly bigger) piece of history in his last at-bat of the season.
"[Edge] was the first one at home plate to congratulate me," Kittle said. "He took his hat off, shook my hand and gave me a big hug. He signed the ball for me, too. I still have that ball at home. I thought that was very classy. I really did.
"I was really happy that year. I didn't go out there thinking I was the superhero of the team. I think the funniest thing about that year was that Jose Castro hit behind me. And he got thrown at every time I hit a home run. He always used to yell at the pitcher, 'Why are you throwing at me? He hit the homer.' That cracked me up all the time."
While it may have surprised some that Kittle never got a midseason callup up to Chicago, he never had any preconceived notions that he'd be headed to the Windy City. The Sox had traded for Steve Kemp the previous winter and he played the same outfield position as Kittle. With no reason to move Kittle up, the Sox kept him in Edmonton, where he carved his name into the Minor League record book.
He drove in 144 runs in 1982 and hit .345. Kittle went on to crack the Chicago roster the following season, when he would hit 35 homers, drive in 100 runs and be named American League Rookie of the Year. It would prove to be his best season in the big leagues, as injuries hampered him for much of his 10-year career.
Kittle does public relations work for the White Sox these days, as well as traveling around the country as a motivational speaker. When he's not tied up with those endeavors, he builds benches out of baseball bats and sells them at www.RonKittle.com online.
And all the while, he's busy keeping an eye out for new members of the club.