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Shellenback shined during lengthy PCL career

Right-hander racked up records before spitball was banned
Before serving as Boston Red Sox pitching coach, Frank Shellenback accumulated the most wins in Pacific Coast League history. (National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)
@AndrewAtBatt
October 7, 2020

A host of players have piled up astonishing accomplishments over long professional careers on the diamond without making a lasting impression on the game's most celebrated stage. Monsters of the Minors, presented by Uncle Ray's, provides introductions to Minor League legends sometimes overlooked by fans of baseball history.

A host of players have piled up astonishing accomplishments over long professional careers on the diamond without making a lasting impression on the game's most celebrated stage. Monsters of the Minors, presented by Uncle Ray's, provides introductions to Minor League legends sometimes overlooked by fans of baseball history.

If not for a twist of fate, Frank Shellenback might have been a Major League star. Instead, he's a Minor League legend.

He won 316 games in the Minors, including a Pacific Coast League-record 296. His 4,184 1/3 innings and 364 complete games have never been topped by a PCL pitcher. An inaugural member of the PCL Hall of Fame in 1943, he was also part of the league's All-Centennial Team.

Considering he was so successful for so long, it's fair to wonder why he didn't spend more than a year and a half in the big leagues. As a spitballer with the White Sox, he posted a 3.06 ERA over 36 games across 1918-19. When his signature pitch was outlawed in the Majors, Shellenback was on the roster of the American Association's Minneapolis Millers, which meant no action by Chicago, nor a grandfather clause, would permit him to throw it in the big leagues in the future.

After 217 2/3 innings in the American League, his fate was sealed.

In January 1920, the White Sox sold his contract to the Oakland Oaks, who -- obliging Shellenback's wish to play in the Los Angeles area, where he grew up -- shipped him to the Vernon Tigers.

Shellenback and his spitball immediately became a force with Vernon. In that first season, he compiled a 2.71 ERA with four shutouts over 298 1/3 innings as the Tigers captured the 1920 league crown.

Shellenback pitched with the White Sox before notching 295 wins in the Pacific Coast League.

Although the PCL also soon banned the spitball, the league permitted Shellenback to continue using it. The origins of his primary offering are murky. He sometimes claimed he learned the pitch from watching a noteworthy White Sox teammate.

"I had [catcher] Birdie Lynn hold balls after he warmed up [Eddie] Cicotte," Shellenback told the San Bernardino Sun. "I'd study them and do what I believed Cicotte did."

But, as SABR notes, Shellenback told multiple versions of the story and likely learned the pitch before his Chicago tenure. And, as years went by, he didn't necessarily limit his applied substances to pure saliva. The Los Angeles Herald reported the right-hander was accused of using licorice on the ball during a 1920 game against the Angels.

"With my nose, I could tell what he had been using with the first whiff," LA infielder Rollie Zeider said. "I am as blind as most umpires and I can smell twice as good."

In five seasons with Vernon, Shellenback recorded 11 shutouts and pitched more than 200 innings four times. Aside from a five-game stint in 1922, when he was released and re-signed, he notched double-digit victories every season with the Tigers.

On June 16, 1921, the Los Angeles Times proclaimed, "Shellenback Babe Ruths It," after he homered and hurled Vernon to victory over Salt Lake. While the Ruthian comparison was hyperbolic, he did hit better than .285 six times.

Shellenback was traded to Sacramento in 1925 and spent a season there before he was shipped back to Hollywood, where he spent the next 10 years. He shined brightly with the Stars, helping them to championships in 1929 and 1930. He reached the 20-win mark five times, going 27-7 with a 2.85 ERA and five shutouts in 1931.

According to the Los Angeles Times, that 1931 success came with some outside help.

"Last spring, Shelly hit upon the novel plan of going to Doc Spenser, the local bone-bender who has had so much success in bringing to life many 'dead' baseball arms for treatment before the regular conditioning grind began for the athletes," Bob Ray wrote that December.

Whether or not Spenser actually helped, Shellenback topped 300 innings each season from 1931-33. In 1933, the Associated Press opined that the righty could still succeed as a Major Leaguer. But he instead became Hollywood's manager in 1935, with his wife, Elizabeth, expressing the utmost confidence in his parenting and managerial skills.

"If Frank can manage the Sheiks as well as he manages his six children at home, Hollywood is liable to win the pennant next year," she told Ray.

Although Hollywood did not take the crown, Shellenback twirled 200 innings and won 14 games. His time in Tinseltown also gave him a foray into movies; he made appearances in "Fireman, Save My Child" and "Alibi Ike."

He was hired as San Diego skipper in 1936 and limited his time on the hill. His spouse, although early in her prophecy, was right on the money. He guided the Padres to the PCL title in '37, and it was as San Diego manager that Shellenback shifted 17-year-old Ted Williams from pitching to a full-time outfield role.

Frank Shellenback discovered Ted Williams while managing San Diego in the PCL.

After his firing by the Padres in 1938, Shellenback held various coaching, scouting and advisory positions with the St. Louis Browns, Red Sox, Tigers and Giants. Most notably, he was on the Giants' big league staff for their 1954 World Series title.

"It's a matter of regulated practice," Shellenback told the Oakland Tribune of his teaching style as a pitching coach. "I can't teach a man control, but I can show him how to master it."

He remained in different jobs in the Giants organization until his death in 1969. The San Rafael Daily Independent Journal noted in 1965 that Shellenback was revered by the club as "the teacher."

Before his passing, Shellenback kept the spitball alive by helping future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry master the offering, even though it remained an illegal pitch.

After watching their father pitch in a game in May 1935, sons Frank Jr. and Richard told the Los Angeles Times that Shellenback was the "greatest guy in the world." And though his big league time was limited, with a .623 winning percentage, Shellenback stands as one of the greatest pitchers in Minor League history.

Andrew Battifarano is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter, @AndrewAtBatt.