Baseball fans and historians will never totally agree on which era has represented the game's finest hour. Each decade has seen players, teams, and moments that have been called the best and greatest the game has produced.
The 1920's, in the opinion of many, were baseball's golden era. During those years, few other sports competed for headlines or the entertainment dollar. Every city and hamlet had a semi-pro team, and most had several. At a time when television and the computer were unknown, knicker-donned youth played whatever variations of the game that the number of players and available space accommodated.
Professionally, the decade began with the dead ball and ended with a rabbit. In the majors, the disastrous impact of the Black Sox scandal gave way to the idolization of Babe Ruth. The fatal beaning of a player brought about the elimination of illegal pitches and grass-stained baseballs. And sixteen teams attracted the best athletes of the day playing in the largest stadiums in the land.
The growth that sprouted at the major league level was at least equaled in the minors. The number of leagues, teams, and players nearly doubled between 1919 and 1929. In addition, the nature of minor league baseball was beginning to change. The traditional model of independent minor league teams was being challenged by Branch Rickey and his concept of establishing a farm system which would feed the major league franchise. By 1929, three other teams had secured affiliations and by the end of the following decade this novelty would be the rule rather than the exception.
For promising players, farm systems were a benefit, as they provided for a quicker road to the big leagues. The major league teams also profited, as their rookies would be trained in a uniform approach to the game. For the fans, however, the new way would signal the end of minor league dynasties and long-term superstars. The great teams of the high minors - the Baltimore Orioles, San Francisco Seals, and Fort Worth Panthers - would give way to a higher turnover of personnel and increased parity. Among those leagues, only the Pacific Coast League would resist major league ownership or affiliations for two more decades.
This article is not intended to decry those changes. Rather, it celebrates the achievements of the players who were best known in the cities and towns of minor league America. A few of their accomplishments follow.
A wealth of pitching talent flourished in the high minors during the 1920's. Paul Wachtel had a 200-118 record during the decade while pitching for Fort Worth and Houston. Baltimore's Jack Ogden went 191-80, highlighted by a 31-8 record in 1921, before moving up to the Browns. His teammate, Lefty Grove, won 96 games in four seasons before Connie Mack pried him away from Jack Dunn's grasp. Bill Hughes had a 175-153 record for six teams, with most of his success coming as a member of the Sacramento Solons. Ben Tincup pitched in 2 games for the 1928 Chicago Cubs - the rest of the decade was spent in Louisville, were he went 154-122. Many others, too numerous to list here, racked up similarly impressive numbers.
The single-season strikeout king for the decade was Tulsa's George Boehler, who led the 1922 Western League with 333 K's. He also had 278 as an Oakland Oak in 1925, 258 with Joplin in 1920, and 216 with Oakland in 1924. In an era when inducing batted balls was as important as striking out hitters, Mission's Clyde Barfoot struck out only 55 in 308 innings in 1927. However, his 135 victories during the decade bear out his soft-throwing success.
On the other side of the coin, Sioux City's Oscar Roettger walked 237 hitters in 1922 but managed to win 16 games. He was not alone in his wildness (a 1920's term which has given way to 'poor location'), as Roy Richter plunked 45 hitters with Okmulgee in 1923. In the wild pitch category, Mike Cvengros of the 1921 Chickasha Chicks fired 26 tosses to the backstop and beyond.
In the department of winning the hard way, Wichita's Jim Jolley won 22 games in 1925 despite allowing 480 hits, 92 free passes, and 276 runs in 322 innings.
On the hitters' side, Bill Diester batted .444 in 108 games with the Salina Millers of the 1926 Southwestern League. While his average was tops for the decade, his 190 hits were far short of the 325 racked up by Paul Strand with Salt Lake City in 1923. Two years later, Tony Lazzeri of the same team collected 252 hits while scoring 202 runs, batting .355, clouting 60 home runs, driving in 222, and compiling a slugging average of .721. His 52 doubles fell short of the decade's peak of 100 set by Lyman Lamb with Tulsa in 1924.
In terms of overall single-season batting performances, two names stand out. John "Bud" Davis, of the 1924 Okmulgee Drillers, matched Lazzeri's accomplishments with a .400 average, 260 hits, 50 doubles, 51 home runs, and a .746 slugging average. George Lafayette, with the 1921 Pacific Coast International League's Yakima Indians, had the decade's highest on-base percentage with .549.
The long-term lease award may well go to St. Paul outfielder Bruno Haas. During the 1920's, all 1407 of his games were played with the Saints, as he batted .320 with 317 doubles. To keep busy, he spent one off-season as a running back with the NFL Cleveland Indians.
In an era when bat-control was prized, the missed-pitch award for hitters goes to Lillard Belcher of the East Texas League, with 133 strikeouts in 117 games. A better eye was exhibited by Frank Eddington who, while with the 1925 Fort Worth Panthers, drew 140 walks. The single-season stolen base champ was Bill Lowrance with his 98 steals in 1921 for the Southwestern League's Independence Producers. The "Thou Shall Not Advance" prize goes to Evansville's Frank Meyers, who was caught 40 times in his 63 stolen-base attempts in 1920.
The decade's iron man was Ernest "Dud" Lee, who played 205 games (all at shortstop) with Hollywood in 1929. For catchers, it was Art Koehler, who crouched behind the plate during 164 with Sacramento in 1926. Not surprisingly, most of the single-season and many of the decade-long awards find their source in the PCL and its lengthier seasons.
The final accolade, the Minor League Babe Ruth Award, goes to Jack Bentley. In between two tours in the majors, Bentley dominated the International League from 1920 to 1922. During those three seasons, he batted .378 with 63 home runs and a .585 slugging average. On the side, he also pitched. His totals for those seasons were 41-6 with an ERA of 2.07. Like the Babe, Jack spent several seasons playing in New York, although with the cross-town Giants. Used primarily as a pitcher, he went 40-22 with the Jints, posting an ERA of 4.38.
The single-year and multi-season minor league records of years past are unlikely to be met or surpassed by today's players. Promising players now advance quickly through their organizations, with multiple promotions during a single season not uncommon. Those who level off and become 'career' minor leaguers bounce from one team to another and rarely stay in one town long enough to break records of longer than the single-game variety. Despite that reality, fans continue to flock to the local ballpark and cheer their heroes to victory and, on occasion, to extraordinary accomplishments.
Baseball fans and researchers who are interested in finding out more about the players, teams and leagues of the 1920's can do so via a new product, The Professional Baseball Player Statistical Database. This product is an extension of The Professional Baseball Player Database, and includes expanded statistical categories as well as a listing of games played by position.