If there's one thing baseball fans love to do, it's to argue about who is the greatest. The greatest team, the greatest switch-hitting second baseman, the greatest gotta-win-one-game manager. No matter who is right or wrong, the arguments are always lively.
This article will discuss the greatest minor league pitching staffs. From the ace to the last guy in the bullpen, we are asking which teams dominated the opposition and established themselves as among the greatest.
The ground rules can be argued, but for our purposes here they are:
1. The minimum time period for consideration is one season. Thus, Baltimore's sending Jim Palmer to Hagerstown for one week in 1983 does not qualify the Suns for the honor.
2. Consistency from top to bottom is required. One or two superstars and eight batting practice throwers won't make it.
3. A high won-lost ratio is needed. The great ones win no matter how little support they get.
4. A low ERA helps to differentiate only fair staffs on good teams (St. Paul in 1923 and Rochester in 1953) from the truly great staffs.
5. No mind-boggling formulas are used here. Subjectivity, emotion, and bias all combine to remove any semblance to a scientific evaluation.
Most of the great staffs are from the first half of the 20th Century since the current era rewards minor league excellence with a quick mid-season promotion up the ladder. As a result, many of the chosen few lack an outstanding relief pitcher, since the role of the closer developed after 1950. Prior to that, the great staffs tended to have a high percentage of complete games and the bullpen existed for emergencies.
We announce, then, two groups of winners. The first includes, in chronological order, those staffs which dominated for at least one season and could arguably be called "the best". Just as arguably, a case could be made for another fifty, perhaps another one hundred, staffs to be included.
Vernon Tigers, 1918.
Three twenty game winners supported Jakie May and his 35-9 record. All of that was still not enough to beat out San Francisco's powerful lineup for first place in the PCL.
Kansas City Blues, 1947.
No twenty game winners here, but five starters who combined for a 67-30 record. They were led by Bill Wight, who is pictured to the left, at 16-9. Their season was highlighted by Carl De Rose throwing the first perfect game in American Association history.
Montreal Royals, 1947-1955.
Though no one pitcher lasted all nine seasons, the Royals were given a stream of outstanding pitchers by the Dodgers. Their best may have been the 1952 group, featuring Tom Lasorda, Mal Mallette, Ed Roebuck, Gil Mills, and Hamp Coleman. So good were they that future star Johnny Podres could only look on as a part-timer.
Columbia Reds, 1953.
The only Class A team on the list finished second to Jacksonville during the Southern Association regular season and won the post-season playoffs. Corky Valentine led the league in ERA and joined Clarence Zieser, Ken Polivka, Barney Martin, Maurice Fisher, and John Bebber for an 88-39 record.
Hollywood Stars, 1954.
Roger Bowman, Red Munger, Lino Donoso, Mel Queen, Jim Walsh, and Ed Wolfe combined for 91-48 record and 2.68 ERA.
Indianapolis Indians, mid-1950's.
Several strong seasons were highlighted by the 1954 staff. Herb Score, who is pictured to the right, dominated the league in nearly every category but was strongly supported by Sam Jones, Howard Rodemoyer, Bob Kelly and relief ace Ted Wilks.
Amarillo Gold Sox, 1961.
First place was the reward as six pitchers - Hal Stowe, Tom McNulty, Jim Bouton, Bob Lasko, Jack Cullen, and Bill Drummond - won at least ten games each and combined for an ERA of just over 3.00. Interestingly, the second-place Tulsa Oilers merited strong consideration for ranking among the best staffs.
Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs, 1971.
The most recent of the candidates was managed by Cal Ripken, Sr., to the Texas League West Division championship. Ace Wayne Garland led the league with 19-5, 1.71 numbers. He was joined by Tom Walker, Jesse Jefferson, Don Hood, and reliever Mark Weems to turn in a league-leading 2.61 ERA.
And now, the second group, the elite of the elite, in ascending order.
5. Newark Bears, 1941.
The Bears' 1937 team may have been among the best in International League history, but the 1941 team had stronger pitching. Johnny Lindell went 23-4 and 2.05, and was followed by Hank Borowy, Russ Christopher, and Al Gettel, all of whom had sub-3.00 ERA's.
4. Columbus Red Birds, 1933.
Five pitchers - Paul Dean, Bill Lee, Art "Bud" Teachout, Clarence Heise, and Jim Winford - combined for 87 wins, but a combined ERA of over 3.00 cost them a higher ranking.
3. Houston Buffaloes, 1939-1941.
Each of these teams was strong, but the 1941 group led the league by sixteen and one-half games. Two pitchers, Fred Martin and Howie Pollet, who is pictured to the left, won 20 games or more with ERA's below 1.45. Ted Wilks also won 20 games, and John Pintar, Al Brazle, and Glenn Gardner added 34 wins.
2. Baltimore Orioles, 1919-1926.
Jack Dunn's teams featured outstanding pitching over seven seasons, but the best may have been in 1921. The great Lefty Grove was good enough for only second place on this staff, as John Ogden, pictured to the right, led the way with a 31-8, 2.29 ERA. They were joined by Al Thomas, Harry Frank, and Jack Bentley to win the International League race by nineteen games.
1. Los Angeles Angels, 1934.
Beat this group if you can:
Fay Thomas 28-4 2.59
Lou Garland 21-9 2.67
Emile Meola 20-5 2.90
John Campbell 19-15 2.63
Roy Henshaw 16-4 2.75
Emmett Nelson 14-5 2.53
Dick Ward 13-4 2.63
Of the eleven top ERA's in the league, seven came from the Angels. The team finished the season with a 135-50 record, thirty-five and one-half games ahead of Mission. So good was this team that the league owners voted to not even bother with post-season playoffs and replaced them with a series between the Angels and an all-star team from the rest of the league.
Are these the greatest?
One person thinks so, but many others would argue. Tell us what you think. Send your nominations to Pat Doyle. Mind-boggling statistical formulas and impassioned arguments will be considered on an equal basis and may be included in subsequent treatments of this topic. Let us know who you think is the best.