john shiffert: bush leagues

Bush Leagues

In one of his more memorable lines from  Ball Four, Jim Bouton had this to say about the minor leagues, the occasion being his demotion to the Triple A Vancouver Mounties early in the 1969 season.

“The minor leagues are all very minor.”

And while that may well be true, it is equally true that a lot of interesting people, facts and figures have populated the minor leagues, at least in the latter part of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century.

One of the early sources of information on the minors is Robert Obojski’s “Bush League.” Published in 1975, and now clearly outdated – at least statistically — by modern baseball research, it nonetheless presents a nice overview of the minors’ first 100 years. Obojski gives a brief historical survey of the minors, followed by spotlighting some on the bush leagues’ seminal figures – Branch Rickey, Frank Shaughnessy, George Weiss and Henry Peters.

Obojski also gives overviews of the three top minor leagues – the American Association, the International League and the Pacific Coast League – as well as the top league in each of the lower ranks, the Texas, Southern, Eastern and Middle Atlantic Leagues. He also throws in a chapter on baseball in Mexico.

The book concludes with bios of two all-time minor leaguers, Unser Choe Hauser and Ike Boone (a pity Obojski couldn’t have done more of these bios, but, as noted, research was a lot harder in those days) and some of the outstanding minor league records and accomplishments. Of course, Joe Bauman’s 72 home runs for Roswell in 1954 is included therein, but it’s also worth noting that Obojski missed the feats of Bill Thomas. In fact, Thomas isn’t even mentioned in the book. It was, indeed, pretty tough to be comprehensive on a national scale in the ‘70s.

Still, “Bush League” is a great reference and starting point, since Obojski also lists, by league, every city and town that ever had a minor-league baseball team, and includes a terrific bibliography.

A different kind of reference on the minors was a series of books published by Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) in 1978, 1985 and 1992. The “Minor League Baseball Stars” series, in addition to listing the playing records of such, also contains some additional editorial gems, such as profiling Karl Black, who won 19 games for Tulsa in 1923, overcame one outing where he gave up home runs to the first four hitters in a game. (Note: that was NOT one of his 19 wins.)

Although the information in this series is now also available on baseball-reference.com, the books are a lot of fun to wander through, since the players are listed alphabetically, providing an excellent starting point if you’re not specifically researching a single individual.

For example, outfielder Pearl Zane was playing under an assumed name with Findlay in the Inter-State League in 1895. As would be the case with many others, he didn’t want his college–in this case, the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a dental student and a pitcher–to know about his professional endeavors on the diamond. Although, he pitched for Penn, Zane was a pretty good hitter, batting .323 in 86 games in the minors.

Why is this significant? Well, it turns out he wasn’t much of a dentist, so he turned to writing, using his real name, Zane Grey, and churned out western adventure novels by the bushel, along with at least one famous baseball-themed short story, “The Red-headed Outfield” (he’d obviously read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at some point) that featured his brother, Romer “Reddy’ Gray, who was an even better player and got into one game for the Pirates in 1903, going one for three and scoring a run.

Or, did you know about Will Delahanty? Sure, you knew that Ed, Jim, Joe, Tom and Frank Delahanty all played in the majors, but little brother, Will, also played in the minors from 1905 to 1912. In other words, he didn’t get started in professional baseball until after brother Ed took his drunken plunge into Niagara Falls.

How about John Paul Cobb? You can probably guess the identity of his famous brother. Paul Cobb, in addition to playing for Georgia Tech, where he was a sometime student, played in the minors from 1907 to 1916, hitting .283, and also stealing 189 bases. However, although he got a shot with the St. Louis Browns in 1909, he never played in the majors.

Finally, let us remember “The Pope,” Paul Owens, former Phillies GM who took the team to the 1983 World Series as the manager. How many people know that Owens had an incredible, though brief, minor league record? For some reason, he didn’t start playing in the minors until 1951, when he was 27. A first baseman by trade, Owens, as a 27-year old rookie in the Pony League, hit .407 for Olean, leading the league, and scored 129 runs and drove in 101 in 111 games. And he was just getting started.

Before he hung up his spikes as a minor-league player in 1959 (he only played in 32 games his last two years as manager at Bakersfield), Owens picked up two more batting titles, hitting .407 again, and .368. If you care to take the record-keeping down to a minimum of 600 games played in the minors, it is very possible that the Pope has the record for the highest minor league batting average of all time, a mark that well-eclipses Paul Cobb’s brother’s major league mark of .366. Playing mostly at ages that would typically mark to downside of a baseball career – 27 to 33–Paul Owens hit .374.

All this, and more, are in “Bush League” and the SABR series. If you can get your hands on either, it is well worth the time and money spent.