It is redundant to say that the big leagues have produced many baseball stars. Just look at the Hall of Fame, look at the statistical leaderboards. Those players, both current and retired, fit the definition of “star,” in this sense. True too, is the fact that the minor leagues have produced many stars. However, these are “stars” that you might not have ever heard of, stars that were well known to the leagues they played in and to the teams’ fans they played for. Outside of those circles, however, many of the minor league stars are anonymous to the casual fan.
Indeed, the minor leagues have played host to many a great pitcher, keen speedster and super slugger. Oh yes, many sluggers have played in the minor leagues, many who never panned out in the majors and many who never even got a major league chance. Take, for instance, a man by the name of Robert “Bob” Montag. He never played in the major leagues, despite hitting 224 home runs in his 14-year minor league career. He hit over 20 home runs six times in the minors, and in 1949 he hit .423 with 21 home runs in 124 games. Furthermore, in 1954 he hit .305 with 39 home runs, and in 1947 he hit 23 doubles and 11 triples to go along with the 17 home runs he hit. And yet, to most of baseball fandom, he remains unknown.
And then there’s Ray Perry, who spent 18 seasons in the minors, and not a day in the big leagues. Over the course of his long career, he hit .323 with 347 home runs and 415 doubles. He batted over .400 two years in a row, and he hit over 35 home runs five times, including one stretch of three years in a row. In seven of the 18 years he played, he hit at least 20 home runs, and in six of the 18 years he played, he had at least 30 doubles. Clearly, Perry’s minor league career was far superior to that of Bob Montag’s—but once again, his name would elicit a response of “who?” when mentioned around the average fan.
Of course, some stars in the minors have had their share of recognition as well—like Joe Bauman. It might not be considered “common knowledge,” but it’d be fair to say that a notable chunk of those who follow baseball have heard his name, or at least have heard of his feat. He is the player who, until Barry Bonds broke his record, held the professional baseball record for home runs in a season. In 1954, he hit 72 home runs (to go along with a .400 batting average), to set the pace. Bauman, though, never reached the big leagues. Even though he hit 337 home runs in nine minor league seasons (as opposed to 347 in 18 seasons for Perry or 224 home runs in 14 seasons for Montag) and even though he hit .337 in his minor league career, he never played a game in the big leagues. At least, though, people know who he is.
Many other big boppers, who in their own right would be considered stars to those who knew of them, never reached the big leagues either. Jerry Keller, for instance, hit 203 home runs in 10 minor league seasons, including 28 three years in a row. Jimmie McDaniel hit 280 home runs in 14 minor league seasons, swatting at least 30 home runs three consecutive seasons. He too, however, never played a game in the majors. Over 18 years in the minors, Joe Macko hit 306 home runs, and Bob Crues hit .337 with 232 home runs in an 11-year career, and yet he never reached the big leagues either. The list goes on and on, and the pattern is the same. Many players performed very well in the minors, and yet they never reached the major leagues. And so, no one knows who they are. Despite the fact, that they were great.
Then there are those who did reach the majors, but didn’t pan out, or just didn’t last very long—and therefore, people still don’t know who they are, or at the very least don’t give credit to their accomplishments. Buzz Arlett hit 432 home runs in the minor leagues, and he posted a .341 batting average. He spent one season in the big leagues, hitting .313 with 18 home runs for the Phillies in 1931, but after the season he was back in the minors. In his first year back in the minors, he hit 54 home runs with a .339 batting average. He was a true stud, a star in his time.
Looking at more modern times, Earl Snyder was a real stud in the minors, too. Over 10 minor league seasons, he hit 220 home runs. He didn’t pan out in the majors—he hit only .203 in 59 big league at-bats—but it’s hard not to realize that in his element, he was a great slugger. Izzy llcantara is another modern player who was a star in the minors, but a dud in the big leagues. Over 14 minor league seasons, he hit 273 home runs. He hit over 25 home runs six times, with his highest total being 36 in 2001. In 1998 he hit .308 with 28 dingers, and in 2000 he hit .308 with 29 home runs. As a big leaguer, he hit .270 in 51 games—not bad, but he didn’t play long enough to make any lasting impressions. He showed some of his power at the big league level in his first season, 2000, while with Boston, though. As a major leaguer that year, he posted a .578 slugging percentage in 21 games, hitting four home runs.
Smead Jolley spent four seasons in the big leagues, hitting .305 with 46 home runs—respectable, obviously, but it is in the minors where he shined the brightest. During one seven year stretch, he hit no less than 23 home runs in a single season. His minor league batting average was .367—greater than Ty Cobb’s big league average—and he hit 336 home runs to boot. He also hit doubles like crazy, including 65 one year, 56 another, and 55 another. His stats were boosted by the fact that he played as many as 200 games a season in the Pacific Coast League, but no “normal” player could have accomplished what he accomplished in the minors. He was a true star.
In the big leagues, George Banks hit only .219 in 201 at-bats. Obviously, the big leagues weren’t for him. It was in the minors, however, where he excelled. He hit 223 home runs in his 11 year minor league career, including a string of five years in a row where he hit 25 or more each season. In 1958, he hit .315, with 24 doubles and 15 triples to go along with his 16 home runs, and in 1961 he hit .300 with 24 doubles and 10 triples to go along with his 30 home runs. Banks wasn’t a star in the big leagues, but in the minors, he was.
Ivan Cruz hit 234 home runs in the minors, but as a big leaguer he hit two. Bill McNulty hit 237 home runs in the minors, but in the major leagues he hit zero with a .037 batting average. From Graham Koonce (211 minor league home runs; zero in the big leagues) to Merv Connors (400 minor league home runs; eight in the big leagues) to Kit Pellow (299 minor league home runs; four in the big leagues) to Jim Fridley (210 minor league home runs; eight in the big leagues) many players found the minors to be the place where their stars could shine brightest. The majors weren’t the place where they’d become stars—the minors were.
Of course, there are those who were both minor league stars and notable big leaguers as well. Dick Stuart hit 228 home runs in the big leagues and was an All-Star. In the minors, he hit another 220 home runs. Jim Gentile hit 245 home runs in 11 minor league seasons, and he also hit 179 in the big leagues, and he was an All-Star three years in a row. To go along with an excellent minor league career, Russell Branyan has put together a solid big league career as well. Players who are long time minor league stars who become at least solid big league stars don’t seem very common, however. Either a player becomes a star in the big leagues, or is relegated to minor league stardom—or doesn’t become a star at all.
Many great players have played minor league baseball. Many who, when named in front of the casual baseball fan, would not be recognized. Obviously, many of these great minor leaguers came in the form of slugging power-hitters, who for whatever reason couldn’t make it in the big leagues (or to them, for that matter). Never mind that, however. A star in the minors is still a star—albeit, an often unrecognized one—who deserves to be remembered in some way. Perhaps, one day, they will be remembered just a little bit more.