Sunday, August 26, 2007


Most Americans are familiar with major league baseball stars, but several minor leaguers stand out because they were so dominating at the minor league level that, in some cases, they were perfectly happy to stay where they were, rather than move up to the majors. Some prefer to be the big fish in a small pond.

Some minor league stars moved on to greatness in the majors. For example, the great Joe DiMaggio of the NY Yankees, who hit safely in a record 56 straight games, did even better in the minors. Playing for San Francisco, then in the Pacific Coast League, in 1933, the 18 year old DiMaggio hit safely in 63 straight games, and then played brilliantly for 2 more seasons in the minors before the Yankees brought him up to the big show. Another was Willie Mays, the great center fielder for the Giants, who batted .467 at Minneapolis, then in the American Association, for about 50 games before the Giants brought to the majors where he was instrumental in the Giants miracle pennant drive of 1951.

Some names you may be less familiar with are minor league greats who played at the major league level with little or no success.


Here was a portly first baseman who, in parts of 10 seasons in the majors, was known more for his strikeouts than his home runs. In 1953, playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, he entered the record books when he struck out 5 times in a row in a 10 inning game. In his only major league season with more than 300 at bats, he did bat .251 with 21 homers. However, with 125 strikeouts, the Cardinals grew impatient and traded him to the Chicago Cubs where he had an uneventful season and was released to play for the Cubs minor league team in Los Angeles, which was then part of the Pacific Coast League (PCL).

With the Los Angeles Angels, playing in the other Wrigley Field, Bilko became a legend when he led the league in homers three years in a row, with home run totals of 37, 55 and 56. In 1956, he also led the PCL in batting average(.360) and RBI's (164), winning the Triple Crown. Did I mention that the slow footed Bilko also managed to score 163 runs? He was voted Most Valuable Player in the PCL all three seasons (1955-57), and was the Minor League Player of the Year in 1956. According to the PCL Historical Society , Bilko was the most popular player in Los Angeles history up to the time the Big Leagues arrived there. Bilko hit a total of 313 homers in the minor leagues.

In 1955, a television show called the Phil Silvers Show (one of my favorites) debuted, and the Phil Silvers character was called Sergeant Bilko. The writer had named the character after Steve Bilko. A publicity photo showing Silvers and Bilko made the rounds of Hollywood.


He was a minor league star who became a legend in Japanese baseball. He was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the 1972 amateur draft and led in homers virtually every league he played in. He led the Florida East Coast League in 1972, The Midwest League in 1973, and the Carolina League in 1974. He then played three seasons at Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League where he hit well, but did not lead the league, although he hit 25 homers and had 117 RBI's with a .321 average in 1977.

He played briefly for the 1977 Minnesota Twins and the 1978 Kansas City Royals. The Royals sold his contract to the Montreal Expos where he played very briefly, but was sent down to Denver of the American Association, where he hit 36 homers, batted .333 and led the league in on-base percentage and slugging average. The following season with Denver, he led the American Association with 37 homers and 143 RBI's and was voted Most Valuable Player. They traded him to the San Diego Padres where he played sparingly, hit few homers and a low batting average.

He was invited to play in Japan, for the Hanshin Tigers, where he became a superstar, winning the Japanese Central League Triple Crown in 1985 and 1986. In 1985 he hit 54 home runs, one shy of the record held by the legendary Sadaharu Oh. In the final few games of the season, when he had a chance to break the record, the Tokyo Giants pitchers, who were managed by Mr. Oh, refused to pitch to Bass--giving him intentional walks. AFter 4 intentional walks in one game, Bass reached for a pitch 2 feet outside and hit a single.

He was voted Most Valuable Player in the Central League--only the second foreigner to win the award. In 1986, he batted .389, which is still the Japanese record. In 5 seasons in Japan, he hit 202 homers, and is a strong candidate to become the second American to be elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. Hanshin released him in 1988, over a dispute over who would pay his son's medical bills. Bass retired from pro ball at that time. In 2004, he was elected to the Oklahome State Senate as a Democrat.





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