Minor League Workhorses:  1951-1955

We took our first look at this phenomenon a few weeks ago, beginning with the period from 1946 through 1950. Now we’ll take another look at the most extreme workhorse pitchers in the minor leagues, this time from 1951 to 1955.

The Top 10 Innings Leaders

As we did last time, we’ve recorded the top 10 pitchers in innings pitched in each minor league classification each season. Averaging the stat lines of each of those top 10 innings-workload achievers from 1951 through 1955, this is what we get:

(EP = Estimated number of pitches)

Class AAA-Open:
Class         Year      G  GS  CG   IP   W   L    H   BB   SO   ERA    EP
AAA       Avg.1946-50  40   ?  21  275  18  14  271   90  135  3.35  4310
AAA           1951     36  32  18  249  16  12  220   98  123  3.22  3912
AAA-Open      1952     40  34  20  270  18  14  238   79  135  2.76  4094
AAA-Open      1953     42  34  18  266  19  13  253   84  115  3.30  4094
AAA-Open      1954     39  34  17  258  17  13  229  101  162  3.15  4111
AAA-Open      1955     39  34  19  259  19  13  237   76  129  2.88  3956
AAA-Open  Avg.1951-55  39  34  18  260  18  13  235   88  133  3.06  4033

Class AA:
Class         Year      G  GS  CG   IP   W   L    H   BB   SO   ERA    EP
AA        Avg.1946-50  38   ?  18  246  18  11  233   88  125  3.09  3883
AA            1951     37  32  20  258  16  14  227  113  130  2.92  4123
AA            1952     38  31  19  256  18  12  234   80  109  2.82  3913
AA            1953     39  31  17  251  16  12  246   99  129  3.21  4036
AA            1954     40  31  15  246  17  12  237   99  149  3.89  3982
AA            1955     39  32  18  254  19  11  226   92  146  3.03  3985
AA        Avg.1951-55  38  32  18  253  17  12  234   97  133  3.17  4008

Class A:
Class  Year             G  GS  CG   IP   W   L    H   BB   SO   ERA    EP
A         Avg.1946-50  33   ?  19  235  17   9  213   93  177  2.76  3805
A             1951     36  31  21  254  18  12  223  103  156  2.95  4056
A             1952     40  31  22  268  18  14  263  109  160  3.46  4360
A             1953     41  31  21  264  18  15  279   98  115  3.77  4245
A             1954     37  31  21  254  18  11  227  101  157  3.07  4056
A             1955     33  29  19  229  16  10  216   91  141  3.15  3687
A         Avg.1951-55  37  30  21  254  18  12  241  100  146  3.29  4081

Class B:
Class  Year             G  GS  CG   IP   W   L    H   BB   SO   ERA    EP
B         Avg.1946-50  34   ?  23  243  16  12  225  106  161  3.44  3972
B             1951     39   ?  24  275  22  11  256  101  168  2.94  4371
B             1952     41  31  25  282  22  11  234   90  126  2.77  4245
B             1953     41  31  24  278  21  11  260   85  142  2.83  4285
B             1954     42  32  21  267  18  13  259   85  146  3.57  4188
B             1955     41  32  23  271  19  13  263  109  163  3.40  4388
B         Avg.1951-55  41  31  23  274  20  12  254   94  149  3.10  4295

Class C:
Class         Year      G  GS  CG   IP   W   L    H   BB   SO   ERA    EP
C         Avg.1946-50  39   ?  26  277  21  11  264   80  199  2.71  4348
C             1951     49  35  29  318  26  13  333  115  184  3.48  5152
C             1952     41  33  26  284  23  10  263  136  204  3.62  4734
C             1953     45  33  27  292  22  13  314  126  188  4.18  4896
C             1954     44  35  25  287  21  14  289   95  171  3.82  4570
C             1955     47  31  22  277  21  14  284   95  200  4.03  4498
C         Avg.1951-55  45  33  25  291  23  13  297  113  189  3.82  4770

Class D:
Class  Year             G  GS  CG   IP   W   L    H   BB   SO   ERA    EP
D         Avg.1946-50  41   ?  27  292  21  14  254  106  230  2.93  4656
D             1951     41  32  27  289  24   9  264  100  219  2.89  4613
D             1952     45  27  23  283  21  10  243  125  195  2.62  4585
D             1953     43  28  22  278  22  11  251  110  204  3.15  4485
D             1954     38  30  23  263  20  11  246  110  183  3.24  4295
D             1955     43  31  24  282  22  12  274  109  194  3.47  4589
D         Avg.1951-55  42  30  24  279  22  11  256  111  199  3.07  4513

Remember that these figures represent the averages of the top 10 pitchers at each level; the highest individual workloads (which we’ll see below, as we did last time) were significantly greater than that.

Frankly, I was surprised to find these results. We saw in the 1946-50 period that it was routine for minor league pitchers to reach and far exceed workloads that modern major league aces never approach (and modern minor leaguers don’t even imagine beginning to approach). But I expected to find the beginning of the trend toward lower top-end workloads to appear in 1951-55, and it really doesn’t. In four of the six classifications, the average workloads were higher in 1951-55 than in the previous period. Perhaps only in Class A, with a noticeable dip in 1955, do we detect the start of a decrease.

The Minor League Reality of 1951-1955

This makes me all the more interested to find out what 1956-60 will reveal. Next time I’m really expecting the change in usage patterns to begin. But this data makes clear that in the early 1950s, the dramatic transformation in purpose and structure of the minor leagues hadn’t yet gotten underway. Instead, the manner in which we described the minor leagues of 1946-1950 still applies:

Certainly, one of the essential purposes of the minor leagues was to develop talented young prospects for major league teams. Every major league team had at least some form of a minor league “system” in place [in this period], and a few teams…had vast minor league organizations, far more extensive than those operated by any team today.

But even in those farm systems, developing young talent was not the only purpose, and not necessarily the primary purpose, of a minor league team. Making money was at least as important as developing talent, and the best way to go about making money was by winning games. Minor league baseball was a fiercely competitive enterprise on the field, because win-loss performance was a critical factor in the team’s bottom-line performance.

And [still in 1951-55], most minor league teams weren’t major league farm clubs. They were independent. Many employed some players contracted to major league organizations (on essentially a subcontracting basis), but many teams and entire leagues were completely unaffiliated with the majors.

But all was not well in the minor leagues in 1951-1955; far from it. The industry had clearly entered a period of crisis. In 1949, there were 59 minor leagues operating, and they drew a combined 42 million fans. By 1955, dire economic straits had withered the number of minor leagues down to 33, selling 19 million tickets.

Why?

Exactly what caused the minor league attendance crash of the 1950s is a question that was hotly debated then, and has been ever since. There’s little hope in fully comprehending a complex dynamic in a simple, neat little theory, but likely the best general explanation for what happened is as follows.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, there was a pent-up demand for entertainment, and for servicemen returning from the traumatic experience of overseas combat the demand was especially intense for old-fashioned, quintessentially American entertainment, the kind of thing that evoked the soothing familiarity of boyhood—what better for this than baseball, whether the major or minor league variety? Combine this with a robust post-war economy, and the attendance boom that occurred in both the majors and the minors in the late 1940s doesn’t seem surprising.

But rapid change in the culture and economics of leisure continued and accelerated into the 1950s. Entrepreneurs witnessed the record-breaking success of the baseball business and quickly developed means to compete with it. Other sports—football and basketball in particular—blossomed at both the collegiate and professional levels, in breadth, capitalization and marketing savvy; by the mid-1950s, baseball was no longer the big-time team sport. Moreover, a range of other family-friendly amusements also proliferated, including auto racing, bowling and miniature golf.

And, of course, television’s impact can scarcely be overstated as a novel, inexpensive and pervasive competitor to live baseball, growing ever more popular with each passing year. Instead of going out and buying a ticket to watch bush league ballplayers, folks could not only watch Berle and Ball in the comfort of their living rooms, but also Musial and Mantle. It added up to serious trouble for the minor leagues.

Still Pitching to Win

But in 1951-1955, the economic crisis hadn’t yet resulted in a fundamental change in how most minor league teams played ball. Even having shrunk to 33 leagues in 1955, that still left a minor-to-major league ratio of more than 16-to-1. It remained the case that the great majority of minor league players weren’t realistic major league prospects; many were former major leaguers, and many more were career minor leaguers who were no longer young. Minor league games were still conducted not primarily for the purpose of developing young talent on the behalf of major league parent organizations, but instead for the purpose of competing for wins in order to sell tickets—perhaps even more intensely as the ticket-selling business struggled.

Thus the minor league ace pitchers we’re examining here were very often not youngsters, and even if they were they weren’t necessarily under contract to major league organizations. They were employees of minor league teams whose concern was winning games now, and indeed given the deepening economic difficulties, these minor league ball clubs likely had less concern for cautiously protecting arms than their major league counterparts.

The Very Top Workhorses: 1951-1955

Here are the very heaviest workload seasons among minor league pitchers in this period. This view does provide a suggestion that the workload standard was beginning to be reduced, given that for the 1946-1950 period, we counted 32 cases of a pitcher with a season exceeding 4,900 estimated pitches. In this five-year span, there were only 23 such pitcher-seasons. Lowering the limit to 4,800 estimated pitches, we find the following 29 cases:

Pitcher         T  Age  Year  League  Class   G  GS  CG   IP   W   L    H   BB   SO   ERA    EP
Bill Stites     R    ?  1951  SW Inter.   C  61  37  27  337  29   9  352  162  196  4.14  5683
Vince Gonzales  L   25  1951  SW Inter.   C  55  35  30  319  32  11  301  153  294  2.76  5434
Antonio Ponce   R    ?  1951  SW Inter.   C  49  38  38  352  25  16  369   75  185  3.45  5393
Jim Tugerson    R    ?  1953  Mntn Sts.   D  46  37  35  330  29  11  306  122  286  3.71  5377
Ron Smith       R    ?  1953  AZ-TX       C  51  39  34  330  23  22  398   83  212  4.36  5355
Jack Venable    R    ?  1953  WTNM        C  49  33  25  287  16  18  327  172  295  5.71  5309
Vince Gonzales  L   26  1952  AZ-TX       C  47  31  18  288  25   8  332  187  222  4.81  5308
Andy Pane       L    ?  1951  Sooner St.  D  39  35  31  302  26   9  225  201  305  3.16  5295
Mike Conovan    L    ?  1952  Kitty       D  47  30  24  281  20  12  212  224  345  3.46  5231
Eddie Jacome    R    ?  1951  Longhorn    C  57   ?  29  338  28  13  406   65  114  3.72  5215
Carroll Dial    R    ?  1953  WTNM        C  48  34  29  308  28  11  320  135  243  4.27  5212
Manuel Morales  R    ?  1951  SW Inter.   C  45  38  29  322  24  12  326  127  165  3.30  5210
Guillermo Luna  L    ?  1951  SW Inter.   C  47  34  27  314  26  13  259  132  318  2.52  5166
Eurice Treece   R    ?  1954  Tri-State   B  51  36  29  314  26  15  329  121  181  3.64  5131
Larry Jackson   R   21  1952  California  C  43  36  30  300  28   4  250  144  351  2.85  5114
Marv Holleman   L    ?  1954  Evangeline  C  45  36  31  314  21  17  292  142  159  3.66  5092
Dean Franks     R    ?  1951  Longhorn    C  44   ?  30  311  30   9  326  119  162  3.43  5052
Jim Peete       L    ?  1955  AZ-Mexico   C  45  32  25  287  24  11  237  166  332  3.30  5034
Taylor Phillips L   19  1952  GA-FL       D  46   ?  24  297  21  10  202  182  265  1.40  5005
Gustavo Bello   R    ?  1951  SW Inter.   C  46  36  24  314  25  13  412   61  111  4.67  4970
Norm Hughes     R    ?  1955  FL State    D  65  24  11  302  18  16  291  145  142  3.90  4961
Chris Nicolosi  R    ?  1952  AZ-TX       C  44  33  23  283  17  14  307  159  172  5.15  4947
Marv Holleman   L    ?  1953  Evangeline  C  38  32  30  283  24  10  301  166  132  4.22  4906
Armin Somonte   L    ?  1951  Sooner St.  D  41  29  26  289  24  11  242  130  341  2.82  4886
Amador Guzman   R    ?  1953  AZ-TX       C  44  37  24  297  19  16  341  107  126  4.49  4843
Ken Hemphill    R    ?  1951  Sooner St.  D  47  30  23  297  27  10  268  109  265  2.91  4822
Vince Gonzales  L   27  1953  AZ-TX       C  44  32  25  275  22  12  279  138  276  4.18  4816
Carroll Dial    R    ?  1955  WTNM        B  50  34  27  296  20  15  301  114  171  3.55  4807
Ken Kimball     R    ?  1952  Pioneer     C  37  33  31  291  26   8  242  149  203  2.69  4804 

In the major leagues in 1951 through 1955, there was one 5,000-estimated-pitch season (Robin Roberts with 5,147 in 1953), and two others that exceeded 4,800 (Roberts at 4,872 in 1954, and Warren Spahn at 4,838 in 1951). Minor league aces were clearly being worked harder than big leaguers.

As in the 1946-50 period, very few of these guys made the majors, and so I don’t have a source to determine their ages. The three who did reach the big leagues represent an interesting cross-section:

- Vince Gonzales was a Cuban who, after a staggeringly impressive run of seasons in extremely high-scoring leagues in the desert Southwest, got a one-game sip of coffee at age 29 with the Washington Senators in 1955.

- Taylor Phillips had this monster season as a 19-year-old, but no other minor league performances that were remotely comparable: his next-highest minor league innings pitched total was 167. After missing both 1954 and 1955 to military service, he was promoted to the Milwaukee Braves in mid-1956 at age 23. He looked to be a pretty good prospect and got a shot as a front-line starter with the Cubs in 1958, but he never panned out in the majors.

- Larry Jackson, following this spectacular year at age 21, progressed up the St. Louis Cardinals’ chain and was a full-time major leaguer by 1955. He went on to a long and successful career as a consistent and remarkably durable workhorse; he led the majors in both innings pitched (282) and estimated pitches (4,347) in 1960, and was a four-time All-Star. When he retired from baseball to go into politics at the age of 37, Jackson was still entirely healthy and going very strong, and he could easily have far exceeded the total of 3,263 major league innings he achieved.

As for the rest of these pitchers, who knows? Almost all of these seasons were compiled in the low minors, and it’s reasonable to infer that few (if any) were considered serious major league prospects. Probably many were examples of a specimen long vanished from the American baseball scene: career low-minor league strikeout-king stars, small-town drawing-card celebrities. I wish I could have seen some of these guys pitch.

One interesting thing to observe is the high proportion of these seasons that were achieved in the ultra-high-offense leagues that abounded across hot-and-arid West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and northern Mexico in those years. Another is the surprisingly high proportion of these workhorses with Hispanic names, who were presumably mostly Mexicans or Cubans. I’m not certain what to make of the cultural implications of this, but they are intriguing.

Something Else Interesting

In compiling these lists, I ran across several guys who were used in pitching patterns I have never seen before and didn’t see in the 1946-1950 period. Check these guys out:

Pitcher         T  Age  Year  League  Class   G  GS  CG   IP   W   L    H   BB   SO   ERA    EP
Cecil Hutson    R    ?  1952  FL State    D  67  11   8  270  21  10  251   71  126  2.57  4081
Cecil Hutson    R    ?  1953  GA State    D  75   6   4  265  17  12  246   98  156  3.46  4208
Norm Hughes     R    ?  1955  FL State    D  65  24  11  302  18  16  291  145  142  3.90  4961
Joe Drach       R    ?  1955  FL State    D  54  17  10  284  14  12  263  106  142  3.01  4476

Primarily-to-almost-exclusively relief pitchers, yet with extremely high innings pitched totals: a fascinating manner of deploying the relief ace, in frequent very-long stints, a true workhorse reliever. This was entirely novel, and it’ll be interesting to see if I find more instances beyond 1955, but it certainly wasn’t an approach that ever really caught on.

Next time I work up the stamina to delve into the old Baseball Guides again, we’ll explore 1956-1960.

References & Resources
Estimated Pitches are calculated using Tangotiger’s Basic Pitch Count Estimator (3.3*PA + 1.5*SO + 2.2*BB), where (PA = 3*IP + H + BB).

The “AAA-Open” designation for 1952-55 includes the classification that the Pacific Coast League held in 1952-1957. As it lobbied to achieve major league status, the PCL was granted unique “Open Classification” status by the National Association. The American Association and International League both remained “AAA” classifications. See Paul J. Zingg and Mark D. Medeiros, Runs, Hits, and an Era: The Pacific Coast League, 1903-1958, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

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