This 95-year absence of professional ball is an extreme example of the vagaries of minor league ball. Players come and go, franchises come and go, and leagues come and go. Hell, after almost a century, even some towns come and go. That’s life in the bushes.
Major league franchises tend to be more stable, but only a few National League cities (Chicago, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis) have hosted pro ball non-stop since the 19th century. One minor league town can make the same claim. That town is Rochester, N.Y.
Rochester was named after Colonel Nathaniel Rochester, one of a trio of enterprising gentlemen from Hagerstown, Md. They thought the cataracts of the Genesee River in upstate New York would be a great place for a flour mill, so in 1811 they founded a settlement. The opening of the Erie Canal brought rapid growth to the city, resulting in more mills and factories. The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway (the Genesee River is a tributary of Lake Ontario) in 1959 facilitated international trade and transportation.
Unlike a number of longtime Triple-A cities, Rochester is never mentioned as a possible major league locale. The population just isn’t there. In 2015 the population of Rochester was estimated at 209,802, down from a peak of 332,488 in 1950. As with other rust belt metro areas on the Great Lakes (e.g., Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo) the population has declined slightly since the 2010 census. The Rochester metro area is currently ranked No. 51 in the U.S. with an estimated population of 1,078,879 in 2016.
Minor league ball in Rochester dates back to 1877. This was a period of extraordinary growth, as the population mushroomed from 62,386 in 1870 to 89,366 in 1880.
For the next two decades, Rochester experienced the coming and going of teams, leagues and ballparks. This state of flux was all too common in minor league towns, particularly in the days before major league teams had extensive minor league affiliates. Minor league teams in Rochester were known by such names as the Hop-Bitters (named in favor of a local patent medicine, not IPAsor other hoppy beers), the Browns/Brownies, the Jingoes, the Maroons, the Patriots and simply the Rochesters.
It is worth noting that in 1890 the Rochester Broncos were in the American Association, which was considered major league…for one season. A curious footnote in major league history occurred in 1898 when the Cleveland Spiders of the National League played a couple of games in Rochester in late August 1898. (This was the season before the Spiders’ infamous meltdown when they fashioned a 20-134 record.)
Then, just before the end of the 19th century, the baseball situation in Rochester settled down. When the Rochester Broncos (then in the Eastern League, but not the same organization as the Double-A Eastern League of today) took the field for the home opener in 1899, it marked the beginning of non-stop professional baseball that continues to the present day. After winning a title in 1899, the team degenerated to a 28-105 record in 1904. Not surprisingly, this is the low point in Rochester baseball history. On the other hand, the team had a memorable alternative nickname: the Beau Brummells.
In addition to Rochester, the inaugural franchises in the Eastern League were Hartford, Montreal, Providence, Springfield (Mass.), Syracuse, Toronto and Worcester. Many of them came and went but Rochester remained through 1911 when the league folded. The team started at Culver Field in 1899 but a collapse of the right field bleachers in 1906 inspired a new facility, Bay Street Park, in1908. This spacious facility was noteworthy for introducing drive-in baseball, as automobiles and carriages were permitted to park in the outfield.
In 1912 Rochester joined Baltimore, Buffalo, Jersey City, Montreal, Newark and Toronto in the Double-A International League (the name was used for some lower level leagues before 1912). Initially, the team was known as the Hustlers, and later the Colts (1921) and The Tribe (1922). Rochester has been in the International League ever since.
In 1928 Branch Rickey and the St. Louis Cardinals came calling. This was at a time when Rickey was signing up affiliates right and left at all levels of minor league ball. As a token of that affiliation, the team was rebranded the Red Wings. Interesting to note that Warren Giles, future president of the NationalLeague, was the team’s president in 1928. Billy Southworth was the Cards’ pick as Rochester manager that year.
Rickey was widely criticized for cornering the market on minor league talent, thereby preventing a number of talented players from reaching the majors. In 1938 Commissioner Kenesaw Landis interceded and emancipated 74 Cardinal minor leaguers from what he called “chain gang” baseball.
Major league affiliation might have hampered Cardinal farmhands, but often it was a boon to the affiliated cities. The Cardinals, for example, spent $400,000 in 1929 to build a new stadium in Rochester. The money was well spent, as Red Wing Stadium remained in use through the 1996 season, though it was later renamed Silver Stadium after Morrie Silver, a local businessman who led a movement to buy the franchise from the Cardinals and set it up under community ownership to assure baseball would remain in Rochester. Today his daughter, Naomi Silver, is the president, CEO & COO of the franchise.
The Cardinals affiliation served Rochester very well on the field, as the team won titles in its first four years: 1928 through 1931. The first three seasons at Red Wing Stadium were particularly prosperous, as the team won more than 100 games in 1929, 1930 and 1931.
Since those heady days, no Rochester team has finished in triple digits in victories, though there have been more league championships. Subsequent titles were won in 1939, 1952, 1955 1956. The franchise was bumped up to Triple-A in 1945 when the International League was reclassified.
The Cardinals ended their affiliation after the 1960 season, yet the Red Wings nickname endured. During the 33-year partnership, a number of players (among them Whitey Kurowski, Pepper Martin, Johnny Mize, Red Schoendienst) went on to achieve fame with the Cardinals.
In 1961 an even longer partnership (42 seasons) ensued with the Baltimore Orioles. The talent-rich Oriole organization provided Rochester with a parade of outstanding players. Almost anyone who was anyone on the famed Oriole teams of the late 1960s through the early ’80s stopped in Rochester on the way up. Among the names on that lengthy roster are Don Baylor, Mike Boddicker, Al Bumbry, Mike Epstein, Steve Finley, Mike Flanagan, Bobby Grich, Chris Hoiles, Jeff Manto, Dennis Martinez, Mike Mussina, Johnny Oates, Boog Powell, Cal Ripken Jr. and Earl Weaver.
All of the aforementioned Cardinals and Orioles have plaques in the Red Wings Hall of Fame at Frontier Field, the Red Wings’ home since 1997. Curiously, Fred “Bonehead” Merkle is an inductee, based on the 1921-1925 seasons he spent in Rochester after his major league career was all but over (he did resurface for a few at-bats with the Yankees in 1925 and 1926). Another “non-traditional” inductee is Luke Easter. Like Merkle, he logged time in Rochester (1959-1964) after his major league career was over. The SABR chapter in Rochester is named after him.
The affiliation with the Orioles served the Red Wings well, as the team won titles in 1964, 1971, 1974, 1988, 1990 and 1997. The ensuing 20-year drought is the longest in franchise history. The 2006 team, however, came close, losing to Toledo in the decisive game five of the finals.
The Red Wings have had 11 International League MVPs since the award was initiated in 1932. Future Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst won the award in 1943. Some of the more recognizable names were Mike Epstein in 1966, Bobby Grich in 1971, Rich Dauer in 1976, Craig Worthington in 1988, Jeff Manto (splitting the season with the Norfolk Tides) in 1994 and Chris Colabello in 2013. Schoendienst, Grich and Manto are also in the International League Hall of Fame.
Also in the InternationalLeague Hall are Luke Easter, Don Baylor, who played in Rochester in 1968, 1970, and 1971; and Cal Ripken Jr., who spent the 1981 season there.
Before he moved up to the major league managerial ranks, Joe Altobelli logged six seasons (1971-1976) at the helm of the Red Wings, bringing the team home in first place four times. His 1971 team (86-54), which defeated the Denver Bears in the Junior World Series, is considered one of the best in franchise history. Altobelli returned in 1991 and served in the front office through 1997. His number 26 has been retired by the Red Wings, and he is a member of both the Red Wings and International League Halls of Fame.
Since 2003, the Red Wings have been the Triple-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. To a large degree, the fortunes of an affiliated minor league team are dependent on the personnel choices made by the parent club. The Twins organization is rated 21st by Baseball America in 2017, so a championship year does not appear likely in the near future.
The Twins agreement ends after the 2018 season, so the future of the franchise hangs in the balance. If the Twins don’t re-up, perhaps some other major league franchise will step up. If Rochester proves to be the odd franchise out, more than likely some independent league (the Atlantic League and CanAm League come to mind) will seize the opportunity.
After 119 consecutive years of pro ball, it is difficult to imagine that the Rochester Red Wings could ever have their wings clipped.
References & Resources
- 500 Ballparks, From Wooden Seats to Retro Classics, Eric Pastore, Thunder Bay Press (San Diego, 2011)
- The Encyclopedia of American Cities, Ory Mazar Nergal, ed., E.P. Dutton (New York, 1980)
- Green Cathedrals, Philip J. Lowry, Walker & Company (New York, 2006)
- Professional Baseball Franchises, From the Abbeville Athletics to the Zanesville Indians, ed. Pete Filichia, Facts on File, Inc. (New York, 1993)
- The Spirit of St. Louis, Peter Golenbock, HarperCollins (New York, 2000)
- Baseball America
- Rochester Red Wings History – TheBallparkGuide.com