Recollections of an International League Season

This article was written by David Chrisman

This article was published in 1978 Baseball Research Journal

My first exposure to International League baseball came in Baltimore in 1944 when I was only 7 years old. It was a pennant year for Baltimore. And my dad (early in the season) took me out to old Oriole Park to see the beloved Birds. The hated Syracuse Chiefs provided the opposition in this my very first baseball game. I remember Syracuse (clad in red and gray) had a sensational young third baseman named Chico Rodriguez who had a hot hitting hand that day. Chico collected three or four hits and contributed mightily to the Orioles’ defeat. It was early May and the Orioles were in their familiar black and orange trim over white uniforms. I don’t remember too much about my first game except that the Orioles lost and Rodriguez was the hitting star. Later, that year, my father took me out to a night game (but at a totally different ball park). Naturally, I was confused. It was only years later that I learned that on July 4, 1944 old Oriole Park had burned down and the Orioles were forced to move into the single-decked Municipal Stadium on 33rd Street.

Even though we later moved from Baltimore, I still kept track of the International League and the Orioles in particular by reading the Sporting News.  In 1947, the Orioles had a bad team and were mired deep in the second division. Thus, most of the fans’ attention was riveted on the thrilling three team pennant race among Montreal, Jersey City, and those same Syracuse Chiefs. By vacationing each summer in Central New York, I had lost much of my contact with the Orioles; but, ironically, I had picked up the thread of what was happening in the pennant race by reading the Syracuse newspapers and listening to the local broadcasts. It was awkward for me to get my perspective through the prism of Syracuse as the home team instead of Baltimore. But those 1947 Chiefs were an exciting ball club.

Syracuse and all of Central New York were baseball crazy in the summer of `47. One had to begin and end Syracuse’s 1947 International League season with one name- Hank Sauer. Hank was playing left field for the Chiefs and was leading the league in everything but broken bats. He was destined to become the Sporting News’s minor league player of the year. All over Central New York, people were talking about Sauer and the Syracuse ball club. It whetted my appetite to see a game, so my dad took me over to MacArthur Stadium in Syracuse to see the 1947 version of the Syracuse Chiefs. It struck me as odd to see the Chiefs clad in the white uniform of the home team. Their opponents for that doubleheader were the seemingly invincible Montreal Royals. The Royals were managed by Clay Hopper and appeared well on their way to a third consecutive pennant. At the time (mid-June), it seemed that Jersey City and Syracuse would furnish only token competition for the high-charged Royals. The veteran Jewel Ens was the Syracuse skipper and he had an interesting ball club at his disposal.  Future major leaguers and veteran Triple A minor leaguers combined to present the fans of the area with a genuinely superior brand of baseball. Nevertheless, outside of several members of the pitching staff, only Sauer would spend any appreciable time in the major leagues subsequent to the 1947 season.

The veteran Eddie Shokes played first for the Chiefs. He was a slick fielder but not much of a power hitter. The rest of the infield consisted of Frank Drews at second combining with shortstop Claude Corbitt to complete many double-plays; and, of course, the veteran third-baseman Al Rubeling (a Syracuse fixture). While Sauer was in leftfield, the Chiefs had two classy fielders who shared the Centerfield position: Jodie Beeler and Frank Davis. In right field was the veteran Al (Dutch) Mele, destined to have an extremely productive year of his own (.3 17, 20 homers, and 100 RBIs). Dick West and Dick Bosiak did the catching. The Syracuse pitching staff was a good one. It consisted of two future Cincinnati Reds: Howie Fox (19-9) and Herm Wehmeier (15-8), along with veteran minor leaguer Jim Prendergast (the league’s only 20-game winner), and Alex Mustaikis, Dixie Howell, Dutch Schultz, and John Bebber. When this team took the field, I couldn’t help but be impressed.

But their competition that day was the mighty Montreal Royals of 1947. Clay Hopper’s outfit looked formidable. Even their uniforms (visiting team gray coupled with Royal blue) gave them a particularly ominous appearance. This team was the immediate successor to the one that featured the sensational 1946 debut of Jackie Robinson.  Jackie was the hero of the `46 pennant winners and the batting champion of that year, as well as the instrument of Branch Rickey’s attempt to break baseball’s age-old color line. This year’s club had another bright and upcoming black star-catcher Roy Campanella. By mid-June, “Campy” had already established himself as the league’s premier defensive catcher as well as a potentially powerful home run hitter.  Jackie Robinson’s successor at second base was the veteran Gil Torres (picked up off of the Washington Senators’ roster). The shortstop was Al Campanis who would go far in the Dodger organization in several capacities. Third base was handled by Johnny Welaj. At first base was their only legitimate power hitter, Ed Stevens (28 Hrs and 107 RBIs). The outfield consisted of four players who played about equal time. Butch Woyt was in center; Dick Whitman played left; Walt Sessi had a good year as a part-time performer; and the once highly regarded prospect-Earl  Naylor-held down right  field. Their pitching was comprised of the following: Ed Heusser, veteran major leaguer, led the way with a 19-3 record; Jack Banta (15-5) and Al Gerheauser (15-12) ably backed him up along with John Van Cuyk, Chet Kehn, Rube Melton, Erv Palica, Joe Smolko, and Dick Mlady.

This team wiped out the Chiefs in a doubleheader. Nevertheless, even in a losing cause, Hank Sauer made his considerable presence felt by hitting a home run in each game and driving in six runs for the day.  By the end of the day, he was far ahead of anybody else in each of the three Triple Crown categories: batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. Though I had been impressed with the winning Royals, I came away from the game absolutely convinced I had just seen one of the more destructive hitters in the game.

It’s hard to describe the aura surrounding Sauer in the middle of the summer of 1947. The effect he had on Central New York was electric. He became a source of civic (and area) pride the likes of which Syracuse would not experience again until their national championship football team of 1959. I left the park that day convinced that the Montreal Royals would run away and hide from the rest of the league and that Hank Sauer would win the league’s triple crown handily. I proved to be wrong in both assumptions.

In early August my family and I returned to Wilmington, Delaware (our vacation over), and my direct contact with Sauer’s progress was terminated. Even at such a tender age, I was an inveterate reader of the Sporting News, the Bible of baseball information. I could hardly believe my eyes! Jersey City suddenly in mid-August had made a race of it in the pennant chase; and, also suddenly, Sauer seemed not quite as imposing as earlier in the season.

From reading the Sporting News, I found out that there was considerable bad blood between the Jersey City and the Montreal clubs (completely extraneous to the newly red-hot pennant race). It seems that the Jersey City manager, Bruno Betzel, had piloted the Royals to the pennant in 1945, and had naturally assumed that he would be re-hired for the `46 season. But Mr. Rickey had other ideas and elected Clay Hopper for his manager. This embittered Betzel and as his Little Giants from Jersey began to close in on the slumping Royals towards the end of the season, he relished the prospect of sweet revenge. There were even reports that he offered cash bonuses to his players if they could upend the Royals in the pennant race. League president Frank Shaughnessy had to reprimand Betzel in public for such an indiscretion.

But beyond these pennant rumblings, there was also the prospect of Sauer no longer being a shoo-in for the league’s triple crown. Rochester’s Vernal (Nippy) Jones had temporarily taken the batting average lead away from Sauer and he and Hank would alternately lose and re-gain the lead through most of August. Also, Baltimore’s Howie Moss had come out of nowhere to seriously challenge Sauer’s once prohibitive lead in home runs. This event struck a responsive chord in me. I vividly remembered Moss as one of the leading sluggers on Baltimore’s `44 champions. Well, he was playing again for the Orioles, and on a bad ball club. All summer everything had been Sauer this and Sauer that. Now, as August waned, both sluggers (Sauer and Moss) had passed the 40 home run total. This was the first and only time that would happen in the history of the International League.

Paradoxically, the majors (in the late summer of 1947), had a comparable home run battle taking place. The Giant’s Johnny Mize, after a long early lead, was being seriously challenged (in a late-season closing rush) by Pittsburgh’s young slugger-Ralph Kiner. I was quick to note the similarity in both homer races: Mize and Sauer had had things their own way all summer; now, Kiner and Moss were coming on like gang-busters.

I had become fascinated with recent developments in the International League. Jersey City was closing fast and Moss had just passed Sauer and became the first International League player to reach the 50 home run total since 1935 when another Baltimore player, George Puccinelli, had struck for 53. I took a serious look at the 1947 Jersey City line-up. The veteran International League player Jack Graham played the first base for Betzel’s gang and set the Jersey City club home run record in 1947 with 34. He was also destined to drive in 119 runs.  Both of these totals (while impressive) would place him a distant third to Sauer and Moss. Burgess Whitehead played second base in tandem with Virgil Stallcup’s shortstop, while George Myatt held down the hot corner. They had an outfield consisting of Bill Barnacle in left, Les Layton in center, and former Oriole Felix Mackiewicz in right. Mickey Grasso and Sal Yvars did the catching. Their pitching staff was headed by Sheldon Jones (13-3) before he was re-called by New York. Others included Jake Wade (19-3), Hub Andrews, Jim Goodwin, Jack Kraus, Bob Cain, and Bill Ayers.

This team began to take off and on the last day of the season, managed to nip the Royals by a half a game. It marked one of the greatest comebacks in league history. Montreal and the entire Dodger organization were in a state of shock. Betzel had his revenge. Meanwhile Sauer himself reached the 50-homer total as the season reached its close, placing him second to Moss’s final total of 53. Nippy Jones’s .339 edged Sauer’s .338 for the batting title. The only title he was destined to win was the RBI title, finishing with 141. It was quite a performance nevertheless, earning him the League’s Most Valuable Player Award.

Those were great years-the 1940s. The war was over and the American public was determined to “return to normal.” Those communities too far away from big league cities enjoyed their own minor league entries with a fervent loyalty seldom seen today even at the major league level. It was before the advent of television and its ubiquitous reach, and before everything had to be “big league.” There were some vibrant franchises in the International League that year, and all was right with the minor league world.