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Can you imagine the whining and complaining that would take place today if a major league team had to go play an exhibition game against its top farm club in the middle of a pennant race?
The thought of it is absurd in this day and age of load management and pitch counts and contraction of the minor leagues, but 50 years ago, this was a regular occurrence. Every team did this in order to not only help the farm club with a big gate, but to also promote baseball in those towns.
Of course, when Baltimore made its annual visit to Silver Stadium on the night of Aug. 23 to play the Rochester Red Wings and sign a bunch of autographs, the mood was pretty light all around.
At this point in their respective seasons, the defending World Series champion Orioles were running away with the AL East as they held an 11-game lead over the Tigers, while the Wings had finally put a stranglehold on the International League and were up six games with 10 left to play.
To the credit of the Orioles, they gave the paying customers — 11,909 in all — the real thing, fielding a lineup that included Brooks Robinson and his fellow future Hall of Famer, Frank Robinson, plus regulars Boog Powell, Don Buford, Paul Blair, Davey Johnson, Merv Rettenmund, and Mark Belanger.
To the credit of the Wings, they played as hard as they could and were rewarded with a 4-2 victory on the strength of five shutout innings from John Montague and a home run by Bobby Grich. Granted, the Orioles didn’t use any of their top pitchers, but it was still a nice feather in the cap for the Wings.
“I’d rather have been home with my family, but this game was good for baseball so I’m glad we played,” said Brooks Robinson. “I never get tired of baseball.”
Blair, who played briefly in Rochester in 1964 and 1965, made a few new fans when he said, “Rochester is a better baseball town than Baltimore. If Rochester were to build a major league park and have a team of our caliber, it would outdraw Baltimore. Baltimore is a football town; the people aren’t as wealthy as in Rochester.”
Powell played for the Wings in 1961 and hit 32 home runs, but more importantly, “I met my wife here, so I guess I had better say it’s a good town. But seriously, I was fortunate to have a good season here and I enjoyed myself.”
When Johnson was asked about Rochester, he called it, “probably the best minor league baseball town in the country. The people make the city and the fans here really like the sport.”
As for the game, Orioles manager Earl Weaver told Rochester reporters, “Sure we wanted to win, but I’d rather lose this one than any other game on our schedule. I got to use some pitchers who haven’t had much work lately and your team won so it worked out for everybody.”
One of those pitchers was starter Dave Leonhard, pitching in a place he wanted no part of early in the year. Leonhard had enjoyed two excellent years with the Wings in 1966 and 1967, but he had been with the Orioles from 1968-70 and thought his minor league days were done.
Instead, the Orioles decided to send him down after spring training, and Leonhard refused to report to Rochester, saying that he was finished playing.
“They want me to go to Rochester, so I’ve retired,” he said. “I hate the thought of quitting, but I’m not afraid of it. If I find that I really miss the game, I’ll go back to winter ball and play again.”
Weaver wasn’t too thrilled, and he said, “From our side of the fence I think he is doing the wrong thing. Although he did not receive a big bonus, this organization signed him and helped him progress. In fact, I helped him myself in the minors. Leonhard has made some good money in baseball. We are simply trying to do what’s best for our ballclub at this time.”
In reality, what Leonhard was trying to do was force the Orioles to trade him to another major league team where he’d have a chance to contribute. That didn’t happen, so about a week into the Wings’ season, Leonhard joined the team.
“I thought about going out and getting a job and I broke out in a cold sweat,” he quipped. “I thought maybe if I sounded sincere enough, they’d trade me.”
He went on to start 13 games for the Wings and posted a record of 7-4 with an ERA of 3.76, and in early July he was recalled to Baltimore where he finished the season. He therefore missed the excitement of the Wings’ championship and was also left off the Orioles’ 25-man playoff roster, merely a spectator for the American League Championship Series victory over Oakland and the World Series loss to Pittsburgh.
In the exhibition, the only run Leonhard allowed in five innings was Grich’s solo homer in the first. He gave up four hits and three walks while striking out four.
“I enjoyed pitching against Rochester,” Leonhard said. “In fact I wanted Rochester to win, but I didn’t ease up on anybody. The home team won and I didn’t embarrass myself.”
Don Baylor tried to rise above it
There weren’t many major league teams who could have kept Don Baylor off their 25-man roster in 1971, but unfortunately for him, one team that could happened to be the one that his owned his rights.
During the 1970 season with the Red Wings, all Baylor did was lead the International League in total bases (296), runs scored (127), doubles (34) and triples (15). He also chipped in 22 homers, 107 RBI and 26 stolen bases, and produced a slash line of .327 average/.429 on-base/.583 slugging. Oh, and he played in all 140 games.
The Sporting News named him its 1970 minor league player of the year, but when 1971 spring training rolled around, reality struck Baylor as hard as the 267 times in his major league career that he was hit by a pitch, a modern-day record that stood until Craig Biggio broke it in 2005.
Where was Baylor supposed to go with a Baltimore outfield that included Frank Robinson, Blair, Buford and Rettenmund, two years before the designated hitter came to the American League? Rochester was where he was going.
But rather than pout about the situation, Baylor teamed up with The Sporting News' 1971 minor league player of the year, Grich, to torment IL pitchers in 1971.
And that was fine with Joe Altobelli. “We can’t keep all these guys down here forever, but we have them now,” he said in mid-July when Grich was hitting .345 and Baylor .336. “I want to win this pennant before I worry about next year or the year after that.”
On the afternoon of Aug. 8, the Wings moved into first for good. While Tidewater was dropping both ends of a doubleheader to Charleston, the Wings blew out Winnipeg 10-3 and established a 1.5-game lead. They would go on to win eight straight, pushing their lead to 3.5 games, and were never threatened thereafter.
In the victory over Winnipeg, Baylor was, as usual, in the middle of the offensive explosion as he hit a solo homer during a four-run third inning and an RBI triple in the fourth.
After the game, he sat in the clubhouse and was interviewed about a particular subject that was very important to him: The plight of the Black man.
You see, the Wings had a promotion for this game — they called it Afro-American Day — and the Rochester Southern Christian Leadership Council honored Baylor and the only other Black man on the team, Richie Coggins.
Baylor was asked about the difficulties he’d encountered on his journey to Rochester and the 22-year-old opened a vein and let it pour out.
“We’ve lived all our lives with hypocrisy, with prejudice; we know how it tastes,” he said. “But we have grown insensitive to a certain degree. You can’t let those things bother you. It would ruin your whole life.
“When I was in seventh grade, myself and two others integrated a Texas school. Kids would come into classrooms where I sat and I would fight every day for my life. But how could I ever win? There always would be 50 more people waiting around the corner. You had to adjust and accept it. But things got better and more Black kids came the next year, I made friends and people started to treat me just like anyone else.”
Baylor wouldn’t say that being Black was keeping him out of the major leagues because he knew the Orioles’ roster was difficult to make. “I don’t want to come back here anymore, I want to play big league ball.” But he did admit that racism was everywhere, and he was tired of it.
“Sure, it gets to me when fans yell at me and call me a (N-word),” he said. “But they like to see me hit, to run the bases. I’m great to them when I hit triples and homers, but when I strikeout, I’m just a (N-word). That makes me sick.”
Welcoming home the heroes
To gain a sense of what the 1971 Wings meant to Rochester, when they returned home from Richmond on the night of Aug. 29 — a day after clinching the IL pennant — approximately 1,500 fans showed up at the airport to welcome them back to town.
And at a time when airport security isn’t what it is today, most of these people wedged themselves into the concourse at Gate 6 where the team was scheduled to exit their plane.
Roric Harrison, who grew up in Los Angeles and became a Dodgers fan when the team moved from Brooklyn in 1958 when he was 12 years old, vividly recalled the scene at LAX when the Dodgers returned home after winning the 1959 World Series.
“I had tears in my eyes seeing my heroes get off the plane — Maury Wills, Don Drysdale, Gil Hodges,” Harrison said. “It’s hard to realize now that I’m part of the same kind of celebration. And I’m that to everybody in Rochester, winning the International League pennant is just as important. I’m thrilled to be part of it.”
Fittingly, the last two men to come into view from the jetway were the biggest stars, Grich and Baylor, and you would have sworn it was Neil Armstrong parading through New York City’s Canyon of Heroes after walking on the moon two summers earlier.
“I’d by lying if I said I’ve been happier than right now,” said Grich, who had swatted three home runs to key Rochester’s doubleheader sweep of Richmond which clinched the title.
Said Baylor: “We play and help our club win. It’s a great feeling to know that you have accomplished something, but this whole thing, all these people, make you feel proud for what you are.”
For Altobelli, who had adopted Rochester as his new hometown six years earlier, bringing home a pennant was something, “I have dreamed about.”
The Wings would win three of their final four to finish with a record of 86-54, seven games better than Tidewater, and 13 games ahead of fourth-place Syracuse, their Thruway rival who would be their opening round postseason opponent.
“All these people just to see us,” Grich said. “They think we’re great. I think they’re great. This has to be the greatest feeling in the world.”
It was for that week. But there would be even greater feelings for the Wings in the weeks to come.
August-September game scores
Aug. 1: Wings 8, Syracuse 3
Aug. 2: Wings 7, Syracuse 4
Aug. 3: Syracuse 14, Wings 6
Aug. 5: Louisville 6, Wings 1; Wings 3, Louisville 2
Aug. 6: Wings 10, Louisville 1
Aug. 7: Wings 7, Louisville 0
Aug. 8: Wings 10, Winnipeg 3
Aug. 9: Wings 6, Winnipeg 3
Aug. 10: Wings 8, Winnipeg 4
Aug. 11: Wings 9, Syracuse 2
Aug. 12: Wings 7, Syracuse 0
Aug. 13: Syracuse 6, Wings 3
Aug. 14: Syracuse 3, Wings 1
Aug. 15: Wings 2, Syracuse 0; Syracuse 6, Wings 0
Aug. 16: Wings 12, Syracuse 3; Wings 5, Syracuse 0
Aug. 17: Wings 1, Syracuse 0; Syracuse 3, Wings 2
Aug. 18: Wings 6, Charleston 3
Aug. 19: Wings 8, Charleston 6
Aug. 20: Charleston 9, Wings 4
Aug. 21: Wings 10, Louisville 8
Aug. 22: Wings 2, Louisville 1
Aug. 23: Wings 4, Orioles 2 (exhibition)
Aug. 24: Tidewater 5, Wings 0
Aug. 25: Wings 3, Tidewater 1
Aug. 26: Tidewater 4, Wings 0
Aug. 28: Wings 5, Richmond 4, Wings 6, Richmond 2
Aug. 29: Wings 4, Richmond 3
Aug. 30: Wings 10, Syracuse 9
Aug. 31: Syracuse 5, Wings 0
Sept. 1: Wings 7, Syracuse 5
Sept. 2: Wings 7, Syracuse 4
Record month 25-10; Record for season 86-54 (1st place).
Sal Maiorana can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.
More in this series
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Rochester NY called 'best minor league baseball town in the country'