Mike Hessman and the Evolution of the Minor League Home Run Record

Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on October 1, 2015, and is reprinted here by permission.


Illustration: Cork Gaines of Scoopnest.com

With great fanfare, Mike Hessman of the Toledo Mud Hens hit his 433rd career minor league home run on August 3, 2015, a towering grand slam that moved him past Pacific Coast League (PCL) legend Buzz Arlett on the all-time leaderboard of Minor League Baseball.

Hessman’s feat brought to mind the fictional character Crash Davis from Bull Durham, whose home run exploits in the minors were not so celebrated. In the film, only a handful of people were even aware that Crash was approaching the all-time career record. “I wonder if someone should let The Sporting News know,” super-fan Annie Savoy had said. But the real Sporting News and many other news outlets were well aware of Hessman’s record-breaking 433rd homer, and his achievement was deservedly feted throughout the baseball world.

As Hessman chased and then surpassed Arlett’s mark, it was quietly noted that a few other minor leaguers had hit more than 432 homers, led by the late Héctor Espino, the greatest player in Mexican League (LMB) history, who hit 484 home runs during his illustrious career from 1960 to 1984.

But it’s hard to compare the three home run champions and harder still to claim they’re all on the same page of the same record book. Neither Arlett’s Pacific Coast League nor Espino’s Mexican League bears much resemblance to the modern International League where Hessman has hit most of his home runs since his professional career began in 1996. And while Espino does have more home runs to his credit, it’s fair to call Hessman the home run king of the minor leagues as we know them today.

That’s because the U.S.-based affiliated system operated by Minor League Baseball in the twenty-first century, with its emphasis on player development and a family friendly environment, is a relatively new phenomenon. The goal of these leagues is less about winning and more about preparing young prospects for the Majors.

That wasn’t always the case. For many years, minor league teams often competed with MLB teams to sign the best players—independent minor league owners weren’t trying to help a player reach the Majors as much as they were trying to win ball games and turn a profit. Established players, like Arlett in the old PCL, could sometimes earn a higher salary in the minors. Enamored with the warmer weather suitable for year-round baseball, some chose to stay in the PCL even when the Majors came calling. That decision would be unthinkable for a minor leaguer today.

As author Bill James explained in his Historical Baseball Abstract, “While the major leagues were, as a whole, the best baseball going, there was not a one-to-one relationship between a ballplayer’s ability and major-league status. . . . Some of the best players in the game were in the minor leagues.”

No player exemplified this more than Buzz Arlett, who was named the greatest minor league player of all-time in a survey by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).

Like his contemporary Babe Ruth, Arlett began his career in 1918 as a successful pitcher, winning 20 games in three out of his first four full seasons with the Oakland Oaks of the PCL. The excessive workload on his young right arm not only forced Arlett to reinvent himself as an outfielder, but it also drove away Major League scouts interested in his abilities on the mound. He learned to bat from both sides of the plate and quickly became the PCL’s top drawing card, averaging 29 homers and 137 RBIs per year from 1923 to 1930. While his fielding was suspect and his attitude could be lackadaisical (Manny Ramirez may be a better modern comparison for Arlett than Ruth), his hitting never faltered. He batted a career-high .382 in 1926 and led the Oaks to the PCL pennant in ’27.

By 1930, Arlett had become frustrated with Major League teams expressing interest and then never following through. Still, he was earning a high salary of nearly $1,000 a month and had made a home for himself in Oakland. He was the biggest star in the PCL. The Oaks enjoyed strong attendance most years, giving their owners little incentive to sell off their best player. So Oakland placed a premium on Arlett’s contract when Major League teams came calling, reportedly seeking $100,000 from any sale. (The Chicago White Sox had paid that record-setting sum for PCL star Willie Kamm in 1922.) Finally, after a controversy-filled 1930 season in which Arlett got into a physical altercation with an umpire, Oakland lowered its asking price and the Philadelphia Phillies bought Arlett’s contract, giving him his first shot at the big leagues at age 32. “It’s about time,” he toldThe Sporting News.

Arlett shined in his only Major League action, hitting .313 with 18 home runs despite a fractured thumb that put him out of action for several weeks in June. But the Phillies decided they didn’t need another good-hitting, poor-fielding outfielder and he returned to the minor leagues. With the Baltimore Orioles of the International League, Arlett smashed a career-high 54 homers in 1932 (including a pair of four-home run games) and then broke Bunny Brief’s all-time career record with his 343rd minor league home run near the end of the 1933 season—although no one realized it at the time.

The leagues still operated independently of (and sometimes in competition with) each other, so the concept of combining stats from every league and level to compile overall “minor-league records” hadn’t occurred to anyone yet. Nevertheless, Arlett extended his home run record to 432 by the time he hung ’em up for good in 1937.

Forty years would pass before anyone approached Arlett’s home run record, and in that time, the structure and purpose of the minor leagues changed dramatically.

During Arlett’s final season of 1937, the New York Giants became the last team in baseball to implement a farm system. Their former manager, Hall of Famer John McGraw, had long sneered at the innovation pioneered by Branch Rickey that helped the St. Louis Cardinals win five pennants between 1926 and 1934. But soon every MLB team had signed “working agreements” with a handful of minor league clubs, stockpiling their rosters with young prospects. The days of veteran stars like Buzz Arlett sticking around for many years began to fade away as MLB teams took more control of roster decisions for their minor-league affiliates.

But there was one exception: the Mexican League, which was formed as an independent league in 1925 and later joined Organized Baseball in 1955 at the Class AA level. (It is now considered a Triple-A league.) As SABR historian Bob McConnell wrote in Going for the Fences, his comprehensive history on minor league home runs: “Among today’s (minor) leagues, the Mexican League is the only one that retains that continuity of personnel. Players, mostly Mexican natives, tend to spend long careers in the league and have the opportunity to post impressive numbers.”

No one put up better numbers than Héctor Espino, who is often called the Babe Ruth of Mexico. He led the Mexican League in home runs four times, including a career-high 46 in 1964, when he barely missed out on the Triple Crown with a .371 average and 117 RBIs. The St. Louis Cardinals won a bidding war for the 25-year-old’s contract and assigned him to their Triple-A affiliate in Jacksonville, Florida, at the end of the 1964 season. It was Espino’s only opportunity to play in the U.S. minor leagues. He hit well enough (.300 with three homers in 32 games), but he struggled with the language barrier and wasn’t happy with the pay cut he took to play in the Cardinals system. He was also reportedly so appalled by the racism and poor treatment he encountered in the predominantly Southern towns of the International League that when he returned home he vowed to stay. He turned down several enticing contract offers from MLB teams, thus earning him the nickname “The Rebel of Chihuahua,” a point of pride for his hometown.

Espino spent 24 years in Liga Mexicana de Béisbol from 1960 to 1984, mostly with the Monterrey Sultanes and Tampico Alijadores (Dockworkers), hitting 453 home runs at Mexico’s highest level of professional baseball. Combined with the 28 homers he hit in the Mexican minor leagues, plus the three from his short stint in Jacksonville, he finished with an overall career total of 484, more than any other minor league player in Organized Baseball history.

And that’s just during the summer! Espino also played for more than two decades in Mexico’s short-season winter league, where he hit somewhere between 299 and 310 home runs in the Mexican Pacific League. If you add in his winter league numbers, Espino hit just shy of 800 professional home runs, a number reached only by the legendary Sadaharu Oh, Japan’s greatest home run champion.

Espino was considered a national hero, as much for his loyalty to the Mexican League as for his hitting prowess, and his uniform number 21 has been retired by every team in the LMB, an honor afforded only to Jackie Robinson in the United States. The stadium in Hermosillo, where Espino played his entire winter ball career, was renamed after him while he was still playing. He was elected to the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame, the Salón de la Fama, in 1988.

There is no Hall of Fame for minor league players in the United States, and there probably never will be given the nature of today’s affiliated system, which rewards the most talented players only with a promotion to the majors. But if there was, Mike Hessman would certainly deserve to be in it. His 433rd home run was cause for deserving celebration in Toledo and throughout professional baseball. His record is a throwback to an earlier era of the minor leagues, and it’s hard to imagine any player in the twenty-first century sticking around long enough to break it. Long live King Hessman.