Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on November 26, 2015, and is reprinted here by permission.
Recently, I wrote about the “three kings” of minor league home runs—Mike Hessman, Buzz Arlett, and Héctor Espino—whose career records were set under such different circumstances that they each hold a legitimate claim to the throne.
Hessman, the 37-year-old first baseman for the Toledo Mud Hens, was celebrated throughout the baseball world in August 2015 when he hit his 433rd career minor league home run to surpass Arlett, who hit most of his 432 homers in the independent Pacific Coast League of the 1920s and ’30s.
Hessman’s accomplishment is one we’ll likely never see again, given the modern system of affiliated minor league teams that is designed solely to help the best prospects reach the Majors. It’s rare to see players spend enough time in the minors to reach 300 or 400 home runs, except in the nonaffiliated Mexican League, where Espino hit 453 of his 484 minor league homers. That still stands as the record for all minor leaguers.
But there was a time when the minor leagues were home to a number of talented home run champions whose names are nearly forgotten today. These players didn’t necessarily excel in the minors because they weren’t good enough to reach the Majors—some, like Arlett, did quite well when they made it to the big leagues—but because the minor leagues were just another way to make a living playing baseball in those days. Here are some of their stories.
Perry Werden was the first minor league home run king. He set the all-time record with 169 homers during his 17-season career and was the minors’ top slugger of the nineteenth century. The man they called “Moose” was already a star with the National League’s St. Louis Cardinals (then called the Browns) when he abruptly signed with the Minneapolis Millers in 1894. After leading the NL with 29 triples the year before, St. Louis rejected Werden’s salary demands, so he bolted to the Western League.
The Western League was a minor league run by a sports writer named Ban Johnson; it would quickly rise in status and prestige, renaming itself the American League around the turn of the century—yes, the same American League that’s around today. But when Werden signed with Minneapolis, the Western League was just another strong, independent minor league with teams in Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and other Midwestern cities.
The Millers played their home games at cozy Athletic Park, and Werden took advantage of the 250-foot dimensions down the foul lines by blasting 43 home runs in 1894 to set a new single-season record for all of Organized Baseball. The following year, Werden extended his own record by hitting 45 home runs—a mark that stood for a quarter-century until Babe Ruth launched 54 homers with the New York Yankees in 1920. Werden also had a 40-game hitting streak and a four-homer game in 1895. A few years later, he tied for the American League lead in home runs in 1900 (one year before the AL gained Major League status). His all-time minor league career record of 169 homers wasn’t broken until Bunny Brief surpassed him in 1922.
There was no question that Werden was good enough to play, and succeed, in the Majors. But in that era of independent minor league baseball, he didn’t have to. He enjoyed playing in Minnesota, his adopted home state, and he earned a good living playing high-quality competitive baseball in the Western League.
His successor, Bunny Brief, took advantage of the offensive explosion of the 1920s to shatter Werden’s home run record. Brief hit his record-setting 170th homer in 1922, and by the time he retired six years later, he had more than doubled Werden’s total, finishing with 342 homers in the minors.
Brief—born Anthony John Grzeszkowski; his real nickname was Bundy, but it was almost always misspelled as Bunny by the newspapers—debuted in the Majors in 1912 when he was 19 years old but hit just .223 in parts of four seasons with the Browns, White Sox, and Pirates. By the age of 24, he had landed in the American Association (AA), where he became one of the top minor league stars of his era. In 1921, he hit .361 and led the AA with 42 homers, 191 RBIs, and 166 runs scored for the Kansas City Blues. Brief led his league in home runs in eight seasons: five times in the AA, twice in the low-level Michigan State League, and once in the Pacific Coast League. He holds the American Association career records for most home runs (276), RBIs (1,451), runs scored (1,342), and hits (2,196).
Brief’s reign as the minor league home run king lasted 11 years until 1933, when longtime Pacific Coast League star Buzz Arlett hit his 343rd homer near the end of the season. No one was keeping track of minor league records then, so his feat went unnoticed at the time. Arlett finished with 432 home runs and held the all-time career record for more than four decades.
Joe Hauser became the next player to pass Bunny Brief’s old record, in 1936, near the end of his illustrious career. Hauser hit 399 home runs, the most of any left-handed hitter in minor league history, and he remains the only player in the minors to hit 60 home runs in a season twice. With the Philadelphia A’s, he had hit .323 as a rookie in 1922 and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting in 1924 with 27 homers and 115 RBIs. But leg injuries limited his effectiveness and drove him to the minors after six years.
He joined the Baltimore Orioles of the International League (IL) in 1930 and set an Organized Baseball single-season record with 63 homers. (Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri was the first to hit 60 homers in 1925 with the Salt Lake City Bees of the Pacific Coast League, and Moose Clabaugh hit 62 homers for the Tyler Trojans in the Class D East Texas League in 1926.) Hauser again led the IL in 1931 with just 31 homers, then he moved on to the Minneapolis Millers and led the AA in homers the next two years.
The Millers played their home games at a different site than where Werden had hit so many of his home runs in the 1890s. But their new ballpark, Nicollet Park, was still a bandbox, measuring just 279 feet down the right-field line, perfect for a lefty slugger like Hauser. The Millers’ first baseman hit a league-leading 49 homers in 1932 to help his team win the pennant; the following year, he went deep 69 times to break his own single-season record even though the AA had cut its schedule from 168 to 154 games.
In 1948, Bob Crues tied Hauser’s record of 69 home runs in the high-altitude West Texas–New Mexico League. A few years later, in 1954, Joe Bauman broke the 70-homer barrier for the first time with 72 round-trippers for the Roswell Rockets of the Class D Longhorn League. That stood as the single-season record throughout Organized Baseball for the rest of the twentieth century, until Barry Bonds hit 73 homers—in the National League—in 2001. Bonds, like most modern stars, only spent as much time in the minors as necessary before he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates at 21 years old in 1986. For the record, Bonds hit 20 minor league home runs in 115 games. Once he was called up, he never looked back.