Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Vada Pinson and the Big Redleg Machine


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The 1957 Visalia Redlegs were, by most objective measures, one of the best teams ever to grace Recreation Park. They featured two future Major Leaguers, one big league vet on his way down, and, arguably, the 2nd-greatest player to ever wear a Visalia uniform.

After several years of cutting ties, the Chicago Cubs had left town permanently following the '56 season, and the Cincinnati Reds stepped in to become Visalia's new Major League affiliate. They went by a different nickname in the mid-50s, however; the Communist Scare was in full swing, and calling your team "The Reds" was not the most politically correct (or business-savvy) thing to do. So, from 1953-58, Cincinnati changed their name to "The Redlegs," and Visalia took the name of their affiliate.

The '57 squad went 84-51, finishing 6 games ahead of Reno and giving Visalia its first regular-season pennant. The Redlegs outscored their opponents by 206 total runs, hit 110 homers, posted a remarkable on-base percentage of .386, and fell just a few points shy of batting .300 as a team.

On the mound, the Redlegs were led by Pete Hernandez, who wracked up a 25-6 record and a stingy 2.69
ERA. Hernandez is, most likely, the winningest pitcher in club history; he pitched in parts of five seasons in Visalia, and was credited with 77 total victories during those years. He was at the tail end of his career in 1957; he retired a couple years later, and never reached the Major Leagues.

Three players from this team did, however. Or, more precisely, two of them did, and one of them already had.

Bruce Edwards (bottom row, far right) was the club's elder statesman at 33 years old, and had enjoyed a 10-year career in the Majors. Signed by Brooklyn in 1946, he'd played on the great Dodger teams of the late 40s and was the starting catcher for their 1947 pennant-winning squad. Edwards hit .295 and played excellent defense behind the plate, finishing 4th in league MVP voting and looking like a budding star. But after losing the World Series to the Yankees, Edwards' fortunes took a dramatic double-turn for the worse that offseason. First, he hurt his arm in an exhibition game against inmates at Folsom Prison (yes, it was a different era). Second, the Dodgers promoted another young, promising catcher to their big league squad; his name was Roy Campenella.

Edwards' stock was never quite the same, but he did go on to spend another nine seasons at the highest level of baseball, mostly as a utility backup. He was traded to the Chicago Cubs, then the Washington Senators, and finally to Cincinnati in 1956, where he played in exactly 7 games before being sent down to the minors for good.

Edwards, then, was a grouchy, grizzled veteran in 1957; he'd gone from playing in two World Series at Ebbets Field and Yankee Stadium to playing on the hard-scrabble surface of Recreation Park. Not surprisingly, he took out his frustrations on young opposing pitchers, hitting .309 as a part-time player for the Redlegs and clubbing 14 home runs.

Meanwhile, Joe Gaines' career (front row, far left) was just beginning. Merely 20 years old, he was in his first full season of professional baseball, and he announced his arrival by terrorizing the California League. Playing in all 135 of Visalia's games, he batted .359, slugged .524, and collected 261 total bases. Gaines made it to the Show in 1960, playing 7 seasons with Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Houston.

But despite his terrific numbers in Visalia, Gaines was still overshadowed by a much bigger future star: Vada Pinson. Pinson (top row, 2nd from right) was a fresh-faced 18-year-old outfielder from Memphis. Like Gaines, Vada was in his first full professional season, and anything Big Joe did, Vada did even better. His numbers are simply eye-popping, especially in an era long before our modern offensive explosion: a .367 average, a .613 slugging percentage, 209 hits, 40 doubles, 20 triples, 20 home runs, 349 total bases, 165 runs scored...and like Gaines, he never took a single game off all season.

If you talk to old-time Visalians who saw Vada play at Rec Park that summer, you'll still hear tall tales of his legendary exploits. Feats of tremendous footspeed, incredible armstrength, and impossible home run distance are still claimed (one fan told us that he personally witnessed Vada hit a home run onto Center Street, which is approximately 400 feet behind the center field wall). While the stories often stretch the limits of belief, the impact that Vada had on all who watched him is unmistakably clear.

Pinson was promoted to the Major Leagues the next year, and spent 15 seasons in the Show. He finished his career with over 2,700 hits and almost 500 doubles, and fell just short of Hall of Fame numbers. He remained great friends with Visalia's Taylor Family (the founders and owners of Taylor's Hot Dogs), and returned to visit them multiple times over the subsequent decades before his death in 1995.

Despite all of the Redlegs' individual and collective regular season dominance, however, things quickly fell apart in the '57 postseason. The playoffs, as Billy Beane famously said, are a statistical crapshoot; all the numbers and advantages that have been slowly accumulated over a plodding, months-long season are suddenly thrown out of the proverbial window, and everything is reduced to a couple of 9-inning showdowns. That metaphorical toss-up becomes even more random when postseason series are a best-of-3 format, as they were in the California League that year.

The top 4 teams in the 8-team league made the playoffs, and as the top seed, the Redlegs were paired in the semifinals with the 4th-place Salinas Packers. The Packers had finished just above .500 at 68-67 and had barely squeaked into the playoffs, edging out San Jose for the final spot by a single game.

But once the series began, none of that mattered. Salinas upset the Redlegs in Game 1. They upset the Redlegs again in Game 2. And suddenly, it was all over. The best team throughout the season had been swept. The magical Summer of '57 had come to a crashing, premature end.

Salinas went on to edge Reno in the championship series and claim an improbable league title. But despite the postseason disappointment, Visalia had enjoyed an incredibly memorable season.

Vada Pinson was, unsurprisingly, voted the league's Most Valuable Player, and began his Major League exploits the next year. The mark he left, both in the record books and in the minds of Visalia fans, was indelible.

6 comments:

  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

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  2. My Dad, Gary DeMartini, played for the 1957 Visalia Redlegs. Thank you for your blog.

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  3. As I remember, Pinson played in the major leagues for 18 years and his greatest seasons were with the Cincinnati Redlegs
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  4. Its very good article. I like it very much.I will keep visiting this blog.

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  5. I think the burgeoning popularity of fantasy baseball is also credited with the increasing attention paid to sabermetrics—first among fans, only later among baseball professionals

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  6. I grew up (or tried to) in Tulare and spent a lot of my youth watching baseball at Rec Park and a lot of games at Sam Lynn Ballpark in Bakersfield. I even pitched in an American Legion game at Rec Park. Visalia's Jack Aker hit a game winning homer off me and I was finished as a baseball player. Vada Pinson was the most exciting player I ever saw play in the Cal League. I still say that the Say-Hey Kid was the most exciting player I ever saw in the Major Leagues.

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