A host of players have piled up astonishing accomplishments over long professional careers on the diamond without making a lasting impression on the game’s most celebrated stage. This series, _Monsters of the Minors_, provides introductions to Minor League legends sometimes overlooked by fans of baseball history.
In baseball, two-way talents are the exception rather than the rule.
There are the anomalies, like second-ranked Rays prospect
If you’re thinking of Babe Ruth, you’re on the right track. Buzz Arlett, known as “the Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues,” played all of 121 Major League games across one season in 1931.
But Arlett’s journey in baseball didn’t begin and end with his stint with the Philadelphia Phillies. He went from shutdown hurler with 108 career victories to an insatiable powerhitter who belted 432 homers – a Minor League record that stood until 2015 – over a 20-year-career and whose 251 roundtrippers and 1,135 RBIs in the Pacific Coast League remain records today. His name lives on in Minors lore, too; Arlett is a member of both the PCL and International League Halls of Fame.
A fortunate beginning
Born Russell Loris Arlett in 1898 in Elmhurst (now a part of Oakland), California, Arlett was 11 when his brother Alexander, better known as “Pop,” turned pro. The younger brother was excelling as an 18-year-old amateur in the Bay Area when Pop became a regular hurler and sometimes infielder for the PCL’s Oakland Oaks.
Per the SABR biography on Arlett, the family traveled to spring camp with the Oaks right-hander in 1918. When injuries struck the club, the 19-year-old Arlett volunteered to bolster the rotation. With the spitball as his signature pitch, he became a fixture on the staff, earning the nickname Buzz by sawing his way through opposing lineups.
The rookie posted a 2.70 ERA over 150 innings. In a late-June doubleheader against the Los Angeles Angels, Arlett pitched two nine-inning games and would have had two victories if he’d had more offensive support, wrote Edwin F. O’Malley in the LA Times. Instead, he settled for one.
“On the strength of his excellent showing in [Game 1], Buzz Arlett … asked to be sent right back against the Seraphs in the afternoon and his request was granted,” O’Malley wrote. “Apart from one bad inning in the post-meridian game, he put up a swell article of ball.”
That season, Arlett notched the first of his 450 professional home runs despite registering only 71 at-bats. His skills on the hill, though, seemed far more promising.
Over the next four years, he won 95 games. He especially made his mark in 1920, going 29-17 with a 2.89 ERA in 427 1/3 frames and hitting five long balls with a .410 slugging percentage. From 1919-22, Arlett never logged fewer than 319 innings.
By this point, his talents were known across baseball. According to his SABR biography, though, some big league clubs were reluctant to acquire the righty pitcher because of his use of the spitball. Scouts also questioned his makeup and noticed arm troubles starting to plague Arlett, who had logged over 1,600 innings since joining the Oaks.
This would have been the end of the story for most pitchers. It was just the beginning for Arlett.
Slugging to new heights
In 1923, Arlett became a full-time outfielder (though he still pitched 125 innings that year and continued to make occasional appearances on the mound throughout his time with the Oaks). A natural right-hander, he was forced to take up switch-hitting because of lingering pain from pitching injuries. Despite it being a season of adjustments, he mashed 19 homers with 101 RBIs, finishing with a .330 average and a .551 slugging percentage.
Although a reputation as a clumsy defender followed him throughout his career, Arlett more than made up for it at the dish. Starting in 1924, he crushed at least 30 home runs five times over the next seven years. In each of those seasons, he notched over 200 hits. In 1929 alone, he whacked 70 doubles. During his 33-homer barrage in 1924, the LA Times reported that the slugger was on the verge of heading to the Cardinals, but it never happened.
On July 24, 1926, the Times again reported that Arlett would be heading away from Oakland, this time to Brooklyn in exchange for “a cash consideration of $25,000 and three players,” one of which was pitcher George Boehler, a former Oaks pitcher himself. But the deal was never finalized and Arlett stayed put for the time being.
He was adored by Oakland fans so much that the club held Buzz Arlett Day in 1927. Even fans of the rival San Francisco Seals sometimes crossed the bay to cheer for Arlett.
They had plenty of chances to see him play, as PCL seasons of the 1920s consisted of between 188-202 official games. Late in the ’29 campaign, he asked to get into games any way he could.
“Buzz Arlett’s name has appeared in every Oakland box score this season,” the LATimes reported in September. “He almost missed getting into the game on Wednesday but edged his way into the lineup as a relief hurler in the closing innings.”
By season’s end, he appeared in 200 contests (and collected 189 RBIs). A year later, he played 176 games and amassed 31 roundtrippers with a .626 slugging percentage.
In 1930, it again appeared Arlett was on the verge of joining Brooklyn, but bad luck quite literally struck him. In the book, “The Minors,” Neil J. Sullivan writes that umpire Chet Chadbourne walloped Arlett above the eye with his face mask during an altercation.
The LA Times reported that both were suspended and that Chadbourne had defended himself with the mask because he was “almost 75 pounds lighter than Arlett.” Not long after, though, the league reviewed the incident and lifted the ban on Arlett. The cut still kept him out of the lineup, which nearly led him to sue the league.
The injury left Arlett with stitches and likely cost him another shot at the bigs.
A major opportunity
His luck changed on January 26, 1931, when the Phillies outbid the Dodgers and the Red Sox to purchase Arlett. The Associated Press reported the transaction, calling him “the most consistent hitter in the Pacific Coast League for the last eight years.” At age 32, Arlett was a rookie again, this time at the highest level of the game.
Still, he shined at the plate in The Show, socking 51 extra-base hits — including 18 dingers — in 121 games. After Arlett hit his 10th homer of the year during a game at Ebbets Field, Roscoe McGowen of The New York Times wrote there was “dynamite” in the power of Arlett’s bat.
But he was hampered by a broken right thumb, and his defense became an issue — he made 10 errors and recorded a .955 fielding percentage. Nonetheless, the LA Times reported, “Big Buzz isn’t more than a shade under big league average on the defense.” And even with the injury, he finished the year with a .538 slugging percentage, which ranked fifth on the senior circuit. Using today’s metrics, Arlett had an impressive 138 OPS+ and a 2.3 bWAR.
The solid rookie performance wasn’t enough to keep Arlett in the Majors, as he was shipped to the International League’s Baltimore Orioles in the offseason.
International League dominance and beyond
There was more to come from Arlett’s big bat. In 1932 with Baltimore, he hit a career-high 54 homers, which ranks second all-time for a single season in the IL. It was a months-long power showing many of his opponents would have probably liked to be forgotten, but none more than the Reading Keystones.
On June 1 at Reading, he blasted four big flies. Then, in the lineup for a July 4 doubleheader against the Keystones, he blasted four homers in the opener and went deep in his first at-bat of the nightcap to complete a five-homer parade.
Writing about Arlett’s time with the Orioles in the
Baltimore Sun in 2018, columnist Mike Klingaman dug up 1930s reports from his paper that acknowledged fans of rival teams picking on Arlett’s defense but also pointed out that his offensive prowess silenced them.
“[They] may laugh at him in the field and suggest cushions to protect the top of his head from fly balls. But their merriment turns to sighs when he steps to the plate. His legs are fitting pillars to uphold the bulk of his gargantuan torso.”
The next year, he slugged 39 more dingers with Baltimore before swatting 48 in 1934 between Birmingham in the Southern Association and Minneapolis in the American Association, where he played the next two seasons. At age 38, he opened the ’37 campaign with Syracuse but went hitless in four plate appearances and hung up the spikes.
His 432 home runs were unsurpassed in the affiliated Minors until Mike Hessman hit No. 433 and retired in 2015.
In 1945, Arlett was inducted into the PCL Hall of Fame, and he was posthumously inducted into the International League’s Hall of Fame in the Class of 2009.
To some fans, the most noteworthy thing about Arlett may be that he never seemed got his due — that he proved in 1931 that he could produce at the big league level and might have been a great hitter there. But no matter what might have happened in the Majors, there’s no denying what did happen in the Minors. It happened 432 times.
Andrew Battifarano is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter, @AndrewAtBatt.