Minor records take major research
by Will Lingo
You don't have to work in minor league baseball long to learn that nothing is absolute.
No matter how outlandish something sounds--surely no one has ever hit for the cycle and been the winning pitcher in both games of a doubleheader--it's a good bet that it's been done, or outdone, during the sprawling history of the minor leagues.
So when Cardinals prospect Brad Thompson went on a scoreless innings streak to start the season, those who followed his progress closely should have known not to believe the first thing they read.
Thompson threw 8 2/3 scoreless innings to finish last season between low Class A Peoria and high Class A Palm Beach, and when he got off to a hot start this season at Double-A Tennessee, people started checking their record books to see what the minor league record was.
What they found was that there is no record book for the minor leagues, at least nothing that can be considered definitive. There's not even one person, or one organization that's responsible for keeping up with the information.
Even The Sports Network, the new official statistician of minor league baseball, wasn't sure if it was a record, so employees called around to find out. One of the people they were directed to was Dave Chase, general manager of the Memphis Redbirds. Chase is a baseball history buff, but more notably is the executive director of The National Pastime, which will be the official museum of Minor League Baseball when it opens in Memphis.
"Minor league records are really in pretty bad shape, and part of our mission is to straighten them out," Chase said. "This is exactly the role the museum should play in sorting these things out."
Bobbing For Numbers
Even Chase can't go right to a bookshelf or file cabinet to answer a question, though. "What I've been able to build is a network," he said. "We can get most questions answered within a few days."
Minor league historians like Lloyd Johnson, Ray Nemec and Bill Weiss are invaluable members of the network, each with his own particular strengths. Preliminary research by Chase's network and the Birmingham Barons (Southern) turned up the first evidence of the scoreless innings streak. They established that it was held by Irving "Kaiser" Wilhelm, who pitched 56 scoreless innings for Birmingham, of the old Southern Association, in 1907.
Subsequent digging by Nemec indicated Wilhelm's streak might have reached 57 innings. As Thompson's streak grew, Chase finally decided to go to a library in Memphis and jump into the microfilm. He found evidence in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, later confirmed by other sources, that Wilhelm's streak actually stretched for 59 innings.
This proved particularly important because Thompson's streak reached 57 2/3 innings before he finally gave up a run against West Tenn on May 19.
The Smokies have never acknowledged that Thompson's streak is not a record. If you went to their Website at the beginning of June, you would find a collection of links to stories--all erroneous--hailing Thompson's record.
This is the way misunderstandings about minor league records get started. And this is why minor league baseball needs a clearinghouse for these kinds of things.
"There is no such place," Chase said. "There needs to be."
Looking For The Last Word
The National Pastime could be that place, but its opening date is uncertain. Chase's research work for the museum started in 1999 and continues, but that's just the process of transferring paper records to computer files. Progress on the museum itself is on hold because Chase is busy running a baseball team right now.
When the museum opens, Chase expects it to have the last word on minor league records. "We'll get that designation because no one else wants to do it," he said. "But at the same time, people are going to have to let us make some judgments about what records are."
If someone could make those judgments now, the controversy about Thompson's record might have been avoided altogether. Chase and other historians agree that Thompson's combined streak isn't an official streak at all because it involves different leagues and different seasons.
"It's a great feat no matter how you slice it, but it's not a record," Chase said.
The Southern League portion of Thompson's streak--49 scoreless innings to start 2004--is at least a league record, but his 57 2/3 number is just an interesting number.
Besides, if you accept streaks over multiple seasons, Wilhelm's record becomes even more impressive. According to research by Nemec, Wilhelm came back to the Southern Association in 1911 after spending three seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers and pitched 13 more scoreless innings, making his multi-season streak 72 innings.
Interestingly, one newspaper account credits Wilhelm with breaking the record of a pitcher named Johnson from the Idaho State League. Further research revealed that the pitcher was Walter Johnson, but the Idaho State League was an industrial, or semipro league. Johnson worked for the phone company during the week and pitched on weekends, so the Idaho State League wasn't a true minor league. But that opens a whole other can of worms that we don't need to deal with here.
I had a blast with this Wilhelm thing because it just never ended," Chase said.