No Minor matter

Mike Hessman couldn't stick in the big leagues, but he slugged enough to set a record

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TOLEDO — The 433rd home run of Mike Hessman’s sprawling minor-league career skied toward the Fifth Third sign that towers over the scoreboard in left field. The ball easily cleared the fence and bounced in a gap underneath the Kroger sign. It landed on a concrete slab, bounced over a garbage bin, a recycling bin and a high iron gate and skipped on to Monroe Street where someone picked it up. He refused to return it. He sensed this was a famous baseball.

The Toledo Mud Hens are in negotiations with the man as we speak.

* * *

Mike Hessman is no legend. That’s not a knock. It’s a compliment. If he were a legend, his story would have a sad ring to it. If he were a legend, then you would look at his record 433 minor-league home runs, you would look at his 19-year career in Macon and Danville and Myrtle Beach and Greenville and Richmond and Toledo and Buffalo and Oklahoma City and Louisville and Maracay and Culiacan and Osaka, and you would think: “What a shame.”

But you shouldn’t think that, because that is not Mike Hessman’s story. He is not a legend; he’s a ballplayer. And he has lived the ballplayer’s life. “I feel honored, really,” Hessman says. “I feel special for being able to play the game this long. … I love getting out to different parts of the country, and the world, really. That’s the part I love. I’m a lucky person.”

Sure, he wanted to play more in the major leagues. Who wouldn’t? He had some time in the show — “The ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, the women have long legs and brains,” Crash Davis said in “Bull Durham” — sure, he got 250 big league plate appearances. He tripled off Cole Hamels and homered off Scott Kazmir and singled off CC Sabathia. But beyond those few moments, he just wanted to play baseball. That was his dream coming out of Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif. He committed to play baseball at Arizona, but the Braves took him in the 15th round, and the money was pretty good, and as he said at the time: “I know that I want to play baseball. So I decided to get started.”

He was never really a big league prospect. The Braves liked him because he was big and had some power and he was the sort of person you wanted to believe in. “A highly committed player,” says Royals general manager Dayton Moore, who was working in the Braves organization then. But he hit just.216 in rookie ball then hit .235 in the Sally League, then hit .200 in the Carolina League.

It wasn’t from a lack of effort. Players are born with swings that fit their body. And Hessman just had that big looping swing that generated power but too often missed the ball. We all have our gifts and we all have our flaws. Hessman struck out 167 times in a season, then 172, then 135, then 178.

He worked on it. He told reporters he would happily give up some home runs to hit for a higher average. But this was his swing. As a 22-year-old he hit just .183 in Class AA Greenville and it all seemed just about over. At that point, he’d hit just 84 minor league home runs. If Vegas was taking odds — which it certainly was not — it would probably have been 1,000,000-to-1 at that point against Mike Hessman breaking the minor-league home run record of Big Buzz Arlett.

Oh, yeah, you should meet Buzz Arlett. Now HE was a legend.

* * *

Russell Loris Arlett was born in 1899 in Elmhust, Calif., just outside of Oakland. If he had been born a little bit later or a few hundred miles to the East, there’s a pretty good chance that he would have a plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and that people would still know his name. Timing and location weren’t kind to him.

Arlett began his career as a pitcher — that was how he got the nickname Buzz. People said he used to cut through lineups like a buzzsaw. He was mostly a spitball pitcher back when that was still a thing to be. Later, he worked on some curves. From 1919-22, he won 94 games for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. He averaged 366 innings per season. Yeah, that’s right, 366 innings per season. His arm went kaput. So it goes.

In 1923, he committed himself full-time to hitting. He hit right-handed first because that was his natural side, but his right arm was so worn out from that pitching, he began hitting lefty too. He was a natural. He was 24 years old, and he promptly hit .330 with 19 homers and 101 RBIs. The next year he hit .328 with 57 doubles, 19 triples, 33 homers and 145 RBIs. Then he hit .344, then he hit .382 and so on.

There is absolutely no doubt that Buzz Arlett could have hit — and hit big — at the major-league level. As you will see, he eventually did do that. So why didn’t he get a big league shot when he was still young enough to be a star? There are reasons, though they are not especially satisfying. The minor leagues were independent then. Teams — especially West Coast teams — competed directly with the majors for players. Buzz Arlett was a good draw for his hometown Oakland Oaks. He was paid pretty well. There were no Scott Borases then to lure big league clubs into bidding wars. So that’s one reason: Money.

Two, there was the way Buzz Arlett looked. He was a deceptively good athlete — he hit more than 100 minor-league triples and stole 200 bases — but “deceptively” is the key word. He was 6-foot-3, weighed anywhere from 220 to 275, depending on his resolve that week, and he looked slow and fat and his arm was weak after all those pitches. Scouts determined that he was a lousy defender. Maybe he was a lousy defender. Maybe he wasn’t. but he looked like one. Newspaper reporters would describe him as mountainous or elephantine, depending on the tone of the story. So that’s a second reason.

The third reason has to do with America. California was a far-off place in the 1920s, when seven of the 16 major-league teams played in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. The Pacific Coast League was something that happened in another land, not unlike, say, Korean baseball now. Buzz Arlett was something of a curiosity among big league clubs, and they would occasionally go and scout him. There were rumors now and again that he might go join the St. Louis Cardinals or Cincinnati Reds. Brooklyn management supposedly sent a telegram to a scout saying “Give Arlett a once-over, and if you are satisfied, buy, beg, borrow or steal him and start him East tonight.” But nothing came from any of that.

In 1931, a year after he hit .361 with 57 doubles and 31 homers in 176 games for the Oaks, a big league club finally took a chance.The Philadelphia Phillies’ owner, William Baker, had died and he left the half the team to team secretary Mae Mallen. She was married to a shoe salesman named Gerald Nugent, who became the team president. There isn’t much good to say about Nugent’s tenure as Phillies owner — the team was annually dreadful. But the guy really did want to win. And in his first year, using money he’d picked up when he traded Lefty O’Doul, he bought Buzz Arlett for $10,000.

There is a story I love that was told in the Sporting News — supposedly on the very day that the Phillies decided to buy him, Arlett was about to quit. “I’m fed up,” he said. “Fed up on hearts, rummy, sweat shirts, baseball, batting averages, hits, errors and everything that relates to baseball. This is my last year.”

Then he was told the Phillies had decided to bring him to the big leagues.

“Well,” he said. “It’s about time.”

It probably didn’t happen that way. But what did happen is that, after feeling his way through spring training, Arlett absolutely crushed the ball when the season started in Philadelphia. In his first 40 big league games, he hit .378 with 10 home runs and 38 RBIs. He was slugging .679. He was a sensation, a presence in every newspaper across America, a happy story smack dab in the middle of the Depression.

Predictably, he slowed down after that, he suffered some injuries, and people moved on to the next happy story. But he still hit .313/.387/.538 in 112 big league games. His slugging percentage was fifth in the National League behind four future Hall of Famers. He finished fourth with 18 home runs. Yes, it was true that he played in a bandbox called the Baker Bowl, but even so he was one of the better hitters in the league.

He was 32 years old, and he finally had arrived. On Dec. 17, the Sporting News ran a big story on him which ended with this quote: “I’m up here now, and I’m going to stay for a few years, and if anyone wants to know the secret of success tell them it can all be summed up in three words — JUST KEEP TRYING.”

The Phillies dumped him exactly one day later.

No, really, one day later. On Dec. 18, they put him on waivers. And when no team picked him up, the Phillies traded him to the minor-league Baltimore Orioles for a beaten-up, one-time big leaguer named Russell Scarritt. Yes, minor-league teams and Major League teams made trades then. Here’s a fun little tidbit; the general manager of the Orioles then was George Weiss, who would go on to become the Hall of Fame GM who built the dominant Yankees of the 1950s and early 1960s. This turned out to be one heck of a trade for Weiss.

Arlett was outraged that the Phillies had given up on him. He told a San Francisco paper that he was railroaded out of the league. This led the Phillies to do a smear job like you would not believe.

In the Sheboygan paper under the headline “Buzz Arlett A Failure” the story read: “The casual observer will wonder at Artlett’s fate … however with all his hitting, Arlett drove in only 72 runs. And all season there was grave doubt about his fielding.”

In the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, an unidentified Phillies executive: “Good ball players are much too scarce to be shunted to the minors by the major league clubs, and if Artlett had been a good ball player with big league qualifications, it’s a cinch that he would still be with the Phillies.”

In The Sporting News, which had celebrated him just one week earlier: “Buzz proved full that he could clout big league pitching … but never better than passing fair in the field, his defensive performances finally relegated him to the bench.”

And in the syndicated “Nut Cracker” column by Col. Joe O’Goofty: “Buzz Arlett tried for 13 years to make the big league. He finally made it — for a year. His mistake was thinking an outfielder didn’t have to bother about fly balls.”

Was Artlett THAT BAD a defender? Probably not. But he wasn’t good and anyway there was nothing for Arlett to do but go back to the minor leagues and hit lots and lots of home runs. So that’s what he did. He smashed 54 home runs for Baltimore in 1932. He hit five in one day — a doubleheader where he hit four homers in the first game and one in the second. He hit a home run in Buffalo that reportedly went through an open window and hit Mrs. Ida Moore in the head while she was playing bridge, briefly knocking her unconscious.

He hit 39 homers the next year, 48 the next and 25 more in Minneapolis in 1946. By then he was 37 and a shell of himself. He added another 15 homers to bring his minor-league total to 432. That was the record for almost 80 years.

In the end, Buzz Arlett was probably the greatest hitter in minor-league history. He hit .340 with more than 2,700 hits. Minor-league career records are devastatingly difficult to figure — SABR works on a list — but it’s likely that his 598 career doubles and his 1786 career RBIs would both be at the top, or near the top, of any minor-league list.

By the few accounts of his post-baseball life, it seems Arlett did not hold on to the bitterness that filled him when his major-league career ended. He found peace with being a minor-league legend. He opened up a bar and grill in Minneapolis. When he died of a heart attack in 1964, Casey Stengel said of him: “He was the best man I ever saw at hitting the ball for distance lefty and righty. He could have been up in the majors ten years sooner.”

This was the ghost that Mike Hessman chased.

* * *

Mike Hessman has spent most of his career in two organizations — the Braves and the Tigers. Because of this, he is sensitive to the notion that he has “bounced around.” He has not bounced. There’s nothing about his career that is bouncy. He came to the ballpark every day, went through his pregame preparations, kept himself in great shape, and concentrated on hitting the ball hard.

After the 2000 season almost ended his career, he found a rhythm. He was never going to be a high-average hitter with that long swing. But he worked to cut down on his strikeouts, best he could, and to hit home runs.

His career, unlike Arlett’s, has no real peaks. He never hit more than 35 homers in a season. He never hit .290 in a season. But the career has no deep valleys either. He hit between 18 and 35 home runs every single year from 1997 to this season. His 3,482 career total bases is a thousand more than anyone else currently in the minor leagues. His 1,740 hits are also the most among active minor leaguers.

He had compiled those numbers through sheer will. It has been a daily grind, waves beating against the shore, another day in Toledo and Rochester and Buffalo and Indianapolis and Charlotte and Norfolk and Pawtucket. It has been years since he realistically hoped to get called up to the big leagues. Back in 2010, he had a pretty good year with Buffalo and got 32 games with a going-nowhere Mets team. The highlight: He banged a three-run homer off J.C. Romero with two outs in the ninth, which would have been even better if the Mets had not been losing 7-2 at the time. He went 4 for his next 42 and has not been back in the show.

But he has kept going, kept hitting, kept playing. In his life, Hessman has hit home runs in Venezuela, Japan, China (at the 2008 Olympics), Mexico, the Dominican Republic and so many American cities that when a friend tried to calculate them, he finally lost patience and quit. Hessman has been the hardhat cliche, the person who packs a lunch and goes to work and considers himself lucky to have a good job.

“Obviously some days you feel better the others,” he says. “You have nicks, bruises, that sort of thing. I think if you go about your business the right way, play the game the right way with respect, you kind of get rewarded with it. And I’ve been lucky enough to play the game for a long time.”

The home run record creeped up on him; he never saw it coming. A year ago, he set the International League home run record, and that sneaked up on him too. None of this was planned. He had the same big league dreams every kid does when starting this crazy journey. It’s just, unlike so many, he kept going long after the dream faded. He suspects it’s all coming to an end now — he’s hitting just .229 with 16 homers, he turns 38 in March. He knows that it might be time to begin coaching and managing. But: no regrets.

“Obviously wish I could have had five or 10 years in big leagues,” he says. “I think anybody would want that, you know? But the game’s been awesome to me.”

The record-breaking home run was a grand slam off former big league pitcher Dustin McGowan, now of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. The full house at Fifth Third Field stood in Mike Hessman’s honor. It was a cool moment, and he was mobbed by teammates, and he stands along in the record books. Hessman admits that he’d like to have the baseball. It would be a nice thing to display in his home.