Lutz Blog

Two big leaguers and one who kept trying (stories from the minors)

In 1950, a young Filipino named Bobby Balcena played in the outfield for the Wichita Indians, a Class-A affiliate of the St. Louis Browns.

Minor league baseball was just returning to Wichita after a 17-year absence and Balcena held the interestBobby Balcenaof the fans, batting .290 with 32 doubles, 12 triples and 11 homers for a 77-77 team that included a pair of young right-handed pitchers who would go on to make their marks in the big leagues – Don Larsen and Bob Turley.

Balcena was 24 and caught the eyes of the Browns organization with a couple of spectacular seasons with Mexicali in the Sunset League, where he batted .369 and .367 in back-to-back seasons. It looked like he was on a fast track to the major leagues, but that fast track derailed.

Balcena did get a sip of coffee, not nearly a cup, with the Cincinnati Reds in 1956. Called up from the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League, where batted .295 in 160 games, Balcena batted twice in September for the Reds. He failed to get a hit, but did score two runs. And he caught one fly ball in the outfield.

Two at-bats.

In the minor leagues, though, Balcena played in 1,948 games. He had more than 7,000 at-bats and 1,995 hits. He played 15 seasons in the bushes, six of those after his call-up by the Reds.

Balcena did get to play in some future major league cities, such as Toronto, Kansas City, Seattle and Dallas. He also played in San Antonio, Buffalo, Vancouver and Hawaii.

But he kept waiting for a call that came only once. The major leagues taunted and tease Balcena for many years. He was a .284 career hitter in the minors with enough extra-base pop to make him dangerous.

Balcena grew up in San Pedro, Calif., where he was a legendary high school athlete at Rolling Hills Prep. I’ve included a nice story on him here.

It makes you wonder what made Balcena so persistent in his quest to get to the major leagues. And it’s fascinating that 12 years after playing in Wichita, he was still bouncing around the minors in Vancouver, where he played parts of three seasons from 1960-62.

Balcena played more than 500 minor-league games in Seattle and, according to reports, is still fondly remembered there. He played in nine organizations: St. Louis Browns, New York Yankees, Cincinnati, Kansas City A’s, Baltimore, Philadelphia Phillies, Milwaukee, Los Angeles Angels and Minnesota.

Larsen and Turley, meanwhile, also spent more time than you might imagine in the minors, especially considering their success as big league pitchers.

Larsen, who pitched parts of nine seasons in the minors, hurled the only perfect game in World Series history, in 1956 for the New York Yankees. It came in Game 5 against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He will forever be an icon for that game, but otherwise his major league career was mundane, thanks to an 81-91 record and one of the worst/toughest luck seasons in big league history.

In 1954, the year the Browns moved from St. Louis to Baltimore and became the Orioles, Larsen was 3-21. But he didn’t pitch that badly and it was the only season of his 14-year major league career that he topped 200 innings pitched.

Larsen was just 20 when he pitched for the Wichita Indians and finished the 1950 seasons with a record of 6-4 and an ERA of 3.14 in 21 games.

Turley, meanwhile, was 11-14 as a 19-year-old in Wichita. He and Larsen were part of a trade from the Orioles to the Yankees in 1954 in what turned out to be a 17-player deal.

And also like Larsen, Turley had his best years in New York, winning the Cy Young Award in 1958 with a 21-7 record and an American League-leading 19 complete games. Turley also won two World Series games that season, including Game 7 against the Milwaukee Braves, 6-2. Ironically, Turley relieved Larsen in that game as the two former Wichita Indians teammates teamed up on a five-hitter.