Baseball America, a respected national magazine that prides itself on its minor league coverage, once proclaimed the 1970 Spokane Indians the greatest team in minor league history.
Seattle Mariners broadcaster Ron Fairly pauses to consider Baseball America's claim, then shakes his head with equal measures of pity and disgust. How, Fairly wants to know, could a magazine be so wrong -- particularly when they had the right team, just the wrong year.
"You could take that '60 ballclub we had in Spokane," Fairly says in a solemn tone, "give us a little pitching, and we could have done just fine in the major leagues."
Fairly should know. Not only is Fairly a veteran of 22 seasons as a major league broadcaster, but he played in the big leagues for 21 seasons -- and starred in left field for the '60 Indians.
Forty-three years after spending his final minor league season in Spokane -- he spent all of 1959 with the world champion Los Angeles Dodgers, though an off-season military commitment led to his return to the minors -- Fairly speaks with obvious pride and pleasure when sharing his memories of the 1960 Indians.
"I don't think we realized how good we were," Fairly said during an interview in the Safeco Field broadcast booth prior to a recent Mariners game. "When you're young, you're cocky -- you think you're going to play in the major leagues. But you don't know."
True, but a goodly portion of the 262,000 spectators who flocked to the Fairgrounds in the summer of 1960 were well aware that they were watching the final minor league games of most of the Indians. It's worth noting that Spokane, one of three Dodger farm clubs in the top classification of the minor leagues (Class AAA) that season, drew more fans than any of the seven AAA cities of 1960 that now field major league teams.
Only seven of the 30 players on the 1960 Indians failed to see major league duty. Several, including Fairly, right fielder-first baseman Frank Howard, center fielder Willie Davis, catcher Jim Pagliaroni, shortstop Charley Smith and pitcher Phil Ortega, enjoyed long, productive careers in the majors.
The Indians came in last in the league in fielding and were rather ordinary on the mound, but they easily led the Pacific Coast League in hitting (.288) and scoring (5.3 runs per game). The second-place Tacoma Giants -- a team that included future Hall of Famers Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry and Willie McCovey -- finished almost a dozen games back of the 92-61 Indians.
"KXLY, I think, had an outfield sign that said if you had four hits in a game, you'd get an iron or a toaster or something," Fairly recalled with a laugh. "I'll tell you, at the end of the year, our guys had a lot of toasters and irons!"
The Indians were led by Davis, one of the fastest players in baseball history. Just 20 years old, Davis was named Minor League Player of the Year after leading the PCL with a .346 average, 216 hits, 126 runs, 347 total bases, 30 stolen bases and a record 26 triples.
Fairly hit .303 with 27 home runs and 100 RBIs. Third baseman Ramon Conde hit .325, made just five errors and led minor league third basemen with a .987 fielding percentage. Smith hit .322 with 20 homers and 106 RBIs.
Howard was hitting .371 when the Dodgers called him up early in the season. Pagliaroni hit .292 before joining the Boston Red Sox at midseason. Right fielder Earl Robinson (.275, 27 doubles), first baseman Tony Roig (.278, 90 RBIs) and second baseman Curt Roberts (.290) were other key contributors.
The Spokane pitching staff lacked top major league prospects (besides young Ortega, who was farmed out early), but was loaded with clever veterans who knew how to pitch. Top contributors included Mel Nelson (13-7), Ray Semproch (11-2), Elmer Singleton (14-5 with Spokane and Sacramento), Chuck Churn (13-7), Ed Rakow (12-6), Bill Bethel (9-5), Bob Giallombardo (8-6) and Billy Harris (7-6).
"Ray [Semproch] had an ERA over 5 and was 10-0," said Fairly, exaggerating slightly. "I remember one game in Portland, we scored seven runs in the first inning and six runs in the second inning, and Ray said, 'Guys, that may not be enough.' He went five and two-thirds, and we won 18-13."
Four decades later, Fairly said he rarely sees any of his old teammates from Spokane. He does enjoy visiting in Anaheim with Angels executive Preston Gomez, the manager of the 1960 Indians.
"He was a heck of a manager," Fairly said. "I really enjoyed playing for Preston."
Fairly remembers the '60 Indians as "a bunch of nice guys." Fairly laughs when he thinks back to his bachelor days, sharing an apartment in Spokane with Ed Sadowski, Roy Smalley (whose namesake son later starred for the Indians) and Joe Frazier.
"Talk about the blind leading the blind!" Fairly howled. "We'd fight to see who cooked or who would do the dishes. We played cards to decide. We'd have the darnedest arguments about the stupidest stuff."
Of course, Fairly regards even those arguments as infinitely more valid than those in support of the '70 Indians (led by manager Tommy Lasorda and shortstop Bobby Valentine) over the '60 Indians. Fairly points out that there were only 16 major league teams in 1960, compared to 24 in 1970. Naturally, AAA and major league talent levels sink with expansion.
Fairly twice played on first-year major league expansion teams. Who wins, Ron -- your 1977 Toronto Blue Jays, your 1969 Montreal Expos, or your 1960 Spokane Indians?
"We would have struggled, because we didn't have the pitching," he said. "But if you gave us equal pitching, we might have beat both those clubs."