Today there would never be a “Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues.” Once a player starts making headlines in AA or AAA he’s called up before the ink dries on the sports page. With larger rosters and the American League’s designated hitter position, players that were once passed over because of poor fielding or age now can find a place in the big leagues. However, back in the 1920’s and 30’s, it was a different game and many guys like Buzz Arlett were doomed to spend their career just shy of the big time, remembered only as another “The Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues.”
In 1918, teenager Russell Arlett followed his big brother Alex to the Oakland Oaks spring training camp. After a series of injuries depleted the Oaks pitching staff, the kid brother was pressed into service on the mound. The 6’-3” 220lbs lug turned out to be a whizz-bang right hander. He soon got the nickname “Buzz” from the way he sawed through the opposing Pacific Coast League lineups.
From 1918 to 1922 Buzz won 99 games including one season of 29 wins. The Cincinnati Reds were on the verge of buying the big righty, but a couple of things troubled their scouts. The first was Buzz’s reputation of running out of “fight” whenever a game was out of reach or when playing for a lousy team. The big guy also had a bit of a temper. It was a good thing the Reds waited, for by 1922 his arm was fried.
Since he was already known as a good hitting pitcher, the Oaks kept his bat in the line up by converting him to an outfielder. He taught himself to hit left handed to allow his arm heal, and once it did, he exploded with tremendous power from both sides of the plate.
Buzz was a fan favorite with rugged movie star looks, and his Ruthian home runs made him the premier ballplayer on the West Coast. The Oakland front office realized his tremendous drawing power and were reluctant to let him go cheap. With a $75,000 price tag keeping Major League owners at bay, Buzz continued to hit home runs.
From 1924 to 1930 Arlett hit 153 home runs with a .354 average and the majors began to rethink their sticker shock over his asking price. But despite his drawing power and home runs, the big league scouts reluctantly acknowledged the same flaws the Reds discovered back in 1921, plus a new, more troubling defect – his fielding. While not horrible by Pacific Coast League standards, it wasn’t near major league quality. Still, all those home runs…
Brooklyn almost had pen to paper in 1930, but Buzz’s temper got the best of him and an umpire clobbered him with his face mask. When the dust settled, Buzz found himself with a dozen stitches, a lengthy suspension and still in the minor leagues. As his thirtieth birthday came and went, the Oaks began to lower his price.
Finally in 1931, at the age of 32 he made the majors with the last place Philadelphia Phillies. For a short while it looked as if he was going to live up to the Babe Ruth moniker, but as summer wore on, Buzz’s age began to show. His lackluster approach to fielding might have been endearing in the minors, but major league base runners were trained to take advantage of such things, and by August he riding the pines. The Phillies tried to keep his bat in the line up by using him as a pinch hitter, but even though he hit well off the bench, it didn’t make up for his fielding. At the end of the season he was back in the minor leagues.
Buzz’s 1933 season with the Baltimore Orioles was even more spectacular than his Oakland days. He finished the year with 54 home runs including an incredible pair of 4 home run games. Still, no major league team called even after he hit 39 homers in 1934. By now Buzz was 35 and nearing the end of the line. He had one last gasp with 43 homers for Minneapolis and three years later he was out of the game. In a 17 year career (13 as a full-time position player) Buzz hit 432 home runs, a minor league record that stood until Hector Espino surpassed it almost 40 years later.