Happy birthday to Buzz Arlett, the Minor Leagues' Babe Ruth
Happy b-day to Buzz Arlett, Minor League Babe Ruth
On Jan. 3, 1899, Buzz Arlett was either born or emerged from the pages of an American folk tale. Given the name Russell Loris Arlett, he was nicknamed Buzz after he emerged from the crowd in 1918 to help his brother's team, the Oakland Oaks, by buzzing his spitball by everyone. Soon enough, Arlett was on the roster. After pitching 153 innings with a 2.70 ERA that first year, Arlett quickly became a cog in the rotation.
From 1919-'22, Arlett never threw fewer than 319 innings, topping out at 427 1/3 frames. He won over 20 games three times (19 the one time he didn't) with an ERA of 3.21. As scouts were beginning to swirl around the spitballer, Arlett's first run of bad luck struck. He injured his arm and was unable to pitch.
It was then that he asked his manager if he could try out for the outfield. While Arlett was occasionally used as a pinch-hitter, the 6-foot-3 225-plus-pound player had never demonstrated the kind of power he would soon show off. After becoming a switch-hitter because he couldn't comfortably swing a bat from his natural right side due to his pitching injury, Arlett immediately impressed.
In 1923, his first season as a position player, Arlett hit .330 with 19 home runs and 101 RBIs. The next season, he hit 33 homers and, more shockingly for a player of his size, added 19 triples and 24 stolen bases, too.
He really could do it all -- he won the squad swim competition in 1918. (His play in the outfield would remain, umm, adventurous. A Cardinals scout in 1924 passed on him after watching a fly ball bounce off his head).
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Even better, Arlett would continue pitching every year, throwing between three and 61 innings each season with the Oaks. In 1927, on "Buzz Arlett Day," Arlett didn't just hit two home runs, but was allowed to pitch. He gave up three runs before being taken out.
After Arlett hit 39 home runs in 1929, the Brooklyn Robins were close to signing the slugger. Unfortunately, during a postgame confrontation with an umpire, Arlett was struck in the face by the umpire's iron mask. The outfielder was unable to see out of his right eye for weeks and the deal fell through.
Even with the setback, Arlett would hit .361 with 31 home runs that year, wrapping up his time in the Pacific Coast League with a PCL-record 251 home runs that would stand until 1977.
It was enough that finally Arlett would finally get his chance in the Major Leagues. The Phillies signed the right fielder for the 1931 season with Arlett among the league leaders in average and home runs at the end of May.
He was also quick to stand up for himself, too, threatening to take on the entire Cubs dugout if need be. At this point, Arlett's career sounds closer to something from Big Fish than a person who actually existed in the world.
Unfortunately, nagging injuries and more shaky outfield defense cost Arlett playing time and he would end the year mostly being used as a pinch hitter. His final line was .313/.387/.538 with 18 homers and 72 RBIs.
Arlett then returned to the Minors, joining the Baltimore Orioles of the International League, where he would hit 54 home runs in 1932. Over the next three years, playing with the Orioles, Birmingham Barons and Minneapolis Millers, Arlett would hit another 127 home runs, including 25 in 1935, when he lost a part of his ring finger in an auto accident. Again, the kind of thing found in a W.P. Kinsella novel and not our reality.
Following four hitless at-bats with the Syracuse Chiefs in 1937, the man once described as "an avenging angel ... with a flaming bat instead of flaming sword" retired with an average over .330 and 432 Minor League home runs. Unfortunately, thanks to a run of bad luck and bad timing (just imagine if Arlett was born in a later era when his power and patient batting eye would be appreciated or if there was a DH spot that could mask his defensive flaws), Arlett never got a chance to match his skills with the man Lefty O'Doul compared him to: Babe Ruth.
Of course, had Arlett played in the Major Leagues, we'd simply have another big leaguer instead of this Bunyan-esque addition to American mythology. No word on if Arlett traveled with a giant blue ox, though.