In 1959 the Cincinnati Reds signed Cesar Tovar out of Venezuela at age 18. They brought him to the United States and put him into the New York-Penn League that season with their Class D affiliate in Geneva where he had a solid season. The next year he move to the Pioneer League and the Missoula Timberjacks where he was a well above-average hitter – posting a .304/.389/.469 line with 21 steals. That was just a set up for what was to come the following year.
To start the 1961 season the Reds sent Cesar Tovar back to the New York-Penn League. While the league has long been a short-season league that doesn’t start until late June, that wasn’t always the case. In 1961 it was a full-season league that played 125 games. Still just 20-years-old, the second baseman took his return to his first stop as a pro and turned it into a “set the league on fire” mindset it would seem as he tore through the league, along with a teammate that we’ll talk a little bit more about later, as the Geneva Redlegs ran away with the regular season title by going 77-48 and outlasting the Erie Sailors who finished in second place with a 68-57 record.
Cesar Tovar played in 122 of the 125 games for the Redlegs that season and hit .338/.470/.579 with 28 doubles, 13 triples, and 19 home runs. He also walked 105 times with just 45 strikeouts in his 579 plate appearances. That line was good for a 1.049 OPS….. and he wasn’t even the best hitter on his own team that year. That nod, arguably, goes to Hall of Famer Tony Perez, who hit .348/.432/.624 that season with 32 doubles, 7 triples, and 27 home runs. And Perez did that while he was a year younger, too.
I can see the gears turning in your head right now wondering how a slightly better OPS at a year younger on the exact same team didn’t get the nod between these two players, so let me explain the difference. Tovar had the defensive value edge – second base is more valuable than third base. But that wasn’t really it. What it actually was is that Cesar Tovar stole 88 bases in 1961. And while Tony Perez picked up 17 steals in 21 attempts, plenty good enough, it’s not 88. Tovar was just a different level on the bases.
Obviously when a player posts a 1.049 OPS with 88 stolen bases they are going to find themselves among the league leaderboards all over the plate. Tovar’s .338 average was second to Perez in the league. His .470 on-base percentage was 43 points better than the next best in the league, and his .579 slugging percentages was 5th best in the league. Tovar easily led the league in runs with 134, led the league with 13 triples, and was second in hits (again trailing only Perez).
But let’s talk about those 88 stolen bases that ultimately led to the picking of Cesar Tovar’s 1961 season as the season of the decade among position players for the decade in the Cincinnati Reds farm system. That’s a ton of stolen bases in any era and in any league. But looking at the 1961 New York-Penn League leaderboard really puts it into perspective just how different that total was. Robert Sanchez finished second that season in the league in steals. The 27-year-old Sanchez had 27 steals. Tovar had more steals than the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place finishers in the league combined. Only four players outside of Tovar even reached 20 steals on the season.
Stacking up with the contenders
The 1960’s had a lot of very good seasons on the farm system. And several of the seasons were from future members of The Big Red Machine. Let’s take a look at the long list of seasons I was considering for the best of the decade.
Bernie Carbo, Tony Perez, Tommy Harper, Pete Rose, and Cesar Tovar all show up on this list multiple times. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights from the list, as well as some interesting stories.
We’re going to start out by talking about Gerald McNab and his 1967 season. The reason is pretty simple – I’d like you to read it and if I start talking about Perez, Rose, and the others, fewer people will continue on if I am ending with someone they’ve never heard of. And there’s a reason you’ve probably never heard of Gerald McNab, too. His 1967 season was the only one that he played professionally. Undrafted, he signed with the Reds and was assigned to the Wytheville Reds in the Appalachian League that season. In 60 games he hit .262/.389/.563 with 13 doubles, 3 triples, and 12 home runs. His OPS+ was 181, which is 3rd highest of anyone on that long list above.
Of course OPS, and it’s counterpart OPS+ weren’t exactly known stats at the time. Batting average was king, and McNab didn’t light the world on fire that year and he was a bit old for the league, too. But he hit for power, finishing 4th in the league in home runs and leading the league in doubles. Information was tough to find on McNab, but in 2013 he was inducted into his high school’s Hall of Fame, and had a scholarship for both football and baseball at what is now known as Memphis State University.
Tommy Harper had the two highest OPS+ numbers on the list in the 1960’s in back-to-back years early on in the decade. In 1961 he tore through the Class B Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League, hitting an absurd .324/.488/.545 with 31 steals as a 20-year-old. The next season he showed up in San Diego and the Pacific Coast League as a 21-year-old and did more of the same, hitting .333/.450/.569 with 22 steals – but that all came after he made his Major League debut for the Reds. He spent the first week of the year with Cincinnati, picking up hits in the first two games, but then went 0-15 over the next four – all on the west coast, before being sent back to Triple-A where he stayed the rest of the season.
In 1963 he made the Reds out of spring training and never went back to the minors. Harper would spend parts of 15 seasons in the Major Leagues before retiring after the 1976 season. He led the league in runs scored in 1965, and twice led the league in steals (1969 and 1973). In 1810 career games he hit .257/.338/.379, hit 146 home runs – including a career best 31 in 1970 when he was named an All-Star – and stole 408 bases in his career. He received MVP votes in four different seasons.
Back in early April I was looking for things to write about (same holds true for today, unfortunately) and it felt like a good time to dive into The Toy Cannon and the time that he was with the Cincinnati Reds. That was only a few weeks after Jimmy Wynn had passed away, which is one of the reasons it was on my mind. The Cincinnati native only spent one year in the organization, but it was one incredible year. For more details on just how good it was, you can check out the entire piece over at Redleg Nation, but here’s a clipped section:
Cincinnati assigned the outfielder to Tampa, their Class D affiliate in the Florida State League. And Wynn was a man among boys that season for the Tampa Tarpons, hitting .290/.448/.445 with 113 walks, 10 doubles, five triples, and 14 home runs in 120 games.
Obviously the 113 walks don’t need context for how insane that is – but let’s put the other numbers in context. His 14 home runs were three fewer than the entire roster for the Sarasota Sun Sox. His 14 home runs were four fewer than the entire roster of the St. Petersburg Saints. In fact, only two teams hit more than 26 home runs that year – Wynn’s Tampa squad, with a league best 44, and the Palatka Cubs, who hit 43.
One player shows up on the list THREE times. That player would be Bernie Carbo. He’ll go down in history as the first draft pick ever made by the Cincinnati Reds. The organization selected him 16th overall in the 1965 draft. The Reds scouts earned their money that year, selecting Carbo, some kid named Johnny Bench, and an infielder named Hal McRae – between the three of them they played in more than 5,000 Major League games and accumulated more than 120 WAR.
For Bernie Carbo, his biggest minor league season came in 1969 when he was in Triple-A Indianapolis. That year he hit .359/.452/.616 with 37 doubles, 2 triples, and 21 home runs in 111 games. He would also make his Major League debut that September and didn’t see a day in the minors again until 1981 when he tried to make one final go of professional baseball. In 1970 he was the runner up in the Rookie of the Year voting after hitting .310/.454/.551 for the Reds. He’d go on for a 12-year career in the Major Leagues and play in 1010 games, posting an .814 OPS for his career.
Tony Perez is a player you may have heard of once or twice in your life. Turns out that to be a Major League Baseball Hall of Famer that you need to be pretty good at the game. That’s what Tony Perez was, and as you’d imagine, he was one heck of a minor leaguer, too. He showed up on the list twice. After signing with the Reds in 1960 he worked his way through the farm system, crushing the ball along the way. In his minor league career he hit .310/.389/.545 overall in his 5 seasons.
His 1961 season in Geneva we talked about a bit as he and Cesar Tovar left starting pitchers in the league wondering if they could make a better living in another field on a daily basis. But he also destroyed the Pacific Coast League a few years later for the San Diego Padres before the franchise would become a Major League organization.
In that 1964 season with the Padres he hit .309/.374/.597 with 34 home runs, 96 runs scored, and 107 runs batted in. That season Perez would also see some limited action with the Reds, playing in 12 games – but hit just .080. The next season he made the club out of spring training and he never looked back. The Big Dog would go on to a 23-year career in the Major Leagues, make seven All-Star teams, hit 505 doubles, 379 home runs, and pick up two World Series rings with the Reds.
Then there’s Pete Rose. Bad human being, outstanding ballplayer. He only spent three seasons in the minor leagues before reaching the Majors, and two of those seasons made the list. In 1961 a 20-year-old Rose beat up Florida State League pitching with Tampa, but in a wild manner. As you’d expect, he hit for a high average – .331 (3rd in the league) – but it was the strange way he hit for power that really stands out. Rose finished 4th in the league with 20 doubles, but he led the league with 30 triples. No, that’s not a typo – he had THIRTY triples in a season.
The next year with Macon is was a little bit different as he swapped some of those triples for doubles and homers, but overall the results were similar. He hit .330/.431/.500 with 31 doubles, 17 triples, and 9 home runs. Rose finished 4th in average and doubles in the league that year, led the league in triples, and finished 7th in slugging percentage.
He’d eventually go on to play 24 years in the Major Leagues and is the all-time leader in games, plate appearances, at-bats, and hits. He led the league in games played five times, plate appearances seven times, runs scored four times, hits seven times, doubles five times, average three times, and on-base percentage twice. He also took home a Rookie of the Year and MVP award in his career.
Let’s get back to Cesar Tovar, now. In December of 1964 he was traded by the Reds to the Minnesota Twins for Gerry Arrigo. That move didn’t work out so well for Cincinnati, who traded him less than two years later after the reliever posted a 6.17 ERA in 1965 and a 4.91 ERA (in 3 games) in 1966. Arrigo returned to Cincinnati later that season when the Reds bought his contract back from the Mets, though he didn’t pitch again until the following season in the Majors. Tovar, on the other hand, reached the Majors in 1965 and remained there starting in 1966 through 1976.
Over the course of his 12-year career he hit .278/.335/.368 with 253 doubles and 226 stolen bases. From 1967-1971 he got MVP votes in each season. In 1970 he led the American League in doubles and triples. The following season he led the league with 204 hits.
But let’s really dive in to something wild. Late in the 1968 season the Minnesota Twins decided to get crazy and on September 22nd, Cesar Tovar got to do something very few players get to do. The infielder by trade took the mound to start the game. How did the inning go? Pretty good, actually, as he got both Bert Campaneris and Sal Bando to pop out in foul territory on the infield. Those two plays were sandwiched around a walk to Danny Cater and a strikeout of future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson. Each inning thereafter would see Tovar move to a new position on the field. He played the second inning behind the plate before moving his way around the diamond. Tovar played all nine spots, threw a hitless inning with a strikeout of a future Hall of Famer, and went 1-3 with a walk and a run in his teams 2-1 win.
Here are the other winners for Season of the Decade:
|2010’s||Devin Mesoraco||Tony Cingrani||Donnie Joseph|
|2000’s||Adam Dunn||Travis Wood||Robert Manuel|
|1990’s||Jason LaRue||Curt Lyons||Victor Garcia|
|1980’s||Danny Tartabull||Mike Dowless||Clem Freeman|
|1970’s||Gary Redus||Keefe Cato||Rawly Eastwick|
You can’t have too many Black and Latino players on your roster of course back in that late 50s to mid – late 60s era. The amount of talent that was given away from Curt Flood. Mike Cuellar. Tony Gonzalez. Cookie Rojas along with the aforementioned players was just bad business. I know if Flood had hit immediately like Pinson did he maybe does not get traded. Cuellar pitches effectively from day 1 maybe as well. Claude Osteen also got the bums rush very quickly as well so there was a lack of patience too. But Tovar and Wynn were not even given a chance. The Reds had a pipeline in Cuba before the revolution that was like Texas had in Latin America in the 90s or the Dodgers in the DR.
Cookie Rojas. I was just going to mention him. Star with KC Royals. But he was 2B. Reds had a guy named Pete Rose at 2B in 1963 then Tommy Helms in 1967 and Joe Morgan in 1972. Rojas would not have started at 2B over any of them.
Cuellar was briefly Reds P in late 1950s. He didn’t pick effectively in MLB until mid 1960s.
Tony Gonzalez was traded for Wally Post who helped Reds win 93 games (and NL pennant) in 1961 and 98 games in 1962. Good trade for Reds.
Yes I understand Rojas would probably not play over Rose just like when he was traded to the Phillies after 1962 he could not dislodge Tony Taylor. He became a super sub who could hit better than many SS. He was even an AS in 1965. He also played SHortstop during Jim Bunnings no hitter.
I know he was better known in KC.
Growing up, one of my best friends was a Minnesota Twins fan, why in Southeast Ohio a person would root for the Twins I don’t know, but because of that I remember that game in 1968. that was some feat and our little group of baseball fans talked about it for several weeks
I count 8 MLB players among the players listed. Reds had very good MiLB system under Gabe Paul and Bill DeWitt. Phil Seghi played a key role.
Helms hit .340 in 1962. Surprised he wasn’t on your list.
Only an .809 OPS, though. Good year, but not a great year.
SS in 1960s with .809 OPS made All-Star teams. You can’t apply today’s numbers to that era.
Helms in 1962 was a great year for SS in MiLB then.
I looked up some Reds SS examples.
Roy McMillan made NL All-Star teams in 1956 and 1957 with OPS under .800. Eddie Kasko made NL All-Star team in 1961 with OPS under .800.
Leo Cardenas made NL All-Star teams in 1964, 1965, and 1966 with OPS under .800. Tommy Helms (as 2B) made NL All-Star teams in 1968 and 1969 with OPS under .800.
lomaxblue – I’m not applying today’s numbers – I’m applying the numbers those guys put up against their peers in the 1960’s. Look at the stats the guys put up in the graphic above – it’s basically a bunch of guys in the 900-1000 OPS range. A lot 800 OPS simply doesn’t stack up to the 20 best seasons on the farm in the 1960’s.
None of those guys were SS like Helms. His .809 OPS was very high for SS in those days. The typical SS (McMillan, Cardenas, Woodward, Chaney, Concepcion, Doug Flynn) was light hitting, little power, and good fielder.
Helms in 1962 had arguably the best season of any SS in Reds MiLB system during 1960s.
Even if his 1962 was one of the best seasons of any shortstop in the farm system in the 1960’s it still doesn’t stack up. Tovar was a second baseman and put up an OPS 230 points higher. And he stole 88 bases.
Their is some reality to Tony C’s comment about too many black and Latin players in a very racist Cincinnati, in the 60’s. When Rose was admonished by management for hanging around with the black players says a lot about the culture at the time.
Interestingly, Bert Campaneris was the first major leaguer to play all 9 positions in a game. September 8, 1965.