By Michael Gulledge Jr.
Several thousand baseball players have passed through Montana over the years to play professionally in Great Falls, Billings, Helena, Missoula and Butte.
Some eventually made it to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Most never had so much as an at-bat in the majors.
Some of those discarded minor league players would find greatness in other endeavors. Charley Pride, a country music legend, was a member of the Missoula Timberjacks in 1960. Garth Brooks, another country music star who was once under contract with the San Diego Padres, never played for a Montana team but once took batting practice at old Cobb Field in Billings.
Over the past few weeks, a conversation that began with the question "Who are the best Major League Baseball players ever to play for a Montana Pioneer League team position by position?" has resulted in the list below. We made our selections based on players' accomplishments at the major league level -- otherwise, the single greatest performance ever might have been the .462 batting average compiled by future Cincinnati Reds outfielder Gary Redus in 1978, which remains a minor league record.
Only one current player made our Montana all-star team: former Billings Mustangs shortstop Didi Gregorius, now with the New York Yankees.
Some positions were difficult to select for their abundance of talent. Shortstop was the final and most difficult spot to fill; with a Hall of Fame pitcher, second basemen and third basemen also in the infield, shortstop was strikingly low in quality compared to its neighboring positions.
Last week, I talked with Billings Gazette deputy sports editor John Letasky and Lee Montana executive sports editor Jeff Welsch for an hour to select the outfield and catcher. Fellow Billings Gazette sports writers Joe Kusek and Mike Scherting also mentioned players to potentially include.
After research and long discussions, here are our choices for the most successful players by position to make a stop with a Montana Pioneer League on their paths to the big leagues. We'd love to hear yours.
Pedro Martinez, 1990 Great Falls Dodgers
Pedro Martinez spent the 1990 season with the Great Falls Dodgers. He reached the big leagues two years later, pitching one game for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He pitched the '93 season for the Dodgers before being traded to the Montreal Expos for second baseman Delino Deshields. On June 3, 1995, Martinez retired the first 27 San Diego Padres batters before allowing a hit in the bottom of the tenth inning. In 1997, he posted a 17-8 record, a 1.90 earned-run average, and struck out 305 batters to earn his first Cy Young Award. After the '97 season, Martinez was traded to the Boston Red Sox. In 1999, he won the Pitching Triple Crown with a 23-4 record, a 2.07 ERA, and 313 strikeouts. Martinez was a member of the 2004 Red Sox who broke the Curse of the Bambino and brought a World Series title to Boston for the first time since 1918. Martinez pitched seven shutout innings on the road during Game 3 of the World Series to help give Boston a commanding 3-0 series lead over the St. Louis Cardinals. He finished his career with a 219-100 record, a 2.93 ERA, and 3,154 strikeouts.
Trevor Hoffman, 1989 Billings Mustangs
Trevor Hoffman made a name for himself as a long-time reliever for the San Diego Padres, but he was a shortstop for the Mustangs during the 1989 campaign. Hoffman debuted as a pitcher during the '91 season as a member of both the Cedar Rapids Reds and Chattanooga Lookouts. After the 1992 season, the Florida Marlins selected Hoffman during the expansion draft. He was then traded to the San Diego Padres in 1993 for Gary Sheffield and Rich Rodriguez. Hoffman remained a Padre until 2008 before signing with the Milwaukee Brewers to close out his career. Hoffman was a seven-time all-star and finished his career with 601 saves. He also helped lead the Padres to four postseasons, including a World Series appearance in 1998. Only Mariano Rivera, formerly of the New York Yankees, has recorded more saves than Hoffman (652). Hoffman and Rivera are the only players to have recorded more than 500 saves.
John Roseboro, 1953 Great Falls Electrics
John Roseboro, a member of both the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, played his second season of minor league baseball with the Great Falls Electrics. Roseboro was a six-time all-star and a three-time World Series champion with the Dodgers. On Aug. 22, 1965, Roseboro was involved in one of baseball’s most famous brawls. The Dodgers were facing their long-time rival, the San Francisco Giants, when Roseboro’s return throw to pitcher Sandy Koufax nicked Juan Marichal, a future Hall of Fame pitcher who was batting at the time. A bench-clearing brawl ensued and Marichal struck Roseboro on his head with his bat. Willie Mays, a San Francisco Giant and friend of Roseboro, crossed rivalry lines to aid Roseboro after the fight.
Cecil Fielder, 1982 Butte Copper Kings
Cecil Fielder was famous for frequenting Pork Chop John’s in Butte during his tenure on the Butte Copper Kings, then a minor league affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. Fielder played for the Copper Kings during the 1982 season and reached the major leagues as a Toronto Blue Jay in ’85. He would be selected to three all-star games, win two Silver Slugger awards, and also win a World Series with the New York Yankees in 1996. Fielder cranked 51 home runs in 1990, and followed with 44 homers in ’91. Cecil’s son, Prince, hit his 50th home run of the 2007 season on Sept. 25, making them the only father-son duo to both achieve 50 home runs in a season. Remarkably, Cecil and Prince finished their careers tied with 319 home runs.
Ryne Sandberg, 1978 Helena Phillies
Ryne Sandberg's first season of professional baseball was in 1978 with the Philadelphia Phillies organization. A native of Spokane, Washington, and a 2005 Hall of Fame inductee, Sandberg played 13 games during the 1981 season with the Phillies before finishing his career as a Chicago Cub (2,151 games). Sandberg blossomed with the Cubs. In 1984, he earned the National League MVP and led the Cubs to their first postseason since the 1945 World Series. He batted .314 in 1984, scored 114 runs, and had 19 triples. Sandberg led the National League in home runs during the 1990 season with 40 -- the first second basemen to lead the NL in home runs since Rogers Hornsby in 1925. The Cubs' legend finished his career with 15 streaks of 30 or more consecutive errorless games. Sandberg collected 2,386 hits over the course of his career, only tallying one hit during his tenure with the Phillies. A 10-time All-Star, he finished with a career batting average of .285 and earned nine Gold Gloves and seven Silver Slugger awards. After his playing career, he managed the Philadelphia Phillies for three seasons.
Didi Gregorius, 2009 Billings Mustangs
Current New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius began his career in the Cincinnati Reds organization in 2008 and was in Billings a year later. Gregorius had a brief stint with the Arizona Diamondbacks before being traded to the Yankees, where he is the successor at shortstop to sure-fire Hall of Famer Derek Jeter. Gregorius was on the American League All-Star Final Vote ballot in 2017 and narrowly missed being selected to his first all-star game. Last season, he hit 20 home runs for the Yankees and had a .276 batting average. As of Thursday, July 27, Gregorius' average for the 2017 season was over .300 and he had 16 home runs.
George Brett, 1971 Billings Mustangs
George Brett, a 1999 Hall of Fame inductee and 1985 World Series champion with the Kansas City Royals, began his professional career in Billings during the 1971 season. Brett was taken by the Royals in the 1971 amateur draft and played his entire career with the organization. He first appeared in the major leagues in 1973, and the following season he hit.282. That would be his lowest average for the next 17 seasons. During the 1980 season, Brett flirted with becoming the first .400 hitter since 1941 before settling at .390 en route to an American League MVP award. George Brett finished his career with 3,154 hits, 317 home runs and a .305 batting average.
Paul O'Neill, 1981 Billings Mustangs
Five-time World Series champion Paul O'Neill started his professional playing career in Billings with the Mustangs in 1981. O'Neill won a World Series with the Cincinnati Reds in 1990 before winning again in '96, '98, '99, and '00 with the New York Yankees. The former Mustang is the only player to be on a winning team for three perfect games. O'Neill played right field for Tom Browning's perfect game in 1988, caught the final out during David Wells' perfect game in 1998, and made a diving catch during David Cone's perfect game in '99. New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner referred to O'Neill as a "warrior" due to his passion and love for baseball. He finished his career with 281 home runs and a .288 batting average.
Jack Clark, 1973 Great Falls Giants
Four-time all star Jack Clark, also known as "Jack the Ripper", played for the Great Falls Giants in 1973. He finished his career with 340 home runs and a batting average of .267 over 18 seasons. In 1987, Clark belted 35 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1985, Clark had a three-run home run in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the National League Championship Series to help the Cardinals clinch the pennant against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Though Clark was never voted into the Hall of Fame, his career OPS+ (on-base plus slugging percentage) of 137 puts him among the top 100 players all-time. Clark hit 20 or more homers 11 times and led the NL in walks three times.
Gary Sheffield, 1986 Helena Gold Sox
Gary Sheffield, a member of the 1986 Helena Gold Sox, was a nine-time all-star and a World Series champion with the Florida Marlins in 1997. He slugged 509 home runs over his career and had a batting average of .292. Sheffield was drafted in the sixth round by the Milwaukee Brewers out of high school and sent to Helena. While there, he had a .357 batting average over 57 games. Sheffield is known for his iconic batting stance, in which he would jab his bat back and forth while waiting for the pitch.
Bobby Cox, 1963 Great Falls Electrics
Bobby Cox, who led the Atlanta Braves to 14 straight NL division titles and a World Series championship in 1995, played for the Great Falls Electrics during the 1963 season. Cox only played two seasons with the New York Yankees before injuries cut short his playing career. As a 30-year-old, Cox began his managerial career in the Yankees farm system before the Braves hired him as manager in 1977. He was the organization’s eighth manager in a 12-year span. Cox was fired by the Braves in 1981 and began a stint as Toronto Blue Jays manager. He returned to the Braves in 1985 as a general manager after nearly taking the Blue Jays to the World Series. He retired from baseball after the 2010 season, ending his managerial career with 2,504 wins and 158 ejections.
Our position-by-position list of the top MLB stars to play pro ball in Montana
Here are our choices for the most successful players by position to make a stop with a Montana Pioneer League on their paths to the big leagues. Who are your picks?