The Montgomery Biscuits held a Rebels’ Throwback Night on June 15, appropriately disposing of the Chattanooga Lookouts with a Rebels-like performance, hitting a first-inning home run, then relying on defense and pitching for a 2-0 win.
The Biscuits had wrapped up the North Division first-half title two days earlier to ensure themselves of their fifth consecutive trip to the Southern League playoffs at the end of the season. Southern League teams have only reached the playoffs in five consecutive years twice previously (Birmingham 2000-05 and Nashville 1979-84) and both of those teams benefitted from not having to face Montgomery, which went without a franchise from 1980 to 2003.
The decision to hold a Rebels’ Throwback Night didn’t have much planning (the game was actually the second game of a doubleheader because of a makeup game with the Lookouts) and featured more Rebels’ paraphernalia at the Biscuit Basket than tribute on the field, but the Biscuits’ decision to don Rebels-style uniforms was stylish and offered a trip down memory lane for a lot of the older fans on hand who remember the Rebels with fondness.
The original Southern League was formed in 1885, but the league folded in 1899, returned in 1901 as the Southern Association, folded again after the 1961 season and came back in 1963, first as the South Atlantic League and then the following year as the modern-day Southern League.
Montgomery’s history starts in 1892 in the Southern League before its team is sold to Dallas in 1899; returns as a Southern Association team in 1903 before disbanding after a horrible season in 1914; returns briefly for a few months in the South Atlantic League in 1916, then as a Southeastern League team in 1926 through 1956 as the league evolved into the South Atlantic League (except for a stint with no team in 1931-36 and in 1943-45 because of World War II); as an Alabama-Florida League team from 1957 to 1962; and finally again as a Southern League team (1965-80, 2004-present).
The Rebels won back-to-back titles in 1972 and 1973, drawing this thought from Rebels manager Fred Hatfield following his team’s repeat in Jacksonville with a 2-1 win over the Suns: “I play to win. Why, I’ve seen the time I would have traded in my old lady for a base hit.”
The Rebels made history as the first Southern League team to repeat as league champions. It wouldn’t happen again until the Biscuits did it in 2006-07. It has happened twice since (Jacksonville in 2009-10 and Mobile in 2011-12), making the Rebels’ three-peat in 1975-77 and their five pennants in six years a history-making run.
“We did have a pretty exciting group of guys,” said West Michigan manager Lance Parrish, a member of the 1976 Rebels who went on to a 19-year career in Major League Baseball. “Quite a few of those guys ended up having an opportunity to play in the Major Leagues. Back then, it seemed like the Tigers did a heck of a job drafting. A lot of guys that I played with throughout the minor leagues ended up being on that ’84 world championship team. It was an exciting time for all of us.
“Again, we had some really good players. A couple of them ended up being in the Hall of Fame.”
Pitcher Jack Morris and shortstop Alan Trammell were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2018. Parrish teamed up with Morris, the Tigers’ ace, in Montgomery in 1976, the year Trammell was drafted by the Tigers and wound up in Montgomery.
“The first hurdle to get over is to find your way through the minor leagues and get an opportunity to actually play at the Major League level,” Parrish said. “For guys like Alan Trammell and Jack Morris, it was just a career full of consistency.”
Those who were consistent enough got called up to the Tigers: third basemen Tom Brookens (1975-76) and Marty Castillo (1979), catchers Parrish and Gene Lamont (1969, 1972), pitchers Dan Petry (1978) and Dave Rozema (1976) and second baseman Lou Whitaker (1977), among others. There were plenty of others throughout the years who had extended stays in Montgomery that endeared themselves to fans, starting with Mack McWhorter, who went on to become county commissioner; catcher Jim Leyland, who went on to become a pretty successful MLB manager; and outfielder Murray “Smokey” Robinson, who may be the most beloved Rebel from that 1970s era.
All of those players took the field at Paterson Field, constructed in 1949 and relatively unchanged since. City officials put a roof over both dugouts to comply with NCAA regulations when the Division II Baseball Championship was there in the 1980s, but the dugouts, locker rooms and most of the facility remains virtually the same as it was constructed 70 years ago.
Meanwhile, every Southern League facility has been constructed within the last 25 years. Riverwalk Stadium, which is now 15 years old, is the fifth oldest facility in the league.
“The facilities are a little better now than they used to be,” Parrish observed. “There was really no form of entertainment in the clubhouse. There were no TVs or cell phones. You walked into the clubhouse and it was just a bunch of guys. You sit around and get to know everybody a little better than they do now. A lot of conversations about a lot of things, especially baseball.”
One thing hasn’t changed, however. While fans go to the ballpark to be entertained – and winning is always a popular form of entertainment – the managers are thinking less about the win-loss record and more about developing the player into the athlete the Major League club desired when they signed him.
“If not for Les Moss, I would have never made it to the Major Leagues,” Parrish observed. “For two years I had him at Double A and Triple A, he worked with me on my hitting and catching and absolutely turned me into the player that I eventually became in the Major Leagues.
“Les Moss, in my eyes, was a great manager. They recently did a video in Detroit recognizing our ’84 world championship team. They had asked me about (manager) Sparky Anderson when he first came on the scene and Sparky had actually replaced Les Moss. Les Moss managed me in Double A, managed me in Triple A and eventually after Ralph Houk retired, he had the opportunity to manage in Detroit (in 1979). He only managed us through April, May and part of June. We came off a West Coast trip … and we found out they had fired Les Moss and hired Sparky Anderson.
“I have to say I became very close friends with Sparky. I loved him as a manager and as a human being. He obviously did a great job of managing and was a great manager, but I just felt like Les got a raw deal there. But my year in Montgomery in 1976 was actually the year that turned me around and shaped me into a ball player. My time in Montgomery was invaluable to my career.”
That part of minor league baseball hasn’t changed. The managers of the Rebels were revered for their player development, starting with George “Mule” Haas (1949) and Charlie Metro (1950-53) and continuing through the 1970s with Hatfield (1972-73), Leyland (1974), Moss (1975-76) and Ed Brinkman (1977-78), guys who were former MLB players or future MLB managers.
That continues today with the Biscuits and Charlie Montoyo (2004-06), the current manager of the Toronto Blue Jays; Billy Gardner Jr. (2007-13), currently the minor league roving coordinator for the Washington Nationals; Brady Williams (2014-18), the manager of the Triple-A Durham Bulls; and rookie skipper Morgan Ensberg, who played with the Astros and steered the Biscuits into the Southern League playoffs in his inaugural season.
“I don’t know if this is the secret or not (to winning the division) but we completely concentrate on the body of work that needs to be done for that day,” Ensberg said. “You look like a really great coach when you have great players. And we have great players.
“I’m very happy for them. It is a nice moment. Again, I think it’s a plot point. It’s something you have to do to get to the playoffs so hopefully you can win championships but my mind is so focused on the individual game and the individual reps that I don’t think I have time to think about the 30,000-foot view.”
The playoff appearance is the eighth time in the Biscuits’ 16 seasons, but all of the previous seven were either second-half division titles or playoff appearances as the divisional team with the second-best record. The last time Montgomery won a first-half title was in 1977 when the Rebels went on to win the division over second-place Chattanooga by 24.5 games, then swept Jacksonville in a best-of-three series for their fifth pennant in six years. The ’77 Rebels won 86 games and no Montgomery team has reached the 80-win plateau since. This year’s team, which won the first-half division with 44 wins, has a chance.