Saturday, September 27, 2014

Almost A Dynasty: 1920's Pittsburgh Pirates

What actually makes a sports dynasty?  Obviously a team needs to be successful for a continuous amount of time.  Every sport has that one iconic dynasty that fits the Dynasty category.  The NBA had the Boston Celtics who won nine out of ten championships.  The Montreal Canadiens won 7 of nine Stanley Cups (including six straight).  The NFL had several dynasties including the 49'ers, the Steelers, the Cowboys and, most recently, the Patriots.  Baseball itself has had the Yankees dynasties in several incarnations including the 1930's, 1950's and 2000's.

So what actually makes a team a dynasty?  There can of course be several definitions since there are varying levels of success.  A team can dominate their division for a decade but be bounced out in the first round of the playoffs year after year.  We could of course consider that to be a divisional dynasty but you wouldn't call it an overall baseball dynasty.  So let us set the parameters for this series of articles.  A dynasty, for our purposes here, is a team that wins multiple World Series championships (above two as back to back is nice but not a dynasty) within a 5-10 year period.  That being defined, this series will explore those teams that may have been a divisional or league dynasty but for whatever reason could not get over the hump to that World Series dynasty.

This series will show an array of near dynasties.  Some are teams that made the World Series year after year but fell short.  Others will be teams that competed right down to the end of the regular season year after year just to be beaten out.  It will be a series of near misses and what could have beens.

Don't miss the other almost dynasty articles: The Detroit Tigers of the 1900's and The Chicago White Sox of the 1910's.  Now let's get started with this weeks "almost dynasty": The Pittsburgh Pirates of the 1920's.

The original Pirates
The Pirates organization in the National League are nearly as old as baseball itself.  The team was formed in 1882 and over the span of their existence are truly one of the more successful organizations.  They don't have anywhere near the number of World Series titles of the Yankees, Cardinals, Red Sox or Tigers but they have been a well run, competitive organization for the better part of their history.

Of course every organization (even the Yankees) have their ups and downs.  The Pirates, just before the turn of the century, were on the down trend.  Things changed dramatically.  The team was purchased by a man named Barney Dreyfus.  Dreyfus also owned the National League's Louisville franchise.  Louisville had some great players.  Honus Wagner.  Tommy Leach.  Fred Clarke.  Ginger Beaumont.  Sam Leever.  Ed Doheny.  Louisville was unbeatable.  Dreyfus now wanted the Pirates to be unbeatable so he made a simple business decision.  Instead of a long drawn out scouting and rebuilding process he just simply proposed a trade. The Louisville team would trade their best players to the Pirates.  As the owner of both he quickly approved his own proposal.

When the league discarded four teams at the end of the 1899 season Louisville was one of them.  The Pirates went on to become the dominant team in the league.  The Pirates finished second in 1900 then won the 1901, 1902 and 1903 NL Pennants before losing the first ever World Series in 1903.  Over the next ten years they would finish in the top three all but one year (1904 they finished fourth) and would even win the 1909 World Series over Ty Cobb and the Tigers' "almost dynasty".  Following the 1909 World Series the team declined quickly. Wagner, Clarke and Leach grew old.  Leach was sold off as was Pitcher Vic Willis.  First Baseman Bill Abstein had a horrendous World Series and was sold to the Browns.  Bobby Byrne had broken his ankle in a Game 7 collision at third and did not perform as well afterwards.  Dots Miller and Chief Wilson were eventually traded off.  Catcher George Gibson moved on to the Giants.  The replacement players were good but not great and the franchise declined.  The team bottomed out in 1917 finishing in last place.  1917 was the start of the Giants' run of success as New York won the NL in 1917, 1921, 1922 1923 and 1924 (they should have won the pennant in 1919 as well but there were questions about the honesty of the third baseman and first baseman).

Although the Pirates bottomed out in 1917 the recovery was already in process. They climbed to 4th in 1918,1919 and 1920.  In 1921 they were ready to compete.

Building the new Bucs
Few names would span the end of the Pirates' first dynasty through the beginning of the new one: Babe Adams was the most prominent.  As a rookie in 1909 Adams had won three of the Pirates four World Series victories, bringing the city their first World Series title.  He was a surprise starter in Game 1 ( he had been 12-3, 1.11 ERA that regular season but had only started in 12 games).  Since that rookie year Adams had established himself as the ace of the staff (he won between 15 and 20 games 5 times in his career and rarely had an ERA above 2.50).

Max Carey had also appeared on the 1909 Pirates, although he had little to do with the team.  He appeared in only 2 games that year and was not part of the post season roster.  Carey did develop into one of the better players in the league and often led the league in steals.

In September of 1920 the Pirates made one of their greatest contract purchases ever when they spent $100,000 for Pie Traynor.  Traynor would go on to a Hall of Fame career and spend 17 years in a Pirates uniform.

At the end of the 1920 season, a year that saw them quite improved, the Pirates sent three players (including future Hall of Famer Billy Southworth) to the Boston Braves and in return they received Rabbitt Maranville.  Maranville was an established star who had helped the 1914 Miracle Braves win a championship, however, his numbers had declined in recent years and his clubhouse presence in Boston had become a bit of a question.  The Pirates were happy to have him because, although he had some team mate problems in Boston, Maranville was a fiery player who could possibly fit well with Traynor and Carey.

Also coming to the Pirates during this time were some strong young players less well known that Traynor.  Clyde Barnhart played only 21 games in 1920 but would be full time in 1921.  Charlie Grimm would go on to fame with the Cubs but he would get his first real big league experience with the Pirates starting for the team in 1921 after being acquired from the Cardinals in 1919.  Carson Bigbee played the outfield starting in 1916 and remained through the mid 1920's.  Pitcher Wilbur Cooper, along with Babe Adams, was one of the best the league saw.

It had been more than a decade since the fans in Pittsburgh had something to cheer about.  The Steelers and Penguins did not exist.  The NBA (or it's ancestor league the BAA) was another 25 years away and even then the Pittsburgh Ironmen would finish in dead last, five games worse than the next best team.  For Pittsburgh sports fans it was the Pirates or nothing.

With a collection of young talent like Traynor and Barnhart along with Maranville and Carey it was not unthinkable that the Pirates were improving to the point of impacting the pennant race.  With the Giants led by McGraw and a defending NL Champ Brooklyn still strong, contention still seemed a long shot for 1921.  The Pirates got off to a hot start.  On April 30, the team sat 1 1/2 ahead of the Robins and 2 1/2 ahead of the Giants.  The team batting was well ahead of anyone's expectations.  Maranville was hitting .397, Carey was at .333.  The surprises were Grimm (.308) and second baseman Cotton Tierney (.453).  An 18-7 May put the team at 29-10.  They had built a lead as high as 4 games but it stood at 3 as the calendar moved to June.  They had distanced themselves from the Robins (9 1/2 back) but the Giants were hanging strong.  A brief losing streak saw them fall a half game out of first for a day on June 3 but they quickly recovered and by July 22 they were 4 1/2 ahead of the Giants.  The lead was at 3 as the Giants came to town for a four game series.  This was the crucial series of the year.  A sweep would put the Pirates seven games up to start August.  The Pirates won game 1 increasing the lead to four.  The next day the Pirates lost a heartbreaker.  They led 4-0 after 6 and 5-1 after 7.  Then the Giants erupted for five in the 8th and 2 in the 9th.  The Giants won in the 10th inning.  The next night the Giants won again with a 4-1 masterful pitching performance by Jesse Barnes.  The lead was down to one with one game left against the Giants.  The Pirates again led, this time 4-2, in the 9th before the Giants stunned them with 4 runs in the 9th.  A 1-0 loss the following night to the Braves made it 5 losses in 6 games and the top of the NL was tied.  The Giants series was a big missed opportunity for the young team.  They quickly recovered and rebuilt their lead.  It was up to 7 1/2 by August 22nd.  They lost 13 of the next 15 games and the lead shrunk again.  This team didn't quite know how to hold a lead.  They went 14-23 from the time they reached the 7 1/2 game lead until the end of the year.  The Giants went 24-9 in the same span and the Giants won the league by 4 games.

Many expected the Pirates to challenge again in 1922.  The Pirates expected it themselves and they made few moves in the offseason.  The season did not go as planned.  65 games into the season they were 10  games out of first and stuck in 5th place.  Manager George Gibson was fired and was replaced with Bill McKechnie.  The team went 53-36 under McKechnie, spending most of September in second but never getting closer than three and a half.  Losing 7 of their last 10 dropped them to third.

The 1923 Pirates started the year 6-7.  It is not a terrible record but the Giants started 10-4.  The Pirates were in 6th place at the end of the first month.  They would bounce back and forth between second and third the rest of the year, even cutting the lead to 2 1/2 at one point but  the Giants were much too strong and ran away with the league.  Some felt that this run of Giant success was the greatest collection of talent the game had ever seen.  Few felt the team could be beaten but Ruth and the Yankees proved it was possible. The Yankees, playing their first year in their own stadium, took out the two time World Champions leaving a bad taste in John McGraw's mouth but the taste of blood in that of the Pirates.

Feeling very close to overtaking the Giants, Pittsburgh decided to give a few young players a shot. Glenn Wright took over at Shortstop while Kiki Cuyler patroled the outfield full time.  This now gave the Pirates four future Hall of Fame players (Maranville, Traynor, Carey and Cuyler) as well as two players considered among the best in their day (Wright and Grimm).  After the Giants' 1923 World Series loss, the Pirates felt they could take on the once unbeatable Giants.  They played mediocre ball (19-20) through the first two months.  June started poorly and it appeared to be another lost season.  The Pirates played well the rest of the season and ended the year with 90 wins.  9 games out of first on August 8 the team won 9 straight cutting the deficit to just three games.  They would finish the season in third place, 3 games out of first.

It was yet another disappointing season.  Pirates fans were growing tired of the disappointment.  Every year they felt they had a chance and every year they stumbled out of the gate.  It seemed as though the end of each year was the same refrain.  "If only they had started stronger."  Angels and Royals fans have felt the same way the last few years.  The Pirates made a big move in the off season, one that was immediately questioned.  They sent Maranville, Grimm and Wilbur Cooper, the team's ace, to the Chicago Cubs.  In return they received George Grantham, Al Niehaus and the man who would replace Cooper, Vic Aldridge.  The trade was very unpopular with fans and Maranville did not make it easy on the team.  In numerous speaking engagements in the Pittsburgh area he denied the rumors that the was a nuisance in the clubhouse or had played any part in the diruptions that had secretly become the downfall of the team.  They also signed a young shortstop named Joe Cronin who would see little playing time.

Another Near Disappointment
Those who questioned the trade of Maranville, Grimm and Aldridge immediately started yelling "I told you so..." when the team again stumbled out of the gate.  At 6-8 the team was in last place.  The Pirates turned to an old leader to help ignite the team.  Fred Clarke, the man who had led the team in the early 1900's, was brought in as a consultant.  The team started to turn around and went 16-9 in May and signed veteran First Baseman Stuffy McInnis of the A's $100,000 infield.  By the end of May they had climbed to third, 5 1/2 games behind the Giants.  They continued winning.  By the end of June they were tied for first.  The month of July was a seesaw battle going back and forth.  Pirates fans feared the worst.  Although they were ahead Pirates fans had seen this trick before and they were skeptical.  Pittsburgh continued to win.  As August turned to September their lead was at 8.  It still could all fall apart.  After all, this was the fifth straight season they were in contention.  Any, or all, of those seasons could have resulted in a World Series appearance. Instead it ended before the World Series began.  On September 10 they won to extend their lead back to 8 games.  They lost the next 4 in a row and Pirates fans started to sweat  How long would it take for the collapse to happen?  It didn't.  They won their next 9 straight and advanced to their first World Series since the days of Wagner, Clarke and Leach.

Their opponents were the defending champion Washington Senators.  While a year before they were viewed as underdogs against McGraw's Giants, this year the Senators were expected to roll over the young Bucs.  The great Walter Johnson started Game 1.  The year before his Game 1 World Series start was a disappointment.  This time he dominated.  He allowed only 5 hits. Pie Traynor had two of them, including a solo Home Run in the 5th.  The Senators won it 4-1 taking a one game lead.

Game 2 was a tense battle.  Joe Judge hit a Home Run in the second putting the Senators up 1-0.  Glenn Wright tied it up in the 4th with a solo shot of his own.  The middle innings were crucial.  Every runner stranded could have meant either a tied series or a two game lead for the Senators.  The 8th inning started with an easy ground ball to Shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh. The AL MVP, playing with a severly injured leg, couldn't field it and there was a runner on first.  Two batters later Kiki Cuyler put the Pirates ahead with a long Home Run.  It was only a two run lead and the Senators would not go quietly.  The 9th opened with a walk, a single and another walk loading the bases with no one out.  Vic Aldridge got Bobby Veach to fly out scoring a run and cutting the lead to one.  Still with two runners on base and no one out Pirates fans were on the edge of their seats.  A strikeout gave the Pirates fans some relief.  The next batter connected on a ground ball.  Second baseman Eddie Moore needed to field it or the Senators would tie up the game.  Moore fielded and threw to McInnis.  The Pirates had held on to tie the series.

Games 3 and 4 did not go the Pirates way.  Game 3 saw the Pirates blow a 3-1 lead.  Emil Yde gave up a three run Home Run to Goose Goslin, immediately followed by a solo Home Run to Joe Judge and that would be all the scoring in Game 4.  The Senators had a 3 games to 1 series lead and needed just one more win to give Washington a second World Series title.  With Walter Johnson, the greatest Pitcher in the history of the game, and Stan Coveleski, former hero of the Cleveland Indians 1920 World Series victory, it seemed impossible that the Senators might not win.
A lead off single and a double gave the Senators a one run lead but a tired Coveleski could not hold the lead.  The Pirates scored twice in the third to take the lead.  Joe Judge hit another Home Run (his 3rd of the Series) tying it at 2.  It was all Pirates from there.  They extended their season with a 6-3 win in Game 5.

Game 6 was just as tense.  The Senators scored one in the first and one in the second to give them a 2-0 lead.  The Pirates appeared to be playing out the string. The Pirates fought back in the third to tie the game with 2 runs.  The next run was crucial.  A Senators run could mean the end of the season.  A Pirates run could mean the extreme pressure of a Game 7..  Lead off hitter Eddie Moore started the 5th inning for the Pirates with a Solo Home Run giving Pittsburgh a one run lead.  The Senators threatened in both the 8th and 9th but couldn't score.  The series was tied at three forcing a final deciding game.

Walter Johnson started for the Senators in Game 7.  It looked like it would be a miserable, disappointing day for Pirates fans.  The conditions were dreart as rains soaked the field.  The conditions were so bad that Johnson's biographer named the chapter discussing the game "The Great Sea Disaster".  The Senators jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first.  Vic Aldridge had problems from the beginning.  A single, fly ball  out, wild pitch, walk, another wild pitch, another walk, a third walk, and a single.  Aldridge's day was over but the inning wasn't.  A Catcher's interference and an error later and it seemed like it would be a long day.  The Pirates cut the lead to one with a 3 run third but Joe Harris hit a two run double in the top of the fourth to push the score to 6-3. The weather continued to deteriorate.  Pittsburgh got one more run in the 5th and when the game became official Commissioner Landis declared the Senators the World Champions.  But not so fast.  The Senators refused to accept the decision.  They did not want to accept what they feared would be a tainted title so the game continued.   The Pirates tied it in the 7th but the Senators kept them from going ahead when Pie Traynor tried to stretch a triple into an inside the park Home Run but was thrown out at home. The Senators bounced right back out in front  the next inning when Peckinpaugh, playing on a badly injured leg, hit a solo Home Run.  The rain was so bad at this point that the grounds crew had to continuously pour sawdust onto the Pitcher's mound, attempting to cover the puddles.  Walter Johnson was filling his hat with saw dust hoping to keep the rain out of his eyes.  Johnson got two quick outs in the bottom of the 8th making it look like the Senators would be set to win it in the 9th.  Earl Smith doubled.  Carson Bigbee, pinch hitting, doubled scoring Smith.  Eddie Moore walked and Max Carey hit a ground ball to Peckinpaugh.  It looked like the inning was over. Instead Peckinpaugh's damaged leg slipped and the throw went wild.  The bases were loaded with two outs.  Kiki Cuyler untied it with a 2 run Ground Rule Double giving the Pirates a 9-7 lead and after a quick 1-2-3 9th innning, the World Championship.

The Pirates near dynasty, after five years of collapses and stumbles now had a World Championship.  The follow up would fit the pattern of the first few years of the almost dynasty, only in a much more scandalously dramatic fashion.

The ABC Affair
The 1926 defending Champion Pirates were in a tight battle with a surprise contender, the St.Louis Cardinals.  The Cardinals had never really contended for an NL title before.  Pittsburgh again stumbled out of the gate but by July 24 had moved into first place.  Fred Clarke was still serving as a bench coach for the team and making his voice heard, even if the players and manager McKechnie were trying hard to turn it into background noise.  Although his help was credited with leading to the 1925 World Series win, the players and McKechnie had heard enough.  Max Carey was slumping late in the season and McKechnie was ready to bench him.  Clarke, loudly and in the presence of the entire team,  suggested that the bat boy might improve the team over Carey's current performance.  It was the last straw and the players said enough is enough.  Babe Adams (A), Carson Bigbee (B) and Max Carey (C) demanded that Clarke leave the team and not be involved anymore.  Owner Barney Dreyfus, partial to Clarke because of his long previous service, did not take well to demands.  On August 13th the team released A, B and C from the team.  Three of the key players in the World Series team were gone, just like that, with the team fighting for a pennant.  In fact they were in first place by 2 games.  They held first  until August 30th but a Cardinals team led by Rogers Hornsby, Jim Bottomley and an aging Grover Cleveland Alexander overtook them for their first ever NL title.  It was yet another missed opportunity for an almost dynasty.

Pick Your Poison
Before the 1926 season, the Pirates had signed two outfielders with the future in mind.  The future came quicker than expected.  In October of  1925 the Pirates signed Paul Waner away from the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League.  Paul played in 144 games in 1926 and had there been a rookie of the year award at the time he likely would have won it, even receiving votes for MVP.  A few months later they signed another oufielder, a 21 year old who would not see any playing time in 1926 but would star for the Pirates in 1927.  It was Paul's little brother Lloyd.  The two were so potent a pair that they were said to be poison to the other team.  Paul, the older, was "Big Poison" and the younger Lloyd was "Little Poison".  Opposing pitchers would need to pick their poison but one would likely beat them. If the poisons didn't the rest of the lineup would.  Carey and Bigbee were gone but Traynor, Wright and Cuyler were still there and the team added Joe Harris from the Senators.  Their competition at the top was again a surprise. This time it was the Cubs.  The Pirates fell six games back by August 16 but went 30-13 the rest of the way.  This included winning streaks of 7 and 11.  The Bucs won the  NL by a game and a half.  Just one year after the devastating embarasment of the ABC Affair the Pirates had a chance to add to their almost dynasty.

Their opponents, unfortunately for Pittsburgh, were the 1927 Yankees known as Murderer's Row.  Still known as one of the greatest teams of all time the '27 Yankees included Tony Lazzeri, Mark Koenig, Bob Meusel, Joe Dugan, Earle Combs and of course Ruth and Gehrig.  The story is often told of the Waners watching the Yankees hit ball after ball into the bleachers  in batting practice and basically giving up before the series even started but the story is absurd.  The Waners would certainly not have been discouraged and with Traynor, Wright and Cuyler leading the way the team would not be allowed to keep that attitude for long.  In fact Game 1 was anything but a run away.  The Yankees scored on a triple from Gehrig in the first but the Pirates came right back with a run in the bottom of the 1st.  The Yankees scored three in third to go up 4-1.  The Bucs chipped away with one in the bottom of the third and the teams traded runs back and forth.  Game 1 was a 6-4 victory but the Pirates could have pulled it out.

Games 2 and 3 were less competitive.  The Pirates scored first but the Yankees quickly took at 3-1 lead.  They extended that to 6-1 in the 8th and eventually won 6-2.  The Yankees would take a 2-0 lead against the Pirates in the first inning of Game 3 on a triple by Gehrig, who was thrown out trying to stretch it into an inside the park Home Run.  The Pirates did not manage to get anyone on base until the top of the 8th when Traynor singled and Clyde Barnhardt doubled him home.  This came too late because the inning before saw the Yankees score six (including a three run Home Run from Ruth).  The Yankees took a 3-0 series lead with an 8-1 win,

The Pirates, fighting hard to avoid a sweep, trailed 3-1 in the 7th inning of Game 4 thanks to another Ruth Home Run, when they rallied to tie the game.  There may not have been much hope at this point to beat the Yankees but they sure as hell were going to make them fight for it.  The tie game went into the bottom off the 9th.  Combs led off the Yankees 9th with a single.  Koenig followed with a bunt single. They both moved up on a wild pitch and Ruth was walked intentionally to load the bases.  It seemed like an impossible situation.  When Gehrig and Meusel struck out, the Pirates hoped for extra innings.  Just a few pitches later it was all over.  A wild pitch scored the winning run.  It was another year of what if's that could have led to a dynasty.

The Decline and Fall of the Almost Pirates Dynasty
The Pirates did not just give up after the 1927 season, although they would not reach the World Series again.  They played poorly in April and May of 1928, as seemed to be their pattern, but it was too much to come back from this time.  They finished 4th, 8 1/2 behind the Cardinals.  They played well in 1929, even holding first place as late as July 23.  They played 32-34 ball the rest of the way.  The Cubs, however, went 44-24 in the same span, winning the NL by 10 1/2 games.  1930 was the opposite of the almost dynasty pattern.  The team played well out of the gates, holding the top spot with a 9-3 April.  A poor finish dropped them to 5th for the year, they would finish in the same spot the next year

The team made one final push in 1932.  In late July they had a six game lead but the Cubs again got hot and the Pirates played mediocre ball.  They put up a valiant fight but in the end came up short, 4 1/2 behind the Cubs.  1933 was almost identical finishing 2nd to the Giants, 5 games back.

The players were mostly gone.  Only Traynor and the Waners remained but Traynor was now 34.  The Pirates would take a long time rebuilding.  It would become a bit of a baseball graveyard, the place dying careers and less than touted prospects ended up.  It was not until 1960 that the Pirates would again become a contender.

Mentioned in today's article was the Louisville franchise of the National League.  At the end of the 1899 season the NL expelled 4 teams, including the Louisville franchise.  What were the other three teams?

Congrtulations to Hope for Correctly Answering Last Week's Trivia Question:
The 1959 White Sox came to beknown as the "Go-Go" Sox because of their speed on the base paths.  They reached the World Series for the first time since the Black Sox scandal.  The manager of the Sox was Al Lopez.  The Sox broke a strangle hold by the Yankees at the top of the league.  In fact from 1949 through 1964 the Yankees won the American League every year except two.  One of course was the 1959 Sox led by Al Lopez.  The other was 1954 Indians, also led by Al Lopez.

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