The Branch Rickey Pirates (Part 3: 1951-1952)by Steve Treder
March 31, 2009
In our first installment, we joined the legendary Branch Rickey as he took over the general managership of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the autumn of 1950. Last time, we examined Rickey’s range of actions in his first year in the new job, a period in which he didn't find immediate success, but executed generally sound decisions and appeared to have made progress.
This time, we’ll focus on Rickey’s performance from the close of the 1951 season to the same point a year later.
For 1952 Rickey again stuck with Billy Meyer as his field manager. In 1951 Meyer had been nothing if not active, as he nervously tinkered at several positions: He deployed eight second basemen, nine center fielders, 10 left fielders, 11 third basemen and 16 starting pitchers.
At 60, Meyer was significantly older than most skippers. In 1952 Rickey planned to introduce even more young, inexperienced talent to the roster, and it would serve as an even greater test of Meyer’s skill at communication and development.
Shortstop, second base and center field
For 1952, Rickey imported some help for incumbent shortstop George Strickland, by selecting 27-year-old minor leaguer Clem Koshorek from the Tigers organization via the Rule 5 draft. Strickland and Koshorek, both light-hitting, good-glove types, shared the shortstop job through the early part of 1952, with neither performing particularly well.
Then in June, Rickey’s Pirates won a bidding war and signed Duke University All-American shortstop Dick Groat (who was also an All-American in basketball). Rickey decided that Groat was already the best shortstop in the entire organization, and so brought him to the major league roster immediately, and Meyer installed him as the regular.
It’s debatable whether the 21-year-old Groat was indeed any better than Strickland or Koshorek at that point, but neither was he any worse. In the field Groat demonstrated impressive range but made quite a few errors, and at the plate in 1952 he exhibited no power and drew few walks, but made persistent contact and slapped his way to a good (if empty) batting average.
Thirty-year-old second baseman Jack Merson was a career minor leaguer who’d been knocking around the Pirates system since 1947. In September of ’51, Rickey had promoted him to the majors, and when Meyer put him in the lineup for the last couple of weeks of the season Merson had delightfully surprised with a torrid .360 (18-for-50) with 14 RBI in 13 games. Given that no one else had claimed the second base job for the Pirates, Merson was given not only a spot on the 1952 Opening Day roster, but the starting role.
Merson’s hitting in ’52 would, unsurprisingly, come down to earth; it wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t good either. Combined with his limited range in the field, it rendered Merson less than a satisfactory regular second baseman, yet Meyer played him as pretty much a first-stringer (giving him some time at third base as well) all season long. Conspicuously absent at second base was Dick Cole, whom Rickey had acquired in 1951 but never given a serious shot; Cole was left in the minors for all of 1952 despite hitting .286 in 178 games in the Pacific Coast League.
Thus at shortstop and second base, the choices Rickey and Meyer made were understandable, if not persuasive, and the results achieved were acceptable, though not good. As for center field, the choices Rickey and Meyer made were simply bizarre, and the results they achieved were horrific.
We’ll recall that center field had been a problem for the 1951 Pirates. But two obvious solutions presented themselves: First, fleet-footed young right fielder Gus Bell appeared entirely capable of moving over to handle center. Or, 23-year-old Frank Thomas, the rookie who’d held the position over the final month-and-a-half of 1951, could be shown some patience; Thomas hadn’t been good in his trial but he hadn’t been overmatched either.
But, no: Bell stayed in right field, and Rickey sent Thomas back to Double-A New Orleans, where in '51 he’d already hit .289 with 23 home runs in 125 games. Rickey left Thomas in New Orleans for virtually all of 1952 while he tore it up, hitting .303 with 40 doubles and leading the league with 35 homers, 112 runs scored and 131 RBI.
Instead of Thomas, Rickey opened the 1952 season with not one, and not two, but three rookie center fielders on the roster. All were younger and distinctly less experienced than Thomas. Nineteen-year-old Bobby Del Greco, 19-year-old Lee Walls and 21-year-old Dick Hall would all eventually prove to be competent major leaguers (though for Hall it would be as a pitcher, not an outfielder), but in 1952 all three were green as grass.
All three would wash out and be sent back down before the season was through; for Walls and Hall it was sooner, while for Del Greco it was later, as he was generally deployed as the regular for the bulk of the season. Del Greco's hitting was merely terrible, while that of Walls and Hall was laughable. Here's the combined 1952 major league batting line of this fuzzy-cheeked trio:
AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS+ 501 46 100 15 3 3 27 48 109 6 6 .200 .270 .259 46It was among the most disastrous performances ever presented at any position by any team in major league history.
Third base, first base and corner outfield
Pete Castiglione continued the regular play at third base he’d assumed in mid-1951. Through early 1952, he was doing pretty well, until struck by a pitch and suffering a broken elbow, and being effectively shelved for the season.
In his absence, the Pirates had no viable options at third base. Meyer tried a farm system product named Dick Smith, whose fielding was all right but whose hitting was pitcher-hitting-level bad. Merson and Koshorek both spent time at third, and over the final month it was a 21-year-old Rickey signee, Sonny Senerchia, but none were effective. In Castiglione’s absence third base became another disaster area.
But it was a raging success in comparison to first base. Here, as with center field, Rickey and Meyer hadn’t settled on a solution in 1951, despite the fact that the simplest choice was staring them in the face: Jjust shift slow, poor-throwing slugger Ralph Kiner in from left field and be done with it. But, no, the 58 games Meyer had deployed Kiner at first base in 1951 would be the last he would ever spend at the position; in 1952 he was back in left field on a full-time basis.
As an alternative to Kiner, a first base platoon of available journeymen such as George Metkovich and Jack Phillips wouldn’t have been good, but it would have been reasonably competent.
Instead, Rickey opted for the same sort of maneuver he was enacting in center field: 5-foot-10-inch, 155-pound 20-year-old Tony Bartirome, whose entire professional experience consisted of one season in Class C where he’d hit .282 with five homers in 482 at-bats, was promoted to the majors and deployed by Meyer as the first-stringer all season long. Predictably, like the kids in center field, Bartirome was thoroughly overmatched by major league pitching, and with an OPS+ of 48 he delivered perhaps the worst season ever produced by a major league regular first baseman.
Over the years, attempting to make sense of this baffling series of choices Rickey made in 1952, commentators have assumed that these egregiously unprepared rookies were Bonus Babies, and the Pirates were forced by the rules to keep them in the majors. That’s simply not true: The bonus rule, first enacted in 1947, had been rescinded in December of 1950, and was not in effect in 1952. It would be reinstituted beginning in 1953 (interestingly, as the decision of a committee chaired by none other than Rickey himself), but the fact is that there was absolutely no requirement for Del Greco, Bartirome and the others to be in the majors at all that season, let alone given first-string responsibilities.
The only explanation is the simplest, and the least pleasant: By 1952 The Mahatma, for so long the peerless evaluator of baseball talent, was prone to committing howling blunders of judgment. He was an old man, and while still as sharp as ever in many ways, was just no longer capable of competently handling the many demands of a major league general manager’s job.
Not yet convinced? Look no further than right field. Not only was Bell, the best young outfielder on the team by a long shot, not shifted to center field where he was needed, but on April 22, 1952, barely a week into the season, Rickey sent Bell back to the minor leagues. He would remain in Triple-A for three weeks (and predictably hit well) before being recalled and reinstated as the Pirates’ regular right fielder. But, not surprisingly, this incomprehensible handling didn’t sit well with the young star, and his performance over the balance of the season was just so-so, his development stalled.
Despite the maelstrom swirling around, this position remained completely stable in 1952. The platoon pairing of Joe Garagiola and Clyde McCullough was kept in place, with Ed Fitz Gerald still on hand as the third-stringer. McCullough didn’t hit well this season, but Garagiola again did.
As in 1951, the diminutive veteran right-hander Murry Dickson shouldered a frightful workhorse burden and performed quite well. Unlike 1951, this time his was joined by two competent performances in the rotation: 31-year-old Howie Pollet resurrected his stuff well enough to post a decent year, and 21-year-old sophomore Bob Friend stepped forward as a dependable starter.
Alas, this trio was so woefully supported by the Pirates’ anemic offense (with those multiple sinkholes in the lineup, the team OPS+ was an appalling 79) that despite combining for an ERA slightly better than league average, their won-lost record was 28-54.
And that was the good news. Vernon Law, who’d struggled but had something to offer as a starter in 1951, was now drafted into the military. Instead of importing journeyman talent to fill out the rotation behind the top three, Rickey opted to go the center field route, and largely rely on extremely inexperienced prospects. Rookies Cal Hogue (age 24), Ron Kline (20), Ron Necciai (20) and Jim Waugh (18) collectively were given 39 starts by Meyer, and in 269 innings yielded 198 walks against 110 strikeouts, while producing a combined record of 3-27 with an ERA+ of 69.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Ted Wilks remained on hand as the ace, and while not as outstanding as he’d been in 1951, delivered another good performance. And this year a couple of the journeymen working behind him, 30-year-old quad-A type Woody Main and 28-year-old Paul LaPalme, weren’t too bad. But as in 1951, beyond that it was hopeless: To get deep into the 1952 Pirates’ bullpen was every opponent’s fattening-up-the-batting-average dream. Two years in, and Rickey had made precious little progress toward providing Pittsburgh with a complete pitching staff.
In August Rickey threw in the towel, packaging Wilks along with Strickland to the Cleveland Indians for two over-30 spare parts and $50,000. It was the first time Rickey was forced to engage in a hock-the-assets-for-cash transaction in Pittsburgh. It wouldn’t be the last.
"Catastrophic" would be an apt term. The 1952 Pirates lost 12 of their first 14, outscored by an appalling 90-38, and the rout was on. Never, all season long, did they manage to win as many as three games in a row. Their final record of 42-112 was one of the worst in major league history.
It was a team effort: The Pirates were last in the league in OPS+, in ERA+, in fielding percentage and in DER.
Of course it wasn't realistic to expect Rickey to rapidly turn the Pirates into a contender, but to actively make a bad team worse is the antithesis of effective rebuilding. Pittsburgh fans exhibited their disgust through rapidly diminishing participation; attendance at Forbes Field in 1952 dropped by nearly a third from that of 1951, and was less than half of what it had been as recently as 1949. Thus the operation's primary revenue source, vitally necessary to keep funding the acquisition and development of young talent, was significantly endangered by Rickey's inability to present an even mildly competent current-day product.
Rickey had dug himself into a very deep hole, and everyone knew it. For the first time in his illustrious career, Branch Rickey was humiliated.
The expansion of the Pittsburgh farm system had continued in 1952, as they added another affiliate to bring theit total to 15 teams (though just one this year, the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League, was at the Triple-A level). Only the Dodgers operated a larger system in 1952. And the Pirate farm teams played better in 1952 than they had in '51, achieving seven first-division finishes and capturing two pennants.
Yet of all the prospects signed by the Pirates' organization in 1952, only Groat would achieve a significant major league career. The major league roster had been rendered into a full-blown disaster, and the progress on the talent-development front was less than dramatic.
So what might Rickey have done to avoid the implosion of 1952?
Obviously Rickey's primary concern, greater than winning present-day major league games, was rightly the development of young talent. But he needed to keep two other crucial points in mind: (1) being soundly drubbed day after day is a toxic atmosphere for talent development, and (2) while fans should be expected to be patient as a ball club builds for the future, they have a right to demand a reasonable standard of competitiveness along the way.
In 1952 Rickey failed to heed these fundamentals. Simply put, he should have done a whole lot less force-feeding of hopelessly unready youngsters at the major league level. Their own development would have been better served by learning to win against peers in the minors, instead of learning to lose against way-over-their-head competition in the majors. And just as important, keeping those kids on the farm where they belonged would allow the Pirates to field a reasonably competent major league team.
And fielding a reasonably competent major league team—not necessarily a first-division outfit at this point, by any means, but a reasonably competent team, one that might win 65 or 70 games—would provide Pittsburgh fans with a reason to spend money on tickets and provide the revenue stream necessary to support the long-term development plan.
To field such a reasonably competent team in 1952 wouldn't have required anything miraculous on Rickey's part. He just needed to support his key talent—Kiner, Bell, Garagiola, Dickson, Pollet and Wilks—with a roster that lacked cavernous holes. And to begin to find such talent, Rickey needed to look no further than his own Triple-A farm club, in Hollywood. The Stars that year won the PCL pennant with a record of 109-71; it's entirely plausible that they were a better team that year than the major league Pirates.
At first base, the Stars deployed a platoon of two journeymen with big league experience: Chuck Stevens and (the fellow we discussed above) Jack Phillips. Neither would have been any kind of long-term solution for the Pirates at first base, but both were unquestionably better than Tony Bartirome in 1952. And Phillips could play a little third base as well; that skill sure might have come in handy when Pete Castiglione got hurt.
One of the best pitchers for the Stars that year was Mel Queen, the veteran who'd pitched fairly well for Rickey's Pirates in 1951, only to be farmed out after two bad starts in '52. Then undeveloped prospect after undeveloped prospect got his brains beaten out on the Pittsburgh mound.
One of the best pitchers for the Stars in 1951 had been Johnny Lindell, the former big league outfielder now making a comeback as a knuckleballer (Lindell originally had been a pitcher, and had pitched with some effectiveness in the majors). Despite obvious vacancies on his staff, Rickey declined to give Lindell a shot with the big club in 1952, and all Lindell did that season was post the best year of any pitcher in the PCL, going 24-9 with a 2.52 ERA, leading the league in wins, complete games, and strikeouts.
The Stars' shortstop was, as we noted above, Dick Cole. The Pirates had plenty of ways to make use of Cole in their middle infield in '52; instead, Rickey farmed him out. And in the Hollywood starting outfield were two journeymen who'd played for Pittsburgh: Tom Saffell and Ted Beard, both of whom could handle center field. Again, neither would have been a good major leaguer in 1952, but they were superior to the embarrassment of kids the Pirates paraded through center field that season.
What's more, the Stars' third outfielder was Carlos Bernier, whom Rickey would finally promote for 1953, and who was clearly more ready for the majors in '52 than Del Greco, Walls or Hall. What's still more, on his 1952 major league roster Rickey had Bill Howerton, a perfectly capable journeyman outfielder, yet he let him go to the Giants on waivers in May. After the Giants farmed him to Triple-A, Howerton hit .307 with 24 homers and 52 walks in 231 at-bats.
Nor would Rickey have needed to limit himself to his own organization as a source of available journeyman talent. Among players acquired by other teams off the National League waiver wire during the 1952 season—and bear in mind, the last-place Pirates had first crack at every one of them—were infielders Gene Mauch, Tommy Glaviano and Wayne Terwilliger, and catcher Del Wilber, any one of whom would have helped the Pirates.
Rickey attempts to dig out of his cave-in.
References and Resources
J.G. Taylor Spink, Paul A. Rickart, Ernest J. Lanigan, and Clifford Kachline, editors, Baseball Guide and Record Book 1953, Saint Louis: Charles C. Spink & Son, 1953, p. 159.
Steve Treder can often be found spending way too much time talking baseball at Baseball Primer. He welcomes your questions and comments via e-mail.