The Branch Rickey Pirates (Part 2:  1950-1951)

As we recall from last time, Branch Rickey was hired as the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates in November 1950. We summarized the state of the ball club he inherited, both at the level of the big league roster and in the minor leagues.

This time we’ll examine in detail the decisions Rickey undertook as he began his five-year plan to rebuild the Pirates.

Manager

With the key role of field manager, Rickey opted to stay with the incumbent Pittsburgh skipper, Billy Meyer, even though the ball club under Meyer had declined by 26 wins in two years.

Meyer was 59 years old in 1951, yet his three seasons with the Pirates constituted his only major league managing experience. Prior to that he’d spent 16 years as a manager in George Weiss’ monumental New York Yankees’ farm system; with those talent-rich squads Meyer had won pennants in the Eastern League, the New York-Pennsylvania League, the American Association and the International League.

Rickey’s choice of retaining Meyer made sense on a couple of levels. First, keeping him on would maintain at least one center of stability in a clubhouse on which Rickey no doubt anticipated imposing a significant level of roster-churning upheaval. Second, obviously Rickey trusted the judgment of the even-keel veteran manager, and with Meyer’s abundant minor league success it was clear that he knew a thing or two about developing young talent.

On the other hand, this meant Rickey was foregoing an opportunity to do either one of two things. He could have brought in a new manager with major league success on his resumé (which Meyer pointedly lacked), and thus inject a new sense of credibility and urgency with the players in this regard, to help establish an expectation of success. Or, Rickey could have broken in a rookie, a youthful, hungry type ready to develop his managerial skill, who would be likely better than Meyer at communicating with the many young players Rickey would soon be bringing on board.

Sticking with Meyer was a safe choice, but by no means an inspired one.

Shortstop, second base and center field

In late 1950, the United States escalated its commitment to the Korean War, and as part of this effort the Selective Service reinstituted the military draft for the first time since World War II. Over the ensuing several years many major league ball clubs would be significantly impacted by the effects of the draft, but few would be hit harder than Rickey’s Pirates. Undertaking a “youth movement,” Pittsburgh rosters would include a higher proportion than most teams of the under-25, unmarried men especially likely to receive the call from Uncle Sam.

For the 1951 season the Pirates felt the first of these blows. Danny O’Connell, the dynamic rookie who’d claimed the starting shortstop job in 1950, was called into military service and would be gone for at least the next two years.

Faced with such a loss at this most crucial of positions, Rickey’s response was measured and decisive. Not only did Rickey not acquire a new shortstop, in mid-May of 1951 he traded away the veteran incumbent, Stan Rojek, whom O’Connell had supplanted. Instead Rickey and Meyer committed to 25-year-old George Strickland as the first-string shortstop.

This was an interesting choice. In 1950 Strickland, a Rule 5 draftee from the Red Sox organization, had been on the Pirates’ big league roster all season long, but Meyer had kept him nailed to the bench, giving him just 23 games and 32 plate appearances. Yet in 1951 Rickey and Meyer went with him as the regular, and it was a sensible move. Strickland would prove to be a weak hitter, to be sure, but he was a rangy and strong-armed defensive shortstop, and for a team with improvement in run prevention as its major need, he represented a prudent placeholder in O’Connell’s absence.

At second base, no such solution was found. The nominal regular from 1950, veteran Danny Murtaugh, completely ran out of gas in ’51. To replace him Meyer first tried Monty Basgall, who’d been given a shot at the job in 1949 but failed to hit, and Basgall again failed to hit. Meyer would spend the season juggling various options at second base; the most promising among the unexciting candidates was a 25-year-old rookie named Dick Cole whom Rickey acquired from the Cardinals in June, but Rickey kept him in the minors for a couple of months, and Meyer used him in just 34 games at second. All told second base was a black hole for the Pirates in 1951.

Center field wasn’t that bad, but it was just as unsettled. The oddity here was that the Pirates had a perfectly capable incumbent in Wally Westlake, yet for 1951 Rickey either directed or allowed Meyer to shift the 30-year-old Westlake to third base, a position at which his entire professional experience consisted of 55 games in the California League in 1941.

This rendered center field wide open, and Meyer never resolved it. Journeymen George Metkovich and Bill Howerton were acquired by Rickey, and both saw time in center; both hit adequately (indeed Howerton hit well), but neither at this point was up to the defensive challenge of center field on a full-time basis. In August, from Double-A, Rickey called up 22-year-old rookie Frank Thomas, a big, strong, highly impressive prospect, and Meyer used him in center the rest of the season, but Thomas was still too green to be a good major league hitter.

In total, Meyer deployed nine different players in center field, yet his best option there (aside from Westlake) never got a game in center—but we’ll get to him in a minute. At any rate, at two of the three key up-the-middle defensive positions the Pirates floundered in 1951, no doubt a major contributor to their placing last in the league in DER.

Third base, first base and corner outfield

Not surprisingly, Westlake struggled defensively at third base; in 34 games there he committed 12 errors, for a fielding percentage of .908 (the league average at the position was .953). But coincidentally or not, Westlake hit extraordinarily well for the Pirates in 1951, blasting 16 homers and driving in 45 runs through the first one-third of the season. Then on the June 15 midseason trading deadline, Rickey packaged Westlake as the centerpiece in a blockbuster deal with St. Louis.

This was classic, shrewd Rickey doctrine, to trade a player at the moment his market value was at its peak. And the package of talent Rickey received in the exchange was varied and helpful (Howerton and Cole were two of the five players acquired; we’ll get to the others in turn). Nonetheless with Westlake gone, Meyer had to find a new first-string third baseman, and he turned to utility infielder Pete Castiglione. The 30-year-old Castiglione wasn’t good, but he was competent; rather like Strickland he represented a sensible placeholder until someone better could be found.

At first base in 1950 the Pirates had deployed a highly effective platoon combination of veteran Johnny Hopp and utilityman Jack Phillips. However, Hopp had been sold to the Yankees in September of that season, leaving Rickey with a distinct hole, as Phillips was useful in a backup role, but he was no first-stringer.

It would be a cavity Rickey was utterly unable to fill. In November’s Rule 5 draft Rickey selected Dale Long, an intriguing 25-year-old prospect from the Yankees’ chain. Long had led the Eastern League in home runs and RBI in 1950, but Meyer would have him do nothing but warm the bench until Rickey let him go on waivers in June.

In May Rickey picked up Rocky Nelson as part of the exchange for Stan Rojek. Nelson had failed to make it with the Cardinals, but had always excelled in the minors. Meyer platooned Nelson and Phillips, but neither hit adequately, and in September Rickey would dump Nelson on waivers. Metkovich was used some of the time at first base, but he didn’t have a serious first baseman’s bat.

Only one player hit well for the Pirates at first base in 1951, and he was none other than Ralph Kiner, deployed by Meyer in 58 games at first. Shifting the slow-footed Kiner from left field to first base made abundant sense, given that the Pirates had a major weakness there and at least one obvious option (Howerton) to replace him in left field. But all the Pirates would do was toy with Kiner at first base, and not commit to the move.

Right field was the only position at which the Pirates went with a full-time regular all year long. Twenty-two-year-old Gus Bell flourished in his first full big league season, leading the league in triples and establishing himself as an all-around standout, and promising even better things to come. Yet although he was unquestionably the outfielder with the best range and defensive acumen on the Pittsburgh roster, Meyer didn’t deploy him for a single inning in center field.

Catching

The primary catcher Rickey inherited was Clyde McCullough, a nothing-special veteran. He wasn’t bad, but the position could stand improvement.

Rickey dealt with it adroitly: Among the players received in the Westlake deal was Joe Garagiola, a 25-year-old with a pretty good left-handed bat, who’d never gotten much chance to play in St. Louis. Over the balance of the 1951 season Meyer platooned Garagiola and McCullough, and both hit well. The catching for the ’51 Pirates became a modest strength.

Starting pitching

Meyer gave 34-year-old Murry Dickson the heaviest workload of his career in 1951, and the 160-pound veteran contributed a career-high 20 wins (against 16 losses) and a 104 ERA+ in 289 innings. That was fortunate, because the rest of the starting rotation was a mess.

Left-hander Cliff Chambers had co-anchored the staff with Dickson in 1950. But in ’51 he started poorly, and in June he was packaged alongside Westlake in the big trade with the Cardinals. As part of the exchange Rickey received southpaw starter Howie Pollet. Now 30 years old, when at his best Pollet had been among the elite pitchers in the game, but had encountered periodic arm trouble. Still, he was young enough to have something left, and Rickey’s acquisition of him was a reasonable gamble. But 1951 would prove to be one of his down years; Chambers and Pollet combined for 31 starts and 188 innings with the Pirates that season, but a 9-16 won-lost record and an ERA+ of 80.

Bill MacDonald, one of the rookies playing a prominent role on the staff in 1950, was among those off to war in ’51. Rickey promoted a new rookie, a 20-year-old named Bob Friend, to take his place. Both Friend and fellow youngster Vernon Law, who’d been in the majors for most of 1950, demonstrated better control than most pitchers of such little experience, but neither was really ready to be in the big leagues in 1951, as both struggled.

Stepping into the breach and making 21 starts was swingman Mel Queen, a 33-year-old hard thrower with a long history of intriguing stuff and problematic control. Queen this year performed reasonably well, but overall the Pittsburgh starters, even with the plucky Dickson at the lead, weren’t good.

Relief pitching

Across the major leagues, by 1951 the bullpen, and particularly the role of ace reliever, had attained a prominence not seen in earlier decades. Yet it was still the case that teams almost never engaged in a trade to acquire an established top fireman; the ace reliever was virtually always developed from within, either as a rehabilitated starter or as a veteran journeyman mastering a “trick” pitch (usually a knuckleball or sinker, the latter of which was often rumored to be a spitball).

Thus Rickey’s acquisition of Ted Wilks as the fifth piece in the Westlake-Chambers haul was intriguing. True, Wilks was now 35, and was coming off an injury-plagued 1950 and through the early part of ’51 hadn’t fully reasserted himself as the Cardinals’ go-to guy. But in 1948-49 he’d been among the best ace relievers in the business. Meyer wasted no time in making Wilks the top man in his bullpen, and Wilks delivered a terrific performance, leading the league in appearances and saves, and compiling an ERA+ of 148 with Pittsburgh.

But as with Dickson and the starters, the Pirates’ effective relief pitching began and ended with Wilks. Behind him, journeymen Bill Werle, Junior Walsh and Paul LaPalme were quite ineffective. By importing Wilks, Rickey had achieved progress (at least temporarily), but the back end of the Pittsburgh staff remained seriously problematic.

Short-term results

The 1951 Pirates got off to a pretty good start; as of May 10 they were 11-9, in third place. But reality quickly set in as the team’s weaknesses were exposed (for instance, from May 18 through 23, the Pirates list six straight games to the Braves, Phillies and Dodgers and surrendered 75 runs in the process). They fell to last and spent most of the season there, before winding up in seventh place with a record of 64-90.

That wasn’t good, but it did represent modest progress over the 57-96, eighth-place finish of 1950. Rickey himself couldn’t have been disappointed with it; his own preseason prediction had been, “In the manner of an old fellow I knew out in Ohio, first division me hope, second division me ‘spec, but I may end up at the bottom.”

It was a topsy-turvy season as Rickey and Meyer frantically sorted through alternatives at several positions, but that part was no surprise, as a rebuilding phase is necessarily disruptive. Rickey’s one major trade had a positive yield, as he had cashed in his Westlake and Chambers assets to enhance the ball club’s depth at several positions.

The Pittsburgh fans were patient and supportive. Attendance at Forbes Field had fallen a bit in 1951, as it had generally across all of the majors and minors since its booming peak in the late 1940s. But the Pirates’ total remained fourth-best in the National League.

It wasn’t an unqualified success by any means, but overall in his first season in Pittsburgh Rickey had rendered some improvement in the competitiveness of the Pirates’ big league roster. Things appeared to be starting to move in the right direction.

Long-term investments

As Rickey’s realistic preseason appraisal suggested, while he expected his team to begin to get better, his primary focus was on the attraction and development of young talent to render the ball club a winner several years down the road. To that end, he’d persuaded many of his loyal Brooklyn staff to come to Pittsburgh with him, including scouts Rex Bowen and Edward McCarrick, and farm director Branch Rickey Jr. (More than just the beneficiary of a nepotistic relationship, the younger Rickey was a genuine student of baseball in his own right, whose talent assessment skills were roundly respected.) Additionally, following the 1951 season, Rickey’s longtime factotum Clyde Sukeforth came over from Brooklyn and joined the Pittsburgh coaching staff, though his actual duties were wide-ranging, including scouting and general “troubleshooting” for Rickey.

In 1951 the Pirates had expanded their minor league operation from 13 to 14 teams (including working agreements with two Triple-A affiliates: the Indianapolis Indians of the American Association and the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League), but the competitiveness of the system overall remained modest. Of the 14 teams, just four placed in the first division, and none captured a minor league pennant.

With an eye toward turning around that manner of performance, in 1951 Rickey’s organization was authorized by owner John Galbreath to spend nearly a half a million dollars in bonuses to amateur prospects. Among the dozens they signed in 1951 were Bob Skinner, Dick Stuart, Lee Walls and Dick Hall, all of whom eventually would find substantial success in the major leagues.

Yet it’s worth noting that Skinner, Stuart, Walls and Hall were all white. While Rickey had never made a big deal of it, it was generally understood that racially integrating the Pirates’ organization was among his goals. Yet as of 1951 he’d hardly moved down that path. The big league roster remained all-white, and among the large quantity of prospects recruited into the minor league system in 1951, the only players of color who would eventually reach the majors were catcher Valmy Thomas and pitcher Bennie Daniels, neither of whom would be a star.

Next time

We proceed to the fateful season of 1952.

References & Resources
Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007, pp. 501-508.

J.G. Taylor Spink, Paul A. Rickart, Ernest J. Lanigan, and Clifford Kachline, editors, Baseball Guide and Record Book 1951, Saint Louis: Charles C. Spink & Son, 1951, p. 158.

J.G. Taylor Spink, Paul A. Rickart, Ernest J. Lanigan, and Clifford Kachline, editors, Baseball Guide and Record Book 1952, Saint Louis: Charles C. Spink & Son, 1952, p. 169.

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