The Branch Rickey Pirates (Part 4:  1952-1953)

So far, we’ve brought The Mahatma to Pittsburgh, then we’ve followed him through his first, reasonably successful year. Then, alas, we’ve also examined his second, terrible, year.

Now let’s see how Mr. Rickey faced the worst crisis of his career.

Manager

Billy Meyer had been a less-than-inspired choice as the Pirates’ field manager in 1951-52, so it was hardly surprising that Rickey declined to bring him back following the disastrous results of ’52. If ever an opportunity presented itself for a clean break, for a refreshing new direction, this was it.

Yet Rickey’s choice of Fred Haney to take over the job missed that opportunity. Haney presented just about exactly the same attributes as Meyer: at age 57, Haney certainly wasn’t young, but neither did he have a record of major league managerial success. His only stint in the big leagues had been a futile attempt with the hapless St. Louis Browns of the late 1930s/early 1940s. The great majority of his background had been as a minor league manager. Thus, as with Meyer, Haney brought neither the aura of a proven winner nor the excitement of an up-and-comer.

Yet perhaps at this point Rickey’s selection of such a manager as Haney was predictable. Consider what Rickey had done in Brooklyn: The field manager he’d inherited was the young, dynamic, and extraordinarily popular Leo Durocher, and Rickey kept him on. But when Durocher was suspended by the commissioner for the 1947 season (for having consorted with gamblers), Rickey’s choice as his interim replacement was someone as different from Durocher as a manager could be: Burt Shotton.

Twenty years older than Durocher, and as mild and conservative as Durocher was fiesty and aggressive—along with Connie Mack, Shotton would be the last major league field manager to eschew a baseball uniform and instead wear an old-fashioned suit and bow tie in the dugout—Shotton was mocked by the press, while Durocher had been exalted. New York newspapermen had a derisive nickname for Shotton: “KOBS,” for “Kindly Old Burt Shotton,” as he was considered well-meaning but quaint, out of touch with modernity.

Yet it was KOBS who was at the helm of that 1947 Dodger ball club that handled the tremendous stress of integrating Jackie Robinson, and confounded the pundits by winning the pennant, and taking the heavily-favored Yankees to the seventh game of the World Series. When Durocher’s suspension expired, Rickey turned the job back over to him, but for just half a season. In mid-1948 Rickey stunned everyone by firing Durocher (who would immediately be snapped up by the arch-rival Giants), and replacing him with, you guessed it, KOBS. This time it wasn’t on an interim basis; Rickey would stick with Shotton through the remainder of his Brooklyn tenure. (When Rickey left the Dodgers in the fall of 1950, one of the first things the new management did was fire Shotton.)

Whom did Haney (and for that matter, Meyer), resemble in background and style? Why, KOBS, of course. Neither Haney nor Meyer was quite as old as Shotton, but like Shotton, both had been known by Rickey for many years, both shared Shotton’s understated manner, and both brought a similarly unimpressive major league resumé to the job. And, perhaps, all might share the attribute of being grateful to hold a major league manager’s position at this stage in their careers, and thus all might exhibit a pronounced degree of loyalty and deference to their boss.

In Rickey’s long regime in St. Louis, he’d hired (indeed, introduced nearly all as rookies) young and mostly high-energy-style field managers. Yet it’s also the case that with the Cardinals, despite the team’s success, Rickey churned through managers quite rapidly. Whether consciously or not, in St. Louis Rickey ensured that it was his ball club, not the field manager’s. In the late phase of his GM career, Rickey might be seen as doing that even more distinctly.

Shortstop, second base and center field

The bad news was that Dick Groat, the impressive rookie shortstop of 1952, had been drafted into the military. The good news was that Danny O’Connell, the impressive rookie shortstop of 1950, was back from his two-year hitch. Nonetheless the Pirates didn’t choose to deploy O’Connell at shortstop.

Instead, Eddie O’Brien, a 22-year-old signed off the Seattle University campus in March of 1953, would share the job with 27-year-old Dick Cole, re-promoted from the minors. Unlike the strange 1952 cases of Rickey bringing profoundly inexperienced rookies directly to the majors, in the case of O’Brien he had no choice: O’Brien was a Bonus Baby, under the terms of the new rules enacted for the 1953 season, required to spend the first two full years following his signing on the active major league roster.

To make things even more interesting, on the same day they signed Eddie O’Brien, the Pirates also signed his twin brother Johnny O’Brien, and the twins were a package Bonus Baby deal. (Like Groat, the O’Briens had been college basketball stars as well as baseball standouts.)

So O’Connell began the season as the starting second baseman, with Johnny O’Brien backing him up. In June, O’Connell was shifted to third base, and Johnny O. shared second with veteran utilityman Eddie Pellagrini.

Though neither of the O’Brien twins were as green as several of the rookies who’d been on the roster in 1952, they weren’t really ready for the majors. Haney granted both of them more playing time than their performance warranted. The Pirates would have been better served with Cole and O’Connell, both of whom played well in ’53, operating as the regular double-play combo, with the O’Briens occupying true backup roles.

In center field, once again the Pirates went with rookies. But unlike the fiasco of 1952, these weren’t hopelessly overmatched bushers. Instead this time Frank Thomas was back, and on the strength of his outstanding minor league record, ready to succeed at the age of 24.

Competing with Thomas for center field innings was another abundantly qualified rookie: Carlos Bernier, 26 years old (though passing himself off as 24) and fresh off a glittering apprenticeship in which he’d led four minor leagues in stolen bases. Bernier was robustly talented, and his skillset complemented that of Thomas. For the first time since Rickey’s arrival in Pittsburgh, center field shaped up to be a positive.

Moreover, Bernier was a black Puerto Rican, and with his Pittsburgh debut on April 22, 1953, Rickey had finally achieved the racial integration of the Pirates. But for whatever reason Bernier never got his batting stroke going in 1953, and was a disappointment. The Pirates would never give him another chance, and despite a long and tremendous minor league career, Bernier never played in the majors again.

Fortunately Thomas did blossom in 1953, winning the regular center field job over the course of the season and blasting 30 home runs. His center field range wasn’t much, but Thomas wasn’t a bad defender, and looked to be a genuine star.

Third base, first base and corner outfield

Journeyman Pete Castiglione resumed his status as the regular third baseman in 1953. But he didn’t hit well, and in June Rickey traded him away, and O’Connell played third the rest of the way. O’Connell had a fine season with the bat, though he didn’t have a third baseman’s power.

As we recall, the Pirates had never followed through with the process that they’d tentatively begun in 1951 of shifting Ralph Kiner to first base, and he began 1953 as their left fielder once again. Terrific as Kiner was, somehow Rickey had never seemed satisfied with him, forever tending to see the Kiner glass as half-empty. In a memo Rickey wrote to owner John Galbreath in early 1952, he denigrated the slugger, focusing on Kiner’s weaknesses in fielding, throwing and running, and noting that his dazzling home run totals were in part an artifact of the “Kiner Korner” short left field fence in Forbes Field.

The configuration had been installed in 1947, and was originally dubbed “Greenberg Gardens,” as it was designed to favor newly acquired veteran right-handed slugger Hank Greenberg. But Greenberg soon retired and it quickly became Kiner who took full advantage of the short porch: from 1947 through 1952 Kiner hit 163 home runs at home, against 108 on the road.

Rickey’s memo to Galbreath was apparently an attempt to soften up the owner to the idea of trading Kiner, the team’s lone superstar and an enormous fan favorite. But of course Rickey hadn’t traded Kiner in 1952, and in that season the slugger, though just 29 years old, began to suffer the effects of back trouble, and his performance declined. So it was into the early weeks of 1953 that Kiner was now performing as a very good hitter, but hardly the destructive force he’d been just a couple of years earlier.

One of Rickey’s most famous maxims was the pithy, “It’s better to trade a man a year too soon than a year too late.” Alas with Kiner it was clear that The Mahatma had missed his window of opportunity. When in early June of 1953 he finally pulled the trigger on a Kiner deal, Rickey was able to yield no serious talent in return for the perennial All-Star.

The exchange was with the Cubs, and it was a mammoth 10-player transaction that looked more substantive than it was. Aside from Kiner it was a pointless shuffling of secondary players; the only important element the Pirates received was a cash payment of a whopping $150,000. It was a glorified sale of Kiner; Pittsburgh fans saw it as such, and were loudly disgusted.

The first base hole that the Pirates had never filled with Kiner persisted into 1953. The disastrous 1952 attempt at a solution, Tony Bartirome, was now away in the military, but Rickey went in a similar direction again, promoting Paul Smith, a 22-year-old rookie, from Double-A.

To be fair, unlike Bartirome, Smith was a legitimate prospect, a speedster who’d spent three years in the minors and hit well over .300 at every stop. But he was an outfielder who’d never played an inning at first base before 1953, he stood all of 5-foot-8, and he had no power: he was anything but an adequate answer at first base. Smith in 1953 was able to hit for a good average, but that was all he contributed, as through April and May the Pirates fielded this short, fast, slap-hitting outfielder at first base, and the tall, slow Kiner in left field.

But one of the odds and ends Rickey received in the Kiner trade was 25-year-old Preston Ward, an actual major league first baseman. Ward was a modest talent, a utilityman without star potential, but he was a more reasonable choice at first base than Smith, and over the bulk of the ’53 season Haney started Ward at first with Smith in reserve.

With Kiner gone, it would seem to have made sense for Smith to take over in left field, but instead Haney gave most of the playing time to Hal Rice, a 29-year-old journeyman acquired from St. Louis in exchange for Castiglione. Rice wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t a serious full-timer, and his presence didn’t offer progress at the position.

As for right field … well. Meyer and Rickey had never seemed to get a proper reading on Gus Bell, missing the obvious opportunity to shift him to center field, and then jerking him around with the option to the minors in 1952. In October of ’52 Rickey made the mishandling of Bell complete, by trading him to Cincinnati for a laughably meager package of 29-year-old utility outfielder Cal Abrams and two useless marginalities. The Reds would waste no time installing the 24-year-old Bell as their center fielder, where he would immediately blossom into a star.

Abrams had some talent; Haney would deploy him as the Pirates’ primary right fielder in 1953 and he hit pretty well. But the yield of Bell-for-Abrams was distinctly negative, rendering right field yet another position at which, three years into Rickey’s tenure, the Pirates were getting nowhere.

Catching

This had been an oasis of cool sanity amid the feverish machinations of 1951-52, but not so in ’53.

In December of ’52 Rickey sold Clyde McCullough to the Cubs; this move made sense as the veteran had delivered a poor year. But it opened the question of who should be moved up to serve as the right-handed-batting platoon partner for Joe Garagiola.

The logical choice would be 29-year-old Ed Fitz Gerald, who’d been the third-stringer for the past couple of years, and whose lone strength was that he could hit left-handers pretty well. In the winter Rickey had signed Vic Janowicz, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State (even though Janowicz hadn‘t played baseball in college), and under the Bonus Baby rules Janowicz would be required to be on the major league roster, so he would serve as the new third-string catcher, and presumably Fitz Gerald would be bumped up to No. 2.

But, no. In May Rickey sold Fitz Gerald to Washington, and installed as the catcher behind Garagiola a 37-year-old (!) career minor leaguer named Mike Sandlock. The reason for the installation of Sandlock was the Pirates’ addition of a knuckleballing starting pitcher (whom we’ll meet below), and ostensibly Sandlock was uniquely capable of handling the knuckler. However, in 64 games with the Pirates Sandlock would be charged with 15 passed balls (leading the league; the second-most was 10), while contributing an OPS+ of 42.

Then in June, as part of the Kiner deal, Rickey swapped Garagiola to the Cubs for Toby Atwell. This catcher was in the same mold as Garagiola, a left-handed hitter with on-base ability, but he was two years older and not as good. Thus Rickey had weakened his team’s catching capability yet further.

But Rickey wasn’t finished. Already holding one Bonus Baby catcher who wasn’t ready to be in the majors, in July Rickey added yet another, by signing an 18-year-old high schooler named Nick Koback. Thus over the second half of 1953 the Pirates carried four catchers on their 25-man roster, only one of whom (Atwell) was a competent major league performer, and he was a journeyman at that.

Starting pitching

Murry Dickson served once again as the leader of the staff, though Haney dialed back his workload to a more-modest 201 innings, deploying him out of the bullpen (19 appearances) nearly as often as he started (26 games). At the age of 36, Dickson wasn’t the star he’d been in 1951-52, but he was still solid.

In old-school mode, Haney didn’t go with a set rotation of starters, instead deploying all his front men in flexible as-needed mode. At age 22, Bob Friend regressed a bit from the encouraging form he’d shown in 1952, but he was again a competent performer. And Haney got reasonable results from two more pitchers he moved forward into major roles: Paul LaPalme, who’d been mostly a mop-up reliever in 1951-52, and most interestingly, Johnny Lindell, a 36-year-old former big league outfielder forging a comeback as a knuckleballer. Haney also made extensive use of Lindell as a pinch hitter and he delivered quite well. The acquisition and deployment of Lindell in this manner was clever and creative (though including Sandlock’s overmatched bat as part of the package lessened its value), but a lingering question was why Lindell hadn’t been put to the same use in 1952.

As in the preceding years, in 1953 pitching depth was the major issue. This front four combined for 97 starts; in the remaining 57 starting assignments Haney tried 10 other pitchers and received uniformly ghastly results.

Relief pitching

With Ted Wilks having been sold off, the Pirates resorted to the old-fashioned approach of cobbling together a bullpen from the scrap heap. Johnny Hetki, a 31-year-old Rule 5 draftee, and Roger Bowman, a 25-year-old waiver wire pickup, both held their own. Bob Hall, a 29-year-old Rule 5 draftee, did less well, and yet another Rule 5 pick, 25-year-old Elroy Face, absorbed a frightful beating.

This season Rickey indulged in far less force-feeding of too-green prospects at the major league level than he had the year before, but couldn’t resist in one case. In 1952, 18-year-old Jim Waugh had been rudely overmatched in his big league innings, but even though he wasn’t a Bonus Baby Rickey brought him back for more in ’53. Haney gave Waugh 11 starts and 18 relief appearances, and in 90 innings the youngster was pounded for 108 hits including 21 homers, while striking out just 23 against 56 walks. His ERA+ was 69.

Short-term results

The return of Danny O’Connell and the emergence of Frank Thomas ensured that the 1953 Pirates weren’t as atrociously noncompetitive as they’d been in ’52. But beyond that, precious little progress was made. The Ralph Kiner deal helped the ball club nowhere except the bank account, and the Gus Bell trade didn’t even accomplish that.

The Pirates were once again last in the league in OPS+ and ERA+ and DER. At 50-104, their last-place record was 15 games behind the seventh-place spot.

Exacerbated by the Kiner deal, Pittsburgh attendance continued its downward slide, dropping to seventh in the league. It was now less than half of what it had been in 1950, the year before Rickey took over.

Long-term investments

Financial constraints brought on by the attendance bust required the organization to shrink its minor league operation from 15 clubs to 12 in 1953, thus dropping from the second-most extensive among National League franchises to fourth. These dozen teams performed without distinction, achieving seven first-division finishes and winning no pennants. And significantly, the reduced farm system didn’t include a Triple-A team, as the Pirates chose to sever their agreement with Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League. Thus the organization which was clearly struggling with the task of bringing fully developed young players to the majors was rendering that challenge even greater, with its highest affiliate now at the Double-A level.

None of the four Bonus Babies the Pirates brought on board in 1953—the O’Brien twins, Janowicz, and Koback—would pay off as useful major leaguers. Of the many other prospects signed by the organization that year, the only one who would amount to more than a major league journeyman would be infielder Gene Freese. Only one of the imports of 1953—Elroy Face, the Rule 5 selection from the Dodgers system—would someday emerge as a standout.

Despite the lavish investment in acquisition and development, Rickey’s organization was making very little headway in expanding its talent capital.

Realistic alternatives

By far the biggest improvements Rickey could have made to his 1953 roster would have been achieved by simply not giving away Gus Bell, and not selling off Ralph Kiner; both deals meaningfully weakened the team.

But as in 1952, there were also smaller ways in which Rickey could have shored up his particular weaknesses. Just keeping Ed Fitz Gerald on hand would have ameliorated the problem at catcher, as the extensive use of Mike Sandlock was a net negative. And the Pirates’ glaring issue of pitching depth could have been addressed by their simply claiming some or all of the following pitchers who passed through National League waivers during 1953: Johnny Schmitz, Hal White, Marv Grissom and Ralph Branca.

Next time

Kiner Korner is dismantled, but do we see light at the end of the new configuration?

References & Resources
Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007, p. 513.

Bob McConnell and David Vincent, editors, The Home Run Encyclopedia, New York: MacMillan, 1996, p. 730.

J.G. Taylor Spink, Paul A. Rickart, Ernest J. Lanigan, and Clifford Kachline, editors, Baseball Guide and Record Book 1954, Saint Louis: Charles C. Spink & Son, 1954, p. 167.

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