The Branch Rickey Pirates (Part 5:  1953-1954)

Our journey with The Mahatma has taken him to Pittsburgh, then examined his modestly successful first season there. Then, alas, we encountered the disaster of 1952, and the minimal 1953 progress Rickey made in digging out of the pit he’d made for himself.

Now let’s see if the second year following the cave-in was any better.

Manager

Fred Haney, blandly plodding in the footsteps of his predecessor Billy Meyer, had been something less than a dynamic force with the Pirates in 1953. While no manager could have been expected to do better than a last-place finish with that roster, Haney hadn’t exhibited any particular cleverness in his deployment of the talent, nor any notable motivational spark. His success in developing the team’s youngest players in 1953 had been a mixed bag: Frank Thomas broke through, but the multi-talented Carlos Bernier severely struggled, and all the rest had performed more or less as expected.

Yet Rickey brought the 58-year-old Haney back for 1954. The best that can be said for the choice is that it was safe, and struck a chord for stability. On the other hand, when a team has gone 92-216 over a two-year period, perhaps caution and steadiness shouldn’t be the highest priorities.

But as we discussed last time, what was abundantly clear was that Haney was Rickey’s man. In a situation in which all too many things seemed to be spinning out of Rickey’s control, sticking with Haney was one act in which Rickey was able to demonstrate who was in charge.

Shortstop, second base and center field

Late in 1953 Eddie and Johnny O’Brien had been lost to the military draft, as Danny O’Connell and Dick Groat had been before them. Yet despite this blow to middle infield depth, in December 1953 Rickey traded away O’Connell, the only one of his prized young infielders who’d so far returned from the military.

The deal was with Milwaukee, and while it netted the Pirates the startling haul of six players in exchange for O’Connell alone, the primary element Pittsburgh received was a cool $100,000 cash. As in the case of the Ralph Kiner deal, this transaction was fundamentally a sale dressed up with the trappings of a trade, as the six players consisted of one journeyman, one fading veteran, one minor league veteran, and three marginal minor leaguers.

None of the six were middle infielders, which meant that 1954 was to be yet another season in which Rickey’s Pirates would be improvising at these crucial positions. The obvious leading contender to start at either short or second was 28-year-old Dick Cole, who’d proven himself a capable journeyman in 1953. But the Pirates that wouldn’t give Cole either job; Haney would deploy Cole as an infield supersub in ’54, playing him almost every day but rotating him among shortstop, third base and second.

Instead, Rickey promoted two rookies with limited minor league accomplishment. In this situation, and in several others presenting themselves in 1954, the organization’s absence of a Triple-A farm club in 1953 extracted a heavy cost, as the Pirates found themselves with distinctly unseasoned rookies attempting to make the leap to the majors.

The shortstop was 22-year-old Gair Allie, whose professional experience consisted of 578 at-bats at the Double-A level in which he’d hit .220 with 10 home runs and 122 strikeouts. At second base it was 24-year-old Curt Roberts; in contrast to Allie, Roberts had hit fairly well in the minors, but he’d never risen higher than Class A.

It hardly could have been a surprise that neither Allie nor Roberts had much to offer at the major league level in 1954. Yet Haney would deploy both as regulars, while Allie struggled to an OPS+ of 50, and Roberts only slightly less ghastly at 62. (Roberts gained notoriety at the time as the first African-American player in Pirates’ history; that was true enough, but observers seemed somehow oblivious to the fact that Carlos Bernier in 1953 had been every bit as black as Roberts.)

In center field the Pirates seemed to be set, as Frank Thomas had burst forth with a fine year at the position in 1953. And so Thomas did play center most of the 1954 season, as he improved into not just a good young player, but a genuine star. But for nearly a third of the season, Haney shifted Thomas over to left field, and started 23-year-old Dick Hall in center field.

As we may recall, Hall had been briefly thrust into a primary role in center field in 1952, and been completely overmatched at the plate. He’d been sent to the minors, and not hit well there either: Over 1952-53 Hall got 739 at-bats at the Class B level, and managed just a .240 batting average with seven home runs.

Despite this, Rickey had promoted Hall to the majors again in September of 1953, and at that point Haney played Hall—all 6-foot-6, 200 pounds of him—at second base for seven games, and while in the brief trial Hall compiled pretty good defensive stats (man, that must have been something to watch), once again he didn’t hit a lick.

Nevertheless for 1954 Rickey’s infatuation with Hall had him back in center field at the major league level. Yet again, hardly surprisingly, Hall would prove incapable of mastering major league pitching: Haney indulged Hall with 353 plate appearances in 1954, in which the huge, gangly youngster was able to contribute an OPS+ of just 62.

Third base, first base and corner outfield

Rickey simply did not supply the 1954 Pittsburgh roster with a legitimate third baseman. Haney obviously had no choice but to play someone there, but he never came close to settling upon a regular.

The most games went to Cole, but that total was just 55. The best player in the meager haul from the O’Connell trade was Sid Gordon, who’d once been a star and had once played some third base, but was now 36 and hadn’t performed at the Hot Corner since 1949. Haney deployed Gordon at third base 40 times in 1954, but he was clearly no longer up to the defensive challenge.

As though in desperation, Haney shifted the Bonus Baby Vic Janowicz from catcher to third base for ’54, but he was of utterly no help with the bat or glove. Overall the position was a Pittsburgh black hole.

At first base, Paul Smith, the rookie who’d been the regular for much of 1953, was sent back to the minors for ’54. And rather than go with journeyman Preston Ward as the first-stringer, Rickey promoted yet another exceedingly inexperienced rookie: 22-year-old Bob Skinner, whose minor league resumé contained a total of 29 games of Class D ball and 98 games in Class B. Skinner would eventually prove to be a fine major league hitter, but at this point he was bright green, hardly ready to pull his weight as a full-time first baseman. Ward, serving as Skinner’s backup, didn’t hit particularly well, but he hit better than Skinner.

In left field and right field, in 1953 the Pirates had largely gone with make-do journeymen Hal Rice and Cal Abrams. But both hit poorly in the early going of ’54, and by June Rickey had traded both away. Rickey didn’t recall Paul Smith from the minors, even though the 5-foot-8-inch youngster was much better suited to the outfield than first base, had hit .289 for the Pirates in 1953, and would hit .321 in Triple-A in ’54.

Instead, Gordon played the plurality of the games in right, and Ward also spent a lot of time out there. In addition, 23-year-old rookie Jerry Lynch, a Rule 5 pick from the Yankees organization, saw significant action in both left and right. Like Skinner, Lynch showed some promise for the future, but didn’t hit well overall in 1954. All in all it was another season of precious little progress at the corners.

Catching

Rickey had promoted rookies without experience as high as Triple-A at virtually every other position for 1954, and so he did at catcher too. In this case it was Jack Shepard, a 22-year-old whose lone professional season had been at Class A. But at that level Shepard had hit very well, and he proved to be a pleasant surprise in the majors in ’54: Haney teamed the right-handed-hitting Shepard in a platoon with the lefty-swinging journeyman incumbent Toby Atwell, and both delivered solid offensive performance. Shepard’s defense wasn’t impressive, but overall the catching was one of the few spots of adequacy on the 1954 Pittsburgh roster.

Starting pitching

The franchise’s financial distress, a result of nosediving attendance brought on by disastrous on-field performance, had caused the sell-offs of Ted Wilks in 1952, and Ralph Kiner and Danny O’Connell in ’53. The vicious cycle was continued in January of ’54, when Rickey dispatched Murry Dickson, the workhorse frontman of the Pittsburgh staff since 1949, to the Phillies in exchange for $70,000 and some pocket lint.

The Pirates had no one ready to fill Dickson’s shoes. Haney deployed 32-year-old Max Surkont, the journeyman right hander acquired as part of the O’Connell deal, as the top man in 1954, and Surkont was okay, but not good, certainly not as good as Dickson.

Beyond Surkont the starting call was a wide-open scramble, as once again Haney deployed the staff in an old-fashioned mode without a regular rotation. Among the nine pitchers with eight or more starts, a pair of 28-year-olds did pretty well: Dick Littlefield, a hard-throwing lefty with dubious control who’d been passed around among four organizations when Rickey picked him up in exchange for Cal Abrams in May of ’54, and Jake Thies, a minor league veteran right-hander who came into ’54 with only eight innings as high as Triple-A.

But after that, results ranged from bad to worse. Paul LaPalme, the journeyman southpaw who’d stepped forward with a pretty solid year in 1953, severely regressed in ‘54. Most disappointing were the performances of the two young right-handers the organization had been nurturing for several years: 23-year-old Bob Friend lost ground for the second consecutive season, and 24-year-old Vernon Law returned after two years in the military to pitch distinctly less well than he had in 1950-51.

And the struggles of Friend and Law paled in comparison to those of Laurin Pepper, a 23-year-old signed by Rickey off the University of Southern Mississippi campus in June of ’54, and forbidden by the Bonus Baby rules to be farmed out. Haney didn’t just use Pepper in a mop-up capacity, but instead gave him some real exposure, and in eight starts and six relief appearances the rookie proved painfully unready for the majors: In 51 innings he gave up 43 walks against 17 strikeouts, allowing 53 runs, with an ERA+ of 52.

The lack of progress shown by the younger Pittsburgh pitchers in 1954 was particularly frustrating given that Rickey had made a major step that year toward making the Forbes Field environment more supportive to the confidence and development of pitchers: He dismantled “Kiner Korner.” In 1947 the left field barrier had been drawn closer to home plate by a dramatic 30 feet (from 365 feet down the line to 335), and the ballpark had suddenly been transformed from one of the very most difficult major league home run environments for right-handed hitters to one of the easiest. With Ralph Kiner gone in 1954, Rickey returned Forbes to its pitcher-friendly configuration, figuring that the new disadvantage to Pirates hitters would be outweighed by the less stressful conditions provided to Pirates pitchers.

The back-to-the-old Forbes Field would have a problematic impact on the career of the Pirates’ emerging young star, Frank Thomas. In ’53, home cooking had been friendly: the rookie had hit 18 home runs at home against 12 away. But with the short left field porch removed, his 1954 ratio was dramatically altered to seven at home and 16 on the road. Indeed from 1954 through 1958, Thomas would belt 89 home runs on the road, but just 42 at home in Pittsburgh.

The distinct cost to the Pirates’ cause might have been repaid by the supportive pitching environment, but it wasn’t yet the case: The ’54 Pirates were out-homered 42-22 in Forbes Field, versus 86-54 on the road. That total of 22 home runs hit by the home team was the least in the National League since 1946.

Relief pitching

Haney’s old-school staff deployment meant that almost all of the starters worked extensively in relief as well. The only modern-style relief specialist the Pirates featured in 1954 was Johnny Hetki, the soft-tossing journeyman who’d delivered a solid year in 1953. Alas, in ’54 Hetki was far less effective.

The one pitcher among Haney’s horde of swingmen who worked primarily out of the bullpen (25 relief appearances against 11 starts) was yet another rookie without benefit of Triple-A experience: 24-year-old junkballer Bob Purkey, who’d been knocking around the Pirates system since 1948. Thrust into the major leagues at last, Purkey was remarkably efficient at keeping the ball on the ground—he surrendered just three home runs in 131 innings—but he wasn’t effective in any other way; like all too many other young Pittsburgh pitchers, Purkey’s walk-to-strikeout ratio was atrocious, at 62-to-38.

Short-term results

The good news was that the Pirates weren’t getting worse. The bad news was that they remained dismally bad, still buried deep in dead last. The 1954 record of 53-101 was nominally better than the ’53 team’s 50-104, but on the other hand the ’54 edition had a Pythagorean record of 49-105, versus 53-101 via the same metric in 1953, so it’s debatable whether they were really making any improvement. For the third straight year the Pirates achieved the cellar-dweller’s trifecta: They were worst in the league in OPS+, ERA+ and DER, all by gaping margins.

Pittsburgh fans gave up any sense of hope. Attendance had been falling in previous seasons, but in 1954 it landed fully in the basement at 475,000, or a little over 6,000 per game, one-third lower than the next-lowest in the league. This figure was less than half the number attending Forbes Field as recently as 1951; it was the least Pittsburgh attendance since World War II, and only one other team in the National League (the lame-duck 1952 Boston Braves) had registered a lower attendance since World War II.

In four years’ time Rickey had taken a bad team and not only rendered it worse, but wrenched it deep into its most abysmal down cycle in franchise history, among the least competitive stretches any team has ever had to endure.

Long-term investments

Here we find the lone glimmers of hope within this very dark year.

Despite the dire cash-flow situation—and obviously precious little was being invested at the major league level—Rickey maintained a 12-team-deep farm system as in 1953; it was now the third-largest system in the league. But in ’54 the organization renewed the working agreement with the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League that had lapsed the year before, so now the Pirates had the benefit of a Triple-A affiliate. And overall the Pirates farm clubs performed quite competitively in ’54: Nine of the 12 finished in the first division, and three were pennant winners (though not the Stars, who after winning back-to-back PCL titles finished in second by a single game in 1954, with a record of 101-68).

The Pirates’ Rule 5 pick from the fall of ’53, Jerry Lynch, would prove to be a quality major league player. And while the cohort of amateur free agents signed by the organization this year wouldn’t be productive overall (the 1954 Bonus Baby, Laurin Pepper, would be a particular bust), one of them was a 17-year-old shortstop named Bill Mazeroski.

Realistic alternatives

Obviously the $170,000 netted in the O’Connell and Dickson divestments was crucial to the cash flow of the financially strapped franchise. But as we’ve discussed before, had Rickey been maintaining some semblance of competitiveness on the big league roster, the Pirates wouldn’t have been in such need of cash infusion. And clearly the absences of O’Connell and Dickson contributed to the woefulness of the 1954 Pittsburgh ball club, vividly demonstrating the viciousness of that desperate cycle.

And beyond the loss of those two key talents, as in the prior couple of seasons there were quite a few readily available journeymen Rickey could have used to plug holes far more effectively than the not-ready-for-prime-time rookies. At first base, for instance, while Bob Skinner should have been playing in Triple-A (at the highest) in 1954, the Hollywood first baseman was 28-year-old minor league veteran Dale Long.

As we may recall, back in November 1950 the power-hitting Long had been acquired by Rickey as one of his very first Pittsburgh transactions. But then Rickey had impatiently discarded him. Since then Long had re-established himself as a minor league star, leading the PCL in home runs and RBI in 1953, and Rickey had purchased the big first baseman from Hollywood at the close of the ’53 season. Yet for 1954 Rickey sent Long back to Hollywood (where he had yet another fine year) and kept Skinner.

The 1954 Pirates’ weakness at third base might have been helped by Jack Phillips, still in the organization as he had been all along, this time hitting .300 with 17 homers as the primary third baseman for Hollywood. Another third base option within the Pittsburgh chain was George “Bud” Freese, a 27-year-old minor league veteran who’d been acquired as part of the Kiner deal. Freese had spent 1953 at the Triple-A level, but Rickey’s organization demoted him to Double-A New Orleans in ’54, where he hit a robust .324 with 23 homers and 104 RBI.

And while Dick Hall was clearly beyond his depth in the Pittsburgh outfield in 1954, Carlos Bernier had been sent back to Hollywood after his single-season big league trial, and in the PCL in ’54 Bernier put up a .393 OBP and stole 38 bases in 119 games. What’s more, Rickey had included the multi-talented veteran Sam Jethroe as part of his haul in the O’Connell deal, yet gave him just one plate appearance in the opening week of 1954 before selling Jethroe off to the independent Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League. There the switch-hitting center fielder proceeded to post his second straight season at the Triple-A level in which he hit more than .300 with more than 30 doubles, more than 20 homers and more than 20 stolen bases, and led his league in runs scored.

In 1953 Rickey had picked up 25-year-old southpaw Roger Bowman on waivers, and Bowman had performed adequately in the Pittsburgh bullpen. Yet for ’54 Rickey sent Bowman to Hollywood, and while less qualified pitchers were struggling for Pittsburgh, Bowman was leading the PCL with 22 wins, and placing fourth in the league with a 2.51 ERA. And the veteran Mel Queen, whom Rickey had let go in early 1952, delivered yet another strong season on the Hollywood staff in ’54.

Beyond players already within Rickey’s organization, the National League waiver wire in 1954 offered up an unusually rich bounty of talent the Pirates could have used: first basemen Eddie Waitkus and Wayne Belardi, outfielder Enos Slaughter, third baseman Grady Hatton, and pitchers George Zuverink and Jim Konstanty.

Next time

It’s the final year within Rickey’s five-year contract as Pittsburgh GM. Will his rebuilding project at last begin to demonstrate some progress?

References & Resources
Bob McConnell and David Vincent, editors, The Home Run Encyclopedia, New York: MacMillan, 1996, p. 1190.

John Thorn and Pete Palmer with David Reuther, editors, Total Baseball, New York: Warner Books, 1989, pp. 2180-2181.

J.G. Taylor Spink, Paul A. Rickart, Ernest J. Lanigan, and Clifford Kachline, editors, Baseball Guide and Record Book 1955, Saint Louis: Charles C. Spink & Son, 1955, p. 163.

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