The Branch Rickey Pirates (Part 6:  1954-1955)

Previously, we’ve accompanied the storied executive Branch Rickey to Pittsburgh, then examined his first season of reasonable progress. But then we’ve followed him through three consecutive fall-off-a-cliff disaster years.

Now we’re ready to see how The Mahatma did in his fifth and last try at it with the Pirates.

Manager

In Fred Haney’s two seasons as the Pirates skipper, the team had gone 103-205. Yet Rickey decided that the 59-year-old Haney, who’d never piloted a major league team to anything approaching even a break-even performance, was still the best man for the job in 1955.

If it hadn’t been clear before, it was by now abundantly obvious that at this point the 73-year-old Rickey wasn’t interested in employing a field manager with either stature or promise. It wasn’t an encouraging sign as Rickey embarked on the final season of his contract as Pittsburgh GM, what looked to be almost certainly the final season of his phenomenal career actively operating major league baseball clubs.

Shortstop, second base and center field

Dick Groat, the handsome All-American rookie of 1952, was back from his military service for 1955. Thus for the first time since Rickey had taken over as GM the Pirates’ shortstop situation was settled.

At the age of 24 Groat wasn’t yet a star; indeed until Groat got his batting average close to .300 he wasn’t particularly good. Though in the field his range and arm impressed everyone, he was rather error-prone, and while at the plate he was a consistent singles-and-doubles hitter, he had no home run power, drew extremely few walks, and despite his quickness and lateral range Groat was completely without base-stealing speed.

But for all his weaknesses, even at this early stage in his career there were worse shortstops than Groat, the 1954 Pittsburgh incumbent Gair Allie conspicuously among them. So for 1955 it was back to the minors for Allie (never to return, as it turned out), and the Pirates were distinctly improved at shortstop.

And at second base it was back to the minors as well for 1954’s unimpressive rookie incumbent, Curt Roberts. In his place for ’55 Rickey promoted another rookie, but this one, though very young, came with impressive credentials: 21-year-old Gene “Augie” Freese had just two minor league seasons under his belt, but had hit robustly both times, including a 1954 campaign at Double-A New Orleans where he’d put up a .332 average with 16 homers.

Freese ran well, and for a player of his youth and 5-foot-11, 175-pound build, displayed outstanding power. Though no doubt he could have benefitted from a season at Triple-A in 1955, “Augie” was far more ready for the majors than most of the kids Rickey had been force-feeding. Freese would play the first half as the Pirates’ regular second baseman, and while holding his own defensively the rookie would post the best OPS+ (95) of any second baseman in the National League.

But halfway through the ’55 season, the O’Brien twins would return from their military obligation. Eddie O’Brien wasn’t going to unseat Groat at shortstop, but the Pirates had another plan for him, which we’ll get to shortly.

As for Johnny O’Brien, Haney would install him as the first-stringer at second base, and shift Freese to third. While Johnny O. didn’t have Freese’s power or speed, over the second half he hit a solid .299 and his OPS+ of 94 virtually matched that of Freese. All of a sudden, second base had become a strength for the Pirates.

In center field, for 1955 Rickey abandoned (again) the pretense that Dick Hall was ready to help, and Hall was dispatched back to the minors. So Frank Thomas once again assumed the regular job in center. In his third full season, Thomas’ batting average took a dip, but he maintained his outstanding power production and was again a distinct asset.

But for the second half, with Eddie O’Brien blocked at shortstop, this back-from-the-military twin took over the starting job in center field, as Haney shifted Thomas to left. Alas, while Johnny O. hit impressively in 1955, Eddie, the slightly smaller of the twins, would prove incapable of generating any pop at the plate whatsoever. The Eddie-O.-to-center-field experiment fizzled.

Third base, first base and corner outfield

Over the first part of the season, the Pirates went with George “Bud” Freese, Augie’s 28-year-old brother, as their primary third baseman. While Bud’s fielding wasn’t good, his bat was competent; he was, in fact, exactly the sort of cheaply-available journeyman of whom Rickey should have been making far more prudent use all along. Bud held the fort at third until making way for Augie in the second half, and being sent back to the minors. His contribution allowed Haney to deploy Dick Cole in the standard utility infielder role to which he was suited.

And at first base as well, at last in 1955 Rickey exhibited common sense and was richly rewarded for it. Bob Skinner was sent back to the minors to gain needed development, and though Tony Bartirome was back from the military, neither was he on the big league roster in ’55. Instead this time Rickey finally promoted 29-year-old Dale Long and allowed him to compete with journeyman Preston Ward. Long hit robustly well, fully winning the regular job over the course of the season, allowing Ward, like Cole, to fill the utility slot that made sense for him.

So far, so good. Alas, in right and left field things weren’t handled quite so sensibly.

Rickey made a selection in the Rule 5 draft of November 1954 that would prove to be the most successful in history, when he plucked Roberto Clemente from the Dodgers’ minor league system. But great as Clemente would eventually prove to be, in 1955 he was 20 years old with a grand total of 148 professional at-bats under his belt, and he wasn’t ready for full-time major league play.

Rickey well knew this, and lamented it in a scouting report he personally filed on his young prospect: “I do not believe he can possibly do a major league club any good in 1955. It is just too bad that he could not have had his first year in Class B or C league and then this year he might have profited greatly with a second year as a regular say in Class A.” But under the Rule 5 provisions Rickey was required to keep Clemente in the majors for all of 1955, or risk losing him.

Still, nothing in Rule 5 required the Pirates to play their green kid as a first-string right fielder. Nailing him to the bench wouldn’t have been good for his development, but cautiously spotting Clemente in a backup/platoon role, giving him perhaps 200 or 250 at-bats, would be ideal. Such a mode was that in which the Pirates had deployed their Rule 5 pick from the previous season, Jerry Lynch.

And Lynch had benefitted from that exposure, and as a 24-year-old sophomore in 1955 he was now hitting with genuine authority for Pittsburgh. Clearly Lynch had nothing close to Clemente’s defensive skill (though, significantly, Clemente was tried and found wanting in center field), but Clemente’s offensive capability in 1955 was so weak that the team would have been better off with Lynch ahead of Clemente on the depth chart—but Haney deployed just the reverse.

In addition to Lynch, another obvious candidate to share playing time with Clemente in ’55 would have been Sid Gordon, who was 37 but could still hit far better than Clemente. But Gordon started slowly, and Rickey dumped him off to the Giants in mid-May for a nominal cash consideration.

Thus the 1955 season progressed and the raw rookie Clemente produced an OPS+ of 77, proving to be far and away the worst-hitting regular corner outfielder in the major leagues. This all too well fulfilled Rickey’s own prediction, leaving starkly unanswered the question of why in the world Rickey allowed or directed Haney to indulge Clemente with 500 plate appearances.

Yet another poor choice in the Pittsburgh outfield in 1955 was Roman Mejias. He was 24 but had just two years of minor league experience, the highest of which was at Class B, yet Rickey promoted him to the majors and kept him all season long, and Haney gave him 176 plate appearances. Mejias displayed impressive tools of speed, power and arm, but was entirely unready to make an effective major league contribution: his OPS+ was 56 and his fielding percentage was .926.

Meanwhile, the Pirates’ Triple-A farm club, the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League, featured a starting outfield of Lee Walls, Bobby Del Greco and Carlos Bernier. All three had significantly more professional experience than Mejias, including multiple seasons at the Triple-A level, and any one of whom would have provided better service than Mejias in the Pittsburgh outfield in 1955. Maddeningly, Rickey was committing the same blunder he’d made with Walls and DelGreco in 1952, rushing Mejias to the majors before he was ready, and now Walls and DelGreco (and Bernier) were ready, but stuck in Triple-A.

Catching

The pleasant surprise of 1954 vanished in ’55. Both partners in the Pirates’ platoon combination, left-handed-hitting journeyman Toby Atwell and right-handed hitting youngster Jack Shepard, slumped off.

Bonus Baby Nick Koback, who’d been making zero contribution while clogging a roster spot, completed his two-year requirement at the major league level in July of 1955, and was finally farmed out. But the organization had little to offer as his replacement: A 25-year-old rookie named Hardy Peterson was called up but wasn’t of much help. The catching was once again a plain weakness.

Starting pitching

Problems abounded. Max Surkont had held his own in the top of the rotation role in 1954, but he faded badly in ’55. Southpaw Dick Littlefield had stepped forward with a solid performance in ’54, but he too regressed this year. Jake Thies, the minor league veteran who’d made a useful contribution in 1954, was farmed out after just one bad start in ’55, didn’t do well in the minors, and would never return. Bob Purkey hadn’t been good as a rookie in ’54, and still wasn’t in ’55, and in mid-year he too was sent back to the minors.

It could have been a disaster. But the remarkable patience Rickey had invested in young right-handers Vernon Law and Bob Friend finally paid off: In his fourth major league season, the 25-year-old Law dropped his ERA by nearly two full runs, and was suddenly a dependable asset, while the 24-year-old Friend in his fifth season reduced his ERA by more than two runs, in fact leading the league in that category, and he was suddenly a star.

There was more good news, as 23-year-old Ron Kline returned from two years in the military and, without benefit of any Triple-A seasoning, emerged helpful in a swingman role. And, most amazingly, the Pirates got effective starting pitching over the second half of 1955 from right-hander Dick Hall.

Yes, that Dick Hall, who’d struggled so mightily for the Pirates as an outfielder (and briefly, a 6-foot-6 second baseman) in 1952-54. Rickey sent the 24-year-old Hall back to the Class-A Western League for 1955; he played 73 games in the outfield there, and for the first time in his professional career, hit well. But he also pitched in 19 games, and in that role he was brilliant: He completed 16 of 18 starts, and went 12-5, leading the league with a 2.24 ERA, racking up 137 strikeouts against just 35 walks in 153 innings.

Rickey, demonstrating once again his limitless confidence in this prospect, then yanked Hall all the way back up to the majors, and this time Rickey’s faith was finally rewarded. Perhaps most astoundingly for a pitcher of such inexperience, Hall’s primary asset was his pinpoint control.

It was a crazy, mixed-up starting array for the 1955 Pirates, but on balance it wasn’t a bad one.

Relief pitching

In 1953 and ’54, Haney had managed the Pittsburgh staff in an old-fashioned style, without a regular starting rotation, and using nearly every pitcher in both starting and relief roles. He had made one exception, however: In both seasons he’d deployed Johnny Hetki in a modern-day (for the ‘50s) relief specialist mode, with more than 50 appearances each year.

But Hetki’s effectiveness had declined in 1954, and Rickey let him go to the independent Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League. In 1955 Haney went completely old-school, using no one as a full-time reliever, and his five pitchers making the most starts (Law, Surkont, Friend, Kline and Littlefield) also made, respectively, 19, 13, 24, 17 and 18 appearances out of the bullpen.

The pitcher who worked the most in relief for the ’55 Pirates did so just 32 times, and he also made 10 starts. That pitcher was 27-year-old Elroy Face, the fellow who’d been a Rule 5 draft pick two years earlier, and absorbed a fearsome pounding as a rookie in 1953. He’d been sent back to Double-A in ’54, and that season Face taught himself a new pitch, the forkball.

Back in the majors in 1955, Face’s usage mode could hardly be described as that of a relief ace. But as he gained mastery of the new pitch (the precursor of the split-fingered fastball Bruce Sutter would make famous), Face gained increasing effectiveness. He pitched well in 1955, and would soon become one of the great relief aces of his era.

Laurin Pepper, the Bonus Baby from 1954, was still (as required) on the big league roster in 1955, and during the season the Pirates added two new Bonus Baby pitchers, Paul Martin and Red Swanson. Working rarely, and then generally in mop-up relief, the three combined for the following stat line:

 G   GS   CG   IP    W    L   SV    H   HR    R   BB   SO   ERA ERA+
22    2    0   29    0    2    0   45    6   45   45   10 11.79   35

Clearly the Pirates’ bullpen was still a work in progress.

Short-term results

When viewed against the backdrop of the unremittingly bleak results of the previous three years, the 1955 Pirates exhibited unmistakably forward strides. The return of Groat, the arrivals of Freese and Long, and the blossomings of Friend, Law and Face were among the several ways in which genuine progress was at hand, at long last.

But it was only within the context of exceedingly low expectations that the season could be perceived as successful. Five years into Rickey’s tenure, his team was still riddled with holes, still last in the league in OPS+ and DER, both by wide margins. The significant improvement in the pitching brought the staff up only to seventh in ERA+.

The ’55 Pirates stumbled out of the gate to a 2-11 start (scoring just 28 runs in the 13 games), perked up a bit, then fell back to the basement on May 20 and never got out of it. Their final record of 60-94 was noticeably less bad than the 100+-loss disasters of 1952, ’53 and ’54, but it was still bad. And the 1955 Pirates’ Pythagorean record was just 55-99, suggesting that their progress, while real, was decidedly incremental.

From the point of view of most Pittsburgh fans, it was decidedly too little, too late. They’d already lost faith in Rickey’s rebuilding program: Forbes Field attendance had dropped to a miniscule 475,000 in 1954, and in 1955 it dropped further still, to 469,000, some 225,000 fewer than the next-lowest in the National League.

Long-term investments

In his fifth year in Pittsburgh, Rickey maintained his serious talent-development investment. The Pirates’ chain included 14 farm clubs in 1955, third-most in the National League (still behind, as always, the Cardinals and the Dodgers). Seven of the 14 teams were first-division finishers in ’55, and three won minor league pennants.

The Rule 5 acquisition of Clemente would obviously pay enormous dividends. But the cohort of amateurs signed into the farm system in 1955 would yield nothing more than a few journeymen (Al Jackson, Dave Wickersham and Joe Christopher the best among them), and both of 1955’s Bonus Babies (Paul Martin and Red Swanson) would be full-on busts.

Epilogue

Rickey’s five-year contract as Pittsburgh GM expired following the 1955 season. There was nary a whisper that it be extended; owner John Galbreath quickly hired 37-year-old Joe Brown (precisely one-half Rickey’s age) to take over the position.

As per the deal he’d signed in 1950, Rickey now assumed the vaguely defined role of “Senior Consultant,” at an annual salary of $50,000 for five years. Rickey made nice to the press that he would remain active and visible in the organization, but Brown soon made it clear that he wanted to run his own show, and there was nothing for Rickey to do. The “Senior Consultancy” was effectively pensioning him off.

But Rickey, of course, couldn’t abide having nothing to do. He didn’t last the five years. Despite his advancing age and troublesome health, Rickey became centrally involved in the conceptual discussions around the formation of a third major league, and in mid-1959 he resigned his contract with the Pirates to become president of the Continental League. The new league would never get off the ground, but its very real threat to the status of the American and National Leagues resulted in the expansions of 1961 and 1962—a development Rickey had long advocated and heartily welcomed.

To the end, Rickey remained a hugely respected and genuinely popular figure. He died in 1965, a couple of weeks short of his 84th birthday.

Rickey’s Pittsburgh legacy

Under Joe Brown, the Pirates at long last began to improve. They inched into seventh place in 1956 and ’57. Then Pittsburgh burst into second place in 1958, and in 1960 won the pennant and World Series.

The accepted interpretation at the time was that, while Brown (and field manager Danny Murtaugh, hired by Brown in late 1957) deserved real credit, the foundation for the eventual Pittsburgh triumph had been laid by Rickey. Most pundits declared that Rickey had been vindicated, as the Pirates’ dreadful struggles of 1951-55 were now seen as a painful but necessary stage of their development into a champion.

To put it simply, that’s nonsense. It’s indeed true that most of the core talent of the 1960 ball club had been acquired and/or developed by Rickey: Clemente, Groat, Friend, Law and Face, as well as Bill Mazeroski, Bob Skinner, and Dick Stuart. But it’s a ridiculous notion that it was necessary for the Pirates to field laughably incompetent ball clubs for the first half of the 1950s, and drive their attendance completely into the ground, in order to emerge with a core of strong talent. That a team in need of rebuilding, as the Pirates were in 1950, must choose between short-term and long-term improvement is a false dichotomy: It can and should manage both.

Consider the approach taken by Paul Richards, who took over the operation of the Baltimore Orioles late in 1954. By every objective measure, the Orioles’ organization (the recently transplanted St. Louis Browns) was in even worse shape than that which Rickey inherited in Pittsburgh, in terms of talent on the major league roster and within the minor league infrastructure.

Richards in Baltimore proceeded to do two of the important things that Rickey did in Pittsburgh: He substantially beefed up the farm system, and he invested heavily in top-end Bonus Baby talent (as was unavoidable in the mid-1950s). Both of these programs cost a lot of money, requiring the signing of a great number of prospects to yield a few stars and a few more useful major leaguers, and neither of these programs could be expected to provide winning ballplayers in the short term.

Which is why Richards did a third, crucial thing that Rickey entirely failed to do: Richards painstakingly combed the waiver wires and bargain bins, and made judicious trades, and at low cost (though at great effort) populated his major league roster with enough bona fide major league talent to put a reasonably competent team on the field. Richards didn’t undermine his ball club’s competitiveness by rushing hopelessly unready prospects into his regular lineup, as Rickey repeatedly did, nor did Richards waste any of his most precious assets, as Rickey did with Gus Bell.

Consider the following comparison of the Rickey and Richards rebuilding efforts. The years in blue font are those in which Rickey and Richards were serving in the GM role for their respective clubs; as we can see Richards was the Orioles’ GM for four seasons, while Rickey was Pirates’ GM for five.

               Pirates                               Orioles
 Year    W    L  Pos    Att  Rank      Year    W    L  Pos    Att  Rank
   -2   83   71    4 1.517M     2        -2   64   90    7   519K     8
   -1   71   83    6 1.449M     2        -1   54  100    8   297K     8
    0   57   96    8 1.166M     3         0   54  100    7 1.061M     5
    1   64   90    7   981K     4         1   57   97    7   852K     7
    2   42  112    8   687K     6         2   69   85    6   901K     6
    3   50  104    8   573K     7         3   76   76    5 1.030M     5
    4   53  101    8   475K     8         4   74   79    6   830K     5
    5   60   94    8   469K     8        +1   74   80    6   892K     7
   +1   66   88    7   950K     5        +2   89   65    2 1.188M     3
   +2   62   92    7   851K     6        +3   95   67    3   951K     5
   +3   84   70    2 1.312M     3        +4   77   85    7   790K     6

No one expected Richards to make the Orioles a contender right away, and they weren’t, but they were competitive, and they provided Baltimore fans with legitimate reason to come on out and cheer for the team, thus in turn providing the Orioles organization with vitally important revenue to help fund the investment in young talent.

Rickey’s performance as Pittsburgh GM, while commendable in one regard (though hardly phenomenal: The Pittsburgh farm system Rickey built never produced talent at better than a middle-of-the-pack rate), was preposterously inept in another, and so can’t be regarded as anything resembling an overall success.

In many of its particulars, Rickey’s agonizing Pittsburgh episode bears intriguing resemblance to that presented a decade later by George Weiss in launching one of the expansion teams emanating from Rickey’s Continental League, the New York Mets. Both cases stand as vivid illustrations of the mighty falling: Two of the most brilliantly successful GMs in the history of the sport made a botch of it in the final stint of their long and otherwise glittering careers.

References & Resources
David Maraniss, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006, p. 64.

J.G. Taylor Spink, Paul A. Rickart, Ernest J. Lanigan, and Clifford Kachline, editors, Baseball Guide and Record Book 1956, Saint Louis: Charles C. Spink & Son, 1956, p. 173.

Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007, pp. 531-554.

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