The Steel City power outage of 1917

Living in Texas, an occasional topic in my social circle is the surprisingly productive, relative to preseason propaganda, offense of the Astros (averaging 3.95 runs per game—better than 10 teams as of this writing and creeping up on the league average of 4.25 RPG) and their race to catch the 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks; majoe league team strikeout record of 1,529). Houston sits at 555 after 58 games—36 percent of the way to the record with 35 percent of the schedule played. In Miami, the Marlins are averaging a puny 2.98 RPG. These events set me off in search of some weak offenses in baseball history.

The 1910 White Sox (2.88 RPG; also, at .212 the lowest team batting average in history). The 1965 Mets (3.02 RPG) and the 1969 Padres (2.89 RPG) are in the discussion. However, I find a 96-year-old team season interesting.

My sights alight on the 1917 Pittsburgh Pirates. They hit nine home runs all season. One-third of these came in one day off one pitcher on the road. They rolled home 2.95 runs per game. Acknowledging the dishonesty of comparing distant baseball eras, I invite discussion on the National League team record holder for fewest home runs in a season (the 1908 White Sox popped only three for the major league record).

Pittsburgh busted through April 1917 with one home run—Bill Hinchman hit a three-run shot against the Cubs at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh on April 20.
The big fireworks came in a mid-May series at the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia. The Baker Bowl had a lot of outfield to play in center but pretty cheap home runs down the lines. The right-field fence was topped by a 60-feet high fence (the Green Monster in Boston is 37 feet) a mere 280 feet from home plate. Center field ran to 480 feet with 300 feet down the line in left-field.

On May 14, Bunny Brief, who alliteratively shortened his name from his birth name Anthony John Grzeszkowski, hit a bounce homer—later, in 1931, bounce homers became the familiar automatic two-base hit of today. Retrosheet does not record which fence it cleared.

The next day, Brief jerked a two-run homer—again no word on direction. This was his final major league homer in his final major league month, though he played in the Double-A American Association until 1928; he is the career home run leader in that league with 256.

May 16, 1917 was the highest offensive scoring day for that year’s Bucs in a 12-4 win. Joe Oeschger of the Philies had a rough third inning, giving up a three-run homer to Hinchman and a solo drive to William Fischer. The following inning, Oeschger served up a second solo shot to Fischer. No other homers in the other two games of the series; 55 percent of the year’s power output produced in three days in North Philadelphia. The Phillies would finish in second-place that year.

At the midway point of the season on July 16 (no All-Star break in those days) the Pirates had accumulated just those six dingers.

Fischer would roll an inside-the-park home run on Aug. 21 in Brooklyn in the 10th inning to tie up a game with the Robins (the game was scored a tie; for the Robins, Casey Stengel had one RBI on two walks and no hits and you could look it up) . This made Fischer the team leader with three homers; Hinchman and Brief were second with their two homers. Lee King bounced his first major league home run on Sept. 20 in Pittsburgh against the Giants and future Hall-of-Famer Max Carey scored an inside-the-park home run at the asymmetrically configured Redland Field (renamed Crosley Field in 1934) on Sept. 16. That was it for Pirate home runs: two at Forbes Field and the rest on the road.

The 1917 Pirates pitchers gave up only 14 home runs—-just three at Forbes Field, a structure from the golden age of asymmetrical parks. Working left to right, it ran you 360-442-376 feet with a 462-foot area in left-center.

I cannot find any sortable statistics on triples-against on Baseball Reference for that era; I speculate the Pirates gave up many on the 1,318 hits (seventh in the NL) they surrendered. Pirates pitchers threw a 3.01 ERA, seventh in the eight-team league (truly the dead-ball era), but gave up 121 unearned runs.

Forbes Field must have had days where the bases stopped at three; 10 of the top 18 triples-hitting teams were Pirates and four Pirates (Paul Waner, Roberto Clemente, Pie Traynor, Kiki Cuyler) are in the top 10 in career triples hit since 1920. Hinchman led the lead in triples in 1916; he was among seven Bucs who led the NL in triples from in the league’s first 15 years including Chief Wilson’s 36 three-baggers in 1912. Perhaps old news: I am suggesting a causality of a tradition of triples to the vast outfield space of their home field from 1909-1971.

The Bucs finished 1917 with a record of 51 wins, 103 losses and a .331 winning percentage using three managers: Jimmy Callahan, Honus Wagner and Hugo Bezdek. The 42-year old original Hall-of-Famer Wagner, playing mostly first base, even legged out one triple in his final season as a player. Carey lead the National League in stolen bases with 46. Pittsburgh finished 47 games behind the pennant-winning New York Giants.

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  1. bucdaddy said...

    I’m a lifelong Pirates fan and didn’t know this. Good one!

    I see it was the only season of his career in which Wagner didn’t homer.

  2. Dennis Bedard said...

    Comparing eras is not dishonest.  The correct word is inaccurate.  Dishonesty connotes a deliberate use of numbers to intentionally create an illusion that is false.  In a word, deception.  And if you think you are some kind of old timer because you remember four divisions, no wild card, and no inter league play, I must be ancient.  I remember 10 teams in each league, no divisions, no DH, no flap on the batting helmet, and two players sharing a hotel room on the road.  Hlaf the readers of this site probably remember when NY had three major league teams and St. Louis and Philly each had two.

  3. Jim said...

    I guess I am part of at least the half (or hlaf) that Dennis talks about because I also remember 2 teams in Boston.

  4. Northern Rebel said...

    The dead ball era has always fascinated me. I often open the Encyclopedia to this time, and pour over the statistics, again and again. It was a time when batting averages were still important, and OPS was irrelevant.

    Thanks for more insight into a forgotten era of what seems to be alien to modern baseball fans.

  5. Cliff Blau said...

    According to Retrosheet’s Pitching Log, the Bucs allowed 89 triples in 1917.

    Their tradition of hitting triples predates the construction of Forbes Field, although it’s not true any Pirate led the NL in triples in the first 15 years of the NL; they didn’t even join the NL until 1887.  The first to do it was Harry Davis in 1897 (Mike Mansell led the AA in 1882).

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