The following is from Pirates Prospects contributor John Dreker, as part of his ongoing Pirates History feature. The feature focuses on the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and every Sunday, John will take a look at a different piece of that history. This week John looks at Hall of Famer Ned Hanlon and his career in Pittsburgh.
Before the start of the 1889 season the Detroit Wolverines, who had won the 1887 National League title, had already fallen out of favor in town and their owners had become so disenchanted with baseball in a small market (Detroit had a pop. of approximately 200,000 then) that they decided to sell off their team and walk away with the profits before things got worse. This led to the Alleghenys doing what today would seem unthinkable in Pittsburgh, and that is becoming big spenders in the free agent market. Only back then being a free agent meant your team was selling you to the highest bidder, or no one wanted you so you had to find a minor league team to hook up with to work your way back.
The Alleghenys bought Deacon White, who was covered in the last article, starting shortstop Jack Rowe, star center fielder Ned Hanlon and 22 year old Pete Conway who had won 30 games the prior season. Now you may say that you’ve never heard of Pete Conway before and there’s a good reason, he lasted just three games with the Alleghenys before he blew out his arm two weeks into the season and he never pitched again. The Alleghenys actually had four quality starters to start the season, unheard of at the time but by mid-May three of them were injured, they were throwing out any pitcher they could find at the time, and nothing but poor results followed from their search.
You may have heard of one of the other players in the deal, Ned Hanlon, who is a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. When the Alleghenys purchased him for $2,500 on November 21,1888 it gave them three future Hall of Famers on their playing roster. 1B Jake Beckley and pitcher “Pud” Galvin were the others, and of course, Deacon White should be there as well.
Hanlon at the time was a 31 year old center fielder, known for his good glove, excellent range and fast baserunning. Ned was so good in center that he pushed Bill Sunday to the corner spot and Sunday had just led the league in putouts, finished third in assists and was possibly the fastest player of the day. With the two of them in the lineup together, a strong middle of the lineup led by Beckley, good defense and a great pitching staff things looked bright for the 1889 Alleghenys. They looked like they could beat you four ways but injuries and aging players did them in before they could even get started.
At the plate Hanlon batted just .239 but took his share of walks and led the team with 53 steals, good enough for sixth in the league and scored 81 runs. He played his usual strong defense, finishing 2nd in putouts and had 18 assists. Hanlon actually finished the season as the team’s manager and had a 26-18 record while at the helm, the third best record in the league over the last two months. Making him the manager, in part, was one of the reasons the 1890 team was so bad. If you’ve followed the Pirates long enough, you know most of the franchises futility records can be traced back to the 1890 season when the team went 23-113 despite starting the season 8-10 through the first three weeks.
When the Player’s League started to form, Hanlon was able to get all but four of his Allegheny players to jump to the new league where he would take over the helm of the new team which also played in Pittsburgh named the Burghers. Hanlon was one of the main organizers of the league which was supposed to help the players make more of the money they though they deserved. Instead,having three major leagues going at the time just watered down the talent and the fans never really took to the new team which drew just 117,000 patrons on the season.
Once the 1890 season ended the Pittsburgh PL team folded, all of the players were welcomed back to the Alleghenys franchise, which for a brief period during the 1890 season went by the name Innocents. Hanlon again took over as the leader of the club in 1891 while doing double duty as the team’s center fielder. He was getting on base at a decent clip and stealing his share of bases although his defense had slipped a little just one year after leading the Player’s League in putouts. The team however wasn’t playing well under his lead and he was demoted to team captain following a 1-7 stretch in late July that dropped their record to 31-47.
Hanlon probably would’ve stuck around Pittsburgh longer had he not badly injured his knee late in the 1891 season but his bad break as a player was a lucky break for his career. The Pirates(as they were now known) sent him to the Baltimore Orioles believing his career was done as a player as it basically was. He played just 11 games in 1892 and didn’t fare well including no steals from a man who had 329 the previous six seasons. What Ned did do in Baltimore at first and later on in Brooklyn was start a path towards a Hall of Fame managerial career. His teams would win five of the next nine National League titles,a run of dominance that was ended by the 1901-1903 Pittsburgh Pirates who won three straight NL titles.
Ned finished his managerial career in 1907 with the Cincinnati Reds. He had a slow start to his time as manager in Pittsburgh and finished in 6th or worse each of his last four seasons but in between he had a run that led to 1,313 wins including ten straight winning seasons and a .530 career winning percentage. Despite the impressive run as manager and five NL titles, Hanlon wasn’t elected to the HOF until 1996 which was 89 years after he last managed and 59 years after his death.
I’d like to dedicate this article to my Uncle Carl who passed away this Thursday. I hope the people reading these stories of Pirates history enjoy them even half as much as I enjoyed listening to his stories of our family’s history. This one is for you Uncle Carl, thanks for the memories.