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 the 1891 Pirates.
The 1891 Pirates answered the age old question, how many future Hall of Famers in your lineup does it take to go 55-80 in a season? This question obviously ignores the fact no one knew what the Hall of Fame was before the 1930’s but just go along with it anyway.
Three of their position players and their top starting pitcher would eventually make the HOF. All they could muster that season was 55 wins, bad enough for last place in the eight team NL. They were 30 1/2 games behind the first place Boston Beaneaters, who had two future 300 game winners, John Clarkson and Kid Nichols, in their starting rotation along with Harry Staley whom they signed after the Pirates released him in May of that 1891 season. He would go 20-8 with them after a 4-5 start in Pittsburgh. Clarkson and Nichols each were 30 game winners that year.
There is another caveat to the age old answer, two of those future Hall of Famers in the Pirates lineup were elected as managers. One of them, Ned Hanlon has been mentioned numerous times over the past few articles. The other one many people have heard of but they may not know he was a member of the Pirates for six seasons as a player and three of those he also managed. That man’s name is Cornelius McGillicuddy, better known to many as Connie Mack, the all-time leader in both wins and losses, and games and seasons managed.
Mack was known back in the day as a very good defensive catcher, innovative and very smart with a strong arm but not much of a bat. The Pirates were able to get him after the Player’s League folded because his original team, the Washington Nationals, had been dropped by the NL following the 1889 season so he was not reserved by any team. Instead he was property of the league (NL) and Pittsburgh was able to sign him.
The main problem with the 1891 Pirates season was that it seemed almost every player had a subpar season. Louis Bierbauer, one of the best 2B of the day both in the field and at the plate hit just .206. Fred Carroll was a good hit-no field utility player up until 1891 when he would hit just .218 and end his career at age 26. Connie Mack would hit just .219, even worse than usual for him, and his defense wasn’t up to his standards. Jake Beckley, one of the other Hall of Famers would drive in just 73 runs, his lowest full season total with Pittsburgh. HOF pitcher James “Pud” Galvin would win just 15 games although he did post a respectable 2.88 ERA and he did win his 350th game in August, becoming the first major leaguer to accomplish that feat.
One more problem with saying the 1891 Pirates had four Hall of Famers is that they really should have five to their credit. Their left fielder for the first half of the year was a man named Pete Browning, the man known as the original Louisville Slugger, the player for whom the popular line of bats are named after.
Browning didn’t have much impact on Pirates history, he played just 50 games for them before finishing the season in Cincinnati. He hit “just” .291 while with Pittsburgh which is fifty points below his career average and 52 points below his average with the Reds that year over 55 games.
What Browning did accomplish in his career is even more impressive once you consider he lived his life while suffering from mastoiditis which is a rare brain infection that causes problems such as dizziness, facial palsy and causes deafness. Pete used to also drink heavily during his playing days which he claimed actually helped him with his condition. It’s hard to believe he was able to even play baseball professionally, forget the fact he hit .341 career with three batting titles to his credit. He also finished either 2nd or 3rd in batting another six times in just 11 full seasons.
Browning started off his career with a bang, winning the 1882 batting crown while also leading the league in slugging and OBP. Despite being just 21 at the time he had already played five seasons for a well-known semi-pro team from Louisville, which is where he grew up. In 1887 he posted his best season, becoming a member of the .400 club when he finished with a .402 average. His season gets overshadowed by the fact Tip O’Neill had one of the greatest seasons ever still to this day, leading the league in runs scored, hits, doubles, triples, homers, RBI’s, slugging, on base, and total bases all while batting an obscene .435, the 2nd highest total ever.
Not only did the 1891 Pirates have all of those named players to start the season but they also had a pair of pitchers, Silver King and Mark Baldwin, who had won 30 games in the Player’s League in 1890. It’s safe to say expectations were high for the Pirates and their fans despite the horrible 23-113 prior season. They had a strong and deep pitching staff in place, a slugging 1B in Beckley, one of the best pure hitters in baseball in LF in Browning, a strong defensive catcher in Mack, a speedy defensive CF in Hanlon, a star caliber 2B in Bierbauer and returning players Fred Carroll, Jocko Fields and Doggie Miller who all played well at times in the past.
The team started off decent, by the end of May they were just three games out at one point with a 16-13 record, but they must have reminded fans of the 1890 team by the end of the year going 39-67 from that point forward. As you will see next week, the 1892 version of the Pirates would have plenty of additions, less name recognition but would garner much different results.