When the Pirates signed pitcher Sam Leever in 1898, he was already 26 years old with no prior major league experience, and he only began is pro career in the minor leagues the previous season. A signing like that these days would likely fly totally under the radar, but Leever went on to be one of the greatest Pirates pitchers ever.
Sam had played baseball regularly prior to 1897, but his real profession was as a school teacher and he only pitched on Sundays. He was supposedly overlooked as a potential major leaguer because he didn’t throw hard but he had a devastating curveball with pinpoint control that eventually got him enough notice to sign with a minor league team in Richmond, where he would post 21 wins that 1897 season. That led the Pirates to signing him for the 1898 season, but an arm injury prior to the start of the year led him back to Richmond where he had to prove he was healthy before the Pirates would take him back. He pitched well enough to earn his first trip to the majors, and on September 15, 1898 during the second game of a doubleheader he got his first career start, a 6-1 win that moved the Pirates record to 64-64 on the year.
The Pirates were impressed enough with Leever that in 1899 he made the opening day roster and was a regular in their starting rotation, starting a career high 39 games while pitching another 12 in relief. He would lead the National League in innings pitched that year and while the team finished slightly over .500, and he had a decent ERA of 3.18 he finished with just a 21-23 record. That would be his only losing season in his 13 year career, all spent in Pittsburgh.
In 1900 the team loaded up on talent thanks to a trade with Louisville, so the Pirates had a five man rotation long before it became popular. They had two future Hall of Famers in Jack Chesbro and Rube Waddell, and two top notch pitchers in Deacon Phillippe and Jesse Tannehill to go along with Leever. Just for reference on how good these five pitchers were, their career combined record is 971-601 and amazingly in their career they all finished within 9 wins of each other. Leever finished 15-13 2.71 on the year and the Pirates finished in 2nd place just 4.5 games behind the Brooklyn Superbas led by former Pirate Ned Hanlon.
In 1901 the Pirates began their 3 year stretch of pennant winning seasons and Leever began his period of domination. He was just 37-36 up to that point in his major league career. During the 1901-1903 seasons he went a combined 54-19, twice leading the league in winning percentage. In 1903 he not only led the league in ERA with a 2.06 mark but he led the NL with 7 shutouts. He would start games 2 and 6 in the first World Series but took the loss in both games.
Leever was with the Pirates through the 1910 season including the 1909 season when the Pirates won their first World Championship. He went 8-1 that year and was mostly used in relief, getting just four starts and he did not pitch in the postseason. He led the league for a third time in winning percentage in 1905 when he went 20-5. The following year he went 22-7 in what was his fourth and final twenty win season. Just once from 1901-1910 did he lose in double digits (18-11 in 1904) and he posted a 2.17 ERA that year while still finishing in the top 10 in winning percentage. That’s a feat he accomplished nine years straight from 1900-1908, broken only by falling short of the minimum amount of decisions to qualify during his 8-1 season in 1909.
In his career he stands among some pretty select company, especially in Pittsburgh Pirates history. For the Pirates he has the fourth best ERA ever at 2.47 and the three guys ahead of him all pitched at least 1000 innings less in a Pittsburgh uniform. His win total of 194 is tied for second most with Babe Adams and just eight behind Wilbur Cooper. His winning percentage of .660 also ranks him fourth but he pitched more innings for the Pirates than the three guys ahead of him combined. He ranks sixth in both games started and innings pitched while ranking fourth in complete games. His total of 39 shutouts trails only Babe Adams, who threw 44. One impressive stat is that from 1900-1910 he never allowed more than three home runs in any season.
Despite the fact that he posted a 194-100 career record and only three pitchers had both more wins and a better winning percentage when the Hall of Fame first met for elections, Leever got almost no support and has basically been forgotten. He got just one vote out of 201 ballots in 1937 and hasn’t got a mention since. For reference purposes, the three better guys included Al Spalding who pitched in the National Association, which some don’t even consider a major league. Bob Caruthers, who pitched most of his career in the American Association, which has very few representatives in the Hall of Fame. The American Association is mostly overlooked and thought of as the lesser league in talent during that era. The third name some people may have heard of, Christy Mathewson, who had no trouble making the Hall of Fame the first year of ballots. Mathewson somehow getting even more votes than Walter Johnson, who most consider as the best pitcher ever.
Leever wasn’t offered a major league contract by the Pirates prior to the 1911 season and he got his release. He signed with a minor league team in Minnesota where he pitched alongside Rube Waddell who was ending his Hall of Famer career and Red Faber who was just starting his HOF career. It should be noted that his other HOF teammate from 1900, Jack Chesbro, finished with a 198-132 record and a higher ERA than Leever while also getting just one HOF vote in 1937, yet nine years later he was elected to the Hall of Fame. After taking a season off, Sam managed in the minors in 1913 before retiring from baseball for good.