In September of 1896 baseball held a Rule 5 draft where they selected minor leaguers from non-affiliated teams for their upcoming season. The Pirates took a 22 year old pitcher named Jesse Tannehill who had pitched 5 games previously in the majors as a teenager with the 1894 Reds. He was very successful in the minors with Richmond of the Virginia League going 49-24 between 1895-1896. He started 16 times for the 1897 Pirates and occasionally pitched in relief going 9-9 4.25 for the 8th place Pirates.
In late July of 1898 the Pirates signed 27 year old Bill Hoffer who had started off slow in 1898 going 0-4 but had gone 78-24 the previous three seasons for the Baltimore Orioles, winners of NL title in both 1895 and 1896 with Hoffer as their ace. He was the National League leader in winning percentage both of those seasons going an amazing 31-6 in 1895. The Orioles released him in June despite his great success in what was actually his first three seasons in the majors.
Going into the 1898 season it would be safe to say most teams would’ve taken Hoffer over Tannehill if they had to make the choice but by the middle of the season their situations were drastically different. Tannehill on the day the Pirates picked up Hoffer was already the team’s ace. The team at that point needed another strong pitcher to help them compete and for a week in late July it looked like they found their man.
No one else on that 1898 Pirates staff had a winning record that year and none of them had half as many wins by the end of the year as Tannehill who established himself as not just the team ace, but a top pitcher in the NL going 25-13 for a team that finished four games below .500 on the year. Hoffer first pitched for the Pirates on July 26th during the 2nd game of a doubleheader versus Cincinnati and he pitched brilliantly, winning 3-2 and stopping a five game losing streak. Three days later he took the ball again and shut down the Phillies winning 3-1 and in the process he was the winner in the team’s only two wins over a ten game stretch.
The Pirates had two games versus the Senators on August 2-3 with Tannehill and Hoffer scheduled to go back to back for the first time. They both pitched well against Washington, a team that would go on to lose 101 games but it was a bittersweet sweep. In what looked like the start of a solid 1-2 punch ended with Hoffer injured and done for the season. From that point on the Pirates would go just 25-32 finishing in 8th place in the 12 team league.
Tannehill’s career was just beginning by the time 1899 rolled around. He had four more seasons left with Pittsburgh and he pitched until 1911. He had five more 20 win seasons left to his credit and career stats good enough to warrant some Hall of Fame consideration. Hoffer on the other hand earned himself a job in 1899 with the Pirates thanks to his three superb starts but he didn’t have much left for major league hitters at the age of just 28. He went 8-10 for a team that finished three games over .500 and before the 1900 season could start they released him. He latched on with the Cleveland Blues of the American League for the 1900 season in what was still considered a minor league. The next year the league achieved major league status and Hoffer had his last taste of the big leagues going 3-8 for the same Cleveland team before being released on July 4th. Bill was actually a good enough athlete that the Pirates used him occasionally in the outfield and even once at 2B.
Hoffer still played pro ball for years afterwards finishing his playing career in 1909. He had just a 2-10 record in the California League 1901 after being released by the Blues but he had no trouble finding jobs and he pitched well at times including a 19-9 record between 1906-07 with a team from Oklahoma City in the Western Association, a top minor league at the time. During Tannehill’s career with the Pirates(which will be covered more in the near future) he had a 116-58 record for a .667 winning percentage. That winning percentage with the Pirates is the same as Hoffer’s career major league percentage (92-46) which ranks him tied for 12th all-time in major league history among pitchers with at least 100 decisions.
As an interesting final note on Tannehill for this story, Baseball-Reference.com ranks pitchers all-time with a similarity score which basically finds the most similar pitchers to them all-time over their career. Tannehill’s five most similar pitchers are Deacon Phillippe, Jack Chesbro, Sam Leever, Babe Adams and Ed Morris, all Pirates pitchers.