While the Honus Wagner trade obviously added a lot of talent, and the 1899 Pirates had a winning record (76-73), they were still the 7th best team in league coming into the 1900 National League season. Also three of the teams that were worse than the Pirates in 1899 were cut from the league trimming the NL down to just 8 teams for the first time since 1891. Since the AL didn’t come into existence until the next season and from 1882-1891 there were at least two major leagues running at the same time, the talent and competition in the NL for 1900 was the best in a long time. With a strong group of players added to the core group from 1899 the Pirates looked strong enough to compete for their first NL title going into the season.
The rotation for 1900 included future Hall of Famers Jack Chesbro and Rube Waddell along with star pitchers Sam Leever, Jesse Tannehill and Deacon Phillippe. These five pitchers in their career combined for 971 wins and an amazing 370 games over .500 with all of them winning at least 189 games each. For the 1900 season they went 78-58 with Phillippe and Tannehill each topping the team with 20 wins and despite going just 8-13 Waddell led the league in ERA. As a group they pitched all but 59 of the team’s innings on the season and made all but 3 of the starts on the year. Jouett Meekin, who made 2 of the other 3 starts was actually a pretty decent pitcher in his career prior to 1900. He went 0-2 in his 2 starts but prior to that over nine seasons he went 152-131, three times winning at least 20 games with a career high of 33 in 1894.
The outfield for 1900 was one of the better ones in Pirates history and it all starts with the best player in team history, Honus Wagner, out in rightfield. The Flying Dutchman made an immediate impact in Pittsburgh leading the league in batting average (.381) doubles (45) triples (22) slugging percentage (.537) and total bases (302). He also drove in 100 runs and scored another 107, both numbers led the team. He set a new career high in stolen bases with 38 which also led the Pirates.
On the opposite side of centerfield stood another Hall of Famer, Fred Clarke, who was the new manager for the Pirates as well. He had a down year for him at the plate but still managed to score 84 runs in just 106 games. He hit just .274 with 51 walks but over a 10 year period from 1895-1904 it was the only time he didn’t reach the .300 mark. In centerfield was another longtime Pirates great, Ginger Beaumont who matched Clarke with his uncharacteristic down year. Ginger batted no less than .332 in four of his first five seasons but in 1900 he hit just .279 in 138 games. Despite the low average Beaumont was able to score 105 runs, finishing just behind Wagner for the team lead.
In the infield they had newly acquired Claude Ritchey who led the way hitting .292 while playing secondbase. He drove in 67 runs, stole 18 bases and struck out just 8 times in 528 plate appearances. His double play partner was Bones Ely who had been around since 1896. He was a solid fielder but not much with the bat. As noted in an earlier article, he was the shortstop before Honus Wagner took over the position for the rest of his great career. At first base they had Duff Cooley who they signed 10 games into the season. He had 5 seasons hitting over .300 coming into the season, but he failed miserably and the Pirates cut him before the season ended. After that they used many different players with no steady 1B.
At third base the Pirates had Jimmy Williams, the second year player who had one of the best rookie seasons in team history. He batted .352 with 116 RBI’s in 1899 while also leading the league with 27 triples. They had to feel good coming into the year with him but he really dropped off hitting .264 and playing just 106 games. As I noted before, the competition in the NL in 1900 was probably the best of the early era of baseball and it shows in the struggles of Clarke, Beaumont and Williams who all fared much better prior to the season with 12 teams around and the following year with 16 major league teams. It speaks a lot for the amazing season Honus Wagner had as well.
Behind the plate, Pittsburgh went with a veteran group of catchers. Chief Zimmer, acquired in the Wagner trade, joined fellow newcomer Jack O’Connor and incumbent Pop Schriver to give the team 40 years of experience at the position. Zimmer was 39 years old while the other two were both 34. Zimmer caught about half the games with the other two splitting the rest and he batted .295 while providing them with strong above average defense. Schriver hit .293 and was just a shade behind Zimmer on defense while O’Connor was a capable backup with a strong arm.
So just how did the team do? Well, they finished 2nd, just 4.5 games behind Brooklyn who had won the 1899 NL crown. They had their 2nd best season in the win-loss column since joining the NL. Only the 1893 team had a higher winning percentage. While in the American Association the franchise was also better in 1886, one of the reasons they were asked to join the NL. In both of those seasons they also finished in 2nd place.
On September 24th, with just three weeks left, the Pirates trailed Brooklyn by just 1.5 games but they lost 6 out of 7 games to drop them too far back to catch up. The strong play helped at the gates as they set a franchise high in attendance with 264,000 fans taking in a game at Exposition Park. They had the 3rd highest attendance in the NL and the 2nd highest per game average in the league. With the AL starting in 1901 many players jumped to the new league for more money. The Pirates were fairly lucky to keep most of their key players and their entire pitching staff so they were in a very good position for the 1901 season…