In 1899 the Louisville Colonels of the National League were in danger of folding. The National League was looking to scale down to 8 teams. At the same time, their team owner Barney Dreyfuss had purchased a half interest in the Pittsburgh Pirates team, realizing that his Louisville team was likely to be one of the teams trimmed from the NL. In doing so he was able to turn the Pirates into a powerhouse for most of the next decade.
Before the Colonels were bought out by the NL, Dreyfuss reached an agreement to accept less money for the buyout in exchange for moving his best players to Pittsburgh in a one-sided trade. Club President Harry Pulliam, who would follow Dreyfuss to Pittsburgh, made the following trade that changed Pirates history forever:
Louisville got Jack Chesbro, George Fox, Art Madison and John O’Brien plus cash in exchange for 12 players, among them three Hall of Famers and three longtime regulars. Chesbro would be returned to the Pirates once the Colonels franchise folded. The cash in exchange was $25,000 which was a significant amount back then but it should be noted again that Dreyfuss was the owner for both teams so that was more of a paper move than it initially appeared. George Fox was a 31-year-old utility player who had played just 19 major league games and hit .200 overall. Art Madison was a middle infielder who had played decent in limited time in 1899 for the Pirates but he was 28 already and had played just 53 major league games. John O’Brien was a 33-year-old 2B who had jumped around for years playing with 6 major league teams in six seasons.
Had this been a real trade it would’ve been a horrible deal for Louisville. Chesbro did become a very good pitcher who went on to be elected to the Hall of Fame, but he was no better than two of the pitchers returning to Pittsburgh in the deal. Madison, Fox and O’Brien were marginal major leaguers and it’s possible only O’Brien would’ve made the Louisville team depending on how good they were. As it turned out, neither of the three ever played in the major leagues again and only Madison played in the minors past 1900.
How this trade changed the Pirates
As I mentioned not only did they get back Chesbro but they got 12 players in return. So how exactly did these players help the Pirates in the future? I’ll briefly summarize each of their contributions.
Jack Wadsworth - He was already 32 and hadn’t played in the majors since 1895 but was transferred to Pittsburgh where he never played. He spent 1899 in the minors in New Haven where he returned for 1900 before retiring. His claim to fame to this day isn’t an enviable one. He has a major league record as a pitcher of 6-38 over four seasons. His inclusion in the trade was a headscratcher even back then.
Tacks Latimer - A backup catcher, he played just 27 major league games over five seasons for five different teams. For Pittsburgh he went 4-12 in four games before bouncing around the minors to finish the season, something he did most of his pro career.
Mike Kelley - He was a 23 year old rookie 1B in 1899 for the Colonels who batted .241 in 76 games, but like Wadsworth he never played in the majors again, playing another 9 seasons in the minors before retiring. Up to this point it seems like a pretty fair trade but it gets much better.
Tom Messitt - The trade however didn’t get better with Tom Messitt as he had played just 3 games in the majors as a catcher in 1899 collecting just a single in his 11 AB’s and he too would not player in the majors again despite sticking around in pro ball until 1910.
Bert Cunningham - A longtime major league starter, the 34 year old Cunningham was on the downside of his career at this point. He had already won 138 games up to this point but with the return of Chesbro he was expendable and the Pirates sold him to the Chicago Orphans (Cubs) where he pitched just 9 games over the next two seasons.
Chief Zimmer - He was already 39 at the time of the trade, the 3rd oldest active player in 1899, but Zimmer was a very strong defensive catcher at the time and a valuable piece of the Pirates for three seasons. In an era where catching 1,000 career games was a huge accomplishment, due to how difficult and demanding the position was back then, Zimmer would catch over 1,200 games in his career. He was a good hitter for a catcher, batting .295 in 1900 for the Pirates. Only one catcher in major league history threw out more runners than Zimmer, who three times led the NL in fielding percentage.
Claude Ritchey - At the time of the trade Ritchey was a young infielder who had just hit .300 and was establishing himself as a strong middle infielder. He never hit .300 again but he was one of the best 2B in the game on defense for seven seasons in a Pittsburgh uniform. He would lead the league in fielding percentage at 2B for four of his seven seasons and every year he was in the top five in the league in putouts. He was also in the lineup almost everyday playing 977 games with the Pirates, an average of 140 per year in an era where they didn’t move to the 154 game schedule until his 5th season with the team. His first 4 years they played 140 per season. He hit .277 with 420 RBI’s with Pittsburgh.
Deacon Phillippe - I’ve briefly covered the Deacon in previous articles but it’s worth mentioning again just how good he was for the Pirates. He was a 5 times 20 game winner in his 12 seasons in Pittsburgh, posting an overall record of 168-92, 2.50 in 330 games. He was one of the best control pitchers of his time, five times leading the NL in lowest walk rate per 9 innings. Phillippe won three games during the 1903 World Series and pitched 6 scoreless innings in the 1909 series. His career win total, winning percentage and ERA all rank in the top 10 in Pirates history.
Tommy Leach - Leach would spend 14 seasons in Pittsburgh splitting his time between 3B and CF playing both positions well. He played 1574 games with the Pirates, collected 1603 hits and his 1009 runs scored ranks 9th all-time in team history. He also ranks top ten in triples with 139 and stolen bases with 271. His biggest contribution to the team was leading the league with 126 runs scored then hitting .360 in the 1909 World Series helping the Pirates to their first title. He also drove in 7 runs during the 1903 series.
Rube Waddell - Rube didn’t have the career in Pittsburgh that the last three guys did but he did have a Hall of Fame career and was the best strikeout pitcher of the 1900’s, six years in a row leading the league in K’s. Despite an 8-13 record in 1900, Waddell led the league in ERA with a 2.37 mark. The Pirates realized his talent but couldn’t deal with his antics and quickly got tired of him just 2 starts into the 1901 season. After a minor league assignment, they sold him to the Orphans who had the same problems with him. He eventually established himself under the guidance of former Pirates player and manager Connie Mack.
Fred Clarke - Fred played 12 full seasons in Pittsburgh while also managing the team from the time of the trade until the end of the 1915 season. If he wasn’t good enough to make the Hall of Fame as a player he most certainly would’ve made it as a manager. He still ranks 16th all-time in wins to this day and only two managers to this day have both more wins and a higher winning % than Clarke: Joe McCarthy and John McGraw. As a player he had a career .312 average with 1622 runs scored, 1015 RBIs and 509 stolen bases. Along with Leach, Phillippe and the next guy below, Clarke will be covered much more in the future.
Honus Wagner - You would have to be pretty good to overshadow the career of Fred Clarke, but John Peter “Honus” Wagner did just that. He is considered by almost all as the greatest player in Pirates history and plenty of baseball historians have them high in their top ten players all-time. The Flying Dutchman was unequaled for many years in the NL leading the league in OPS eight times in his first twelve years with the team. He won eight National League batting titles from 1900-1911, he won five RBI titles and stole 639 bases, five times leading the league in that category. He was also considered the best defensive player in the league by many and most who saw him play said whatever position he played he would’ve been the best player there too. He is the franchises all-time leader in runs scored and triples, ranks top ten in most other categories.
It should be noted that a few writers who covered Louisville during this time were actually convinced that their team got the better of this deal, not knowing at the time that the team they covered was about to fold. Hard to figure how they came up with that with Wagner and Clarke already established as star players but they did. This trade obviously pushed a strong 1899 Pirates team over the top, helping them to three straight NL titles from 1901-1903 and another a title in 1909 when four of the players were still around 10 seasons later.