The Pirates started the 1903 season in Cincinnati on April 16th, trying to defend their two straight National League pennant wins. The 1902 team was likely the best team in franchise history but they took a big blow in the offseason losing two of their top pitchers, Jack Chesbro and Jesse Tannehill. With both the Chicago Cubs and New York Giants fielding strong teams it would not be an easy task winning three straight titles.
Pittsburgh did not have an easy time replacing their two star pitchers, they used seven different starters in their first 10 games of the season. They still had Deacon Phillippe, Sam Leever and Ed Doheny who combined for a 51-20 record in 1902 but after that the options were thin.
After winning the first two games of the season pretty easy, the Pirates started a 29 year old rookie named Kaiser Wilhelm, who they purchased out of the minor leagues after he went 14-9 for Birmingham in 1902. Wilhelm won his first start 5-4 giving the Pirates a 3-0 start. In the next game they went with a 21 year old kid fresh out of college. Fred “Bucky” Veil made his pro debut on April 19th and helped the Pirates to a 6-4 win and a sweep of the Reds. Veil got his nickname because he went to Bucknell college where he was a teammate with fellow pitcher, Christy Mathewson. Despite the win in his pro debut, Veil would not start again that season until the last day of May.
The Pirates returned home two days later for opening day in Pittsburgh with Deacon Phillippe on the mound against the Cardinals. The Deacon had some early season troubles and this was one of those games as he lost 9-8 to a Cardinals team that would finish in last place with just 43 wins on the year. Leever and Doheny would win the next two but Wilhelm would take the loss in the 4th and final game of the series. Like Phillippe, Kaiser ran into some early season trouble but while they stuck with the star pitcher, the 29 year old rookie became seldom used and his starts were few and far between.
The next two games saw the debuts of two more starters, Cy Falkenberg and Brickyard Kennedy. These two pitchers couldn’t be anymore different. Cy was a 23 year old rookie who had just put up an 18-11 record for Worcester of the Eastern League, a top minor league of the time. He was a giant of a man for back in the day at 6’5″, easily the tallest player on the team. Kennedy was a 35-year-old veteran with 178 career wins but was on the downside of his career. Signed as a free agent in January, they looked for him to help replace the two star pitchers they lost. Kennedy had pitched very little the previous two seasons but was a four time 20 game winner who was good for over 300 innings a season in his prime.
Kennedy would win his game and become a regular in the rotation for a little more than half of the season. Falkenberg would lose badly twice to the Cubs within a week and he wouldn’t make another start again until the last game in July. The Pirates basically went with a three man set rotation and whoever was doing well at the time. Doheny, Leever and Phillippe would take their regular turns while Wilhelm and Kennedy got more starts than any other new pitchers brought in but they also used another five starters before the season was over.
Much of the offense was the same as previous years, Honus Wagner was now finally the regular shortstop for good, no longer bouncing around between whatever positions they needed him at. He was also well established as one of the top players in the game both offensively and now defensively too. Fred Clarke was still the manager and in the midst of his best season since 1897 when he batted a career high .390 with Louisville. Ginger Beaumont was one of the best centerfielders of the day and Tommy Leach, the 1902 NL leader in both home runs and triples, provided the team with power from 3B and a strong left side of the infield when paired with Wagner.
On the right side of the infield 2b Claude Ritchey and 1B Kitty Bransfield gave the Pirates two key pieces to their last two pennant runs and 1903 was no different. Each of them providing the occasional key hits and strong defense that would make them star players with most teams but key role players on the loaded Pirates teams.
The two newcomers to the lineup had each briefly played with the Pirates the previous season. Behind the plate, 24 year old Ed Phelps was getting in his first full season of working splitting the catching duties with Harry Smith. Both catchers had strong arms, as on the year the Pirates threw out nearly 50% of base runners attempting to steal. The difference between the two was that Phelps could hit which led to him getting slightly more of the playing time.
In right field the Pirates had another recent Bucknell graduate, 21 year old Jimmy Sebring, who made his Pittsburgh debut in September 1902 and hit .325 to finish the season. The RF job was his to start the 1903 season and the strong-arm outfielder played the position well and added some decent offense with his bat.
The Pirates, Giants and Cubs all started the season off strong as expected, the end of April saw the three teams atop the NL separated by just one game. By the end of May the Pirates had fallen 4 games back in the standings in third place with the 2nd place Giants about to come into Pittsburgh for a three game series. New York had their star pitcher Christy Mathewson scheduled to start game one as they looked to put distance between themselves and the defending champs. Next week I will look at how the Pirates performed in this key series and how they finished out the 1903 season.