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This Date in Pirates History: January 1

Born on this date in 1911 was Hall of Fame first baseman Hank Greenberg who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947. He missed nearly five seasons due to World War II but the 36-year-old Greenberg still led the American League in homers with 44 and RBIs with 127 his first full season back in baseball in 1946. The Pirates purchased him from the Detroit Tigers for $75,000 in January of 1947 and then signed him to a $100,000 contract, the first NL player to make that much. The addition of Greenberg gave the Pirates a potent 1-2 punch in the middle of their lineup when combined with Ralph Kiner, who was the NL leader in homers in 1946.

Greenberg and Kiner combined for 76 homers in 1947

The Pirates adjusted the left field fence at Forbes Field to accommodate their two sluggers, bringing it in 30 feet and calling the new home run territory Greenberg Gardens, later renamed Kiner’s Korner. Greenberg didn’t have a big season in Pittsburgh, hitting a career low .249 with 25 homers and 74 RBIs, although he did walk 104 times. His biggest contribution to the Pirates that year was his tutelage of Kiner, making the young player a better hitter by teaching him to pull the ball more to take advantage of the shorter distance in LF, and he also made him take extra batting practice. The move may not have paid off in the standings as the Pirates finished in 7th place with a 62-92 record, but they did get their money back on Greenberg with an increase of over 500,000 fans from the previous season.

Hank retired following the season due to lingering injuries but he still had some remarkable career stats to his credit. He played just nine full seasons and four partial years but he was still able to hit 331 homers and drive in 1276 runs with a .313 career average. His career OPS of 1.017 ranks 7th all-time. He led the AL four times in home runs including an amazing 58 in 1938. He drove in 183 runs in 1937, the third highest single season total ever and two years prior he drove in 170 runs, the 8th highest total ever. Despite the great stats over a short time it still took until 1956 for him to get elected to the Hall of Fame even though he first appeared on the ballot in 1949(He also received votes in 1945 before he came back from the war).

A few brief birthday mentions on this New Year’s day.

Bob Owchinko (1955) pitched one game for the 1983 Pirates. They originally acquired him in December 1980 from the Cleveland Indians in the Bert Blyleven/ Manny Sanguillen trade. Before Owchinko could play a regular season game for the Pirates they shipped him to the Oakland A’s in exchange for pitcher Ernie Camacho. He was released by the A’s just prior to the start of the 1983 season and the Pirates signed him one month later. He spent the season in AAA, getting called up in September. On September 5th he came in during the 9th inning of the second game of a doubleheader with the Pirates up 6-5 and gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, Andy Van Slyke. The next batter doubled then Owchinko was pulled and he didn’t pitch for the Pirates again. In November of 1983 the Pirates sold him to the Reds.

Gary Wilson (1970) pitched ten games for the 1995 Pirates. He was an 18th round draft pick by the Pirates in 1992. In 1994 Wilson went 11-6, 2.82 in 28 minor league starts, working his way up from high-A ball to start the 1994 season to the majors to start the 1995 season. He had an 0-1, 5.02 record in 14.1 innings for the Pirates before being sent back to the minors for good in mid-June. He stayed in the Pittsburgh system until late 1998, finishing his pro career with the Twins AAA team at the end of that season.

Bill McGunnigle (1855) managed the Pirates during the second half of the 1891 season, going 24-33 with two ties. He had previously managed the Brooklyn Bridegrooms from 1888-90, winning the American Association pennant in 1889, then when Brooklyn moved to the NL for the 1890 season, he again won the title there. Despite that managerial success, he had just two more seasons of managing left in him, 1891 with the Pirates and 1896 with the Louisville Colonels who had a player named Fred Clarke in left field, the HOF player who is also the Pirates all-time leader in managerial wins. McGunnigle pitched two seasons in the majors (1879-80) and played outfield when he wasn’t on the mound, also getting into one major league game in 1882.

McGunnicle has an interesting footnote in Pirates history that not many people know:

During the 1891 season, most sources say that the Pirates switched names from the Alleghenys(1882-90) to the current Pirates name. That isn’t quite true, as there was never any official name change back then and the actual team name was “The Pittsburg Base Ball Club”, with Pittsburgh being spelled without the H at the end and baseball was two words back then. In 1891, that was the first time that the club was called “Pirates”, but that was far from official and mostly done by a few outside sources, such as the press in Cincinnati and Boston and some unhappy baseball people in Philadelphia.

The team name from the local press never really changed until years later. They were still called the Alleghenys in early 1891, sometimes referred to as the Pittsburgs or the Hanlon’s after manager Ned Hanlon. That changed when McGunnigle took over. He used to run practices with a whistle and the team was quickly referred to as the Pets, as in McGunnigle’s pets. It was used in headlines and stories by the Pittsburgh media for the second half of the season and into the off-season. So when you see 1891 for the Pirates name change, realize that it was just the first time “Pirates” was used and wasn’t recognized by anyone with the team, or anyone that covered the team day-by-day, as the team nickname that year.

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John Dreker

John was born in Kearny, NJ, hometown of the 2B for the Pirates 1909 World Championship team, Dots Miller. In fact they have some of the same relatives in common, so it was only natural for him to become a lifelong Pirates fan. Before joining Pirates Prospects in July 2010, John had written numerous articles on the history of baseball while also releasing his own book and co-authoring another on the history of the game. He writes a weekly article on Pirates history for the site, has already interviewed many of the current minor leaguers with many more on the way and follows the foreign minor league teams very closely for the site. John also provides in person game reports of the West Virginia Power and Altoona Curve.

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This Date in Pirates History: January 2

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