This Date in Pirates History: January 8
Born on this date in 1934 was Gene Freese, infielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1958 then again in 1964-65. Gene was signed as an amateur free agent by the Pirates just prior to the 1953 season. He hit .300 that first season in the lower levels then moved up to AA in 1954 where he hit .332 with 16 homers in 145 games, which earned him an opening day spot for the 1955 Pirates. He played just over half of his games at 3B that rookie season and the rest at 2B, hitting .253 with 14 homers and 69 runs scored in 134 games. Gene started off slow in 1956, hitting .209 through July 4th when he was sent back to the minors. He returned in late September for six games, going 2 for 11 at the plate.
In 1957 he was on the bench to start the year but by late May he was in the lineup regularly, mostly at 3B and he hit a career high .283 in 114 games. Despite that season, he started the next year on the bench, starting just one game through the first two months when the Pirates traded him along with Johnny O’Brien for Dick Schofield, who was featured here yesterday. Freese played for four different teams before the Pirates purchased him from the Reds in November 1963. He played 99 games that 1964 season, 72 at third base, the rest off the bench and hit .225 with 40 RBI’s. He saw limited action for the 1965 Pirates, getting into 43 games before he was sold to the Chicago White Sox. Gene finished his career in 1966, hitting .254 with 115 homers and 432 RBI’s in 1115 games.
Also born on this date, way back in 1864, was shortstop John Gilbert who played two games for the 1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys. His story of how he entered the baseball encyclopedia is an interesting one. The 1890 Alleghenys(nickname changed to the Pirates the following season) were an extremely bad team, bad enough to lose 113 games while winning just 23 times. They were also bad enough to give two brothers, John and Harry Gilbert, a chance to be a double play combo for one day in the majors despite the fact they were both playing for a semi-pro team at the time with no prior major league experience. The Alleghenys started the 1890 season 12-34, it was June 21st and they had just lost 11-2 in Philadelphia. They had to sit around for two days until the next game(weather delay on Saturday and they didn’t play Sunday baseball). When play resumed on Monday the 23rd, they had a scheduled doubleheader to play and a new double play combo, Harry at 2B and John at SS. The birthday boy went 0-for-8 at the plate but fielded both games cleanly while his brother Harry, who was five years younger, collected two singles in his eight at bats and also played the field flawlessly. The Pirates won the second game that day and for the two brothers it was not only there last day in the majors, they never even played pro ball again.
Born on this date in 1915 was Walker Cooper, catcher for the 1954 Pirates. He was already a 39 year old veteran of 14 seasons when the Pirates signed him as a free agent in February of 1954. Cooper was a top catcher of his era, an eight time all-star who had finished in the top ten in the NL in batting average three times and four times he finished among the league leaders in slugging percentage. He had also received MVP votes in four different seasons including 1943 when he finished 2nd in the voting. While with the Cardinals in the early 1940′s he was not only the catcher for his brother Mort , who had three straight 20 win seasons, but the pair started the 1942 and 1943 all-star games for the NL. By the time the Pirates got Walker he was past his prime, having hit .235 and .219 in the previous two seasons(he was a .285 career hitter). He lasted just 14 games for Pittsburgh and only started once, pinch hitting in 12 of those 14 games. He was put on waivers in May and the Cubs picked him up. He actually played well for them in a limited role, hitting .310 in 158 at bats. Walker played three more seasons before retiring. One of the more under-appreciated catchers of all-time, he received as many as 14.4% of the votes needed for Hall of Fame induction, last appearing on the ballot in 1977.
A couple more brief birthday mentions. Brian Boehringer(1969) pitched in relief for the Pirates from 2002-04. He pitched 167.1 innings over 153 games putting together a 10-9 4.36 record with one save. His best season for the Pirates came in 2002 when he had a 3.39 ERA in 70 games. Marv Rickert was an outfielder briefly for the 1950 Pirates. They purchased his contract from the Braves in December 1949 and in 17 games, mostly as a pinch hitter, he went 3-20 with four RBI’s. On May 29th of that 1950 season the Pirates sold him to the Chicago White Sox where he finished his career.