The 1908 Pittsburgh Pirates finished the season in second place with a 98-56 record, tied with the New York Giants and just one game behind the World Series winning Chicago Cubs. It was a slow climb to get back even with the Chicago team that won 116 games in 1906, outdistancing the Pirates by 23.5 games in the standings that year. The 1907 Pirates could only come within 17 games of the Cubs but now going into 1909 the two teams, along with the Giants, seemed to be on even ground. What changes for 1909 did the Pirates make though to ensure they could finally overcome this strong Cubs team while also trying to get ahead of a Giants team that also seemed to be geared up for a big season? The three teams had won every NL pennant since 1901 and going into 1909 they all seemed poise to make sure that streak continued.
As alluded to in the previous article, one of the key additions the Pirates made for the 1909 season actually came during the middle of the 1908 season. John “Dots” Miller was a 21 year old shortstop out of Kearny,NJ who had never played pro ball prior to 1908, his highest level of play was with his hometown semi-pro team playing other local teams. The manager of a team from Easton, Pa, just outside of New Jersey, had watched Miller play and was impressed enough to give him his first professional job in baseball. The team from Easton was in the Atlantic League, an eight team league made up of teams from Pennsylvania that was considered an outlaw league, which basically means they didn’t play under the minor league rules and standards of the day. It took just two months for word to get across state to Pittsburgh that Miller was worth a look from the Pirates and they purchased his contract. He was sent to a class C team in McKeesport, Pa by the Pirates to get some more experience but by the end of the minor league season, after hitting .306 in 43 games, he was working out with the Pirates and making a great impression.
Miller obviously wasn’t going to play shortstop in Pittsburgh with Honus Wagner around but between his late 1908 workouts with the team and his equally impressive showing in spring training of 1909, the Pirates made him their everyday second baseman to begin the season. The move shows just how well he had performed because the Pirates paid a hefty sum to acquire Ed Abbaticchio prior to the 1907 season and he was now moved to the bench.
The Pirates also purchased another young player from the minors who would play with the team for the entire 1909 season. Ham Hyatt was a 23 year old outfielder who had hit .323 for Vancouver of the Northwestern League in 1908. He also hit a team leading 15 home runs and when his minor league season ended the Pirates purchased his contract from Vancouver, although just like Miller, he never played with the Pirates during the 1908 season. Pittsburgh signed a small 3B named Jap Barbeau after he hit .282 in 137 games playing for Toledo of the American Association. Barbeau was previously in the majors for parts of two seasons with Cleveland but after hitting just .211 over 53 games during the 1905-06 seasons, they gave him his release. With the addition of Barbeau, Tommy Leach once again moved to the center field spot after playing third base most of 1908. Barbeau was actually a shortstop in the minors, giving the Pirates three players, along with Miller and Wagner, who played shortstop regularly the previous season.
Pittsburgh actually had a fairly quiet off-season, seeming quite content to go with what they had for their 1909 run. The only three deals they made after the season ended were the selling off of pitcher Irv Young and first baseman Warren Gill to a minor league team in Minneapolis and buying a backup catcher from the Boston Doves named Mike Simon, who had no major league experience and was a rule 5 draft pick in September 1908. They picked up another outfielder named Ward Miller after he hit .382 in 124 games but that was as a 23 year old in class D ball, a level he spent all three years of his pro ball at up to that point. Jumping from D ball to the majors was a huge leap at that time.
The Pirates were still confident going into the new season because they had a strong pitching staff complete with a healthy Deacon Phillippe, who pitched just 12 innings in 1908. Their starting staff of Vic Willis, Nick Maddox, Lefty Leifield, Sam Leever and Howie Camnitz had won a total of 92 games in 1908 and all of them returned for the following season. As if the addition of Phillippe to an already strong staff wasn’t enough, the Pirates also had Babe Adams, a pitcher they purchased in 1907. Adams had played briefly for the Pirates that first year but spent the entire 1908 season in the minors where he won 22 games and pitched 312 innings. The Pirates now had seven capable pitchers when most teams were lucky to have four guys they felt confident in when they took the mound. The good part about so many pitchers was it allowed Leever and Phillippe, who were both getting up there in age, to get proper rest between appearances. In prior years the Pirates had leaned heavily on these two in big games but now the workload could be spread out better among all seven pitchers.
On the offensive side the Pirates hoped for bigger things out of two returning players for 1909. Catcher George Gibson was strong defensively his whole career but his bat had finally started to show life after four seasons. Even if he couldn’t improve on his hitting, Gibson played the tough position of catcher everyday (He led NL in games caught in 1907 and 08) and there was a big difference with him behind the plate, the way he handled the pitchers and cut down there other team’s running game in the small ball era. In right field they had Chief Wilson who hit .227 during his rookie season in 1908 but was known to be a much better hitter in the minors and after playing 144 games for the Pirates in 1908 they expected bigger things from him in his sophomore season.
At first base in 1908 the Pirates went through a group of light hitters who couldn’t hold down the position. Harry Swacina, Alan Storke, Jim Kane and the previously mentioned Warren Gill all played 1B at some point during the 1908 season and they combined for one homer and 61 RBI’s in 599 AB’s. All but Storke were gone for 1909 and he would assume a lesser role that season. Returning from two seasons in the minors was Bill Abstein, who played eight games for the Pirates in late 1906. Abstein had played the last two years for Providence of the Eastern League where he hit .272 with 19 triples and five homers in 1908. After what the Pirates went through at first base in 1908 they were hoping for better from Abstein at the spot in 1909.
The team was set for the 1909 season at this point. Gibson would be behind the plate with Mike Simon and 1908 backup Paddy O’Connor in the reserve role. The infield was Abstein, Miller, Wagner and Barbeau with Storke and Abbaticchio on the bench. The outfielder was player/manager Fred Clarke in left field for the 10th straight season, Tommy Leach beside him and Chief Wilson in RF with newcomers Ham Hyatt and Ward Miller as the backup outfielders. The pitching staff was set out up above but also included Chick Brandom, a young arm that showed well in a few late season games in 1908. They had three other pitchers, all new to the team for 1909 on the opening day staff, Sam Frock, Bill Powell and Charlie Wacker. Frock had pitched briefly for the 1907 Boston Doves while Wacker had won 27 games in the minors in 1908. Powell won 20 games in his first season of pro ball in 1908 and he was a hard throwing 23 year old.
When we return next week, we get the 1909 season under way as the Pirates open their title run on Wednesday April 14 in Cincinnati with Howie Camnitz on the mound.
Note: For the old Pirates history articles, which have run here for every Sunday since December 2010, sixty-seven articles in all counting today(sometimes I wrote on Saturday as well) please check out this link here starting with the oldest articles first. They take the team from day one up until the beginning of the 1909 season. They will continue in this blog from here on out and occasionally I will include links from past articles relevant to the current article.