Through August 1st of the 1910 Pittsburgh Pirates season, the defending World Series champs had gone 50-36, putting them in third place. The Giants had a half game lead on the Pirates, but they trailed the Cubs by a full seven games, with just over two months left in the season. Pittsburgh left on a road trip that would take them from Philadelphia, to Boston, to Brooklyn, then to New York, before returning home 16 days later. It was important for the team to have a strong road trip, especially one that ended with the team fighting them in the standings.
The road trip started off with a loss to the Phillies that dropped them 8.5 games back. Then the Pirates swept a doubleheader on August 3rd, followed by a 6-0 shutout by Babe Adams. Three wins in a row pushed them 1.5 games ahead of the Giants, but they remained eight behind the Cubs, who went 2-0 in that time, with both wins coming over the Giants.
Pittsburgh dropped the last game of the Phillies series, before going to face the last place Boston Doves, who had a 36-62 record. Despite the huge differences in the standings, Boston played Pittsburgh hard that year, winning six of the 13 games played up until that point. They were no match in this four series against the Pirates, a team playing like they knew the division was slowly falling out of reach. Pittsburgh took all four games, winning by a combined 29-4 score. The four game streak helped tremendously in the standings, rallying to within 5.5 games of the Cubs, who had trouble with the Phillies. New York followed suit, moving their deficit to seven games.
On to Brooklyn, where the Superbas were nearly as bad as the Doves. They had a 41-56 record, putting them in sixth place. The Pirates should’ve handled the Superbas easy, but they ran into a little trouble that cost them slightly in the standings. After taking the first game 3-0, Pittsburgh won a close game on August 12th by a 3-2 score. The two teams played a doubleheader the next day and it was a hard fought struggle. The Pirates won game one 3-2 in 13 innings. The winning run was walked home, as star pitcher Nap Rucker issued a free pass to Dots Miller, who was preceded by an intentional walk to Honus Wagner to load the bases. In the second game, the two teams slugged it out for nine innings. When the dust settled, it was too dark to play a tenth inning, giving the teams an 8-8 tie. Had Pittsburgh won, they would’ve left for New York trailing the Cubs by five games, with a 2.5 game lead over the Giants.
The Giants series opened up with a doubleheader on a Monday, following a scheduled off-day. In game one, New York had their big gun going, Christy Mathewson was on the mound, while the Pirates countered with Lefty Leifield. The game was another extra innings affair for the Pirates, scoreless until the 11th inning, when they put two runs on the board. Giants came back with one in the bottom of the innings, but Pittsburgh took the opener. Unfortunately, they couldn’t muster any offense in game two, going down 2-1 after two innings, which is where that game stayed.
During this time, Pirates center field Tommy Leach was hurt and sent home. It just happened to coincide with the acquisition of future Hall of Fame center fielder Max Carey from the minors. Pittsburgh also picked up infielder Alex McCarthy that day. Neither played joined the team right away though, both making their debuts in October.
The Giants series and the long road trip ended with two more 2-1 scores, one win apiece. With a split in the series, neither team lost ground to the Cubs, though they did lose some time to catch Chicago. Pittsburgh returned home for one game against the Reds, then the same four teams they just played on the road, were all coming to Pittsburgh, starting with Boston. Before the home series started, the Pirates made some room in their bullpen, sending down Lefty Webb, the rookie pitcher that had a 2-1 record in seven games. That move made room for Jack Ferry, who was soon brought in amid much speculation that the Pirates were about the make wholesale changes, something manager Fred Clarke steadfastly denied.
Pittsburgh took care of the Reds rather easily, winning 10-2 in the one game set. Boston eclipsed their entire run production from the previous series in game one in Pittsburgh, but still lost 8-6. In the second game of the two game set, former Pirate Ed Abbaticchio helped the Doves to a 3-2 victory. With a scheduled off-day, followed by a doubleheader against the Phillies, the Pirates fell back to seven games behind in the standing, though they were three ahead of the Giants still.
The four game, three day series with the Phillies ended with disappointment. Pittsburgh took the doubleheader, then lost badly in each of the next two games, with Leifield and Babe Adams on the mound. It may have been a sign that the wheels were starting to fall off that year. Part of the problem with now trailing the Cubs by 8.5 games, was that they only faced Chicago five more times. Pittsburgh swept the three game series against Brooklyn, but they needed extra innings once to win and the other two games were closely fought battles.
That lead to the Giants coming into Pittsburgh, in a series with great importance. New York appeared to be out of the division now, after losing three of four to the Cubs, but they weren’t ready to throw in the towel just yet and they came to Pittsburgh ready to play. So ready in fact, that they swept the Pirates right out of Forbes Field. It was the first three(or more) game home sweep against the Pirates on the season, something that never happened during their 1909 championship season.
Things did not get better right away for the Pirates, who would lose the first two against the Reds in Cincinnati. On September 2nd, they were 11 games back with 36 games left in the season. It seemed to set in at that point that they were unable to defend their World Series title. After leaving Cincinnati, winning two of the last three the teams played, the Pirates took out their frustrations on the lowly Cardinals, scoring 11 runs in three straight games, taking the first four game of a five game series by a 42-21 score. Even going 6-1 over the last seven, they picked up just 1.5 games in the standings.
After a heart-breaking loss in the last game of the St Louis series, the Pirates had their last chance, albeit a slim one, to make it a race again for the pennant. Two games in Chicago with Lefty Leifield and Howie Camnitz on the mound. Leifield did his part, winning the opener in front of nearly 30,000 Cubs fans. The loss in game two sealed their fate, leading them to a 10-17 finish. With five straight losses to end the year, the Pirates lost the division by 17 games and couldn’t hold on to second place.
It was a disappointing season for Pittsburgh, winners of 24 less games than the previous season. Honus Wagner held his usual top spot on the team in most categories, though he had his string of four straight NL batting titles snapped. His .320 average was his lowest since his first full season in the big leagues back in 1898 with the Louisville Colonels. He also stole just 24 bases, his lowest full season total and his 90 runs scored were also a low mark since that 1898 season.
On the pitching side, Howie Camnitz went from 25 wins in 1909, down to a 12-13 record this season. Babe Adams did his part in keeping the Pirates in the running, going 18-9 in his first full season in the rotation. The 38 year old Deacon Phillippe had a magnificent season in his well-planned role on the team. His starts were limited and he was given ample rest, leading to a 14-2 record. The great Sam Leever played his last season and was used similarly to Phillippe. Both made eight starts and saw their share of relief work. Leever finished 6-5 2.76 in 111 innings. Near the end of the season, the Pirates sold Nick Maddox to the minors, ending his brief but spectacular career, with a 43-20 record.
Despite the poor finish, the Pirates did little of anything over the off-season, sticking with the players they had, along with giving playing time to young players brought in late in 1910 like Max Carey, Alex McCarthy, Elmer Steele and Claude Hendrix, as well as Newt Hunter, a 31 year old first baseman getting his first chance in the majors.