The following is from Pirates Prospects contributor John Dreker, as part of his ongoing Pirates History feature. The feature focuses on the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and every Sunday, John will take a look at a different piece of that history. This week John looks at Alex McKinnon, the Pittsburgh Alleghenys first baseman who passed away during the 1887 season.
During their first season in the NL in 1887, the Pittsburgh Alleghenys were led by a strong hitting first baseman named Alex McKinnon. He was acquired in the previous off-season for Otto Schomberg, a 21-year-old 1B who hit .272 as a rookie in 1886 for the Alleghenys, as well as a cash payment in the amount of $400. McKinnon was nine years older and had only played in the NL for three season due to the fact he was suspended from the league for jumping his first NL contract before he ever played a game back in 1879. He had played professionally since 1875, retiring briefly, partly due to illness, in the early 80’s before being reinstated for the 1883 NL season. He signed a contract with Philadelphia but again fell ill and was unable to play.
When his NL career finally got started in 1884 for the NY Gothams (current day San Francisco Giants) McKinnon was in the lineup every single day, quite an accomplishment for a player who retired due to illness once and missed a full season another time. He was a decent hitter but a very poor fielder, so bad in fact that he finished 2nd in the league in errors among first basemen and he moved Hall of Famer Roger Connor off the position to second base That was a position Connor had never played before and would play just one more game there his entire career.
McKinnon would move on the next year to the St Louis NL club and actually lead the league in fielding percentage, an amazing turnaround from the previous season. He also improved his hitting by posting a .294 average, 22 points higher than the previous season. The Maroons however, finished poorly in 1885 with McKinnon taking over as the manager for the last 38 games, and they won just six of those games.
In 1886 again for St Louis, McKinnon had his best full season, hitting .301 and placing in the top ten in the league in many categories, including homers and runs batted in. His defense however slipped back to 1884 standards, finishing with the 2nd most errors again at first base. The Alleghenys didn’t acquire him for his glove, he was their big bat in the lineup, a new hitting star at an advanced age, especially for the time he was playing when many careers ended around age 30. On April 30, 1887 batting in the 6th spot, McKinnon was the star of the day during the Alleghenys first ever NL game, pleasing the home crowd with a four-hit day including a home run and a triple, while scoring two runs in the 6-2 victory.
Through early July the Pirates were 19-28 going into a July 4th doubleheader, though the record was of no fault to McKinnon. He was playing everyday, fielding well and batting a team high .340 with 30 RBIs up to that point, but he had started to feel sick. He would leave the team following the doubleheader split with what would soon be diagnosed as Typhoid Pneumonia. Alex was expected to recover from the sickness, but it was another illness for the star player and this one would be too much for him to overcome. He had finally reached stardom at age 30, but on Sunday July 24th McKinnon passed away just 20 days after he had unknowingly played his last game. The team was off that day when they learned of the news. They sat 14 games under .500 at that point when they banded together for their fallen brother. Second baseman Sam Barkley moving over to first base for the rest of the year, and the Alleghenys played .500 ball over the final 60 games despite not having their best hitter.
McKinnon was the first active player to die in season since 1872, the 2nd year of organized major league ball, when a 22-year-old outfielder for the Brooklyn Atlantics named Al Thake drowned while fishing on his off-day. The Alleghenys honored the memory of McKinnon by wearing a black crepe on their uniform for the rest of the season. He finished with a .296 career average in 386 games.