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 one of the best purchases the Pirates have ever made.
As I mentioned in my last article, I’d cover the purchase of Jake Beckley and Harry Staley in this article. I chose to single out this move because it turned out to be one of the better ones in Pirates history, yet little is ever made of it. I think Beckley, because of how long ago he played, is an under appreciated all-time great with the Pirates. One of the reasons he loses a little luster in my opinion is he was part of the mass exodus of players leaving right before the 1890 season which in turn led the team to have their worst season in history. It’s hard to blame him or any of the others for leaving, the Player’s League was supposed to help the players get paid like they thought they deserved to, but I’ll leave it at that as I’ll cover that more (another teaser) in a future article. Surrounding that one season he left, Beckley played seven plus seasons for the Pirates before being traded away mid-1896.
In the 1888 season the Alleghenys were struggling through mid-June with a 14-26 record, just two games away from last place. They had a platoon going at 1B between Al Maul and John Coleman, neither were hitting well and neither were natural first basemen. They also had a two man pitching staff getting worked to death, and despite the fact they were two pretty good pitchers, Hall of Famer Pud Galvin and Ed Morris, neither was having much success.
Harry Staley was just 21 at the time and was by far the best pitcher on the Whites. He had pitched 20 of the teams games with a 9-11 record while six other pitchers had compiled a 5-14 record combined. He also had an ERA of just 1.76 with 130 K’s and a 1.08 WHIP. At the time Staley was considered the better player of the two and was well sought after.
It wasn’t uncommon for minor league teams to sell players to the majors back in the early days of baseball. Most teams however wouldn’t sell their two best players for just $4,500 so early in their season without a good reason and the Whites had one. They were just days away from disbanding the club due to finances and they had to get what they could before the players became free agents. The Alleghenys were lucky enough to be the ones the acquire these two players who both filled glaring holes for the team.
Beckley would take over the 1B role and hit .343 for Pittsburgh, just one point off the league lead although he didn’t have the plate appearances to qualify for the title. He would go on to play 930 games for the franchise, hitting an even .300 total and five times in six full seasons he drove in at least 96 runs. He was also a fine fielder, leading the league in putouts three times and assists four straight seasons, while always finishing near the top in fielding percentage and range. The 1896 Beckley trade looked to be a good one until 1898 when he hit .294 before running off a string of six straight seasons batting over .300 while with Cincinnati. The Pirates had thought he was washed up and traded him for a young 1B named Harry Davis who had a real nice 1897 season but didn’t even last in Pittsburgh until the end of the 1898 season, being sold before the year ended.
Staley played an equally important role. He gave the team a chance to win every time he went out while also giving some much needed rest to Galvin and Morris. The team’s record showed how important these two additions were as they finished the season going 52-42, the second best record in the league from June 20th on. Staley would go on to be the team’s best pitcher the next year, throwing a team leading 420 IP before jumping to the Player’s League. His stay in 1891 with the Pirates (as they were then called that year) when most players returned to their original team was very brief although his career was far from done as he went 60-28 combined the three seasons after being released.
The deals in the long run may not have amounted to a league title but it was still an impressive purchase at the time, getting a slick-fielding .300 hitter for the middle of your lineup, plus one of the minor leagues better pitchers, ages 20 and 21 respectively. Beckley was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971, well after his death and twenty-five years after the Hall voted in many lesser players from his era.
John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.
When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.