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 how the 1888 team was built.
In their first season in the NL, the Pittsburgh Alleghenys finished a disappointing 55-69, in 6th place (out of 8 teams) and 24 games back of the leader. In this article I’m going to break down how the team, led by returning manager Horace Phillips, attacked their first off-season, way back before relievers and a deep bench were part of team’s off-season checklist.
First I’ll start with the who was new for the beginning of the year. Right after the 1887 season ended they acquired a veteran second baseman, 28-year-old Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap, for the price of approximately $4,000 from the first place Detroit Wolverines. In the previous article I noted that Sam Barkley took over at first base when Alex McKinnon died. Barkley wasn’t much of a hitter for a second baseman, so you could imagine how his bat played at first base, where even back then many teams stuck their best slugger. Dunlap was a consistent hitter with some strong seasons to his credit, but he was a very strong defensive player with sure hands and great range. By putting him at second base and eventually selling Sam Barkley, the team was able to put an All-Star type player at second base and look elsewhere to fill the first base void with a strong bat.
To start the season, the Alleghenys used an odd combo of players at first base. They had outfielder John Coleman, who started his career as a pitcher, and an outfielder they bought from the Philadelphia Quakers named Al Maul (pictured to the right), who would end his career having pitched 187 games with a respectable 84-80 record. Maul was just 22 years old, with very little major league experience, although in 16 games in 1887, he hit .304 with 15 walks. The team started off slow with these two splitting time at first base, which led them to eventually make a terrific transaction. They purchased future Hall of Famer Jake Beckley from St. Louis of the Western Association, which was a top minor league at the time. I’ll cover this deal in more detail in the next article.
The team returned with Pop Smith at shortstop for his fourth season with the franchise. He wasn’t much of a hitter, but played strong defense and showed some speed. Teamed with Dunlap, they were as good as any double play combo in the National League. The Alleghenys probably would’ve liked to have Art Whitney in 1888. He had been with the team since 1884, play some shortstop and third base, but he was a holdout to start the year (due to contract demands) and eventually got traded to New York for Elmer Cleveland, in what was a one-sided trade for New York. Cleveland wasn’t that good as a player and his claim to fame was being related to sitting President Grover Cleveland. However, since Whitney said he wasn’t going to play all season, the Alleghenys had to take what they could get for him.
The starting third baseman for 1888 was Bill Kuehne, a team regular since 1885, who jumped all around during his five seasons in Pittsburgh. He was a decent defensive third baseman (not so much at any other spot) and he was coming off what would be his best career season at the plate. He would go on to start a league high 138 games in 1888. At the catcher spot the team had the same three players as the previous year, with Doggie Miller and Fred Carroll splitting most of the time. Miller was an average hitter with better defense, while Carroll had the better bat and suspect defense, although early in his career he was much better. Jocko Fields was the team’s third string catcher. Due to poor equipment back then and more injuries, most teams carried three catchers, and they would usually play another position while giving themselves a break from the wear and tear.
In the outfield, Abner Dalrymple, along with Coleman, Maul and the three catchers, all would get time out there, although Coleman had the high among the group with 91 games played. The team’s main addition to the outfield was Billy Sunday, a blazing fast outfielder they bought from the Chicago White Stockings. Just 25 at the time, Sunday was coming off his best season, but was still available for just $2,000 when Pittsburgh came calling in mid-January. He was a top notch center fielder, with what some said was the best speed in the game at the time. His problem in every season (except 1887) was the fact he couldn’t get on base enough to take advantage of that speed. For example, in the 1888 season, Sunday stole 71 bases. That total ranked him third in the National League, and he did that despite a .256 OBP.
Despite Sunday’s lack of on-base skills, the team still probably felt pretty well going into the 1888 season with his speed and defense in center field and the two veterans, Coleman and Dalrymple, manning the corners. That was along with Maul and a couple of good hitting catchers taking turns in the fourth outfielder spot.
The two-man pitching rotation was strong for 1888, with Ed “Cannonball” Morris and the future HOF’er James “Pud” Galvin taking turns in the pitcher’s box. Both were reliable pitchers, but the only other option the team had to start the year was Hardie Henderson, who was a 25-year-old with an 80-118 career record and his best years well behind him. They eventually acquired a young hurler named Harry Staley, who came along in the Beckley deal, but to start the season their plan was Morris and Galvin and pray their arms didn’t fall off.
With a decent third stringer, it’s possible the team would’ve done much better in 1888. They were eight games over .500 with Staley going regularly despite his personal .500 (12-12) record on the season. In 1887 they had 265-game winner James McCormick getting a regular turn along with Galvin and Morris, but he retired over the off-season when Pittsburgh wouldn’t meet his high contract demands. As it was, the Alleghenys finished 66-68 in 1888, jumping just one spot in the standings to fifth place.
Here’s the complete list of new players for the 1888 season and players from 1887 who didn’t return:
Who was new?
Fred Dunlap (purchased for approx. $4,000 from Detroit NL), Billy Sunday (purchased for $2,000 from Chicago NL), Al Maul (purchased for $1,000 from Philadelphia NL), Jake Beckley and Harry Staley (purchased for $4,500 from St Louis[minors] in June), Elmer Cleveland (Received in trade for Art Whitney in June), Pete McShannic-rookie, Phil Knell-rookie, Henry Yaik-rookie, Sam Nicholl-rookie, Bill Farmer-rookie, Cliff Carroll-free agent, Hardie Henderson-free agent.
Who was gone?
Alex McKinnon (passed away), Sam Barkley (sold to Kansas City of the American Association right before the season started), Bill Bishop-released, Jim McCormick (retired), Ed Beecher-released, Tom Brown (released August 15,1887), Art Whitney (traded to New York NL).