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 the 1890 Alleghenys, owners of the worst record in Pittsburgh franchise history.
When looking up Pirates futility records a good place to start is the 1890 team. They went 23-113 which will likely remain the second worst record of all-time. As I pointed out in my last article, many of the 1889 players left to go to the Player’s League so that would seem like a good reason they were bad. Then again all the NL teams lost many of their players so how did the Alleghenys get so bad?
When the Pittsburgh owners started scrambling for players to fill out a roster they had a weak starting point to build upon. Returning from the previous season were the battery of Doggie Miller, a good catcher who could hit a little and Bill Sowders, a 25 year old pitcher who had struggled for the 1889 team after being purchased mid-season from Boston. Sowders would go just 3-8 in 1890 and never pitched in the majors again.
They also had Billy Sunday, the center fielder with the good glove, blazing speed and inability to get on base at a high rate, and finally veteran 2B Fred Dunlap who was on his last legs as a player, he lasted just one month into the season before being released. The team was so bad that John Coleman was able to make a return in July. Coleman played just 6 games the previous season for Philadelphia of the American Association but had been with Pittsburgh from 1886-1888. He was washed up by then as a hitter and seven years prior had set the unbreakable single season record for losses by a pitcher with 48! So of course the Alleghenys used him on the mound, but after a 17-7 loss in his second start they knew when to end that experiment.
The manager for the Alleghenys was Guy Hecker. He is the owner of one of the best pitching seasons ever, winning the pitching triple crown in 1884 led by an amazing 52 wins. He also led the league in batting average just three seasons prior to joining the Alleghenys. He was originally just going to play 1B but the poor pitching forced him into mound duties. Just for accuracy sake I should mention the word “mound” wouldn’t be proper terminology for the day as the pitchers actually pitched from a flat surface which was literally a box they could move around in depending on who was batting. That’s where the term “back to the box” came from for a ball hit back to the pitcher.
Hecker was the only pitcher to last the entire season with the team mostly due to the fact he was willing to stick around during a 113 loss season. He went 2-9 on the year and that finished his career at 175-146. Not only was 1890 the start of, but it was also the end of his managerial career leaving him with that 23-113 record to his credit.
Hecker didn’t have much success on the mound and his hitting stroke was gone as well but he wasn’t the worst of the twenty different starters they tried out that season. Some of them had prior pitching with some success while others were just an arm they hoped could get some batters out but the Alleghenys knew it wasn’t likely. For starters, as in opening day, they threw out Pete Daniels who was 26 with no major league experience and who would pitch just one more season in the majors eight years later for the 1898 St Louis Browns( modern day Cardinals team). A team that went 39-111, if you’re keeping score at home he pitched two years in the majors for teams that went 62-224 combined.
Besides Daniels and Sowders, the third man in their pitching rotation was Frederick “Crazy” Schmit. He finished with a 1-9 record and one upped Daniels by going 2-17 for the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, the worst team ever with their 20-134 record. If you’re scoring at home still, he went 3-26 for two teams that combined for a 43-247 record. He can’t blame his struggles solely on the team’s he pitched for as he wasn’t really good enough to pitch in the majors and he went just 4-10 in his other three partial seasons.
A bulk of the rest of the starts went to three 21 year olds who had just five games of major league experience prior to 1890. Kirtley Baker, Bill Phillips and Dave Anderson started 44 games combined and won just seven. Baker was thrown to the wolves most often of the three and he ended up just 3-19 but like Schmit he wasn’t much of a pitcher to begin with as his 6-19 record after 1890 would indicate.
Phillips joined the team in August and won his first start ending an eleven game losing streak for the Alleghenys, who were then being called the Innocents by fans and media for their lack of experienced players. His success and the teams winning streak of one game would end the next day. They would go on to lose 23 straight games including a September 1st tripleheader that would leave them with a 19-92 record. They broke through just three days later when Anderson would win his first game for the team. He had won a game for the Phillies earlier in the season but they released him after he had posted a 7.44 ERA in eight games, four as a starter. Phillips went on to pitch well in the majors but not until he turned 30, going 69-67 over five season for the Reds.
Some of the best success they had at finding pitching was Billy Gumbert, a 24 year old lifelong Pittsburgher (he lived to be 80) they grabbed from a minor league team. They tried him out in mid-June and he posted a 4-6 record in his ten starts. His problem was he would only pitch home games and the team wasn’t drawing well at home to say the least, they had 17 fans at one game, so the Alleghenys decided to play on the road to try to make more money. That tactic led them to set an unbreakable record of 88 road losses in one season.
One of the more interesting players they had was John Francis “Phenomenal” Smith. He had pitched in the majors for six seasons already without phenomenal results, going 52-70 before the Alleghenys signed him for the stretch run. He made five of the teams last thirteen starts, winning one, the team’s 23rd victory on the year. He also scored a victory of sorts, dueling future Hall of Famer Amos Rusie to a tie in another game. That was the end to his Pittsburgh career. By the way, he got his nickname from a 16 strikeout performance in the minors back in 1884 and the name stuck making him a one game wonder of sorts.
As for other pitchers, Bill Day was acquired mid-season from the Phillies just like Smith and Anderson. He went 0-6 over the last month and never pitched in the majors again. Fred Osborne went 0-5 in five starts but he had a good excuse, he was a light hitting leftfielder and you shouldn’t expect much more than an 8.38 ERA from someone like him. I doubt you’ve ever heard of Charlie Heard and for good reason. He went 0-6 as an 18 year old rookie and was gone after one month. He also never played baseball again.
Lefty Sumner Bowman actually won two of his seven starts, and he was good enough to play in the majors again. He did get some help in those two wins as the Alleghenys broke out for 28 runs combined in those two contests. He needed all the runs he could get too giving up 90 runs in 70 total innings pitched for Pittsburgh.
You had to be pretty bad to make just one start for the Alleghenys in 1890 and 18 year old George Zeigler was. He lasted just 6 innings during a time even replacement pitchers were expected to throw complete games. He gave up seven earned runs on twelve hits but at least he didn’t walk anyone in what would be his only career game.
Penn State alumni Robert Gibson had an interesting, yet short, story to tell about his baseball career. He made his debut for the Chicago Colts (Cubs) on June 4th and gave up just 1 unearned run over nine innings. He next appeared with the Alleghenys two months later and lost his first game 20-1. He pitched three days later versus the same Brooklyn team and gave up 16 runs. He obviously complained about the run support he was getting so three days later the team gave him 17 runs scored in what would be his last career start. Stuff like that happens when you can’t win despite 17 runs scored because you gave up 23 runs.
Duke Esper was a rookie when he joined the Alleghenys, in late August. He was pitching for the Philadelphia team from the American Association prior and joined Pittsburgh when they came to town to play the Phillies. He lost his first game to Phenomenal Smith, then lost to Brooklyn, then signed with the Phillies where he would go 5-0 to finish the year taking Smith’s spot in the Phillies rotation. He was the rare good pitcher after leaving Pittsburgh that season, winning 101 career games.
Little is known about Charlie Gray who lost all four of his starts with Pittsburgh. He was 26 at the time and had no major league experience. Records to this day still don’t know what hand he threw with and his only other known professional playing experience was also in 1890 for a team from Ottawa. What is known is that he won his major league debut as a reliever on April 23rd, a win that pushed the Alleghenys to a 3-1 start on the season and obviously got fans in town hoping for a big season from the team! Gray was used sparingly, his four starts coming over a month’s time from late-May to late-June and all were road games.
Al Lawson made three starts, one for Boston (current day Braves), got released, then made two starts for the Alleghenys and gave up double digit runs in both of them and his major league career was done at age 21. Only one pitcher made an appearance for the team without making a start, that was Fred Hayner. His major league career consisted of pitching the final four innings of the second game of a August 19th doubleheader. The team was in Chicago and he was a local kid who probably told the team he could pitch and when Bill Phillips gave up nine runs they gave Hayner a try, he matched Phillips run total and never played pro ball again.
Finally, we end with Henry Jones who made just four starts but stands out among this group of 21 pitchers, for he is the only one with a winning record. He finished 2-1 with his 2nd win coming in his final start, one in which he outdueled future Hall of Famer John Clarkson for the victory. Hard to believe they couldn’t find a spot in the rotation for the local kid from Pittsburgh but for his sake it was probably a blessing that he didn’t stick around for the worst part. In 1892 playing for a minor league team from Wilkes-Barre that moved to Pittsburgh to finish their season, he went 17-3 with a 1.46 ERA.
Next week I’ll summarize the hitters.