The Pittsburgh Pirates went into the 1906 season with the makings of a strong pitching staff and a solid top of the lineup but they had two big obstacles in their way of a trying to win a fourth National League title, the Chicago Cubs and the New York Giants. The Giants had won two straight NL titles going into 1906 and they were coming off a 105-48 season. The Cubs had won 93 games in 1904 and 92 games in 1905 plus the had a deep pitching staff for the 1906 season.
The 1906 Pirates added veteran star pitcher Vic Willis to an already deep pitching staff that included 20 game winners Deacon Phillippe and Sam Leever, along with Mike Lynch who went 17-8 in 1905, Charlie Case, who was 21-16 over the 1904-05 seasons and young Lefty Leifield who went 5-2 as a September call-up in 1905.
The lineup was a little different from 1905 with first baseman Del Howard and infielder Dave Brain included in the Willis trade and the other first baseman, Bill Clancy was back in the minors. They returned the main parts though, Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke, Ginger Beaumont, Claude Ritchey and Tommy Leach were all back. Beaumont had been with the team since 1899, the other four joined the team in 1900 and all five were integral parts of the three year run of NL pennants. The top two newcomers were Tommy Sheehan, a third baseman the Pirates got in the rule V draft and Joe Nealon, a 21 year old rookie first baseman from California they signed as a free agent out of the minors.
Other returning players included the catching foursome of young George Gibson, veteran Heinie Peitz, third stringer Fred Carisch and seldom used backup Harry Smith, who had an arm injury that cost him most of the last two full seasons. They would be joined by Ed Phelps early in the season. He caught for the Pirates from 1902-04, was traded to the Reds for Peitz, then purchased by the Pirates in May. Also returning was Bob Ganley, who was a September call-up in 1905, his first trip to the majors despite being 30 years old at the time. He hit .315 in 32 games and earned a spot on the 1906 roster. Otis Clymer returned as well after hitting .296 in 96 games as a 29 year old rookie in 1905. Finally, the versatile Homer Hillebrand also returned. He was a part-time left-handed pitcher who could also play first base, outfield and catch in an emergency.
So now that the players were set, we now find out what went right for the 1906 Pirates, who finished 93-60 on the year.
Honus Wagner had a typical Honus Wagner season. He led the NL in batting with a .339 average and in OPS with an .875 mark. He also led the league in runs scored with 103 and doubles with 38 while adding 53 stolen bases. He was easily the best player on offense for the team.
Fred Clarke was a strong manager who at age 33 still played a strong left field and added on the offense side. He hit .309 which was the tenth time he hit over .300 in a season. He also led the NL with 13 triples. More on his season down below.
Joe Nealon was the main reason Wagner led the league in runs scored. The rookie drove in an NL leading 83 runs and finished just behind Clarke with 12 triples. He also added 82 runs scored, the second highest total on the team
Tommy Leach hit .286 in a down year for offense around the league. The previous two seasons he batted .257 in both years after hitting .298 with 87 RBI’s during the 1903 season
Dutch Meier, a 27 year old utility guy not mentioned above because he didn’t begin to play until May, was also a bright spot. In 82 games, playing four different positions during the season, he hit .256 and scored 32 runs. That was quite an accomplishment for someone with no prior pro baseball experience.
Vic Willis thrived with better offense and defense behind him in Pittsburgh. He led the NL in losses in 1904-05 but went 23-13 1.73 and he pitched a team leading 322 innings. He led the team with 32 complete games and he did not allow a single home run all season.
Sam Leever had another strong season, his fourth 20 win season, going 22-7 2.32 in 31 starts. He pitched 260 innings and threw six shutouts
Lefty Leifield had a terrific first full season, winning 18 games with a 1.87 ERA and eight shutouts. He completed 24 of his 31 starts and even pitched six times in relief.
The Pirates shutout their opponents 27 times on the season. They went 31-8 from May 13 to June 20. They beat up on the worst team in the league, going 19-3 against a Boston team that lost 102 total games. The Pirates also split their 22 game season series with the Giants, something they couldn’t do the previous two seasons.
On a team that wins 93 games it is hard to have too much go wrong but the Pirates had their share.
Ginger Beaumont had hit over .300 in six of his first seven seasons, playing at least 103 games each year and stealing at least 21 bases. But that was all prior to 1906 when he was injured the first two months of the season. He would hit just .265 with one stolen base and play only 80 games.
Otis Clymer was the team’s starting right fielder but that lasted just 11 games due to him breaking his leg sliding, an injury that put him out the rest of the season. Fred Clarke only played 110 games in the outfielder as well meaning the Pirates had to make up 263 games in the outfield using backups and players out of position.
Tommy Leach did hit better than the previous two seasons as mentioned above but he also missed the first month due to appendicitis. When he came back from injury, he had to move to CF to fill in for Beaumont which left the 3B position weak most of the year.
Deacon Phillippe, Mike Lynch and Charlie Case won just 21 combined games one year after winning a total of 48 games. Part of that was because Willis and Leifield pitched so well they got most of the time on the mound but Case was gone from the team by the end of April, Phillippe made just 24 starts all year and only three starts over a two month stretch from early July to early September. Lynch went 6-5, making 12 starts and six relief appearances. Most of his starts were when Phillippe wasn’t able to pitch in August.
George Gibson eventually became a key member of the Pirates and his defense was strong, especially his arm but in his first full season in 1906 he played 81 games and hit a dismal .178 while scoring just eight runs all year.
The number one thing that went wrong for the Pirates was the fact the Cubs refused to lose. They won 116 games, losing just 36 times. The Pirates really struggled against the Cubs, going 5-16, scoring only 38 runs in those games. The Cubs had five starters with ERA’s under 1.90 that season and the sixth best starter they had went 17-6 2.21 in 24 starts.
With such an amazing array of arms for Chicago, the Pirates would need to step up for the 1907 season if they were going to be able to make up the 23.5 game difference in the standings between the two teams. That doesn’t even take into account the fact the Giants finished 96-56 in second place. Next week we will see how the Pirates planned for a pennant run, trying to break a three year drought that followed three straight titles.
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.