On December 15, 1905 the Pittsburgh Pirates sent three players to the Boston Braves for Vic Willis, a pitcher who had just led the National League in losses for a second straight season, a total of 54 defeats between the two years. If that was all you knew about the trade, you would assume it was a bad decision on the part of the Pirates but it turned out to be one of the better trades in team history.
Vic was born on April 12,1876 in Cecil County, Maryland. He attended the University of Delaware and was the only player to make the majors from that school prior to 1960. At the same time he was attending school, he was playing professional baseball. In 1895, as a 19 year old, he pitched for the Harrisburg Senators of the Pennsylvania State League and the Lynchburg Hill Climbers of the Virginia State League. Between the two teams he posted a 10-15 2.94 record in 235.1 innings.
The next season Willis signed with the Syracuse Stars of the Eastern League and by 1897 he was considered a real prospect and for good reason. That year he went 21-17 1.16 in 355.2 innings. It was a sign of his ability to be a workhorse pitcher in the majors. The Eastern League was a top minor league of the time, filled with former and future major leaguers. On September 15, 1897 the Stars sold their star pitcher to the Boston Beaneaters for $1,000 and the rights to Boston’s catcher Fred Lake, who would end up with the Pirates in 1898.
Boston won the National League pennant in 1897 with a 93-39 record, so the addition of a pitcher like Willis, ended up making the best team in baseball even better. Vic joined a rotation that already had three 20 game winners. One of those pitchers was Kid Nichols, who won 31 games and is considered one of the best pitchers of all-time, thanks in part to his 361 career wins and seven 30 win seasons.
The 1898 season was even better for the Beaneaters. Nichols won 31 games again, Ted Lewis in his second full season, went 26-8 and lefty Fred Klobedanz won 19 games. Then there was the newcomer Willis, who made his first start ten games into the season, then never left the Boston rotation until the day they traded him to the Pirates eight years later. As a 22 year old rookie, Vic would go 25-13 with a 2.84 ERA in 311 innings. Boston would win the NL pennant for a second straight season, beating the Baltimore Orioles by six games when it was all said and done.
In 1899 Boston would return much of the same team and it wasn’t just a team built on pitching. They had three future Hall of Fame players in their lineup, Billy Hamilton, Hugh Duffy and Jimmy Collins, to go along with one of the more under-appreciated double play combos ever, Bobby Lowe and Herman Long. It was a formidable lineup with just those five players but in 1899 their two best hitters were Fred Tenney and Chick Stahl, who batted .347 and .351 respectively. Even with the great Kid Nichols on the pitching staff, it took just one season for Willis to become the ace. He went 27-8 with an NL leading 2.50 ERA and five shutouts. He threw 35 complete games and a total of 342.2 innings. His best pitched game of the season wasn’t included in that shutout total. On August 7, 1899 he no-hit the Washington Senators, winning 7-1. It was the last major league no-hitter of the 19th century.
In 1900 Boston struggled as a team and Willis was no different. He went 10-17, had a career worst 4.19 ERA and he walked 106 batters while striking out exactly half that amount. It was a one year fluke for Vic, who came back strong in 1901. That year he went 20-17 for a .500 team, finishing fourth in the league with a 2.36 ERA. He topped the 300 inning mark again and led the league with six shutouts.
Things got even better in 1902 for Willis, even if Boston only finished in third place. He won 27 games for a second time, had a 2.20 ERA and would lead the league in innings pitched(410), complete games(45) and strikeouts with 225, narrowly missing the pitching version of the Triple Crown by one win, finishing second to Jack Chesbro of the Pirates.
By 1903, Boston was a shell of the once great team they had together just a few years earlier. They would finish in sixth place with a 58-80 record and their offense ranked seventh in the league in runs scored. Willis had a team best 2.98 ERA but his record was 12-18, the fourth highest loss total in the NL. The Beaneaters would lose a total of 201 games between 1904 and 1905 and Willis was the designated ace on that team. He pitched a total of 692 innings over those two seasons but walked away with 30 wins and 54 losses.
With his salary being cut nearly in half, Vic voiced displeasure with his contract and threatened to jump to a different league. Boston was in a no-win situation, either they lost their best player for nothing or they had to pay him a hefty contract to pitch for a team that had no realistic shot at competing. They chose to ship him to the Pirates for first baseman Del Howard, third baseman Dave Brain and pitcher Vive Lindaman. The trade turned out to be a steal for Pittsburgh, who already had replacements at 1B and 3B for Howard and Brain.
Willis stepped right into a Pirates pitching staff that had star pitchers, Deacon Phillippe and Sam Leever already, and he became the ace. His first season in Pittsburgh, he posted a career low 1.73 ERA in 322 innings. He won a team high 23 games and threw six shutouts. The Pirates also had a young pitcher named Lefty Leifield, establish himself as a star that season. He won 18 games and had a 1.87 ERA.
In 1907, Willis led the team again in wins with 21 and in innings with 292.2 while throwing six shutouts. This season saw the emergence of pitcher Howie Camnitz (13 wins, 2.15 ERA), giving the Pirates one of the deeper staffs in baseball. They still fell well short in the standings behind the Cubs though, a team that won 116 games in 1906 and 107 in 1907.
Pittsburgh closed the gap in 1908, losing the pennant to the Cubs by just one game. Willis had his third straight 20 win season for the team and for the third straight year, the Pirates had a young starter breakout. Vic won 23 games in 1908, tying him for the team lead with Nick Maddox, who was in his first full season. This set the Pirates up for a title run in 1909 and the team didn’t disappoint. Willis did his part with 22 wins and a team leading 289.2 innings pitched. For a fourth straight season, a young Pirates pitcher became a star, this time Babe Adams took his turn. He went 12-3 with a 1.11 ERA in 130 innings. Pittsburgh took the pennant with their 110 wins, six more than the Cubs.
In that 1909 World Series, Adams was the one that took center stage, winning three games while Willis pitched in relief in game two, then lost game six as the starter. Vic wouldn’t be around too long to celebrate, before the start of the 1910 season, he was sold to the St Louis Cardinals. He lasted just one season in St Louis, winning nine games, before they sold him to the Chicago Cubs for the 1911 season. Willis decided to retire rather than report to his new team, ending his 13 year career.
In four seasons in Pittsburgh, Willis went 89-46, pitching 1209 total innings. His 2.08 ERA with the Pirates is the best in team history. For his career he went 249-205 with 50 shutouts and 3996 innings pitched. He ranks 19th all-time in both shutouts and complete games. Vic passed away in 1947 and 48 years later, his career was finally recognized for how good of a pitcher he really was, when he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee.