- 2B, 3B, SS, OF
- November 4, 1877
- 5' 6"
- 150 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 9-28-1898 with LS3
Tommy Leach was a small (5’6 ½”, 150 lbs) man who consistently played a big role for the Pittsburgh Pirates of a century ago. Many Pirate fans know him in terms of being the answer to trivia questions, such as who was the only Pirate besides Ralph Kiner and Willie Stargell to lead the league in homeruns or who was the only NL homerun king to collect all of his homers inside the park during his league leading season. Some may note that Leach is ninth all time on the Pirates list of games played (1,548), at bats (5,909), runs (1,007), singles (1,229) and sixth in stolen bases (246) and seventh in triples (137) and that only Pie Traynor and Richie Hebner played more games at thirdbase for Pittsburgh.
Leach came to the Pirates in the Great Louisville Purchase of 1900 along with Honus Wagner and 12 other players. He had started his big league career two years before with the Colonels, appearing in three games, but played fairly regularly in 1899, showing promise with a .288 average. His speed afoot was impressive. In fact, he had won a race against his teammates in 1898 and Dreyfuss brought him with his veteran stars when he purchased an interest in the Pirates.
Leach, interestingly enough, had been given a choice between Washington and Louisville by his minor league manager in 1898 as to which team he would be sold to. Leach asked his manager’s advice regarding where he was likely to get the most playing time at thirdbase, which was his best position. The manager recommended Louisville, telling the youngster that Washington had a guy named Wagner manning the hot corner and that he was pretty good. Leach followed his manager’s advice, but when he saw the Louisville thirdbaseman play, he was dismayed. It turned out the Colonels’ thirdbaseman was Honus Wagner and Leach realized he was a great player. The Wagner who played for Washington was Honus’s brother Al, a talent that never completely emerged. Needless to say, Leach’s time at third was restricted.
After coming to Pittsburgh in 1900, Leach didn’t play much. He filled utility roles and hit only .212, but when Jimmy Williams jumped to the new American League Baltimore Orioles following the season, Leach was given an opportunity. He hit .305 with 13 triples in only 374 at bats in 1901. He was even more impressive in 1902. When Honus Wagner made it know he was uncomfortable with Manager Fred Clarke’s request that he move from the outfield to shortstop, Leach agreed to switch positions, but only briefly. Clarke asked Tommy to talk to Wagner and encourage him to take over the shortfield. Leach did so, pointing out to Wagner that the Dutchman’s skills were more atuned to shortstop than his own and Wagner relented to become the greatest shortstop in baseball history.
Opposing players tended to look at Leach’s small build and play him shallow. This may have helped reduce his average to .278, but it undoubtedly helped him lead the league with six homeruns and 22 triples. Leach scored 97 and knocked in 85, contributing mightily to the Pirates debacle of the National League that year.
Late in the season, Leach accepted an offer to jump to the AL. He had, reportedly, even received a bonus, but decided against leaving Pittsburgh. With the help of Dreyfuss, he returned the check and remained a Pirate.
Leach again anchored third in 1903 and 1904. He hit well (.298 with 97 runs scored again and 87 rbi’s) in 1903. In baseball’s initial World Series, Leach knocked in seven runs and established a record which still stands by including four triples among his nine hits. His .273 average was the second highest on the club behind Jimmy Sebring and his seven rbi’s tied Boston’s Hobe Ferris for the Series’ lead. Four of Leach’s hits and two of his triples came against Cy Young in Pittsburgh’s 7-3 Game 1 victory. He also had a big performance in Game 4, going two for four with a triple and three rbi’s in the Pirates’ 5-4 victory. Leach had two more hits in an 11-2 Pirate loss in Game 5, but went hitless in Games 6 through 8 as the Pilgrims rallied to win the Series. Leach’s hitting tailed off the following year, yet he led all thirdbasemen in fielding runs in 1904. Despite his strong play at third, Leach’s position the next three years largely depended on the team’s personnel. His speed made him an adept centerfielder when the Pirates needed one and his average again climbed above .300 in 1907.
Leach lost his wife to pneumonia following the 1908 season. He rebounded from his personal tragedy to help the Pirates win the pennant in 1909. Surrounded by a talented offense, Leach led the league in runs scored with 126. After playing 150 games at third in 1908, Leach was the regular centerfielder in 1909 following the departure of Roy Thomas. He hit a career high 29 doubles and stole 27 bases to help set up his league high plate crossings. Tommy helped lead the Bucs over the Tigers in the World Series tying Detroit’s Jim Delahanty for most hits with nine and four doubles. His .360 and eight runs scored led all players.
Leach collected two hits in the Pirate victories in Games 3, 5 and 7. The Bucs 8-6 Game 3 win featured his three runs scored. In Game 7, Clarke moved Leach to third after Bobby Byrne was injured in the first inning. He handled six chances flawlessly in the field and keyed the offense with a double, single, walk, two runs scored and a sacrifice bunt.
The Series victory was the final highmark for Leach with the Pirates. He had another good year in 1910, but hit only .238 in 1911, appearing in less games than he had in a decade. Off to a strong start in 1912 which saw him score 24 runs in 29 games, Leach was traded with Lefty Leifield to the Cubs for Solly Hoffman and King Cole. The trade did not help the Pirates, but Leach had a strong year for the Cubs in 1913, leading the NL in runs scored for a second time. He played for the Cubs through 1915, then took declining skills, but a fine reputation to the minor leagues for the next few seasons. When there ws a shortage of players due to World War I, the 40 year old Leach was purchased by the Pirates and played in 30 games, although he hit but .194.
Leach lived a long and active life after leaving the Pirates for good that fall. He was a player-manager in the Florida State League from 1920-1922 and continued to manage and scout for several years afterwards. He lived to be 91 years old, passing away in 1969, the last surviving Pirate from the first World Series.
In assessing Leach’s career, one must remember that he was considered one of the best players of his time. The papers referred to him along with Wagner and Clarke as “Pittsburgh’s Big Three.” He hit .272 as a Pirate when league averages were often below .250. During his 12 full years with the Bucs, only eight players collected more hits and six of these are in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Only four scored more runs and only a half dozen collected more total bases. Leach just misses out finishing in the Top 10 in stolen bases for this time period, finishing 11th. Leach was one of the game’s better defensive thirdbasemen, yet unselfishly moved to centerfield when the team needed him to. In all, when compared to some of the players who followed him in Pirate history who are better remembered today, Leach may be one of the most underrated Pirates of all time. People who saw him play always spoke highly of his skills. Hugh Fullerton, a great baseball writer who’s career spanned baseball’s deadball era through its golden age, named him his All-Time Pirate thirdbaseman ahead of Pie Traynor. Traynor himself, perhaps out of modesty, put Leach on his All-Time Pirate team, but not only excluded himself, but Bob Elliott, Frank Thomas and Don Hoak as well, three players who were all-stars during their time with the Pirates. Noted baseball historian and author Bill James, although rating Traynor ahead of Leach, lists “Wee Tommy” 20th all-time among the game’s thirdbasemen.
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- Tommy Leach