- P, 1B
- April 12, 1876
- 6' 2"
- 185 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 4-20-1898 with BSN
- Hall of Fame:
In December 1905, the Pirates acquired a 29-year-old righthander coming off the losingest season of the 20th century. Not only had Vic Willis just set what would become considered the “modern” loss record with 29, but twice in the previous three seasons, Willis had led the National League in defeats. Fred Clarke and Barney Dreyfuss, however, attributed Willis’s 42-72 record between 1903-1905 to the incompatencies of his teammates on the Boston franchise, a club which had gone 164-281 over the same span.
Upon joining the Pirates, Willis quickly re-established himself as one of baseball’s best pitchers, winning 20 or more games four years in a row, with ERA’s of 1.73, 2.34, 2.07 and 2.24.
Willis had an excellent cuveball and accumulated high strikeout totals for the deadball era, particularly in his years with the Braves. But with Boston, he also walked a relatively high number of batters. His control numbers improved significantly after joining Clarke’s outfit and the effect of being among such great control artists as Deacon Phillippe and Sam Leever may have worn off on him. Also, in Pittsburgh he had a vastly superior defensive team to what had worked behind him in Boston and this may have motivated him to trust his fielders more allowing him to be successful without having to overwhelm the enemy.
Willis’s 22 wins in 1907 tied him for third in the league as did his 32 complete games. His 1.73 ERA was fourth in the pitcher dominated season. 22 more victories in 1907 again tied him for the number three spot behind Christy Mathewson’s 24 and the Cubs’ Oval Overall’ 23. Willis won one more game in 1908, but young Nick Maddox tied him for the team lead. Only three pitchers in the NL won more than the Pirates’ duo, althought Hall of Famers Mathewson with 37 and Three Finer Brown with 29 had significantly better totals. The Pirates finished one game behind the Cubs in a season forever known for its unusual climax. Willis was a key figure in the chase all season and especially late in the year. In early September, he beat The Christian Gentleman, as Mathewson was called, 2-1 in New York for a clutch win, but in the team’s final game, with the pennant on the line, Willis bowed to the Cubs and Brown, 5-2.
In 1909, Willis was the Pirates starting pitcher in the first game ever played at Forbes Field, but lost a 3-2 pitcher’s duel to the Cub’s own master of the curve, Ed Reulbach. He threw a one hitter against Brooklyn that same season, allowing only an tapper in front of the plate which Zack Wheat beat out for a single. Willis won 22 for the third time with Pittsburgh to finally help the Corsairs capture the pennant. His 22 wins again trailed only Brown and Mathewson as well as teammate Howie Camnitz and his durability was proven by a league leading 35 starts.
The veteran star relieved Camnitz in Game 2 of the World Series against the Tigers with Detroit ahead 4-2 in the second and young star Ty Cobb on third. Catching the pitcher off guard, Cobb stole home as Willis delivered his first pitch. The Bucs dropped the game, 7-2.
With Babe Adams starting Games 1 and 4, Willis was called on to open a game until the sixth contest. He allowed a run in the first and two in the fourth, exiting with the score tied 3-3 after pitching five innings. The Bucs lost the game, but won behind Adams for the third time in Game 7 to take the Series.
Surprising Pirate fans, Dreyfuss sold Willis following the World Series to St. Louis. Some indicated Willis’s arm was not 100%, but there were also rumors Willis’s drinking was becoming a problem and Dreyfuss feared he might be not only starting to decline due to his alcohol use but presented a potentially bad influence on his younger teammates. Whatever the reason, the Pirates did appear to know something as Willis went 9-13 with the Cardinals and never pitched in the major leagues again.
Willis’s major league career record of 249-205 with a 2.63 ERA earned him a belated spot in baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1995, almost 50 years after he had passed away. He is usually thought of as a Brave as he won 151 games for Boston and led the National League in strikeouts in 1902. He also had four twenty win seasons including his three highest victory totals while pitching in Beantown. However, his cumulative record with the Braves was just 151-147, certainly not bad given the poor teams he played on, but hardly Hall of Fame caliber. It was Willis’s 89-46 record with Pittsburgh which gave him the overall numbers to finally open the doors at Cooperstown. Willis’s ERA during his years with the Pirates was 2.08, which is the all-time Pittsburgh record. His totals during his four years with the team are impressive enough to earn Willis recognition as one of the team’s greatest players.
- Vic Willis