Baseball had, unknown to most fans, experienced its darkest moment as eight players of the Chicago White Sox had conspired or at least known about a conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series. An era of crooked play would soon be uncovered as Americans themselves began to flaunt a disrespect for the law by disobeying Prohibition, making rich men of thugs and petty criminals in the process. Recovering from the “Black Sox” scandal would be baseball’s biggest challenge.
After Bezdek resigned, Dreyfuss approached George Gibson, the former stalwart catcher of the team’s glory days about managing the Pirates. Gibson was interested, but felt Dreyfuss had violated a handshake deal the two had made while Gibson was playing for the Pirates. Gibson, while in his prime, had asked Dreyfuss that if he was ever traded from the team that he not be subjected to waivers. If, Gibson said, his skills had deteriorated to such an extent that his movement to another club would be a waiver transaction, Dreyfuss would release him instead. Dreyfuss, according to Gibson, agreed to this, but relented late in Gibson’s career and sought to waive him to the Giants. Gibson retired instead, but was coaxed out of retirement the following year by John McGraw, the Giants’ manager. Before agreeing to manage the Pirates, Gibson demanded Dreyfuss pay him the $1,800 waiver price he had received from the Giants as well as his salary for the two months he sat out from the game. Dreyfuss respected Gibson’s baseball knowledge and agreed. As a player, Gibson had worked well with Pirate pitchers and he had gained managerial experience with Toronto of the International League in 1918 and 1919.
While optimistic about improving the team from fourth place, Gibson had a number of holes on his team. The ineptitude of veteran firstbasemen Vic Saier and Fritz Mollowitz had led to the team trading for Possum Whitted from the Phillies and purchasing the slick fielding Charlie Grimm from Little Rock of the Southern Association late in the 1919 season. Both hit well after coming to the Pirates, but Whitted was a very versatile performer and an excellent outfielder. The young Grimm was given the firstbase job despite previous difficulties hitting major league pitching.
The club also had a hole at thirdbase. Walt Barbare had hit fairly well in 1919, but was being asked to move to shortstop as a replacement for holdout Zeb Terry. Whitted was switched to third so his bat could remain in the lineup without sacrificing the hitting of Max Carey, Carson Bigbee or Billy Southworth. It was also thought at the time that Whitted had assisted the Pirates in a major coup, the signing of a hard-throwing righthander, Leo Mangum, who hailed from Whitted’s home state.
Bad weather shortened the team’s early preseason workouts in West Baden, Indiana, before the team moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas to complete spring training. The Pirates were never able to come to terms with Terry and he was traded to the Cubs in early April, but Barbare had his jaw broken by a pitched ball and was replaced at shortstop by Buster Caton, a lighthitter who proved subpar defensively. Further complicating Gibson’s initial start was another holdout, that of catcher Walter Schmidt. Schmidt eventually did sign just as the season was starting, but he reported overweight and out of shape.
Still, the club got off to a fair start and was actually in first place by a few percentage points in early May, but the team hit a cold streak in June which saw them drop into the second division before rebounding to finish fourth for the third season in a row.
Although leading the league in fielding, Grimm still had not learned to hit and finished at .227. While no National Leaguer drove in 100 runs in 1920, Whitted’s 74 was sixth among team leaders, outdoing only the Phillies Cy Williams (72) and the Braves’ Walter Holke (64). The banning of the spitball had obviously not helped the Pirates’ offense. The Pirates had to hustle for runs all season long and the team was last in hitting (.257) and barely outscored the Braves to escape finishing last in runs as well. Outfielders Carey, Bigbee and Southworth were effective deadball type players, all hitting between .280 and .289 and Carey again led the league in steals with 52. With Southworth and Bigbee contributing 23 and 31 stolen bases, the Bucs did top the league in at least one positive category with 181.
Still, the team’s most effective offensive performer may have been spare outfielder Fred Nicholson who led the league with 12 pinch hits while batting .360 in 247 at bats. Nicholson, however, was a horrible fielder, which limited his playing time.
Gibson’s touch with pitching did prove to be a positive, and it was due to fine mound work that the club finished above .500. Ace Wilbur Cooper’s 24 wins were second in the league and Babe Adams won 17 games for the second year in a row. However, Don Carlson, Elmer Ponder and Earl Hamilton were a disappointing 35-41. Carlson’s problems might have been traced to Dreyfuss who hated the spitball so much that he refused to register Carlson as a spitball thrower prior to the beginning of the year, effectively taking a key pitch away from his righthander.
Despite playing at about the same level under Gibson as it had under Bezdek the year before, 1920 saw the debut of two player’s who would figure heavily in the team’s success during the rest of the decade. Clyde BarnhartBy Pirates Encyclopedia
- Barney Dreyfuss, Billy Southworth, Carson Bigbee, Clyde Barnhart, Earl Hamilton, Elmer Ponder, Fred Nicholson, George Gibson, Hal Carlson, Howdy Caton, Hugo Bezdek, Leo Mangum, Max Carey, Pie Traynor, Possum Whitted, Vic Saier, Walter Barbare, Walter Schmidt, Wilbur Cooper, Zeb Terry