Since their miracle World Championship in 1914, the Boston Braves had slid into third place for two seasons, then moved between sixth and seventh in the National League over the next four years. The team finished only 1 ½ games out of the cellar in 1920, thirty games behind first place Brooklyn and were last in scoring and seventh in pitching. It had few marketable assets other than its brilliant defensive, but hard-drinking shortstop, Walter “Rabbit” Maranville.
Tired of seeing his Pittsburgh team finish fourth and of the team’s pitching staff being damaged by poor play at shortstop, Barney Dreyfuss made a huge and expensive move to improve the team. He sent outfielders Billy Southworth (.284, 23 sb’s) and Fred Nicholson (.360 in 247 at bats), infielder Walt Barbare who had batted .274 after recovering from a broken jaw and $15,000 to the Braves for Maranville, whose averages of .267 in 1919 and .266 in 1920 represented career highs. Despite the much needed cash and the fact that all three players had outhit Maranville, fans in Boston were outraged. Fans in Pittsburgh would first be delighted, then amused and finally heartbroken.
Featuring a fairly set lineup going into spring training, the only question was second base. Veteran George Cutshaw, an excellent defensive player during his prime with the Robins was holding out, giving an opportunity to young Cotton Tierney. The Pirates were thought to have a deep pitching staff led by veterans Wilbur Cooper and Babe Adams, strong defense and excellent speed. Prior to spring training, a little noticed move was made when the Pirates released utility man Bill McKechnie to Minneapolis where he would get a further shot at managing. Dreyfuss, although nowhere near predicting a pennant, did decide to add 2,500 seats to Forbes Field which necessitated the benches moved back and created actual “dugouts” instead of the team bench being located at field level. Among the
hopefuls in camp was an all-around athlete from the University of Pittsburgh, Jimmy Dehart, but he failed to make the team and declined a minor league deal. Clyde Barnhart, who hit impressively as a late season recall in 1920, won the third base job, allowing Manager George Gibson to return Possum Whitted to right field, a position he preferred and played very well.
The Pirates chances were thought to be improved by the fact that the Cincinnati Reds, baseball’s world champions of two years prior had several holdouts, while the reigning league champs from Brooklyn were seen as a less formidable aggregation of players. The strongest team entering the season appeared to be John McGraw’s New York Giants.
Despite their limited manpower, the Reds mounted a rally in the eighth inning of the opener to defeat Adams, 6-5. But the Pirates pitching was strong early in the campaign and Cutshaw, who had signed just prior to the start of the season, was installed at second when Tierney was forced to move to third to replace an ailing Barnhart. Cutshaw started hitting as he never had before, batting .380 through April, while Tierney was almost unstoppable at .451.
Another young player, Whitey Glazner quickly moved into the rotation and started the season with four strait wins. Cooper was even better, winning six in a row and rookie “Chief” Moses Yellowhorse, a Native American, quickly became a fan favorite with his excellent relief pitching. As the Bucs appeared to be solid contenders, the team looked for ways to improve their chances and were rumored to be interested in making a deal with the Reds for Heinie Groh, the star third baseman who was still a holdout. While Dreyfuss did not deny the team’s interest in the wielder of the famed bottle bat, he flatly denied the team had offered Barnhart and two young pitchers for his services.
The Giants were proving to be the team’s chief rival as many had predicted. McGraw’s team featured several young stars, including Frankie Frisch, former Pirate George Kelly and Ross Youngs. Dave Bancroft was argued to be as good a shortstop as Maranville. While the Giants pitching was not as highly respected, it did boast Art Nehf, an underrated lefthander and Shufflin’ Phil Douglas, a pitcher talented enough that his erratic behavior was usually tolerated.
The Giants came to Pittsburgh in early June and demonstrated to the Pirates and their fans that the Bucs were going to have a battle on their hands the entire season. Nehf opened the series with a 7-0 shut out. In the second game, the Giants scored three in the 12th to win 4-1 after tying the game in the 9th. Cooper, the Bucs big man was pummeled for 11 runs in 6 innings in a 12-0 loss as the Giants took over first place. Adams salvaged the finale,
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- Babe Adams, Barney Dreyfuss, Bill McKechnie, Billy Southworth, Carson Bigbee, Charlie Grimm, Clyde Barnhart, Cotton Tierney, Dave Nicholson, Dave Robertson, Elmer Ponder, Forbes Field, Fred Nicholson, George Cutshaw, George Gibson, George Kelly, Heinie Groh, Johnny Mokan, Johnny Morrison, Max Carey, Possum Whitted, Rabbit Maranville, Tony Brottem, Walter Barbare, Walter Schmidt, Whitey Glazner, Wilbur Cooper