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 NewYork 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 HeinieGroh, the star third baseman who was still a holdout. While Dreyfuss did not deny the team’s interest in the wielder ofthe 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, coming out of the bullpen to pitch four shutout innings of relief to basically deadlock the standings. The Pirates poor showing on the field was said to have spilled over into the clubhouse and rumors of infighting and heavy drinking began. Some stories claimed that Yellowhorse was African-American and alluded to rumors that some players did not want to take the field with him.
The stories died down as the Bucs regrouped and battled for first place with the Giants over the ensuing weeks. Fans were amused by the antics of the fun loving Maranville, Tierney, Charlie Grimm and Possum Whitted who entertained the faithful with comedic routines and songs prior to games, and at the time, their shenanigans were said to be keeping the ball club lose. All of the jestering did not seem to be hurting Maranville, who carried a .357 average, fourth in the league among regulars, into early July. Whitted hit two homeruns in one game as his outfield mates Carson Bigbee and Max Carey joined him in a long ball assault, the first time a Pirate team had hit four home runs in one game. The Possum though suffered and injury in late June and with his backup, Johnny Mokan also hurt, the Pirates dealt pitcher Elmer Ponder to the Cubs for outfielder Dave Nicholson, a strong hitter who batted from the left side. Also to bolster the roster, the Pirates claimed catcher Tony Bothem off waivers from the Senators. It was the second time the Pirates had attempted to obtain the backstop as they earlier had believed they purchased his rights, as well as those of outfielder Bing Miller from Little Rock, but Commissioner Landis had ruled the Senators had anearlier claim on the players.
Meanwhile, a young star seemed to be waiting for another chance to impress Gibson. Pie Traynor wasin the process of having a great year at Birmingham, batting .360 with 40 stolen bases in 70 games. One scout calledhim the best shortstop the Southern League had ever produced, but the Pirates were playing so well there was no roomfor him in Pittsburgh. The Bucs rebuilt a somewhat comfortable lead of six games by mid-July, despite not having amajor win streak. The secret of the Pirates success had been consistency, except for their earlier series against New York.
Some kinks began to again appear in the Buc’s armor. Yellowhorse had to undergo surgery and would be lost to the team for several weeks. The Giants again stalled the Pirates when the Bucs went to the Polo Grounds. Cooper was again routed on July 16 as the New Yorkers moved to within two games, but Cutshaw regained the Bucs three-game lead with a game winning triple in the 10th the next day. The teams split the final two games as the Giants scored big against Johnny Morrison, but were held in check once again by Adams. Suddenly, all the kidding by the Pirates colorful players wasn’t entertaining fans. Maranville & Co. were accused of not putting enough effort into their game, but Gibson dismissed these claims stating that once the games began, his players minds were on baseball.While the Bucs had prevented the Giants from gaining on them in New York, such would not be the case when the Giants returned to Forbes. New York won three of four, and all three were described as heartbreakers. New York now stood only percentage points behind the Pirates and had beaten the Bucs nine times in fourteen tries during the first half of the season. To make matters worse, the Giants swung a pair of deals with the Philadelphia Phillies which netted them veteran ballplayers Johnny Rawlings and Irish Meusel, one of baseball’s top hitters. The Pirates had reportedly tried to obtain Meusel as well and Dreyfuss claimed that he had responded to an inquiry by Phillies owner Bill Baker that he would be interested in the outfielder and had made an offer, but had not heard back from Baker.
Although the team had been mostly healthy all year, nagging injuries forced Walter Schmidt from the lineup and reduced Carey’s abilities. With New York confidence seemingly at a high point, the Pirates caught a break as theGiants went into a slump and quickly lost ground.
The Pirates, at the same time, were playing well despite having to cover for their wounded and the teamimproved its record to 73-39, a 7 ½ game lead over the Giants who’s record stood at 67-48. Columnist Ralph Davis of The Sporting News figured that if the Pirates played just .500 ball the rest of the year, the Giants would have to go 27-11 to beat them. His column featured the headline “Bucs Can Jog to Flag in the Last Month.”
Unfortunately, even in 1921, New York was not a safe place for jogging. Nehf and Douglass beat Pirate acesAdams and Cooper 10-2 and 7-0 on August 24. Big Fred Toney, considered the strongest man in the NL, stopped the Bucs 5-2 in the next game. The struggling Bucs were done in by a Frankie Frisch triple as Douglass walked over the Pirates again, this time beating hard luck lefty Earl Hamilton, 2-1. Nehf ran his 1921 record against Pittsburgh to 6-0 on August 27, as the Pirates lost another 2-1 ballgame. New York had tied Pittsburgh once again and in doing so now led the season series 14-5. The Giants underrated hurlers had stopped pirate hitters. Maranville and Barnhart went 3-for-18 in the series; Bigbee 5-for-19; Tierney 1-for-eight and Grimm 3-for-15. Neither Whitted or his platoon partner Nicholson stood out in the series and Carey, who failed to deliver a big hit, made a costly error in the final game.
After the losses, more scrutiny was placed on the team. It was known that several Pirates were heavy drinkers and their nighttime activities were said to be taking a toll on them and causing resentment among their teammates. Allegedly, three players were arrested during a nightclub raid. Gibson was criticized for being too easy in his dealings with his players. Despite this and the team not rebounding with a hot streak as they had done previously, the Giants could not take the lead for good, and Pirate fans began to take solace in the fact that the Bucs had an easier schedule with many more home games remaining than the Giants.
The Giants came into Pittsburgh with the pennant on the line for games beginning on September 14. Toney was even better than his previous start, throwing a 2-hitter as the Giants hit Hamilton hard this time around. Pirate fans showed their frustration, throwing pop bottles at Umpire McCormick after he had called Grimm out for interfering with Rawlings on a play at second. One bottle struck the arbiter in the head, but he remained in the game. McCormick did consent to being escorted from Forbes Field by armed police for his protection following the game. Nehf at this point probably could have thrown anything he wanted to against the Pirates as he beat them for the seventh time, 6-1. The Pirates imploded late in the game, which had been a 1-0 Buc lead through six. Luckily,Babe Adams was available the next day. Seemingly the only Pirate hurler able to stop New York, the oldest player on the club not only pitched a 2-1 triumph, but scored the first run after legging out a triple. In the ninth, the Bucs cutdown Kelly at the plate trying to score the tying run on a hit by Meusel, but it was to be the Pirate’s last highlight of the season. They found themselves 5 games back and they would only inch closer after the Giants had won their pennant.
Despite their heartache, Pirate fans visited Forbes Field in record numbers as attendance jumped from 429,037 to 701,567. All of this initially bode well for the players, as Dreyfuss had implemented a profit sharing plan for the Pirates prior to the season. However, following the season, he dropped this idea and some players voiced their anger in the offseason.
Several Pirates enjoyed fine years statistically in 1921. Bigbee hit .323 and Carey .309 but did not lead the league in steals as leg problems held him to 37 stolen bases. Robertson had been a valuable acquisition as his .322 mark showed. Cutshaw hit a career high .340 in 350 at bats, but while Maranville set a new personal mark at .294, he had slumped badly at the plate during the second half of the season.
While the averages were noteworthy, it must be remembered that 1921 marked the first year of the lively ball in the National League and Pittsburgh’s .285 team average was actually four points below the league norm. It was on the mound where the Pirates really stood out. Cooper, despite being knocked around by the Giants, led the league with 22 victories and 327 innings. Adams and Glazner each went 14-5 and finished second and third in the league in ERA, while Johnny Morrison allowed runs at only a slightly higher rate in compiling a 9-7 record. The Pirates’ 3.17 ERA as a team was the best in the league and over ½ a run better than the league average. Undoubtedly, the strong Pirate defense helped the staff as Grimm, Maranville, Carey, Bigbee and Schmidt were all excellent defenders and were all in their prime, while players like Cutshaw and Whitted, although slowing were still considered above average at their positions.By Pirates Encyclopedia
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- Babe Adams, Barney Dreyfuss, Bill McKechnie, Billy Southworth, Carson Bigbee, Charlie Grimm, Clyde Barnhart, Cotton Tierney, Earl Hamilton, Elmer Ponder, Forbes Field, Fred Nicholson, George Cutshaw, Johnny Mokan, Johnny Morrison, Max Carey, Pie Traynor, Possum Whitted, Rabbit Maranville, Tony Brottem, Walter Barbare, Walter Schmidt, Whitey Glazner, Wilbur Cooper