Second baseman Billy Herman took over the reigns of the Pirates in 1947 from Frankie Frisch. Herman came to Pittsburgh in the off-season at very steep price. The cost was arguably their best player at the time, third baseman-outfielder Bob Elliott. While Herman would hit only .213 in 47 at bats due to an injured arm, and was unable to lift the Bucs out of the National League cellar, as he didn’t even make it to the end of the season, giving way with a 61-92 record with one game left as Bill Burwell took over winning the final contest 7-0 against the Reds, Elliott won the MVP award with the Braves.
Herman was one of several former major league stars the Pirates obtained in 1947, whose better days were behind them not ahead of them. They got Kirbe Higbe, who was 11-17 with a league high 110 walks and Cal McLish, who shut them out two years earlier as an 18-year old, yet would not win a game in two season in Pittsburgh, from the Dodgers. They also got Hi Bithorn from the Cubs and Lou Tost from the Braves, two good wartime pitchers who threw a total of one game between them for the Bucs.
Perhaps the most intriguing former star they purchased in 1947, was former Detroit first baseman Hank Greenberg. Greenberg who was the first great star drafted into the service in 1941, came back in dramatic fashion in 1945, hitting a homer in his first game back before smacking a grand slam to beat the Browns 6-3 and clinch the AL pennant for the Tigers.
The Bucs bought him for $75,000 from the Tigers and then enticed him into coming to Pittsburgh by making him the first $100,000 man in the National League and the moving the right field fences in 35 feet at Forbes Field to create Greenberg Gardens. Despite the fact it was Greenberg’s last season as he only hit 25 homers due to a lingering back ailment, it was his tutelage of the young Pirate slugger Ralph Kiner that would make the purchase of the ex-war hero so worthwhile, worth much more than the $175,000 the Bucs spent on the transaction.
Kiner, who called 1947 his most cherished season in a Pirate uniform, was mired in a horrific slump in the early part of the season. With only three homers by the end of May, the Pirates were considering sending down Ralph until Greenberg, who assured the brass that he most certainly would turn around things which by the end of the year proved to be an understatement, talked them out of it.
The New Mexico native went on quite a few tears during the season and hit two on July 23rd, his 24th and 25th of the season to break Johnny Rizzo’s team record of 23 with half a year to go. By August he was setting team record after team record, including three successive shots on August 16th against the Cardinals. That was only the beginning as he homered in 4 successive at bats, hit 5 in 2 games, 6 in 3 and 7 shots in 4 contests all major league records.
Despite all the marks, he still trailed Johnny Mize for the NL lead by a 43-39 margin. Fortunately for the Bucs, the Kiner show was not a mirage as he again hit homers in 3 consecutive at bats on September 10th against the Giants (his last two at bats) and September 11th versus the Braves. By the next day, he had broken his freshly set major league mark with his 8th homer in 4 games, which finally pushed him ahead of Mize.
On September 23rd, The Bucs slugger hit his 51st and final homer, which Mize soon tied. Neither smacked another and finished the exciting home run chase at 51.
It truly was a memorable season for Ralph as he was 4th in batting average at .313, first in slugging, .639 and 2nd in RBI’s with 127. As remarkable as it was, Kiner gave credit for his remarkable turn around and subsequent Hall of Fame career with a peak value unequaled by many in the history of the national pastime, to his Hall of Fame brethren, Hank Greenberg. Kiner would say that Greenberg didn’t necessarily make him more powerful by changing his stroke, although he did change his positioning a little, but he made him a more intelligent man at the plate, teaching him what to look for and when to look for it.
On the surface it looked like a poor investment for the franchise, but when you consider Kiner may not have been quite so spectacular without him, and during the losing years with him being the only big draw, perhaps gaining the club millions of untold dollars in revenue they wouldn’t have otherwise generated with such poor teams, the signing of Greenberg, even for one injury plagued season, can be considered a steal.
Overall, 1947 proved to be a disastrous season for the team. The combination of slow players, no left-handed hitting to speak of (33-year old reserve outfielder Cully Rickard who hit .287 in 324 at bats and switch hitting catcher Dixie Howell were there only two batters of consequence to hit left-handed) and aging pitchers with little control (of all the pitchers who tossed 100 innings, the youngest was Jim Bagby at 30-years old) all contributed to the last place finish (actually tied with the Phillies for seventh).By Pirates Encyclopedia
- Bill Burwell, Billy Herman, Bob Elliott, Cal McLish, Culley Rikard, Dixie Howell, Forbes Field, Hank Greenberg, Hi Bithorn, Jim Bagby, Johnny Mize, Kirby Higbe, Lou Tost, Ralph Kiner