Everything that went right in the Cinderella season of 1948, all the powerful trades, all the wonderful surprise moments, were just about to go down the black hole of baseball as 1949 approached. The team felt it was in a prime position to contend after ’48, but several of the key members of the club, who enjoyed what amounted to career years would come falling back down to earth, throwing the team back in the second division.
One story that could have possibly led to the quick demise was an incident where Billy Meyer, during a press conference, allowed a reporter to figure out who a player was that ran through a hit and run sign to which the reporter put it in the paper causing Meyer to lose the respect of his team.
Whatever the reason, the players who succeeded well in ’48 suddenly fell this campaign. Second baseman Danny Murtaugh dropped 87 points in his batting average from .290 to .203, while shortstop Stan Rojek fell from a career high .290 to .244 and Ed Stevens gave way to Johnny Hopp and was out of the game after 46 unsuccessful at bats the following season.
Hopp himself was a bright spot, hitting .318 to lead the starters, although was involved in a strange occurrence that saw him temporarily end up in Brooklyn. Hopp was dealt to the Dodgers on May 18th for cash and Marv Rackley.Rackley hit .314 for the Bucs in 35 at bats while Hopp was 0-14 with the Dodgers. On June 7th, the trade was cancelled and Hopp returned to the Pirates while Rackley went on to hit .300 with the Dodgers and was out of the game the next season.
1949 also marked perhaps the only time in Ralph Kiner's career that there may have been another teammate who the fans looked to for homers. In ’49 that honor went to the infamous center fielder Dino Restelli. Restelli came to the Pirates from the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League and started off with a big bang hitting 7 home runs in his first 39 at bats. He would cool off a little but ended the season with 12 round trippers in 250 at bats. Unfortunately, Restelli’s star did not shine long as he was out of the majors by 1951 due to the fact pitchers began to realize that Dino couldn’t hit a curve.
Despite the challenge to his throne, Kiner ended up having perhaps his finest season ever setting the Pirate record for homers with 54 that still stands today, which included homers in 4 consecutive at bats for the second time in his career and hitting 16 shots in September which set the NL record for that month. It proved to be his fourth consecutive home run crown as his also led the circuit in RBI’s, 127, slugging, .658 and was fifth in batting average at .310. His slugging mate from 1948 also had a fine 1949 campaign as Wally Westlake put in a 23-104-282 season.
Probably the main reason for the collapse was the men on the mound as the team ERA shot up from 4.15 in 1948 to 4.57. Newly acquired Cliff Chambers, who came over from the Cubs with catcher Clyde McCullough in the off season for Frankie Gustine and Cal McLish, led the way with a 13-7 mark, while veterans Rip Sewell and Tiny Bonham also posted winning records at 6-1 and 7-4 respectively, which meant the rest of the staff went a combined 45-71. Bob Chesnes, who was the big surprise a year ago in his rookie season, suffered the ultimate sophomore slump with a 7-13-5.90 campaign.
For the two veteran pitchers for the team, who’s stars shined brightly during the war years, 1949 marked the end of their careers as Sewell retired following the season while Bonham tragically did not make it through the season as he passed away on September 15th.
Bonham who finished fifth in the MVP voting in 1942 following his spectacular 21-5-2.27 campaign for the American League champion New York Yankees, fell ill not long after defeating the Phillies 8-2 on August 27th in his last major league game. He had an appendectomy and stomach surgery in which he would not recover from the resulting complications, dying 18 days later. A sad way to end a long poor season.By Pirates Encyclopedia
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- Billy Meyer, Bob Chesnes, Cal McLish, Cliff Chambers, Clyde McCullough, Danny Murtaugh, Dino Restelli, Ed Stevens, Frankie Gustine, Johnny Hopp, Marv Rackley, Ralph Kiner, Rip Sewell, Stan Rojek, Tiny Bonham, Wally Westlake