1950 would be a test. Were the Pirates as good as they seemed in ’48 or as bad as they played in ’49? There were a few changes as Manager Billy Meyer entered his third spring training with the team, but none of them major. Aging Dixie Walker had been left go, but with only 6 extra base hits in 88 games, his presence would not be missed. Rip Sewell had hung up his glove, retiring at the age of 42. Meyer looked forward to having Tom Saffell available all season and hoped the team had recovered from Ernie Bonham’s death the year before. The club had also picked up Nanny Fernandez, a third baseman with some pop and it was hoped he would help protect baseball’s best homerun hitter, Ralph Kiner, in the lineup. The team’s top prospect as the season approached was Vern Law, a right-handed pitcher who Bing Crosby had helped sign.
Amid claims the National League had juiced up the ball, the Pirates began the season playing decent ball over the first few weeks. Cliff Chambers was pitching very well, but the rest of the staff could not keep pace. Saffell didn’t hit at all, let alone approach the numbers he put up in ’49. With young power prospect Ted Beard also disappointing in the outfield, the team called up Gus Bell, a left-handed hitting Pittsburgh native, who not only appeared able to hit, but was an able flychaser with a good arm as well.
Kiner, for his part, continued to hit homeruns, but then Pirate pitchers started to give up long balls at a distressing pace, surrendering 51 blasts in 29 games. Other than Kiner and Wally Westlake, the projected regulars were having difficulties and Meyer used 37 lineups in the club’s first 60 games. Only Chambers, at 8-6, was holding up the staff. Murray Dickson, the skillful veteran was off to a 3-9 start.
Fernandez provided a little offense, but his defense was poor and shortstop was a major trouble spot as Stan Rojek had not recovered the skills he had shown prior to being beaned in ’49. Danny Murtaugh reclaimed second and provided solid play and a .300+ bat in the first part of the year. When Frankie Gustine, still only 30 years old, was signed as a coach after his release by the Browns, he was considered for active duty and began taking groundballs almost daily. Meyer, the miracle man of ’48, now saw his every move under scrutiny, but baseball men such as Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg, as well as Kiner, came to his defense.
Given his supporting cast’s ineptitude, Kiner’s hitting truly amazed. He hit for the cycle plus added another homer in driving in 8 runs in a 16-11 victory over the Dodgers. Both of his homeruns were three run shots. Squaring off against Williams prior to an exhibition game the next day, Kiner outhomered the best hitter in baseball, 8-4. But even Kiner’s heroics were not enough to stop the team from falling into seventh place with a 23-39 record by the end of June. By the All-Star break, no Pirate pitcher had a winning record, as Chambers dropped his last two before the unofficial midway point to fall to 8-8. Pitching problems overshadowed what was becoming a decent offense. Although carried by Kiner’s league best 24 homers and 65 RBI, Murtaugh (.319), Westlake (.284 with 12 homers) and veteran first baseman Johnny Hopp (.327) also contributed. Kiner ended the first half hot, hitting six homers in nine games. One of his blasts cleared a beer sign above a laundry beyond Crosley Field. It was the fir st time since Wally Berger of the Braves had done so in 1930.
As play resumed, the Bucs recalled infielder Danny O’Connell from the minors where he was hitting .357. He replaced Fernandez on the roster and took over at third. Jack Phillips won a dramatic game by hitting a two out ninth inning grandslam against the Cardinals, but such games were all too rare.
On July 19, Frank McKinney decided he had seen enough. Although he earlier had to be talked out of firing Meyer by John Galbreath, this time the owner made up his mind to go. Health, as well as McKinney’s business interests in Indianapolis were also said to play a role in his selling his stalk to his partners, and as part of the transaction, McKinney regained control of the Indianapolis farm club. Galbreath assumed the team’s presidency as he now owned the most stock in the team, with Tom Johnson and Bing Crosby also increasing their shares. Although McKinney left the club as he took it over, in seventh place, one could not say his regime had been cheap. It was figured he had spent close to $5 million on acquiring and signing players. It was also said that the Dodgers had done reaped the benefits of his generosity as it was estimated the Pirates had spent close to $1 in transactions with Brooklyn.
Galbreath gave an immediate impression that he was not going to be less aggressive in acquiring talent to improve the team. The day he took control, he spent $35,000 to acquire .300 hitting third baseman Bob Dillinger from the Athletics. Dillinger took over the hot corner and O’Connell moved to short. But with the Reds on a hot streak, Cincinnati passed the Pirates in the standings and the Pirates fell into last place where the team finished for the first time since 1917.
There were a few more highlights the rest of the year, such as Kiner’s 200th career homerun and Beard becoming the second man to hit a ball out of Forbes Field. Beard, struggling to stay above .200, had the honor of having his name mentioned with Babe Ruth. Rookie Law showed promise and would have finished with a much better record than 7-9 if he had had a bullpen to bail him out at times. Another rookie, Bill McDonald, also had some bright moments and finished 8-10. Dickson, after his poor start, finished 10-15.
A couple of Pirates from 1950 actually got to play in a pennant race, but only after the team had traded them. Pitcher Hank Borowy had come to the Bucs from the first place Phillies on June 12. After posting a 1-3 mark with an ERA over 6.00 for the Pirates, he expressed gratitude when the Pirates waived him to the American League and the first place Tigers. Johnny Hopp, second in the league in hitting at .340 on September 5, somehow passed through waivers and ended up getting to play in the World Series with the Yankees.
Of those players still with the Pirates at season’s end, Murtaugh finished at .294 and rookies O’Connell and Bell at .292 and .282. Westlake, who Kiner considered his most underrated teammate and an excellent all-round player, hit 24 homers and drove in 95. Still, his figures paled compared to Kiner’s. Although walked more than any batter in the NL, Kiner led the league in homeruns and finished second to the Phillies Del Ennis in RBI’s. In a time when performances by players not on a contending team were normally overlooked, Kiner was voted The Sporting News’ National League Player of the Year.
Regarding the question of the team, 1950 answered the question that the ’48 team had played over its head, but many more questions were just around the corner as the Pirates’ entered into negotiations to bring Branch Rickey to Pittsburgh.By Pirates Encyclopedia
- Bill McDonald, Billy Meyer, Bing Crosby, Bob Dillinger, Branch Rickey, Cliff Chambers, Crosley Field, Danny Murtaugh, Danny O'Connell, Dixie Walker, Ernie Bonham, Forbes Field, Frank McKinney, Frankie Gustine, Gus Bell, Hank Borowy, Jack Phillips, John Galbreath, Johnny Hopp, Murray Dickson, Nanny Fernandez, Ralph Kiner, Rip Sewell, Stan Rojek, Ted Beard, Tom Saffell, Vern Law, Wally Westlake