Branch Rickey may have been the shrewdest and most courageous man ever to run a baseball club. His achievements, such as breaking the color line by signing Jackie Robinson for the Dodgers and establishing the farm system which made St. Louis annual contenders during the 1930’s and 1940’s, spoke for themselves. But like most brilliant leaders in their fields, Rickey knew how he wanted to do things and proceeded to do so even when this upset other men in powers. By 1950, Rickey had apparently worn out his welcome with the Dodgers and was persuaded to sell his substantial interest in the team (25%). The sale brought Rickey over $1million. Rickey knew, that with his obvious talent and reputation for improving baseball teams, that he would not be long unemployed.
John Galbreath expressed interest in Rickey even before he left Brooklyn. He helped connect Rickey with an individual interested in taking over some of his stock and offered him a five year deal to come to Pittsburgh, thwarting the efforts of the St. Louis Browns to have Rickey run their organization. The signing of Rickey fueled many questions. Even before Rickey came aboard, there were rumors Manager Billy Meyer would be replaced. These flames were fanned when Meyer’s picture did not appear on the season ticket brochure sent to Pirate fans. The front office called Meyer’s absence an oversight, but was not until Rickey had been in control a few weeks that it was officially announced Meyer would be back for ’51, and reportedly only after Lou Boudreau, expressing respect for Meyer’s contract, turned down the job.
While everyone realized Rickey would be running the show, The Mahatma, as Rickey was called, told the press upon his signing that General Manager Roy Hamey would remain with the team, but was somewhat unclear about what Hamey’s exact role would be. Hamey resigned a short time later, a job under another high profile GM, George Weiss of the Yankees. Rickey quickly addressed the onfield needs of the club and bluntly told reporters that the Pirates were move devoid of talent than any organization he had ever been affiliated with. He did state he believed the outfield was a strength, adding he had absolutely no intentions of trading Ralph Kiner, claiming, “Kiner is as much a part of this organization as I am.”
Rickey’s first moves were not headliners. He brought George Sisler, the great Hall of Fame hitter and first baseman, in as a scout. Rickey stated he wanted to build with young talent, but he admitted he feared the Korean War would ravage major league rosters as World War II had, so he went about picking up players who would be exempt from the draft. The first of these were George “Catfish” Metkovich, a left-handed hitting outfielder who had not impressed enough with the Red Sox to remain in the major leagues, but who had won the PCL’s MVP award in 1950. He was quickly criticized by the Oakland Owner for taking advantage a situation which ended up costing the Oakland club $15,000 as Oakland had paid the White Sox $25,000 to acquire Metkovich the year before, but all the Pirates had to pay for a drafted player was $10,000. Rickey’s son, Branch, Jr., who was called “Twig,” argued that Oakland should have realized the Catfish would have been netted by someone and that the Oaks should have tried to have sold him sooner. The Pirates also drafted a young power hitter, Dale Long, a first baseman who Rickey toyed with as a left-handed catcher, in the same draft. Pete Reiser, a great centerfielder a decade before in Brooklyn, but by now a banged up pinch hitter was also brought in. Perhaps the most significant moves were two, which caught the least attention. Rickey signed Howie Haak, who later became the key man in signing talented Latin ballplayers for the Pirates and the team signed a young right-hander, Bob Friend for $25,000 and assigned him to the minor leagues. Milt Stock and Babe Herman and Bill Posedel were named coaches, while Honus Wagner remained on the payroll in a part-time capacity.
Contrary to reputation, several Pirates found Rickey easy to deal with. One who may have had reservations was Danny O’Connell. Acquired by the Pirates in a deal with Rickey and the Dodgers, O’Connell had remarked during his rookie year with the Pirates that he loved playing in Pittsburgh. “Last year I was playing for Rickey, but now I’m playing for money,” he had commented in the papers. O’Connell was spared a confrontation in ’51 as he was inducted into the army. Bill Macdonald, another promising rookie from 1950, was also inducted.
With Rickey predicting a pennant by ’54, the ’51 Pirates showed a seven game improvement over the ’50 club and finished in seventh place. Kiner again had a huge season, leading the league for a sixth strait time in homeruns as well as topping the league in runs and walks while knocking in 109 runs and batting .309. He drove the Pirate’s run scored total to fourth in the NL. Ralph’s huge season was even more impressive considering the team moved him to first base for the beginning of the year, a position he had never before played. The experiment didn’t last long, however, as his replacements in left (the Pirates tried eight players there in the first two-and-one-half months) were far from adequate. Murray Dickson won 20 games, almost a third of the team’s 64 victories.
Metkovich hit .293. The season’s single highlight belonged to Cliff Chambers, who threw a no-hitter on May 6 in Boston. Chambers kept his no-hitter going by making two excellent defensive plays and was helped by the wind which may have kept a drive by Bob Elliott in the park. Chambers walked eight men in his classic and may have been aided by his family’s prayers as his wife, listening to the game in Pittsburgh, called their children in to ask God for special assistance in the ninth inning.
Unfortunately, not even Angels could help the team as a whole. Hollywood used the Pirates and Forbes Field as the backdrop for its movie Angels In The Outfield. Kiner and some of his teammates briefly appeared in the film and the handsome slugger briefly dated the film’s female lead, Janet Leigh. Former Bucs Paul Waner and Lee Handley also appeared in the movie and Pie Traynor served as a technical advisor. However, 1951 Bucs like the young DP combination of Monty Basgall and George Strickland, outfielders Tom Saffell, Ted Beard and Dino Restelli and veteran Danny Murtaugh all had trouble hitting .200 and Rickey made it obvious he did not believe the Pirates would contend for at least another three years when he traded Chambers and the hot-hitting Wally Westlake to the Cardinals before the trade deadline. While he received a number of players who were serviceable, such as catcher Joe Garagiola, outfielder Bill Howerton and reliever Ted Wilks, none gave Pittsburgh fans solace over another losing season.By Pirates Encyclopedia
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- Babe Herman, Bill Howerton, Bill MacDonald, Bill Posedel, Billy Meyer, Bob Elliott, Bob Friend, Branch Rickey, Cliff Chambers, Dale Long, Danny Murtaugh, Danny O'Connell, Dino Restelli, George Metkovich, George Sisler, George Strickland, Honus Wagner, Howie Haak, Joe Garagiola, John Galbreath, Milt Stock, Monty Basgall, Murray Dickson, Pete Reiser, Ralph Kiner, Roy Hamey, Ted Beard, Ted Wilks, Tom Saffell, Wally Westlake