The Pirates minimal progress from eighth place in 1950 to seventh in 1951 gave little hope for 1952 and it
was obvious Branch Rickey’s plan to fortify the team with players ineligible for the draft such as Catfish Metkovich
and Pete Reiser had had little effect on the team’s fortunes. One factor which did, both in a literal and figurative sense
was the standing of Ralph Kiner, who’s two-year contract expired following 1951. For the first time, it appeared
Kiner, arguably the biggest single drawing card in the game, and Rickey, baseball’s toughest bargainer, would
be negotiating head to head. Changes in Rickey’s comments from those he had previously made about Kiner’s
importance to the team appeared in the papers. Whereas in 1951, Rickey had steadfastly voiced he was not about to
trade Kiner, when asked in the fall of 1951 about the team’s star, the general manager was less committed. “I’d trade
anybody for three infielders,” Rickey told newspapermen. Matters regarding Kiner’s contract dragged on, with Kiner
eventually requesting and receiving permission to negotiate directly with club president John Galbreath. The two
agreed on a one year deal worth a reported $90,000, making Kiner the highest paid player in the National League.
While Kiner was one veteran ownership still hoped to build around, Rickey decided to hold a massive tryout
camp for young players in the organization. Thirty players, mostly from the low minors, were invited to perform under
the scrutiny of Rickey and several of his staff with promises that they would be given a shot at making the team. The
Pirates’ chief partners, particularly Bing Crosby, gave their blessings to the plan. Local boys such as pitchers Ron
Kline, Ron Neccai, firstbaseman Tony Bartirome and outfielders Bobby Del Greco and Paul Smith were among the
hoard. Paul Pettit, Jim Waugh, Dick Hall and Gair Allie, all bonus babies, were also vying for big league jobs. In the
meantime, the Pirates increased their share of ownership in the Hollywood club of the Pacific Coast League and
Rickey worked to strengthen the scouting corps by bringing in Clyde Sukeforth, who had been his righthand man in
Brooklyn, and who Rickey trusted so implicitly that he had assigned the onetime catcher the task of scouting Jackie
Robinson for the Dodgers. With youngsters invading spring training and Sukeforth added to the Pirate family, the
most familiar figure in Pirate history decided to call it a day. Honus Wagner announced his retirement at the age of 78.
A part-time coach for the last several years, Wagner’s number was retired and he was given a lifetime pass to Forbes
Field as a token of the club’s appreciation for what he had done for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Rickey’s obsession with trying out players with little experience may have been partly based on the dollar
impact, but also it was noted that the players returning to the team gave few reasons for enthusiasm, particularly in the
infield. The team’s winter roster included firstbasemen Jack Phillips (.237) and Dale Coogan (.223 in the PCL);
secondbasemen Jack Merson (.260 with the Bucs after spending most of the year at Indianapolis), Monty Basgall
(.209); shortstops George Strickland (.216) and the diminuative Clem Kosherek (.261 at Indianapolis) and
thirdbaseman Dick Smith, a 24-year-old who hit .330 at Charleston, but just .174 in Pittsburgh. Several of the Pirates’
better prospects including Danny O’Connell and Vern Law would be spending ’52 in the military and veteran
secondbaseman Danny Murtaugh had accepted a job managing in the minors. Rickey himself admitted he did not see
the team contending until his better young players returned to the team and asserted that he thought the baptism under
fire the rookies would receive would help the team weed out true prospects to better judge who would help the team
down the road.
Of the players invited for the tryout, Del Greco seemed to impress the most. Already a fine defensive player,
Rickey gushed over his abilities as an outfielder, stating he had the best instincts he had seen in a flychaser since Terry
Moore, the former centerfield standout of the Cardinals. Del Greco was also draft proof, having lost an older brother
during World War II and supported his mother. He had also shown some batting talent, having hit .302 in the low
Rickey did have some veteran players still with the club. Metkovich, who had developed a small acting
career on the side by appearing in movies such as The Jackie Robinson Story, The Stratton Story and The Winning
Team as well as the locally filmed Angels in the Outfield, was expected to fill in at firstbase and the outfield. Gus Bell,
a very talented young outfielder, was hoped would reach star status. Pitching would rely heavily on Murray Dickson,
the 20-game winning veteran and Manager Billy Meyer hoped Bob Friend and Howie Pollet would help anchor the
staff. Even though Rickey conceded the Pirates were unlikely to contend, he was not ready to go along, at least
publicly, with the general opinion that the extensive use of inexperienced players would doom the Pirates to a worse
record than the last place 1950 team.
Thirteen rookies, including four teenagers, made the opening day roster. The teens were Del Greco,
Bartirome, Waugh and Lee Walls. The other rookies included the 20-year-old Kline, who had been 18-4 in the Class D
KOM League; Hall, a college player with no pro experience who was so talented the team seemed not to know where
best to play him, Ed Wolfe, 11-10 in the Class A Sally League; speedster Brandy Davis, an outfielder who stole 84
bases while being caught only three times while splitting 1951 between three minor leagues, Kosherek, Dick Smith,
Merson, catcher Jim Mangan and 29-year-old lefty Joe Muir.
While the news undoubtedly lifted the spirits of these young men, two of the more talented veterans on the
club were running into problems. Pitcher Bill Werle was suspended for breaking training rules and was quickly traded
to the Cardinals for George Munger and Bell angered Meyer and Rickey and was sent to the minors. The Bell situation
started with his car breaking down as he was driving his family to spring training and his arrival was delayed two days.
He then missed practice the morning of the third day to take his ill son to the doctor. After camp broke, Bell’s wife
was driving the family car to Louisville, but called to say she was ill and asked Gus to meet her in Texas to drive her
and the children home, then take a plane to rejoin the Pirates. The saga became more involved and Meyer told Bell to
have his wife and children take a train to Louisville and to leave the car in San Antonio until someone could drive it.
Stating only a “problem” with Bell’s attitude, Rickey sent him to the minors, taking the one hitter who might have
provided Kiner with protection, out of the lineup.
The Pirates fell quickly into last place. They dropped the opener, 3-2, with Hall, Merson and Kosherek in the
lineup. Kiner homered. Dickson pitched well, but lost. It was to be a familiar theme all year, one that Kiner still
recalls. “Rickey put the worst team he could field out there. He had all those players just out of high school…like Del
Greco and Bartirome. That really was a Rickey-Dink team.”
Even Kiner’s hitting, effected by having no support around him and back problems limiting his swing,
suffered. Although the big man’s average was just .217, it was actually a point better than the team’s mark through 28
games. Coupled with a 5.22 ERA, the Pirates’ 5-23 start was no surprise.
One of the few bright spots in 1952 was the announcement of another bonus baby signing. Unlike the others,
Dick Groat made an immediate impression. An All-American in basketball as well as baseball at Duke, Groat
collected four hits in his first three games and impressed with his heady play, but the rest of the team suffered some
horrific slumps. Merson went 0-for-35, catcher Clyde McCollough 0-for-24, and Bartirome 0-for-29. Ted Wilks, who
had pitched well in relief in 1951, lost his first three decisions by giving up game winning homeruns. Bell was
recalled, and provided some power, but the club ended the first half 19-53. Kiner had hit only 13 homeruns, driving
in 31 with a .241 average before the All-Star Game.
With the club losing money, Rickey allowed the team to go on road trips undermanned, at times carrying
only 21 men to save cash. Things got so desparate that Pittsburgh Press beatwriter Les Biederman started giving
certain players coins for goodluck after he kiddingly flipped Groat, in an 0-for-19 slump a dime and the shortstop went
five-for-five. He then gave Kiner a quarter and Ralph broke an 0-for-20 slump with a homerun. Biederman said he
had previously given players lucky coins in 1943 for good luck when he was stationed in New Guinea. Pitcher Rip
Sewell had won 21, Bob Elliott had hit .315 with 101 rbi’s and Vince DiMaggio made the All-Star Team after
receiving the charms.
Unfortunately, it would have taken the combined Rockefeller and Carnegie fortunes to pull the ’52 Bucs out
of last place. Joe Garagiola stated, “In an eight team league, we should’ve finished ninth.”
A late season power display by Kiner allowed him to tie Hank Sauer for the homerun crown. It was the
seventh consecutive and last homerun title for the beloved Pirate. Unremembered by many fans was a death threat
Kiner received that year in an attempt to extort money from him. A man had instructed Kiner to have $6,200 placed
under a seat in a cab and to have the cab drive to a location in Ambridge. Kiner had contacted the authorities and was
placed under guard for a time.
There were few other accolades for the team. Groat hit .284 and Bell had 16 homeruns. Garagiola posted a
respectable .273 mark, but Bartirome finished at .220 and Del Greco .217. Seven batters collected over 40 at bats and
hit under .200. As a team, the Bucs were last in scoring, hits, doubles, triples, homeruns, rbi’s, batting and slugging.
The pitching staff didn’t fare much better. Pirate hurlers were last in complete games, ERA and walked more
batters than any team in the National League. Dickson, by his own admission, pitched better than he had in 1951 when
he won 20 games. He lost 20 this time around, but somehow captured 14 victories. Pollet and Friend pitched better
than their records showed, but Wilks was the only other pitcher on the staff with more than two victories. Aside from
the team’s top four pitchers, the other hurlers went a combined 9-53. Neccai, who’s dominating minor league
season included a 27 strike out game early in the year, was recalled to go 1-6 and injured his very talented right arm. It
began to be evident Rickey’s earlier prediction of contending for a pennant by 1954 would not come to fruition.
It was certainly clear to Meyer, who resigned on September 27. His players offered kind words on hearing their
manager would not be back. Kiner called him “the greatest fellow I’ve ever played for,” and Garagiola recognized his
considerable nature. Who Rickey would pick to guide the club and whether or not Kiner would be back dominated the
offseason sports pages into December.
- Bill Werle, Billy Meyer, Bing Crosby, Bob Elliott, Bob Friend, Bobby Del Greco, Branch Rickey, Catfish Metkovich, Clem Kosherek, Clyde Sukeforth, Dale Coogan, Danny Murtaugh, Danny O'Connell, Dick Groat, Dick Hall, Dick Smith, Ed Wolfe, Forbges Field, Gair Allie, George Munger, George Strickland, Gus Bell, Honus Wagner, Howie Pollet, Jack Merson, Jack Phillips, Jim Mangan, Jim Waugh, Joe Garagiola, Joe Muir, John Galbreath, Lee Walls, Les Bierderman, Monty Gasgall, Murray Dickson, Paul Smith, Pete Reiser, Pual Pettit, Ralph Kiner, Rip Sewell, Ron Kline, Ron Neccai, Ted Wilks, Tony Bartirome, Vern Law, Vince DiMaggio