To start improving the Pirates for 1954, Rickey traded away the team’s leading hitter and top winning pitcher. The hitter, Danny O’Connell, had batted .294, playing mostly thirdbase in 1953, but was not a powerhitter and his offensive skills seemed better suited for secondbase, the position his new team, the Milwaukee Braves deemed for him. In return for O’Connell, who Rickey called, “a good player, but not a great one,” the Pirates received outfielder-thirdbaseman Sid Gordon, a 36-year-old who had a strong arm in addition to batting power, Max Surkont, a righthander who had gone 11-5 and figured to become one of the team’s top starters, Sam Jethroe, the Rookie of the Year in 1950, but a player rumored to be as old as 39 and who had spent 1953 hitting .309 at Toledo and minor league pitchers Fred Waters, Curt Raydon and Don Lascalee. Gordon would play third in Rickey’s plan, making him, along with Frank Thomas, the Pirate’s 30 homerun, 100 rbi man in ’53, the only two players assured of a regular position.
Rickey’s other big offensive move transferred Murray Dickson, who won 10, but led the league in losses for a second strait year. Dickson netted the Pirate GM infielder Jack Lohrke and pitcher Andy Hansen. Neither would appear in a game for the Pirates. The Pirates also received cash, believed to be between $50,000-80,000 in the trade, which Rickey stated, along with money received in the O’Connell deal, would help to replenish the team’s finances for future transactions. Rickey also admitted Dickson’s age, 37, played a factor in the move as while the GM expressed belief the Pirates would be better, he recognized they were far from being a contender.
The Pirates hoped the return of Vern Law from military duty would add another effective hurler to the team and the club invited 66 players to spring training, which was held back in the United States after the Havana disaster of the year before. The Bucs would be using facilities located in Ft. Pierce, Florida, which had never before hosted a major league club. Before spring training was over, Rickey had added another, 39-year-old catcher Walker Cooper. Originally, both the player and the exec voiced hope Cooper, who had had a fine major league career, mostly with the Cardinals and Giants, would be able to catch as many as 75 games, platooning with Toby Atwell, but Cooper was waived to the Cubs early in the season due in part to the emergence of Jack Shepard, a .324 hitter at Denver the year before. Former Yankee star reliever, Joe Page, came to camp to try a comeback.
Other names, which would become familiar to Pirate fans dotted the spring training roster. In addition to Law and holdovers Bob Friend and Elroy Face, Bob Skinner was up for a shot at the firstbase job after hitting well in the low minors; local product Bob Purkey, 11-13 with a 3.41 ERA at Denver would earn a look; Jerry Lynch, a young outfielder drafted from the Yankee organization after hitting .333 with 133 rbi’s and 40 stolen bases at Norfolk; reliever Nellie King who had been an impressive 15-3 with a 2.00 ERA at Denver and Len Yochim, a lefthanded pitcher who would remain in the employ of the team some five decades later after his 14-14 season at New Orleans. Lesser remembered players included young pitchers George O’Donnell, a 20-game winner at Hollywood in 1953 and Vern Theiss, a sidearmer who had won 16 while posting an impressive 2.43 ERA at Denver. Gair Allie, billed as a glove man, figured to contend for the shortstop job, but the rookie who would make history immediately was Curt Roberts, the first African American player on the team’s roster. Roberts’ strong suit was his defense, but he had hit .291 for Denver and his manager, Andy Cohen, thought he would make “an ideal leadoff hitter” as he had a good batting eye and was quick.
Another contender for a starting job was Dick Hall, the former college player who the Pirates had tried as an infielder two years before. Hall had not hit well in ’53, but had gone to the Mexican Winter League and led the circuit in homeruns with 21. It was hoped he would be the team’s centerfielder, and after a slow start, hit well in the exhibition games to win the position, but separated his shoulder prior to the start of the season.
O’Connell and Dickson were not the only items of note which would be missing from the Forbes Field scenery in 1954. The team had decided to do away with Greenberg Gardens hoping its absence would help in the development of the club’s young pitchers. Some questioned how this would effect the Pirates’ young powerhitter Frank Thomas, but Rickey stated that a Thomas who hit .300 would be more valuable to the club than a Thomas who led the league in homeruns but hit for only a mediocre average. While the Gardens had helped Thomas to hit 18 homeruns at Forbes, it by no means made the park a homerun haven as four ballparks in the league, Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, Milwaukee’s County Stadium, Philadelphia’s Connie Mack Stadium and New York’s Polo Grounds all had had a shorter leftfield distance than Forbes.
Rickey also addressed the slow improvement in the team. He admitted several of the Pirates had been rushed to the majors due to a lack of talent at the big league level. Rickey also stated that during the 1920’s and 1930’s when his concept of a farm system had given the Cardinals a major advantage in developing talent, by the time he had joined the Pirates, every team had a system of their own. Rickey also noted the loss of two of the team’s top pitching prospects, Ron Neccai and Bill Macdonald to arm injuries had certainly slowed advancement in the standings.
Lynch earned a spot on the major league team with an excellent spring as did Skinner. With these two making an impact and Rickey fearing Paul Smith was about to be called into the service, the linedrive hitting New Castle native was dispatched to the Havana club of the International League. Another batter who had a great offensive spring was thirdbaseman George Freese, one of the players the Bucs had received for Ralph Kiner in 1953. Freese hit .514 but had difficulties in the field and was sent to New Orleans as the Rickey wanted him to get in regular work. Elroy Face was among the team’s other late cuts, joining Freese in Louisiana.
The Pirates left Ft. Pierce with yet another overhalled lineup in Rickey’s fourth season. Haney’s opening day lineup read: Abrams, rf; Roberts, 2b; Hal Rice, lf; Gordon, 3b; Thomas, cf; Preston Ward, 1b; Allie, ss and Toby Atwell,c. Roberts tripled in his first major league at bat against Phillie Robin Roberts and the Bucs scored four times in the ninth against the future Hall of Famer and 1950 National League Most Valuable Player Jim Konstanty to win, 4-2. Skinner, batting for Roberts in the ninth, tied the game with a basehit in his first major league at bat and Rice, a .300 hitter in 1953, doubled him home for the lead run.
Haney had to make changes in his order early as Gordon was injured. He first tried light-hitting utility men Eddie Pellagrini and Dick Smith there, then experimented by platooning Ward, who had never played third in the majors, with Dick Cole. While the team got off to an unimpressive 6-10 April, batting only .212 as a team. On April 23, the Dodgers actually pulled a triple steal against the Pirates with Jackie Robinson taking home. Robinson later doubled in the winning run in the 13th. Things got worse over the next two weeks as the club went 1-9 even though the hitting actually improved. Haney continued to mix and match his order, but only Thomas, at .283, was hitting at all among the regulars. Roberts, appearing in 15 of the first 16 games hit .226 and Allie just .178.
Surkont, hoped to anchor the staff, got off to a miserable start. The righthander had been encouraged to drop poundage from his 230 lb frame and had gotten down to 204 before the season started. Some thought he had lost too much weight and had been weakened by the effort when he started the year allowing 14 runs, 20 hits and 6 homeruns in 16 innings.
In late May, The Sporting News ran a cartoon depicting the National League teams trapped in a bottle waiting for someone to push the cork free to loosen up the tight pennant race which no one was taking control of. The only team left outside the bottle was the Pirates, shown as a depressed buccaneer, glumly looking away from the competition. Pittsburgh was clearly already out of the race with a 12-29 record, 12 ½ games behind and actually 1 ½ further back from where they had been a season before when they finished the year 55 games behind Brooklyn.
Gordon returned to the lineup, but with Abrams, Rice and Lynch in a combined three for 56 slump, Haney moved him to rightfield. Page, successful in making the team in the spring, was released after four strait dreadful appearances.
One brightspot for the club arrived with the acquisition of lefthander Dick Littlefield in a waiver transaction involving Abrams. Littlefield, had previously been the property of the Red Sox, but had been let go because, according to Sox general manager Joe Cronin, he couldn’t pitch well for more than five innings or so. Littlefield became the team’s best pitcher, winning 10 games for a pitiful team after coming to Pittsburgh. When Littlefield threw a shutout on August first, it marked the first whitewashing by a Pirate hurler in over a year. Rickey made a few other moves as well, such as sending Rice, who seemed to have lost his batting eye and his .173 average to the Cubs for speedy Luis Marquez. A darkskinned Puerto Rican, some seriously speculated the trade was made in order to get a roommate for Curt Roberts. If this was the case, the Pirates’ experiment with cultural sensitivity ended within a few weeks as Marquez was sent to the minors. Rickey also signed yet another bonus player, Laurin Pepper, to a contract which required him to stay with the team all season or risk being picked off waivers by another club. The Pirates still had Vic Janowicz and catcher Nick Koback on the roster under the bonus rule. Koback went through the year without a hit in ten at bats. Haney tried to move Janowicz, the former Heisman Trophy winner to thirdbase, but the experiment got him into just 18 games there and he hit just .151, striking out over twice as many times as he got a hit. He left the club to report to the Washington Redskins on September 12.
Trying to improve the team’s awful defense, Haney tried moving Skinner to the outfield and placing Ward back on first, but this alignment played even worse defensively. Allie’s defense worsened as the season went along and Cole began to get more time at short.
There were few other highlights for the club, however. Jack Shepard, who got off to a strong start at the plate and finished at .304 and Atwell at .289 gave the Pirates decent offense from their catchers. Shepard was forced into strenuous duty though during one stretch when Atwell was injured just as the Bucs were to play seven games in four days. Shepard did a commendable job, but added after Haney replaced him with Koback in the seventh game, he felt ready to collapse. Skinner set a record with eight assists for a firsbaseman and Purkey established a record for pitchers with six assists in a fourteen inning game, which the Pirates eventually lost to the Cardinals, 3-2. Purkey pitched 11 innings in getting a no decision. Law pitched very well through June, but saw his 7-6 record and fine 2.95 ERA disintegrate into 9-13, 5.50 by season’s end. Bob Friend, off to a poor start, was dropped to the bullpen in midseason, but rallied and threw two shutouts in September. Gordon had a sizzling hot streak in August, going 16-for-24 (.667), but did so in the midst of a 10 game losing streak. Gordon’s hot spell boosted his average over .300 and he kept it there through the end of the year. Thomas had a strong all-around season at the plate and the singles hitting Cole hit a surprising .270, but young hitters like Skinner, Lynch, Hall, and Roberts all finished under .250. While there was certainly some talent in the young pitchers, Law, Friend, Purkey and lefthanded knuckleballer Paul LaPalme finished the year with ERA’s over 5.00. Just when it appeared the team might not lose 100 games for a third year in a row, the club lost its last six games to finish with 101 losses.
Once again, the Pirates finished last on merit. While they were 11 games closer to the top than in 1953, the Pirates were last in the National League in scoring by over 100 runs and set a new team record by striking out 733 times. The team’s 4.92 ERA was almost ½ run worse than seventh rated Chicago. Defensively, infielders Skinner, Allie and Gordon were last or tied for last in fielding percentage and Roberts, who demonstrated major league caliber range, seventh among secondbasemen. While uncertain where and how Rickey would try to improve the team in the final year of his contract, one thing was certain, the five year plan would have to be extended before the Pirates became contenders.By Pirates Encyclopedia
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- Abrams, Andy Cohen, Andy Hansen, Bill MacDonald, Bob Purkey, Bob Skinner, Branch Rickey, Connie Mack Stadium, County Stadium, Crosley Field, Curt Raydon, Curt Roberts, Danny O'Connell, Dick Cole, Dick Hall, Dick Littlefield, Dick Smith, Don Lascalee, Eddie Pellagrini, Elroy Face, Forbes Field, Frank Thomas, Fred Waters, Gair Allie, George Freese, George O'Donnell, Jack Lohrke, Jack Shepard, Jerry Lynch, Joe Cronin, Joe Page, Laurin Pepper, Len Yochim, Luis Marquez, Max Surkont, Murray Dickson, Nellie King, Nick Koback, Paul LaPalme, Paul Smith, Polo Grounds, Rice, Ron Neccai, Sam Jethroe, Sid Gordon, Toby Atwell, Vic Janowicz, Walker Cooper