|Forbes Field, the
home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, was constructed in 1909 and used until 1970.|
I’ve attended many major league baseball games and followed the Pittsburgh Pirates
baseball team since I was in 3rd Grade way back in 1947. Suddenly, I’m realizing I’m
an old timer now. Kids read about how it was; we lived it. So I’ll share what I remember
from my youth.
It was all day games until 1944 when games first were under the lights. There were
night games usually on Tuesdays and Fridays. Game time was 8:30 pm since streets
were still relatively safe at night. Day games were the norm otherwise. Wrigley Field,
the home of the Chicago Cubs, didn’t even have lights until the 1990s.
There were only 16 major league teams, no further west than St. Louis. The older
National League had the Boston Braves, Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago Cubs,
Cincinnati Reds (the oldest team), New York Giants, Philadelphia Phillies,
Pittsburgh Pirates, and the St. Louis Cardinals. The American League teams
included the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit
Tigers, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Athletics, St. Louis Browns (today the
Baltimore Orioles), and the Washington Senators (“First in war; first in peace
; and last in the American League” moved to Minneapolis).
Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles,
Miami, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Oakland, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco,
Seattle, and Tampa Bay only had minor league franchises which were supplied by
major league teams as part of their farm systems. Los Angeles and San Francisco
were farm teams (Pacific Coast League) of major league clubs until 1958 when
Horace Stoneham of the New York Giants and Walter O’Malley of the Brooklyn
Dodgers agreed to move west together. New York was then suddenly left with only
one major league team. It devastated the people of the New York City Borough
of Brooklyn since they identified so closely with the team.
Since teams traveled by train, they would have several two or three week home
stands for their 77 home games……11 games with each team. They would
travel for two or three weeks at a time for their 77 away games. To play the
154 game season, there would be four games on the week-end with a double
header on Sunday. Saturday was a day game to rest the players for the Sunday
double header. Monday was a day off or travel day. Thursday was for
a day game so that they could travel all night on a sleeper train to their next
destination and get ready during the day for the Friday night game in the
next city. The players would spend the travel time reading, but mostly
playing cards. By the 1960s air travel was the standard mode of travel.
National League and American League teams played each other only during the World Series and Spring Training. Legendary were the Subway World Series games between the dominant New York Yankees and the New York Giants or the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Radio and Television. KDKA Pittsburgh was one of the first to broadcast games in the late 1920s. Home games were broadcast live. The radio announcers would broadcast away games from the studio while receiving play by play accounts by ticker tape which was also used for stock market quotes. Broadcasting the games live on phone lines were just too expensive. The announcers would then act like they were at the game, giving it life and often improvising descriptions.
Rosey Rosewell and Bob Prince were very colorful homer radio announcers. He called a double a doozie maroonie. When a Pirate would hit a home run, Rosey would exclaim: “You can raise the window, Aunt Minnie; here it comes. He would use a whistle with a rising pitch for the ball’s ascent and a descending pitch for the descent. Then the radio audience would hear a crash as Rosey exclaimed: “She never made it.” When the Pirates were losing badly, as was often the case, Rosey would moan: “O my aching back!” Too bad that he did not live long enough to see the 1960 Pirates World Series victors.
Forbes Field (see photo at beginning of the article) was built in 1909 to replace Exposition Park, at about the same time as Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park. In 1970 Forbes Field was torn down and replaced by the cookie cutter multi-purpose Three Rivers Stadium, almost identical to stadiums in Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Philadelphia. In 2001 it was replaced by PNC Park, which imitated Forbes Field to a large extent. Outside are statues of greats, Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente, and Willie Stargell.
There is a model of old Forbes Field built to scale as it looked in 1909 at the Carnegie Science Museum in Pittsburgh amidst the model trains running about model buildings typical of the 1920s in Western Pennsylvania. In 1925 the double deck Right Field Stands were added. Hall of Famer Honus Wagner played shortstop that year and was the third base coach for the Pirates in the 1940s. Only three players ever hit towering home runs that cleared the roof of the Right Field Stands……..the incomparable Babe Ruth (his last home run), Ted Beard (I was there for that one), and Willie Stargell.
The engineering of the time could not avoid many posts that supported the second tier of seats and the roof above. These posts obstructed the view of anyone sitting higher up in the stands. PNC Park avoids these posts with modern construction methods. However, the seats in front of the posts were very close to the field. In the left field corner pocket, only a few feet separated the bleachers from the foul pole.
A brick wall covered with ivy traversed the outfield. There was no padding except the ivy to protect outfielders crashing into the wall. The furthest point from home plate was 450 feet as I recall. Beyond the wall were the trees of Schenley Park and the Carnegie Library a few hundred feet away. In left field there was a manual scoreboard big enough for a couple of men to enter and place the number of runs per inning for up to eight games in both leagues. Balls and strikes were shown with small but bright neon lights. Wrigley Field and Fenway Park still use the same type of scoreboard. The ball had to clear the scoreboard to be a home run.
When the Pirates acquired slugger Hank Greenberg from the Detroit Tigers at the end of his career in 1947 the bullpens were placed in front of the walls to shorten the field by 30 feet to 330 feet down the line to make it easier for him and his protégé Ralph Kiner to hit home runs. Thus the bullpens were named the “Greenberg Gardens”. With apparently no real power hitters left, Branch Rickey had it removed in 1954. However, he overlooked a rookie, Frank Thomas, who later pleaded for the restoration of the Greenberg Gardens. He was to hit 286 home runs. Ralph Kiner hit 369 in his career.
Most visiting teams stayed at the Schenley Hotel a block away. Today it is the Student Union of the University of Pittsburgh. It was a thrill for me to watch visiting stars such as Stan Musial (ethnic Polish), Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Hank Sauer, Johnny Mize, Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews, etc.
About two blocks away is the Cathedral of Learning, built in 1933, probably the tallest university building in the world......33 stories. I got my MBA on the 19th floor in 1969 and lived on campus. Thus I would listen to the game on the radio and then take in the last two innings when the ticket takers would abandon their posts at the gates. In the photo above the large building in the background is the Carnegie Library, Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of Art…….all in one building.
Forbes Field was also used for Pittsburgh Steeler and Carnegie Tech football games when it played and beat the likes of Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame and other Division 1 powers.
The most memorable World Series game ever was played at Forbes Field in 1960. Bill Mazeroski, primarily known for his great fielding at 2nd Base, hit his dramatic home run over the left center field wall (405 ft.) to win the 7th Game of the World Series against the New York Yankees in the 9th inning. The games the underdog Pirates lost were blowouts (16 - 3; 10 – 0; 12 – 0); their wins were close (6 - 4; 3 – 2; 5 – 2; 10 – 9).
Vernon Law won two of those games and Harvey Haddix the other two. The dominant Whitey Ford pitched both shutouts for the Yankees. If Casey Stengel had started Whitey Ford in the first game instead of the third game, he might have pitched in three games and the Pirates World Series victory could have gone the other way. That Yankee team featured Hall of Famers Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, etc. The part of the wall the home run cleared is kept intact today as a monument.
For a great video of the last three innings of that epic game, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MtnU4yno4o) and the dramatic home run click on. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FE1nYMg-jU4. For written summaries, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1960_World_Series and http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/2015/10/13/1960s-World-Series-Pirates-vs-Yankees-55-years-later/stories/201510130018. For the box scores, click on http://www.baseball-reference.com/postseason/1960_WS.shtml. ESPN called it the greatest game ever played (http://www.espn.com/mlb/playoffs/2010/columns/story?id=5676003).
Bill Mazeroski remains the only player to win Game 7 of the World Series with a walk-off home run.
The victory was so sweet because the Pirates had not won a pennant since 1927, a 33 year wait. That was the last championship that a Pittsburgh professional sports team won at home. The world series victories in 1971 and 1979 were in Baltimore. The Pittsburgh Penguin hockey championships were in Minnesota (1991), Chicago (1992), Detroit (2009), and San Jose, California (2016). The Steelers, of course, won their Super Bowls on neutral sites in the 1974, 1975, 1978, 1979, 2005, and 2008 seasons.
Danny Murtaugh of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the great Casey Stengel of the New York Yankees, the opposing managers in the 1960 World Series, greet each other. Danny Murtaugh came out of retirement in 1970 and managed the 1971 World Series champions before retiring again in 1976 due to same health issues. He has been a Hall of Fame candidate and could make the Hall on the 50th anniversary of the 1971 World Series victory.
Managers. Danny Murtaugh came to the Pirates in 1948 in a trade. Playing 2nd Base he made an impact upon a perennial 2nd Division team, batting .290 and helping the Pirates to be a pennant contender and finishing in 4th place. His playing days were over in 1953 and became a coach in the Pirate farm system, particularly the New Orleans Pelicans. In 1957 he took over for Bobby Bragan in August and led the team to play .500 ball the rest of the way. The following year the Pirates finished 2nd. In 1960 his Pirates had a magical season, coming from behind to win many times.
In both of his managerial stints in the late 1950s and 1970 he turned struggling teams around into winners and was named Manager of the Year by the Associated Press and the Sporting News. In another magical season in 1971 for the first time ever he fielded an all non-white starting lineup at one point……..a far cry from segregated baseball up to 1947. Until that time the major leagues had only all white teams and the blacks had their own leagues. In a quiet way he had a knack for leading and handling people of different racial backgrounds and getting them to work together.
Danny Murtaugh was a faithful Catholic. Even on road trips he gave Sunday Mass his top priority, encouraging his coaches to accompany him and made sure that his kids received a Catholic education through college. He belonged to the Knights of Columbus (a 1958 charter member of Council 4518 near Pittsburgh) and spoke at KofC banquets. As a 4th Degree knight, he served as part of an honor guard at funerals when able to. Danny spent two years in the war effort (1943-1945), insisting on a combat assignment with the 97th Infantry when given the opportunity to stay stateside and play for the U.S. Army baseball team. During the off season he was very active in his community and was even fire chief for a while. Murtaugh would give fees received on the banquet circuit to charity.
As a kid in 1950, I once played catch with his son, Tim and Danny Sr. joined us while still the Pirate 2nd baseman. It was in the back yard of the house he rented for the summer in Wilkinsburg. My cousin, Martha Foley Loya, baby sat for him as she did with Ernie Bonham. For more detail on Danny Murtaugh click on
For more detail on Ernie Bonham, click on
Pitching. Complete games by starting pitchers were common despite the fact that they only had three days rest between starts instead of today’s four. Thus a typical pitching rotation had four players, not the five of today. On May 26, 1959 in Milwaukee Harvey Haddix (http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/haddiha01.shtml) pitched a perfect game for 12 innings before giving up a an error, a walk, and with two outs a double by Joe Adcock for an unearned run in the 13th inning, losing to Lew Burdette who pitched 13 innings of shutout ball while giving up 12 hits. After the game, Burdette congratulated Haddix saying: “you pitched the greatest game that's ever been pitched in the history of baseball”. I heard the game on the radio while studying at Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University. No manager today would allow a pitcher to pitch more than nine innings. In those days they didn’t do pitch counts. The next year he won two games of the 1960 World Series (see http://www.baseball-almanac.com/boxscore/05261959.shtml and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqV_HNYQtbA).
Harvey Haddix walks to the dugout after losing perhaps the best game ever pitched, giving up an unearned run with one hit, a home run for a 2-0 loss. Both pitchers must have pitched 150 - 175 pitches each. Today complete games with 120 pitches are rare. No manager today would have left Harvey Haddix or Lew Burdette in that long.
A relief pitcher would pitch until he tired or became ineffective; they did not keep track of pitch counts; closers were unheard of. The relief pitcher would stay in until he became ineffective. Elroy Face (http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/f/facero01.shtml), the great reliever, had 18 wins with only one loss in 1959. He would often come into the game in the 7th inning. When the Pirates were behind, he would stay in the game long enough for the team to rally or blow the save and then regain the lead for the win. He is the first pitcher to have three saves (a total of 7 1/3 innings) in the same world series (1960). However in the crucial 7th game, Face blew a fourth save, giving up 4 runs in 3.0 innings (box scores at http://www.baseball-reference.com/postseason/1960_WS.shtml). Kent Tekulve did it again with three saves for the Pirates in the 1979 World Series.
With fewer pitchers, games would usually last about 2 ½ hours. If a player got a sore arm, his career was often over. Tommy John surgery was not developed until the 1990s or so. Pitchers seemed to be more durable then. That is probably because pitchers today pitch with higher velocity. Bob Feller and Satchel Paige went on and on with great fast balls in the forties and fifties.
Vernon Law, the leading starter and Elroy Face, the great reliever
were a great combination in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
My first baseball hero was slugger Ralph Kiner. He hit 23 home runs in 1946, 51 in 1947, 40 in 1948, 54 in 1949, 47 in 1950, 42 in 1951, and 37 in 1952, leading the league each year (a record and the majors in the last six years) before being traded in 1953 to the Chicago Cubs. The Greenberg Gardens were helpful, but many if not most of his home runs were line drives well over the scoreboard. I saw one or two Kiner home runs that kept rising as it cleared the scoreboard and left the ball park.
He generated a lot of excitement in Pittsburgh despite the terrible teams he played for. He may have hit many more home runs with top players backing him up, not having lost two years in the military during World War II Navy pilot flying antisubmarine missions, and 162 games of today. A back injury ended his career at the age of 32. I remember the 1947 season when he hit 51 homeruns, hitting something like 17 in September alone, often two or three home runs at a time, each time generating headlines in the early edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after a day game. The local ice cream shop in Duquesne had a life size cardboard image of him batting; he endorsed Sealtest ice cream.
He even wrote a short column for the Pittsburgh Press, called “Kiner’s Liners”. That probably prepared him for a second career as a radio and television broadcaster with WOR and a post game program called “Kiner’s Korner” for the New York Mets for 52 years and was elected to the Hall of Fame. Seehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralph_Kiner
Frank Thomas was another great slugger for the Pirates. Between 1953 and 1958 he made major league baseball interesting in Pittsburgh as the team’s slugger when they lost one game after another, hitting as many as 35 home runs in 1958 and started the All Star game that year at third Base. Had they not taken out the Greenberg Gardens, Frank Thomas would have hit a lot more and gained the Hall of Fame. In 1959 he left in a blockbuster trade that gave the Pirates Smokey Burgess, Don Hoak, and Harvey Haddix……key players that led the Pirates to the 1960 Pennant and World Series in 1960. Thomas played in the majors for 16 years, hitting 286 home runs.
He’s now 87 years old as of 2016, living in Ross Township near Pittsburgh. Interesting is that he studied in the seminary for four and a half years before leaving. However, today his youngest son of eight children, Fr. Mark Thomas did finish the seminary and is pastor of Immaculate Heart Church in the Polish Hill section of Pittsburgh. It’s a good fit; his mother is ethnic Polish (Dolores Wozniak). See the article in the appendix on Frank Thomas below for more detail with photos and links to his stats. It was my children and Fr. Mark who stimulated me to write this article. We stumbled on him while visiting his church on Polish Hill (their mother is Polish and I’m Polish by marriage). We mentioned that John-Paul, Joseph, and I were in Pittsburgh to see Naomi, who as a senior Nursing major at Franciscan University of Steubenville, had a summer job with the Little Sisters of the Poor, and at the same time take in a Pirate game which happened to be Faith Night. Fr. Mark updated us on his father; it’s a small world. Thus I dedicate the appendix to Frank Thomas who thought He might have a vocation to the priesthood and his son, Fr. Mark Thomas, who actually did have a vocation.
Roberto Clemente came up in 1955. He is probably the best all around player the Pirates ever had. Besides having 3000 hits, he had a legendary arm and was a tremendous right fielder. I saw him take a ball off the right field wall and then throw it like a rifle shot four or five feet off the ground to home plate on one bounce to throw out a runner. He made the National League All Star Team no less than 15 times and got his 3000th hit in the last game of the season in 1972.
As his career moved forward, Roberto saw something bigger than baseball…….helping others; He got more and more involved in the community. His legacy includes a sports complex which he had built in Puerto Rico to teach the game of baseball to kids. Is A few months later in January 1974 he went on a mercy mission to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua. On the way his overloaded plane with a history of problems went down into the ocean.
Andrew McCutchen receives the 2015 Roberto Clemente Award. He is flanked by Vera Clemente and one of her sons.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame within months after his death without the mandatory wait of five years; the only other was Lou Gehrig. The Right Field wall at PNC Park is named the Clemente Wall and is exactly 21 feet high, corresponding to the number he carried on his uniform. His statue appears outside of PNC Park along with Honus Wagner, and Willy Stargell. For more detail go to
The Pirates had many great teams and many awful teams from 1946 - 1960. Probably the worst of them all was the 1952 team which the Press nicknamed, the “Rickey Dinks” in mocking the youth movement of Branch Rickey. He did, however, lay the ground work, and Joe L. Brown continued the job of producing a pennant contender by the end of the decade. That team won only 42 games and lost 112 with only a 154 game schedule. Murry Dickson, an excellent veteran pitcher, had a 14 - 20 record that year. Branch Rickey told Ralph Kiner, who demanded a raise in 1953: “We finished last with you and we can finish last without you”. He was traded that year to the Chicago Cubs. The O’Brien twins formed a double play combination at shortstop and second.
In late May 1956 Dale Long (http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/l/longda02.shtml) hit a home run in eight consecutive games and the Pirates were riding high. After peaking with a 30 – 20 record and in 1st place, they collapsed……losing something like 30 of their next 40 games for another losing season.
As in St. Louis and Brooklyn, the youth movement eventually paid off for Branch Ricky; the Pirates became very respectable by 1958 under Joe L. Brown and the Pirates won it all in 1960.
Dick Groat from nearby Swissvale was an All American basketball player at Duke, but became an All Star shortstop for the Pirates and MVP in 1960, a great shortstop with a .325 batting average that year.(See http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/groatdi01.shtml, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/5f9f3329).
He was a rare two sport athlete, a star in Division 1 college basketball and baseball. Branch Rickey offered him a contract after his junior year in 1951. Feeling a moral commitment to honor his four year scholarship in basketball, Groat refused. Isn’t that an example for today’s one year and done college basketball stars? However, the next year Dick Groat signed for a $35,000 bonus and bypassing the minor leagues completely, he was the Pirate starting shortstop on his second day in uniform in 1952, hitting .284 as a rookie. Every morning he was tutored by former Pirate Hall of Fame batting champion, Paul Waner at his batting range. That Fall Groat was the first draft choice (third overall in the NBA) by the Ft. Wayne Pistons (today the Detroit Pistons. Then he was drafted by the Army and lost two years at his prime.
Bubble Gum Cards or Trading Cards (see the one above on Vernon Law and Elroy Face). As kids, we would buy bubble gum to get the cards of players. It was fun to collect and trade to obtain the complete set. We would even gamble with them, playing the game of toppers. Each kid would flip a card onto the ground; the next kid would flip his card so that it would land on one of the cards in the pot. The successful player would take all of the cards on the ground.
Drugs. Performance enhancing drugs were unheard of, but chewing tobacco and snuff were very common. In the 1980s and 90s Lenny Dykstra was a great hitter, but also a poster boy for losing much of his face because of cancer due to snuff.
The darkest aspect of American sports history was racial segregation in all sports except boxing and track. Blacks had to have their own baseball teams and leagues…..the legendary Homestead Greys, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs, etc. They developed legendary players that would have been without question, superstars……..Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and many others. Rightfully so, many of them are today members of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Branch Rickey (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Branch_Rickey, http://baseballhall.org/hof/rickey-branch), General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers brought in the great Jackie Robinson in 1947 to break the color barrier amidst great resistance. The legendary Satchel Paige came in towards the end of his career when well into his forties. In his prime he dominated major league hitters in exhibition games. So many of them would have been superstars, given the chance.
World War II. Most baseball players of the early 1940s traded their baseball uniforms for military uniforms to serve in World War II. After being the last player to bat .400 in 1941 served as a combat flyer and again over a year in the Korean War. Among the others who served were such Hall of Famers as Stan Musial, Ralph Kiner, Joe DiMaggio and many others. Imagine how may more records they could have broken were it not for their willingness to serve. In addition they played only 154 games, not 162 as today. During the war, the women’s league flourished and a one armed pitcher pitched for the St. Louis Browns.
The Business of Baseball
Salaries were modest and so were the admission prices. The major league minimum salary was $5000 per year and a super star as Ted Williams might make as much as $100,000. Paul Petit, a promising pitcher out of high school, received a $100,000 bonus, but never did much in the major leagues. It was a buck for a bleacher seat and $1.40 for general admission. I saw two games of the 1960 World Series in Yankee Stadium for only $3.00. Of course, the dollar at the time went far. Peanuts went for a dime and a hot dog for a quarter. The minimum wage by law was $.75 per hour.
The Reserve Clause. Trades were frequent. With the reserve clause in contracts, there was no such thing as free agency; a player was stuck with a team as long as it wanted to keep him. The player’s only recourse was to hold out (take it or leave it), i.e., not play at all. If the player was indispensable, the baseball club would eventually come to terms. Players were bought, sold, and traded like commodities. When the great slugger Ralph Kiner demanded more money, GM Branch Rickey replied: “We finished last with you and we can finish last without you”. He was traded a few months later. The article on Frank Thomas from the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) (http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ff969dc6 in the appendix below gives some remarkable insights on how players were treated regarding salaries before free agency.
With free agency it is difficult for a small market team to repeat a world series victory, let alone build a dynasty since the team would be unable to pay the higher salaries that their top stars would demand. Pirate fans had to wait 33 years for their 1960 pennant. It’s already longer than that since the 1979 World Series Pirate victory. After the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl a few months later, Pittsburgh called itself the "City of Champions" for a while.
A big positive was that superstars such as Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, etc. would usually begin and end their careers with the same team. Thus people would identify the player with the team.
The Farm Systems. Players were developed on the playgrounds, on high school teams, and with independent local teams, professional, semi-pro, and amateur. Without television, people would enjoy a summer evening watching their local baseball team. They would sell a player’s contract when discovered by a major league scout. I watched Wilkinsburg's sandlot team a number of times with my cousin Bob Foley. My home town of about 17,000, one of many steel towns in the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh, had its Duquesne Zemps. By 1950 our town had eight or so Little League teams (boys 8 – 12 years old) and latter a Pony League team (Middle School) and an American Legion team for teens after the high school season was over.
Branch Rickey (http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Branch_Rickey, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/6d0ab8f3) , while General Manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, pioneered the farm system in the 1920s and 30s as a means of developing players for the future and thus built the Cardinals into a dynasty. The Cardinals had working relationships with teams at different levels or had part or full ownership. Its scouts would discover a player, have him sign a contract, and place him with a Class D team in a corresponding league. The players would advance up to Class C, Class B, Class A, Double A, and Triple A before making it to a major league team. Today we have Rookie League, A, AA, and AAA. There are less farm teams today, but much of the development work is done by college baseball teams. Today players are drafted out of high school or college by major league teams and assigned to one of their farm clubs.
The marketing of baseball was simple……..no Hat Day, Bobble Head Day. Pup Night, Fireworks Night, Free Shirt Night, Zombie Night, or other promotion. They just played baseball. However, there was Children’s Day on Saturday afternoons 12 or under got into the Right Field Stands for free. I saw many a game that way; my Mom didn’t worry about me; all I had to do was hop a trolley car and it dropped off the fans a block away. Thursday afternoon was Ladies Day in which the women got in for something like 50 cents. The last Sunday home game was Prize Day, a Fan Appreciation Day.
If the team did well or had an exciting player or two, attendance was high. The 1948 Pirates, being a pennant contender (4th place), together with Ralph Kiner’s home runs, drew 2 million fans. The dismal 1952 team drew about 500,000 fans.
How would those players have done against the stars of today? We’ll never know, at least in this world.
For some links to the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates with their win - loss records, click on:
The best reference is the team’s history at http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/PIT/,http://pittsburgh.pirates.mlb.com/pit/history/,
For the career statistics on anybody who ever played in the major leagues, go to www.baseball-reference.com and www.baseball-almanac.com. These same references have team standings, league leaders, and all kinds of other data going back over a hundred years. http://baseballhall.org has bios on every member of the Hall of Fame and other data. Googling almost any notable major league player will yield further results and articles.
This article of the American Society of Baseball Research (SABR) was written by Bob Hurte
Photos were added to this article which was copied from http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ff969dc6
Some Links to Articles and Stats on Frank Thomas
It’s surprising how many links there are to sources of memorabilia on him.
Frank Thomas played during an era when team owners looked upon their players as chattels. By their standards, Frank Joseph Thomas was considered a rebel. Much of his career was spent bickering with management over his worth to them. In his early career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Thomas’s adversary in such battles was the man sometimes called “El Cheapo,” otherwise known as Wesley Branch Rickey.
During the 1950s Thomas’s demands were considered selfish but by today’s standards they would be probably be considered reasonable. His negotiations with Branch Rickey became legendary around the Steel City. In 1955 Thomas was the lone holdout on a Pirates club that was coming off a last-place finish 44 games behind the New York Giants. Rickey could not believe that this young man would have the audacity to challenge a $2,000 raise, from $13,000 to $15,000. The slugging outfielder sought a salary of $25,000 after a 1954 season in which he belted 23 home runs and drove in 94 runs with a career-high batting average of .298. On top of that, he received 24 votes for Most Valuable Player on a team that lost 101 games.
What Thomas should have realized was that he was dealing with the same general manager who reportedly informed future Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner, after Kiner won his seventh consecutive home run title in 1952, “We finished in last with you, we can finish last without you.” When Thomas held out for 17 days in 1955, he kept in shape by working out at the University of Pittsburgh. While he did not get the $25,000 he wanted, he did get a raise that brought his salary to $18,000. This compromise did not sit well with Mr. Rickey.
Frank Thomas, a late-season acquisition by the 1964 Phillies, grew up in the shadow of Forbes Field. Born in Pittsburgh on June 11, 1929, he entered a seminary in Niagara Falls, Ontario, as a teenager to study for the priesthood but could not shake an itch for baseball, and he decided to forgo a career in the priesthood. Frank’s father was Bronaslaus Tumas, a Lithuanian who had immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s. He lost his right arm in a work accident, and was employed as a foreman for the laundry department at Pittsburgh’s Magee Hospital. His mother was Anna Marian Thomas, a homemaker from Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He had three siblings – an older sister, Delores, and the younger Marie and John.1
Thomas’s professional career began in 1948 when the Pirates signed him and sent him to Tallahassee of the Class D Georgia-Florida League. He played in the outfield, made the league all-star team, and led the league in RBIs with 132. He moved up to Class B Waco and Davenport in 1949 and then Class A Charleston and Double-A New Orleans in 1950.
In 1951 the Pirates invited Thomas to spring training for the third straight season. Eventually they returned him to New Orleans. He was selected to play the outfield in the Southern Association all-star game, and his play that season (.289, 23 home runs) earned him his first late-season audition with the parent club.
Thomas made his major-league debut on August 17, 1951, at Forbes Field against the Chicago Cubs. He started in center field and batted third in the order. He got his first hit, an RBI double off Paul Minner, in an 8-3 Pirates win. He was 1-for-4. On August 30 he hit his first major-league home run, off George Spencer of the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds in New York.
The next year Thomas went back to New Orleans for more seasoning. His manager was Danny Murtaugh, the future leader of two World Series-winning teams. “I guess that it was good luck in disguise because I had one heck of a year,” Thomas said in 1990.2 He again was picked for the all-star game and led the league in homers with 35, scored 112 runs, and collected 131 RBIs while batting .303. On August 6, 1952, a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Press asked why Thomas was still in the minors, especially when the Pirates were in dire need of hitting, and Rickey was hard-pressed to answer. Thomas was finally brought up in mid-September, played in six games and managed two singles. Although he played in only six games, Thomas felt that he had finally earned a spot on the team.
Thomas stayed with the Pirates in 1953. He had been paid $6,000 in New Orleans in 1952, and he requested an additional $1,000 from the Pirates. Rickey’s response was said to be, “I can’t pay major-league salaries to minor-league players.” Fred Haney, the Pirates’ manager, assured the youngster that he would get every opportunity to prove himself at the big-league level. Thomas responded with 30 home runs and 102 RBIs.
Thomas became a regular after the Pirates traded Ralph Kiner to the Cubs in June 1963. When Kiner departed, so did Kiner's Korner – previously known as Greenberg Gardens – which had shortened the outfield fences by 30 feet, from 365 feet to 335. Thomas later figured that had the shorter wall remained, his home-run totals would have doubled and most likely he would have finished his career with more than 500. The wall was highly unpopular with the Pirates’ pitching staff. Pitcher Murry Dickson (66-85 with the Pirates in 1949-53) once said ruefully, “With some justification, the ‘Greenberg Gardens’ was largely responsible for my record.”3
After his successful first full major-league season, Thomas told Rickey, “I’m a major leaguer now and want to be paid accordingly.” Rickey asked him how much he wanted and Frank said $15,000. This did not set well with the Mahatma, who paused, thought about it and suggested, “You go along with my offer of $12,500 and if you have another good year, I’ll take good care of you.”4 Against his better judgment, Thomas accepted.
In 1954 Thomas batted.298 with 23 home runs and 94 RBIs. He went to Rickey expecting a substantial increase for 1955 but was offered $15,000 and was then compared negatively with Ralph Kiner. “If you are going to compare me, give me the same opportunity,” Thomas replied. “Put back Greenberg Gardens for me and I’ll hit you 50 homers because I can tattoo the scoreboard.” Thomas refused to sign Rickey’s contract and became a holdout. Rickey warned him, “Go ahead and hold out. I’ll keep you out of baseball for five years.”5 Thomas succeeded in getting the team’s offer up to $18,000, and he reluctantly signed, then proceeded to have his one bad season for the Pirates: 25 home runs, 72 RBIs, and a batting average of .245.
In 1956 Joe Brown became the Pirates’ general manager. That season Lee Walls played a lot of left field, so Thomas moved to third base at the request of manager Bobby Bragan. Bragan appreciated his athleticism and remarked, “He was our long-ball man, but he was a team player and had great hands.” Although he struggled defensively, Thomas played in 157 games, ties included, batted .282, and had 25 home runs and 80 RBIs. Brown offered a $1,000 raise for 1956, which Thomas accepted.
In 1957 Thomas played in 151 games, split among first base, third base, and the outfield. He enjoyed a decent season: a .290 batting average, 23 home runs, and 89 RBIs. Brown raised his salary to $25,000 for 1958.
Left to right Roberto Clemente, Frank Thomas, Lee Walls and Bill Virdon in 1958 when the Pirates finally became respectable after numerous poor years mired in 7th and last place since 1950. In June the Pirates were even in first place on June 7 before fading and finishing in 2nd place. The year 1958 was Thomas’ best year.
The Pirates slugger was worth the investment. He had the best year of his career in 1958, with 35 home runs and 109 RBIs. On August 16 Thomas clouted three consecutive home runs against the Cincinnati Reds. At last he seemed happy. He enjoyed the new California venues of Seals Stadium in San Francisco and the Los Angeles Coliseum. He especially enjoyed the new home of the Dodgers and loved taking aim at the Coliseum’s short left-field fence. He predicted that if he played in Los Angeles, he could challenge Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 60 home runs. Thomas started the All-Star Game at third base and said this was his proudest accomplishment, since the players chose the starters.
The comfortable feeling came to an end on January 30, 1959, when the Pirates traded Thomas and three other players to the Cincinnati Reds for catcher Smoky Burgess, pitcher Harvey Haddix, and third baseman Don Hoak. The trade would go down as the worst in Reds’ history and many, including Thomas, believed it was responsible for the Pirates’ World Series championship in 1960. Before Thomas signed his contract, he informed Reds general manager Gabe Paul that he had a bad hand that was not healing properly. Paul was not worried; Frank asked for a salary of $40,000, which he got. The hand really bothered him and affected his play. The pain brought tears to his eyes whenever he applied pressure. Both of the Reds managers that year, Mayo Smith and Fred Hutchinson, had him on the bench a lot. A doctor later discovered that tumors were growing on the nerves of his hand. This did not save Thomas from being traded for the second time in a year. On December 6, 1959, he was shipped to the Cubs for outfielders Lee Walls and Lou Jackson and pitcher Bill Henry.
Manager Bobby Bragan with Frank Thomas (left) in 1957.
Thomas had surgery on his hand and had only a fair season with the Cubs: a .238 batting average, 21 homers, and 64 RBIs in 479 at-bats. He had a couple of run-ins with manager Lou Boudreau that left Thomas feeling that Boudreau was trying to show him up.
One time in Los Angeles, general manager John Holland offered Thomas $1,000 if he would work with and coach the younger players. Thomas refused, but the GM stuck the money in Thomas’s shirt pocket. Two weeks before the end of the season, Holland gave him another $2,000. Suspecting something, Thomas told management, “If my contract for the coming year includes a cut in my salary, you are going to hear from me.”6 He was right; his salary was cut by $8,000. Frank wrote a ten-page letter to Holland saying he felt the Cubs were trying to buy him off. Holland offered to take back the $3,000 and not cut his salary, which he did. Thomas gained a tremendous amount of respect for the GM, feeling Holland was fair and someone whom he could talk to.
Thomas’s next stop was Milwaukee. On May 9, 1961, as he was on the team bus heading to a game with the Braves, he was informed that he would be switching uniforms when the team arrived. He walked into the dressing room and was greeted by his new manager, Charlie Dressen, who told him that he would be the regular left fielder. Thomas performed well in a lineup with Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Joe Adcock. He enjoyed a productive year, batted .284 and smacked 25 homers. General manager John McHale informed Thomas he wanted him back for 1962, but in November the Braves traded him to the brand-new New York Mets. He tried to get in touch with McHale but the Braves GM never returned his calls. Thomas’s comment: “General managers treated players like slaves.”7
At 33, Thomas had one of his best offensive years for the expansion Mets in 1962, hitting 34 home runs. “We had a veteran ballclub, with many players from winning traditions.”8 Thomas and his teammates felt that they would have a fair record. But the pitching quality did not match the team’s hitting capability. This team lost a record-setting (for the modern era) 120 games.
Thomas loved playing in New York. The fans were great. They had been hungry for a National League team ever since the Dodgers and Giants left for California after the 1957 season. Said Thomas, “I had fun on the Mets,” a team whose fans took them into their hearts and forgave everything. No team got more enthusiastic support. In addition to the fan support, Casey Stengel took the media pressure off them. He entertained both the fans and the press with his “Stengelese.”
Thomas had several power outbursts in 1962; during one three-game stretch, he hit six home runs. Because he had star status in New York, he hoped that he would make a lot of money in endorsements, but his endorsement money amounted to just $2,000. In 1963, while he was still productive, hitting .260 with 15 home runs, he got caught in a roster squeeze as the Mets gave playing time to younger players like Ed Kranepool. Thomas became expendable and a good target for a contending team. In 1964 such a deal occurred.
On August 7, 1964, Thomas was traded to the Phillies for prospects Gary Kroll and Wayne Graham, and cash. It was the first time Thomas played for a serious contender. After the trade, Philadelphia expanded a 1½-game lead to 6½ games. On September 8 Thomas fractured his right thumb sliding into second base. As Jim Bunning recalled, a ball was hit to the left of Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills. Thomas faked a break for third in hopes of distracting Wills but then had to dive back to second and broke his thumb. He played the rest of the game and reached base twice, but then sat out the next 16 games. By the time he returned in late September, the Phillies’ inglorious collapse was almost over. In 39 games for Philadelphia, he hit seven home runs and batted .294.
On July 3, 1965, an incident of pregame horseplay occurred around the batting cage between Frank and Richie Allen before a contest with the Cincinnati Reds. Several versions of what happened have been given. The website www.BaseballLibrary.com states that Thomas swung a bat at Allen during a disagreement. It has been said that Thomas used racial slurs; both would “bury the hatchet” years later. Whatever happened, Allen belted a three-run triple in the seventh inning and Thomas hit a pinch-hit home run to tie the score in the eighth. The Reds eventually won, 10-8. After the game the Phillies sold Thomas to the Houston Astros. He played in 23 games for the Astros and and then was sold to the Milwaukee Braves, for whom he played 15 games. In April 1966 he was released by the Braves (now in Atlanta) and in May he signed with the Cubs. He played in five games with the Cubs and 25 with their Tacoma affiliate before he was released. He retired then, with Frank’s career totals for 16 years in the majors of 1,766 games, 1,671 hits, 286 home runs, 962 RBIs, and a batting average of .266.
Frank married the former Dolores “Dodo” Wozniak in 1951. She died of pancreatic cancer in 2012. They had eight children: Joanne, Patty Ann, Frank W., Peter, Maryanne, Paul, Father Mark, and Sharon (deceased), and as of 2013, 15 grandchildren. As of early 2013, he lived in Ross Township, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh, and spent time playing in charity golf tournaments. He used to play in old-timer’s games in Pittsburgh when they had them. Thomas is a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Alumni Association and has participated in a number of fantasy baseball camps. As a 65-year-old during the 1994 All-Star festivities at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, he drove one deep into the gap.
He once summed up his attitude about life: “I always felt if you gave 100 percent at whatever you did, you didn’t have anything to be ashamed of.”9
This biography is included in the book "The Year of the Blue Snow: The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies" (SABR, 2013), edited by Mel Marmer and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.
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Golenbock, Peter, Amazin’ (New York: St. Martins Press, 2002).
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Kuklick, Bruce. To Every Thing a Season (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991).
O’Brien, Jim. We Had ’Em All the Way, Bob Prince and His Pittsburgh Pirates (Pittsburgh: Geyer Printing, 1998).
O’Toole, Andrew, Branch Rickey in Pittsburgh (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2000).
Peary, Danny. We Played the Game (New York: Hyperion, 1994).
Thomas, Frank, Ronnie Joyner, and Bill Bozman, Kiss It Goodbye! The Frank Thomas Story (Dunkirk, Maryland: Pepperpot Productions, 2005).
The Baseball Encyclopedia, Eighth Edition (New York: Macmillan, 1990).
Emert, Rich. “Where Are They Now? Frank Thomas.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (online) accessed April 17, 2003.
Baseball Almanac, www.baseball-almanac.com/players/player.php/p=thomafr03.
Frank Thomas, BaseballLibrary.com, www.baseballlibrary.com/baseballlibrary/ballplayers/T/Thomas_Frank.stm.
Friend, Harold. Frank Thomas interview. “The Highlander, Official E-Newsletter of Baseball Fever’s NY Yankees Forum”, Volume 13. March 2004
Robinson, James G. “Break Up the Mets.” BaseballLibrary.com: www.baseballlibrary.com/baseballlibrary/features/flashbacks/o4_23_1962.stm.
Ultimate Mets Database: www.ultimatemets.com/profile.php/PlayerCode=0008.
Personal letters between Frank Thomas and Bob Hurte, 1992-2004.
1 Frank Thomas, Ronnie Joyner, and Bill Bozman. Kiss It Goodbye! The Frank Thomas Story (Dunkirk, Maryland: Pepperpot Productions, 2005), 1,2.
2 Danny Peary, We Played the Game (New York: Hyperion, 1994), 190.
3 Andrew O’Toole, Branch Rickey in Pittsburgh (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2000), 97.
4 Peary, 226.
5 Peary, 292.
6 Peary, 463.
7 Peary, 503.
8 Peary, 541.
9 Rich Emert. “Where Are They Now? Frank Thomas.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (online), accessed April 17, 2003.