|Forbes Field, the
home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, was constructed in 1909 and used until 1970.|
many major league baseball games and followed the Pittsburgh Pirates
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
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
were still relatively safe at night.
Day games were the norm otherwise.
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
Orioles), and the Washington Senators (“First in war; first in peace
; and last
in the American League” moved to Minneapolis).
Baltimore, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles,
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
Dodgers agreed to move west together. New York was then suddenly left with only
major league team. It devastated the
people of the New York City Borough
of Brooklyn since they identified so
closely with the team.
teams traveled by train, they would have several two or three week home
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
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
double header. Monday was a day off
or travel day. Thursday was for
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
city. The players would spend the travel
time reading, but mostly
By the 1960s air travel was the standard mode of travel.
League and American League teams played each other only during
the World Series
and Spring Training. Legendary were the
Series games between the dominant New York Yankees and the New
Giants or the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Radio and Television. KDKA Pittsburgh was one of the first to
games in the late 1920s. Home
games were broadcast live. The radio
announcers would broadcast away games from the studio while receiving
play accounts by ticker tape which was also used for stock market
quotes. Broadcasting the games live on phone lines
were just too expensive.
would then act like they were at the game, giving it life
and often improvising
Rosewell and Bob Prince were very colorful
homer radio announcers. Rosey 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.
Bob Prince with his flashy suit coats was another radio character……“And
we had 'em all the way” after a victory; “How sweet it is!” when the Pirates
got a good lead or won a big game; and “You can kiss it goodby” after a Pirate
home run. Televised games came on black and white screens by the 1950s.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Hall of Fame Sluggers
Hank Greenberg (left) and his protégé Ralph Kiner Spring Training 1947
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
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 very well written book, a sports classic that describes the background, the atmosphere, the color, managerial strategies, and the suspense of that epic 7th Game, read "THE BEST GAME EVER: Pirates vs Yankees October 13, 1960" by Jim Reisler and published by Carroll & Graf, 2007.
Mazeroski remains the only player to win Game 7 of the World Series with a
walk-off home run.
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.
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
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
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
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 until halted by an error and a walk. With two outs Joe Adcock hit a walk off
double for an unearned run in the 13th inning. Lew Burdette pitched 13 innings of shutout
ball while scattering 12 hits, all singles for the win. After the game, Burdette (career record 203 -
144 and said to have often used the illegal spit ball) 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 and seldom more than 100 pitches. In those days they didn’t do pitch counts,
but according to Western Union which telegraphed the play by play, it was 115
pitches for an average of 9 pitches per inning, remarkable efficiency (82
strikes and only 33 balls). 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). His lifetime record was 136 – 116. For a great story about that game click on http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/pirates/2009/05/24/In-1959-Harvey-Haddix-pitched-perhaps-the-best-game-ever-and-lost/stories/200905240102.
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
relief pitcher would pitch until he tired or became ineffective; they did not
keep track of pitch counts; set-up pitchers and 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 1940s and 1950s.
Law, the leading starter and Elroy Face, the great reliever
a great combination in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
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. See
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.
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.
Every year Major League baseball gives the Roberto
Clemente Sportsmanship Award to the player that best exemplifies baseball on
and off the field in giving back to the surrounding community. It is a recognition of the player who best
represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement,
philanthropy, and positive contributions, both on and off the field. Each club
nominates one player to be considered for the Roberto Clemente Award in tribute
to Clemente's achievements and character by recognizing current players who
truly understand the value of helping others.
The Awarding Committee considers the vote of the fans in selecting the
winning player for the year. The only
Pirates to receive the final award are Willie Stargell and Andrew McCutchen. Jared Hughes is the Pirate nominee for 2016. for 15 years now Major League Baseball designates a day in September as Roberto Clemente Day at all games played that day and the home club's nominee is recognized. The visiting team does the same at a future home game.
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
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.
During those losing
years with the Pirates, Branch Rickey introduced another of his innovations, ridiculed
at the time, but today a part of baseball at all levels, the baseball helmet. That safety innovation must have saved a number
of lives and and innumerable concussions.
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.
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.
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.
Role Models. We
would emulate the players. They told us
not to smoke and I for one never did. However,
they were terrible examples on chewing big wads of chewing tobacco and
snuff. Today it’s bubble gum
instead. There was community involvement
by the players, but not as much as today. Wheaties promoted some of that emulation on
their cereal boxes (see the one on Roberto Clemente above).
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.
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
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.
then Baseball and all professional sports have become big business with agents,
unions, marketing gimmicks, lawyers, multi-million dollar salaries performance
enhancing drugs, etc. Loyalty to the
team and loyalty to the city are bygones.
It’s too much of “what’s in it for me?”.
Modern day baseball with all of its technology, advanced training
methods, and sophistication still could learn something from baseball of the
1940s and 1950s.
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:
- is the most recent
and most comprehensive.
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
Some Links to Articles and Stats on
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
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
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.
Finoli, David, and Bill Ranier, The
Pittsburgh Pirates Encyclopedia (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing
Golenbock, Peter, Amazin’
(New York: St. Martins Press, 2002).
Johnson, Lloyd, and Miles Wolff, The
Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 2nd edition. (Durham, North
Carolina: Interlink Publishing, 1997).
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,
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.
Friend, Harold. Frank Thomas
interview. “The Highlander, Official E-Newsletter of Baseball Fever’s NY
Yankees Forum”, Volume 13. March 2004
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,
2 Danny Peary, We Played the Game (New York: Hyperion,
3 Andrew O’Toole, Branch Rickey in Pittsburgh
(Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2000), 97.
9 Rich Emert. “Where Are They Now? Frank Thomas.” Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette (online), accessed April 17, 2003.