After eighteen years of losing, Pirate fans are used to things not working. Lots of things not working. Baseball teams make many decisions in the course of just one season, let alone eighteen, and some are going to turn out well even if it’s just by accident, but you can’t have very many turn out well if you’re going to keep losing for eighteen years. At that point, you’ve defeated the laws of chance. Yet there was a time when the Pirates had a lot of things go right, when they made many moves that turned out well.
No, really . . . .
One such time was 1969. True, they didn’t win anything that year. But the front office engineered a very successful transition from a series of not-quite-good-enough teams in the mid-1960s to a powerhouse that would dominate the newly created Eastern Division until the mid-1970s and remain in contention for over a decade.
The mid-60s Pirates were a team noted mainly for a free-swinging, batting-average-driven offense and a number of outstanding defensive players, most notably Roberto Clemente, Bill Virdon, and the double-play combo of Bill Mazeroski and Gene Alley. Like the recent Angels’ teams, the offense was up-and-down, as an offense dependent on high batting averages needs everybody to have a good year. The pitching was never quite good enough because the Pirates lacked the ace starters that dominated that decade. Consequently, they were always competitive, but their peak came with third place finishes in 1965-66.
In the late 60s, the Pirates tried to get over the hump twice by acquiring big-name stars. Prior to the 1967 season, they traded former bonus baby Bob Bailey and good-field, no-hit shortstop Gene Michael to the Dodgers for star shortstop Maury Wills, whom they then moved to third. Wills had two merely decent seasons for the Pirates, not nearly enough to change the team’s fortunes. Bailey flopped in LA before putting together several strong seasons for the Expos. The following year, the Pirates traded lefty Woody Fryman and infield prospect Don Money, among others, for long-time Phillies’ ace Jim Bunning. This trade was a flop. Bunning was coming off one of his best seasons, but went 4-14, 3.88 for the Bucs. (That 3.88 may look good now, but in 1968 the league ERA was 2.99.) The Pirates dumped him on the Dodgers late in the 1969 season and he played out the string for a couple years after that. Meanwhile, after struggling in Philly, Money became a very good thirdbaseman for Milwaukee and Fryman had a long career as a more-or-less average pitcher. In the end, all the two big trades got the Pirates was a pair of 6th place finishes with nearly identical records of 81-81 and 80-82.
Whether it was because the big-name trade acquisitions didn’t work out or because the farm system was simply ready, the Pirates tried a very different strategy in 1969. In the pre-free-agency days, the sort of tear-down rebuilding that we see now wasn’t a common sight, but there was the expansion draft. The Pirates used it to trigger an extensive remodeling. They actually began the process late in the 1968 season by selling the contract of long-time relief ace Elroy Face to the Tigers. In the draft they lost several other long-time players—firstbaseman Donn Clendenon, fourth outfielder Manny Mota, and reliever Al McBean (although McBean had actually spent most of 1968 in the rotation)—as well as Wills. They also traded pitcher Tommie Sisk, who’d been with them for six years, just before the season started, and dumped Bunning and reliever Ron Kline during the season. Many of these players—Face, McBean, Bunning, Wills and Sisk—were at or near the end of the productive part of their careers, but Clendenon went on to World Series stardom for the Mets and Mota spent another decade with the Dodgers as one of the game’s most dangerous pinch-hitters.
Except for the bullpen, which the Pirates generally bolstered with veterans, the replacements came from the farm system. Initially, Clendenon’s replacement was Bob Robertson, a highly regarded power hitter who’d had a pair of 32-HR seasons while moving quickly up through the minors. Robertson struggled early, though, and got sent to AAA, where he blasted 34 HRs. He re-emerged a year later and had two strong seasons before being done in by back problems. The spot was then claimed by Al Oliver, who’d batted .315 and slugged .505 in AAA in 1968. Replacing Wills was Richie Hebner. The team also added a new catcher, a Panamian signee who’d had a cup of coffee back in 1967. Manny Sanguillen’s emergence moved incumbent Jerry May, an outstanding defensive catcher but a weak hitter, to the backup role. There was also help coming for the middle infield. Alley was suffering from shoulder problems and was never really the same again after 1967. Mazeroski missed over half the 1969 season with an injury, being replaced much of the time, ironically, by Alley. The regular shortstop for most of the 1969 season was 5’5” Freddie Patek. Unfortunately, after the 1970 season the Pirates traded Patek in an ill-fated deal for pitcher Bob Johnson and he became a mainstay on a string of very good Royals teams. More infield help came late in the season with the September callup of Dave Cash, who’d batted .291 in AAA.
The pitching as always lagged behind the hitting, but the Pirates got help on the mound as well. Dock Ellis had come up part way through the 1968 season and became a rotation mainstay in 1969, making 33 starts. Bob Moose had spent the whole 1968 season in the majors as a 20-year-old, but emerged as a key part of the staff in 1969, going 14-3 in a swing role.
The 1969 team isn’t exactly legendary in the team’s lore, but being able to call up five players—Sanguillen, Oliver, Robertson, Hebner and Cash—who’d become regulars on a World Series winner just two years later makes it a remarkable season in its own right. (It would have been six regulars if they’d hung onto Patek.) They even improved by eight games in the process: the 1969 team went 88-74. A look at where these players came from will be next.