The following is from Pirates Prospects contributor John Dreker, as part of his ongoing Pirates History feature. The feature focuses on the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and every Sunday, John will take a look at a different piece of that history. This week John looks at George Van Haltren.
George Van Haltren was a very good 19th century baseball player who is all but forgotten despite putting up some impressive career numbers. If he was in the Hall of Fame already no one would question the merits of his selection. He scored 1,642 runs in his career, which ranked him 6th all-time when he retired, and just one run scored behind 5th place Jimmy Ryan who retired the same day he did. He amassed 2,544 hits when he was done. At the time only Cap Anson had reached the magical 3,000 hit mark and it would be another 11 years before Honus Wagner would become
just the second member of that club. He also drove in just over 1,000 runs, not an extremely high total but a plateau you look for in player’s stats when you judge their worthiness for the Hall of Fame.
Van Haltren wasn’t just a pure hitter either, his .316 career batting average over 1,990 games should’ve got him some strong consideration back in the 1940’s when the Old Timers committee started voting in players from his era en masse. What they may have also missed is his speed which allowed him to steal 583 bases, a number that placed him top five when he retired and still in the top 20 to this day. He also had a strong outfield arm compiling 349 outfield assists,fourth most all-time trailing the aforementioned Jimmy Ryan, Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb, the last two playing around 50% more games in the outfield than Van Haltren. As a side not, Jimmy Ryan is basically the same overall player as Van Haltren. He’s another player who deserves strong Hall of Fame consideration, but he doesn’t have the connections to Pittsburgh that Van Haltren has so I won’t give his career the proper recognition is deserves in this article.
As if all of those accomplishments weren’t enough, George also spent three of his seasons (1887-88, 1890) and a few games spread out over six seasons that followed as a pitcher, posting a 40-31 career mark in the process. He had double digit win totals in his three main seasons as a pitcher, and completed all but three of his 68 major league starts. I think these stats prove that Van Haltren wasn’t just an ordinary player of his day. Now on to his Pittsburgh connection.
Back right before the start of the 1887 NL season, the Alleghenys were just days away from starting their season when they decided their starting rotation, which looked decent at the time with future Hall of Famer Pud Galvin and Ed “Cannonball” Morris who had won 114 games over the last three seasons alone, needed more strength. Even back in 1887 they knew you could never have enough pitching! The Alleghenys decided to go after Chicago’s James McCormick who had a 252-191 record at the time and he had just turned thirty years old. If they knew ahead of time that McCormick was basically done by that season it’s doubtful they would have made the deal they did for him. For the one 13-23 season they got from McCormick, Pittsburgh gave up $2,000 (think 1887 numbers when you see that amount) and an unknown rookie named George Van Haltren.
At first, Van Haltren didn’t make the Alleghenys regret the trade any more than McCormick’s performance did. His first two seasons combined were average at best, but by 1889 he was switched to a full-time outfielder and his .322 average with 82 walks would have looked mighty good anywhere in the Pittsburgh lineup. When the Player’s League formed in 1890, like almost every other star player, he jumped to that league. Unlike most players though, when the league folded after just one season, he didn’t return to his previous team, he instead jumped to the American Association team in Baltimore. It’s possible Van Haltren brought bad luck wherever he went because that league also folded after his one season in it, ending a ten year run in which at least two major leagues were being run at the same time.
The 1891 Baltimore Orioles of the American Association became the 1892 Baltimore Orioles of the National League, a now defunct team as the franchise folded after the 1899 season despite three straight NL pennants from 1894-1896. Van Haltren was hitting over .300 for the Orioles when manager Ned Hanlon, who came over from Pittsburgh mid-season, decided to ship George back to his original team for a 20 year old light hitting centerfielder and cash. The Pirates had got their man back and in the prime of his career and all they had to do was pay a little cash…oh yeah, and give up Joe Kelley who went on a five year run starting in 1893 where he posted a near 1.000 OPS and averaged 140 runs scored and almost 110 RBI’s en route to a Hall of Fame election.
Van Haltren in 1893 actually had the slightly better season of the two, he hit .338 with 75 walks and 79 RBI’s for the Pirates so just like the first deal, it didn’t look as bad at first. Pittsburgh finished the season in second place posting a then franchise best 81-48 record. They also had a deep outfield including a strong hitting backup named Jake Stenzel, so what happened next is probably predictable to you by now. The Pirates sold Van Haltren after just one season to the Giants where he would go on to play another ten seasons, hitting .321 while taking walks, stealing bases, scoring runs and playing defense all at a high standard.
So from a Hall of Fame caliber player they had twice in their franchise (the first time for free!) before his 27th birthday, their sum total was one very good season from him, and one horrible season from a washed up star pitcher. All they gave up after a final tally was some cash and future Hall of Famer Joe Kelley who went on to hit .317 career which included a ten year run that probably made most Pittsburgh fans from that era sick to their stomach.