When most people take a look at the Pirates all-time leaders they recognize the names of almost all of the players, it’s a history filled with Hall of Famers who spent most or all of their career with the team from Honus Wagner to the Waner brothers to Roberto Clemente to Willie Stargell with plenty of other recognizable names in between. When the team celebrates players from the past there is one name from the record books that is always missing, an all but forgotten player from the 1890’s named Jake Stenzel. All one would have to do is go to the team’s all-time leaders in batting average to find his name. A franchise that has been around since 1882, yet there he is in the number one spot on that list, a full 20 points ahead of second place Paul Waner, one of the greatest pure hitters ever.
Stenzel started his pro career the same year Pittsburgh joined the National League, in 1887. At the time he was a catcher in the Ohio State League playing in Wheeling, West Virginia. It’s amazing he didn’t find his way to the majors sooner as he hit over .380 that season, not exactly an average you would expect from a catcher, especially back then where they took even more of a beating behind the plate than they do now. Stenzel was a wasted talent behind the plate. Besides the high average he had great speed, stealing 81 bases in 1889 while still in the minors, yet he didn’t get a chance in the majors until next year and even that comes with an asterisk.
In 1890 the Player’s League was formed meaning three major leagues running at the same time spread the talent thin in the majors, and most of the best players were in the Player’s League. Despite being a great hitter with above average speed who played catcher, he didn’t get his chance until mid-season 1890 when Chicago Colts manager Cap Anson decided to give him and a pitcher named Pat Luby a chance. Stenzel made his debut versus the Alleghenys on June 16 but he would last just 11 games while Luby would go on to win 20 games the rest of the way. When the Player’s League folded following the season Stenzel was out of a major league job, returning to the minors for two full seasons before getting another chance despite hitting great each of those years.
Following the 1892 minor league season the Pirates signed Stenzel, got him into three games and despite going 0-9 with a walk he was a much improved defensive player now playing outfield as well. He was a player who they already knew could hit so for the first time he had a major league job going into the following season. In 1893 the Pirates had one of the best outfields in baseball, George Van Haltren, Mike Smith and Patsy Donovan. So good was this outfield that Stenzel had to fight for playing time despite hitting .362 and he still occasionally caught for the last season in his career. Smith was an interesting case in that he was a 30-game winner in 1887 as a 19-year-old, but he blew out his arm by 1889. There will be more on the historical significance of this outfield in the next article, so I won’t get into details here about them.
In 1894, Van Haltren was gone so Stenzel became the team’s everyday centerfielder and it was in this season that he put his name in the team’s record book. He set a still standing Pirates record of 150 runs scored that year. He drove in 121 runs which still ranks in the top ten, just ten RBIs behind the single season leader. He stole 61 bases which is tied for 8th highest in franchise history. He also posted a career high 1.017 OPS, helped in part by the fact he took 76 walks while batting .352, which was actually his lowest total in any of his four full seasons in Pittsburgh.
The 1895 season was much of the same for Stenzel. He played CF everyday, he hit .371 while taking his share of walks and stealing bases at a high rate. He also drove in 97 runs and hit a team leading 38 doubles. That 1895 team finished 71-61 which believe it or not was only good enough for seventh place in the 12 team NL. Needless to say there was some real bad teams in the league that year. In 1896, Stenzel batted .361 with a team leading 57 steals, 82 RBI’s, which was good enough for second most, and 104 runs scored, which placed him third on the team behind the other two outfielders. Despite the great production from the outfielders, the team lost it’s best hitter, Jake Beckley, for most of the season and finished just above .500.
Connie Mack was the manager of the team back then and following the 1896 season he decided to break up the top notch outfield shipping off Stenzel and three other players that amounted to very little for flashy outfielder Steve Brodie and 3B Jim Donnelly. Brodie was the key to the trade but Donnelly had a fluke 1896 season hitting .328 despite the fact he hadn’t played in the majors since 1891, and prior to that he was the Mario Mendoza of his era, struggling to bat .200 most seasons. Brodie was a very good hitter, much the same as Stenzel but he was more known for his glove and in 1897 he would post an amazing .983 fielding percentage in CF, committing just four errors and leading the league in both categories.
Stenzel went on to lead the league in doubles in 1897, hitting .353 while driving in 116 runs and stealing 69 bases. Connie Mack must have noticed Stenzel was on the downside of his career, but he obviously got rid of him just one season too soon. By 1898 his average had dropped to .275 and the next year he was released mid-season. He signed with the Cincinnati Reds to finish the year and hit .310 in nine games but never played pro ball again.
His final totals with the Pirates included that franchise record .360 batting average, a .429 OBP which also ranks first all-time in Pittsburgh history and a .958 OPS which is still good enough for third all-time trailing Brian Giles and Ralph Kiner. As mentioned above, his 150 runs scored in 1894 still stands as a team record to this day.