After finishing in second place in the NL in 1900, and making it through the mass player jump to the newly formed American League relatively unscathed, the Pirates began their march towards their first title in late April 1901, behind 2nd year player-manager Fred Clarke, superstar Honus Wagner and a very deep pitching staff. This week we will take a look how the Pirates began the season and the extremely minor deal they made that helped change things in late June and beyond.
The 1901 Pittsburgh Pirates opened up their season in Cincinnati on April 20th with 15 game winner Sam Leever on the mound. They got in just one game of the series but made it count with a 4-2 win. Three days later they played their second game of the season and took their first loss (10-4) with the 1900 ERA leader Rube Waddell on the mound. By May 2nd the Pirates had already given up on Waddell and his crazy antics. Following an 8-3 loss the prior day, the Pirates sold the contract of Waddell to the Chicago Orphans (Cubs), the team he just lost to, despite the fact he was one of the most talented pitchers in all of baseball. He was a handful for the team to keep track of and he was easily distracted on the mound. Two days later Lewis “Snake” Wiltse would make his ML debut and defeat Waddell for his only win in a Pittsburgh uniform. Rube would go 14-14 2.81 the rest of the way with Chicago.
After finishing an 8 game stretch versus Chicago, four home and four on the road, the Pirates traveled home to face Cincinnati. The Pirates and Reds were tied in the standings at the top with 9-5 records. The Pirates briefly took over first place winning the first game backed by the pitching of Jesse Tannehill who threw a 3-0 eight inning shutout. By the end of the three game series though, they were trailing the Reds in the standings and the New York Giants had tied them as well.
Despite their great starting rotation and high expectations the Pirates did not play well through the month of May. They had a 16-14 record going into June and they were in fourth place, now being passed by the Philadelphia Phillies as well. The month did have two pitching highlights to mention. One was a 2-1 duel they ended up on the short side of between Deacon Phillippe and a new star in the league, Christy Mathewson. Christy won his 7th straight start to open the season, which was his first full season in the majors. The other matchup was the Pirates handing a beating to another future Hall of Famer, Kid Nichols, who already had 311 wins to his credit by age 31. Behind the pitching of Leever on May 25th the Pirates won 11-1.
June 1st was the low point of the season. The Pirates lost, dropping them to just one game over .500 and three games back in the standings in 4th place. The next day they again beat Rube Waddell then followed that up with a three game sweep of the Phillies at home which quickly got them back into second place. By June 10th they were back in 3rd place trailing the Reds now who had just lost to the Giants and New York was making their first trip into Pittsburgh of the year for a three game series. They started the series 1.5 games back in the standings but by the time they were done the Pirates now led the NL by that same 1.5 game difference. The high point of the series was a 4-0 rain-shortened shutout by Leever over Mathewson. It was Leever’s 3rd straight win when matched up against a future Hall of Famer (Nichols and Waddell).
The Pirates traveled into New York a week later now with a three game lead and Mathewson and Leever faced off again, this time failing to establish a tie break in the season series between the two as the game ended in a 5-5 tie. The teams split the other two games leaving them right where they started going into a series in Boston.
The 1901 Boston Beaneaters (current day Braves) had a true workhorse pitching staff with some big names: the aforementioned Kid Nichols, plus another future Hall of Famer and future Pirates pitcher at that point, Vic Willis. Those two combined for 610 career wins. They also had Bill Dinneen, a very good pitcher who played on some bad teams. He had a 170-177 record despite a 3.01 career ERA. Extremely old Pirates fans might remember him as the guy who won three games vs their team in the first ever World Series in 1903. The three of them combined for 935.2 innings pitched that season and only two other pitchers made appearances for Boston all year.
The Pirates won two of the first three games over Boston but lost to Willis in the final game. They then went to Brooklyn where a new team appeared near the top in the standings. The Superbas won the 1900 NL title but were decimated by players jumping to the newly formed AL for the 1901 season. Despite massive player losses, on June 27th they handed Pittsburgh their 3rd straight loss and the standings in the NL were as close as ever with five teams now within 3 games of the first place Pirates.
Just prior to starting the Brooklyn series, the Pirates made what seemed like a very minor deal at the time, signing the recently released (by Brooklyn) Alfonzo “Lefty” Davis. A 26 year old outfielder, he made his debut in 1901 and lasted just 25 games, hitting .209 before being released on June 19th. Despite the lack of credentials he would go on to play 86 games for the Pirates in right field and bat .313 with 56 walks and 22 steals. His success allowed the Pirates to move Honus Wagner, who was playing right field to begin the year, to shortstop where he replaced the light hitting 38 year old Bones Ely, who was at the end of his career. Davis would finish just 2 points behind Wagner for the team lead in on base percentage in that 1901 season.
They would end the month of June with that narrow lead still intact after two straight wins, but five teams were still in striking distance with 83 games still left to play. In next week’s article we will see how the Pirates finished the season as they searched for their first league title in the franchise’s 20 year history and then summarize the player’s performances during the year.