When you’re writing about something that happened 110 years ago it’s hard to surprise anyone with the information, especially when you’re dealing with baseball standings. Last week I left off with the 1900 team and how they fared after the Honus Wagner trade put in the building blocks for a great run in the franchise’s history. After finishing the 1900 season in 2nd place the team was poised to make a run at the 1901 National League pennant and their first title in franchise history. Before I recap that 1901 season though we must first see how they transformed over the winter from a second place team to the team that played the best three year stretch in Pirates history.
The 1900 season was the last year that the National League was considered the only major league at the time. In 1901 the American League was formed and many National League players jumped to the AL for more money including many star players. The Pirates were no different than all the other NL teams, they lost their everyday third baseman from the previous two seasons, Jimmy Williams. He jumped to the Baltimore Orioles team led by player/manager John McGraw who was a key member of the National League version of the Baltimore Orioles, a franchise that folded after the 1899 season despite being a powerhouse club just three years prior winning the 1894-1896 pennants. The 1901 Orioles eventually became the New York Yankees, moving to NY in 1903 and changing their name from the Highlanders to the Yankees in 1912.
Williams would move to second base with McGraw there as the thirdbaseman and he would hit .317 with 21 triples and a team leading 96 RBI’s. The previous season for Pittsburgh he batted just .264 which was 90 points lower than his rookie season average in 1899. Although it was nowhere near the loss of Williams, the Pirates also lost backup catcher Harry Smith who jumped to the Philadelphia Athletics led by former Pirates player and manager Connie Mack. Smith would actually return to the Pirates at the end of the 1901 season and stayed around until the 1907 season as a seldom used backup catcher. In six seasons with the Pirates he played just 178 games. Smith was originally acquired in the Heinie Reitz deal as a player to be named later.
The Pirates in 1901 apparently didn’t need any Pops on their team. They sold off catcher Pop Schriver, who had been around for three years, to the St Louis Cardinals. Schriver was already 35 at the time and behind two other veterans, Chief Zimmer and Jack O’Connor, on the depth charts. They also got rid of Pop Dillon a backup first baseman who was sold to the Detroit Tigers. Dillon was used very sparingly by the Pirates, he was originally purchased from Buffalo in the minors to finish out the 1899 season at 1B. In 1900 he played just five games but with Detroit he hit pretty well (.288 in 74 games) and he played a fine 1B for them in 1901.
The Pirates also lost utility fielder Tom O’Brien over the winter but his loss was an unexpected tragic loss. O’Brien had hit .290 with the team in 1900, driving in 61 runs in 102 games. The 27 year old was supposed to be a key member the 1901 team and likely would’ve been the starting first baseman, but in January of 1901 he came down with a bad case of pneumonia and died from the illness on February 3rd of that year. O’Brien was originally signed by the Pirates in 1896 but was traded before he ever played a game for them. He was repurchased in June of 1898 but for the 1899 season the Pirates loaned him to the New York Giants for the entire season getting him back in October. He hit .278 in 428 career games.
The Pirates returned many of their stars from the previous year, one of the reasons they were able to stay strong and not take the hit from the drop in talent that so many National League teams suffered. They had their whole starting outfield of Ginger Beaumont, Fred Clarke and Honus Wagner return along with Tommy Leach who took over for Williams at 3B and their double play combo of Bones Ely and Claude Ritchey also returned. They had their top two catchers return as well as their entire strong five man starting staff of Deacon Phillippe, Jack Chesbro, Rube Waddell, Jesse Tannehill and Sam Leever.
To start the year, despite losing four players, the team only added two players of note. One was the former great outfielder Mike Smith that played for the Pirates for six seasons from 1892-1897. The second was a 26 year old first baseman named Kitty Bransfield who had just five previous games of major league experience back in 1898. To the untrained eye it looked like Smith was the more important sign. He batted .325 in 762 games for the Pirates and at age 33 he still seemed to have some good years left in him. By age 26 back in those days a player was usually in the middle of his major league career, but their were some cases of late bloomers back then as well, and Bransfield would be one of them.
As it turned out, Smith was done as a player, the Pirates realized that pretty quick releasing him after just four games but Bransfield would play an important part with the 1901 team as they made their way towards their first pennant. He had put up great numbers in the minors in 1900 hitting .369 with 17 home runs and 40 stolen bases but success in the Eastern League didn’t always translate to success in the National League. Other players were added as the season progressed but none played as an important role in the team’s success as did Bransfield. The Pirates were now ready to make their run at their first National League pennant and with the 1900 NL champions, the Brooklyn Superbas, losing 11 players to the American League, the Pirates seemed in their best position ever to win that first title.