This Date in Pirates History: January 8

Born on this date in 1934 was Gene Freese, infielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1958 then again in 1964-65. Gene was signed as an amateur free agent by the Pirates just prior to the 1953 season. He hit .300 that first season in the lower levels then moved up to AA in 1954 where he hit .332 with 16 homers in 145 games, which earned him an Opening Day spot for the 1955 Pirates. He played just over half of his games at third base that rookie season and the rest at second base, hitting .253 with 14 homers and 69 runs scored in 134 games. Gene started off slow in 1956, hitting .209 through July 4th when he was sent back to the minors. He returned in late September for six games, going 2-for-11 at the plate.

Freese played 472 games for the Pirates

In 1957, he was on the bench to start the year but by late May he was in the lineup regularly, mostly at third base and he hit a career high .283 in 114 games. Despite that season, he started the next year on the bench, starting just one game through the first two months when the Pirates traded him along with Johnny O’Brien for Dick Schofield, who was featured here yesterday.  Freese played for four different teams before the Pirates purchased him from the Reds in November 1963. He played 99 games that 1964 season, 72 at third base, the rest off the bench and hit .225 with 40 RBIs. He saw limited action for the 1965 Pirates, getting into 43 games before he was sold to the Chicago White Sox. Gene finished his career in 1966, hitting .254 with 115 homers and 432 RBIs in 1115 games.

Also born on this date, way back in 1864, was shortstop John Gilbert who played two games for the 1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys. His story of how he entered the baseball encyclopedia is an interesting one. The 1890 Alleghenys(nickname unofficially changed to the Pirates the following season, though recent research shows it didn’t catch on until 1895) were an extremely bad team, bad enough to lose 113 games while winning just 23 times. They were also bad enough to give two brothers, John and Harry Gilbert, a chance to be a double play combo for one day in the majors despite the fact they were both playing for a semi-pro team at the time with no prior major league experience.

The Alleghenys started the 1890 season 12-34, it was June 21st and they had just lost 11-2 in Philadelphia. They had to sit around for two days until the next game(weather delay on Saturday and they didn’t play Sunday baseball). When play resumed on Monday the 23rd, they had a scheduled doubleheader to play and a new double play combo, Harry at second base and John at shortstop. John Gilbert went 0-for-8 at the plate, but fielded both games cleanly while his brother Harry, who was five years younger, collected two singles in his eight at-bats and also played the field flawlessly. The Pirates won the second game that day and for the two brothers it was not only their last day in the majors, they never even played pro ball again. They are the first set of siblings to play together with the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise.

Born on this date in 1915 was Walker Cooper, catcher for the 1954 Pirates. He was already a 39-year-old veteran of 14 seasons when the Pirates signed him as a free agent in February of 1954. Cooper was a top catcher of his era, an eight time all-star who had finished in the top ten in the NL in batting average three times and four times he finished among the league leaders in slugging percentage. He had also received MVP votes in four different seasons including 1943 when he finished 2nd in the voting. While with the Cardinals in the early 1940’s he was not only the catcher for his brother Mort , who had three straight 20 win seasons, but the pair started the 1942 and 1943 all-star games for the NL.  By the time the Pirates got Walker he was past his prime, having hit .235 and .219 in the previous two seasons(he was a .285 career hitter). He lasted just 14 games for Pittsburgh and only started once, pinch-hitting in 12 of those 14 games. He was put on waivers in May and the Cubs picked him up. He actually played well for them in a limited role, hitting .310 in 158 at-bats. Walker played three more seasons before retiring. One of the more under-appreciated catchers of all-time, he received as many as 14.4% of the votes needed for Hall of Fame induction, last appearing on the ballot in 1977.

A couple more brief birthday mentions.

Brian Boehringer (1969) Relief pitcher for the Pirates from 2002-04. He pitched 167.1 innings over 153 games putting together a 10-9, 4.36 record with one save. His best season for the Pirates came in 2002 when he had a 3.39 ERA in 70 games. Boehringer was a fourth round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox in 1991 and played seven seasons in the majors before joining the Pirates. After leaving Pittsburgh via free agency following the 2004 season, he signed with the Yankees, who he had already had two stints with in 1995-97 and in 2001. Boehringer spent all of 2005 in the minors and in 2006, he was with the Cubs, Tigers and Royals, as well as an Independent League team. He spent the entire year in the minors, then finished his pro career in Independent ball in 2007. Boehringer pitched 356 games in the majors, going 26-32, 4.36 in 534.2 innings.

Marv Rickert (1921) Outfielder briefly for the 1950 Pirates. The Pirates purchased his contract from the Braves in December 1949 and in 17 games, mostly as a pinch hitter, he went 3-for-20 with four RBIs. He played in the field just three times, all in right field and only once as a starter. On May 29th of that 1950 season, the Pirates sold him to the Chicago White Sox, where he finished his major league career later that season. Rickert played two more years in the minors before retiring from pro ball. He spent parts of six seasons in the majors and missed all of 1943-45 serving in the Coast Guard during WWII. Rickert hit .247 over 402 games in the majors.

John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.

When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.

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