The 1908 Pittsburgh Pirates: Season Recap

Last week we covered the tight playoff race that lasted nearly the entire 1908 season between the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs and New York Giants. This week we will take a look at who those players were that battled all season, won 98 games, yet still fell short of winning the National League title.

Wagner struck out just 22 times in 1908

We start off with the returning players from the previous season and no better place to start than at the top with the greatest Pirates player of all time. Honus Wagner was 34 years old in 1908, playing in his ninth season with the Pirates and 12th season overall in the majors. He led the league in hits for the first time in his career in 1908 with 201, the second time he topped the 200 mark. He led the league in batting average for the sixth time overall and third time in a row, hitting .354, which was the fourth highest total of his career. He led the league in RBI’s with 109, the third time he led the NL in runs batted in and the seventh time he topped the century mark. He led the league in doubles with 39 and just like with the batting average crown, it was the third straight year and sixth time overall the he led the league in that category. He also led the league in triples(19) and OBP(.415) for a third time and stolen bases(53) and slugging percentage(.542) for a fifth time. Wagner tied a career high with 151 games played and he scored 100 runs for the seventh time in his career. It was the 10th straight season he scored at least 97 runs. On the defensive side his led all NL shortstops in putouts and it was the first time in his career he played just one position throughout the entire season.

The team had two other future Hall of Famers during the 1908 season, the manager/left fielder Fred Clarke and starting pitcher Vic Willis. Clarke was starting to show his age at the plate, in his 15th season in the majors at age 35 he hit a career low .265 with a .712 OPS on the year. He was a .321 career hitter coming into that season. He was able to play a new career high of 151 games and he scored 83 runs while walking 65 times and stealing 24 bases but it was clearly a disappointing season at bat for Clarke. Willis was with the Pirates for his third season, having joined the team in a December 1905 trade with the Boston Beaneaters. He went 23-13 his first year followed by a 21-11 season in 1907 but he topped both of those years in 1908 by going 23-11 while pitching 304.2 innings. He also picked up his 200th career win in June.

Two longtime Pirates starting pitchers returned for the 1908 season. Sam Leever at age 36 was in his 11th season with the club. He was coming off a season in which he went 14-9 with a career low 1.66 ERA. Deacon Phillippe was also 36 years and had won 14 games for the Pirates in 1907. At one point these two were the staff aces, combining for ten 20 win seasons(Phillippe had six) but at this point in their career they had taken a backseat to Willis and a couple of young aces in Lefty Leifield and Nick Maddox. Leever would still have a strong 1908 season but his workload was much lower than he was used to in the past. He made 20 starts, his lowest total since 1901 and he was used in relief a career high 18 times. He still managed to put together a 15-7 record with a 2.10 ERA.Phillippe on the other hand, his pitching hand to be exact, had a thumb injury that prevented him from pitching most of the year. He pitched just five games total, all in relief and only accumulated 12 innings on the season.

As mentioned above, Leifield and Maddox were now considered top starters in the Pirates rotation. Maddox had started his career off with a 5-1 0.83 showing in 1907 while Leifield had won 38 games combined over the previous two seasons. Maddox would go on to win a career high 23 games, matching Willis for the team lead while Leifield would post a strong 2.10 ERA in 218.2 innings but his record was just 15-14. Both pitchers encountered healthy troubles during the year, Maddox contracted typhoid fever and made just two starts out of the first 30 games of the season while Leifield had elbow problems and could make only four starts during a two month stretch from early May until July.

The fifth starter that year was a 26 year old named Howie Camnitz, who had gone 13-8 2.15 in his first full season in the majors in 1907. He would win 16 games in 1908, giving the Pirates five pitchers who won at least 15 games that year. He posted a 1.56 ERA, lowest on the Pirates and only 0.13 behind the league leader, Christy Mathewson. Howie was the opening day starter and because of injuries he was forced to start nine out of the team’s first 26 games. The only other returning pitcher was Homer Hillebrand, who missed the entire 1907 trying to rest an injured arm. He had pitched well in limited time in 1905-06 but was said to be pitching through arm pain for a while. He made one relief appearance for the 1908 Pirates, pitching one inning before he decided he wouldn’t be able to pitch again, thus ending his career.

Along with Wagner and Clarke on the offensive side, the Pirates returned Tommy Leach, who came over with those two(and Phillippe) in the 1900 Honus Wagner trade. Leach had played centerfield in 1907 and the two prior seasons he split his time between outfield and his normal position at third base. For the 1908 season though, at least for one year, he was back as the team’s third baseman. He batted .303 in 1907 but dropped down to .259 in 1908 yet was still able to score 93 runs thanks in part to hitting 16 triples, drawing 54 walks and stealing 24 bases. He played a team leading 152 games, giving the Pirates three players(Wagner,Clarke) that played in at least 151 of the team’s 155 games played that season.

Second baseman Ed Abbaticchio returned for his second season for Pittsburgh. The Pirates paid a heavy price to acquire him prior to 1907 and he hit .262 with 82 RBI’s, 35 stolen bases and 63 runs scored that first year. In 1908 his numbers were down across the board, hitting .250 with 22 steals, just 43 runs scored in 146 games and 61 RBI’s. He was able to lead NL second baseman in fielding percentage but the numbers show that his range was well below average.

Behind the plate was George Gibson, playing in his fourth season. His hitting was very poor his first two years but his defense and his throwing arm were good enough to keep him in the lineup on an everyday basis. By 1908 his hitting was nearing a respectable level as he hit .228 with 45 RBI’s batting at the bottom of the order. Prior to 1908 he had a .198 career batting average. His defense seemed a little down in 1908 as he allowed the most stolen bases in the league and made the second most errors with 21 miscues. In actuality, he led the NL in games caught with 140 and was only one of four catchers to catch over 100 games, so those numbers were more a by-product of how much he played. He still threw out 43% of runners trying to steal and had the fourth best fielding percentage in the league.

Ed Phelps returned in the backup role but with Gibson catching 140 games, Phelps mostly just watched from the bench. It was his sixth and final season with the Pirates and he hit .234 in his 34 games. Alan Storke in his third season with the team, started about 1/3 of the team’s games at first base during the year. He was also used as a backup at the other infield positions. Storke had played 112 games in 1907 but was down to 64 in 1908 and he hit .252 with 12 RBI’s in 202 AB’s. Harry Swacina was another light hitting first baseman back for 1908. He played 26 games his rookie year in 1907 and had a .200 batting average. His glove was solid but he still wasn’t much of a hitter his second year, especially for a position like first base. He hit .216 in 53 games, drew just five walks all year and had only 13 RBI’s. It was his last season with the Pirates and he didn’t appear in the majors again until 1914. The only other returning player from 1907 was a backup outfielder named Danny Moeller. He played 11 late season games his rookie year, then followed it up with 36 games in 1908 but he hit just .193 and would be out of the majors until resurfacing again in 1912.

That group of 15 returning players made up nearly every game started for pitchers(142 of 155) and seven out of the top nine players in at bats. That seems like a large portion of the team but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a big addition to the team that put on a Pirates uniform for the first time during the 1908 season. Owen “Chief” Wilson was the Pirates right fielder as a rookie that year, having been recommended to the team by pitcher Babe Adams, a Pirates minor league pitcher who played against him in the Texas League the previous season. Wilson played 144 games, occasionally taking over in center field, and while he hit .227 that rookie season the team saw the potential in him and let him play everyday for experience. Chief played another five season in Pittsburgh after 1908 and was in the lineup nearly everyday, playing at least 146 games each season.

Roy Thomas was the everyday centerfielder after coming over from the Phillies in an early June deal. It was his only season with the Pirates and he hit .256 with 49 walks and 52 runs scored in 102 games. The Pirates picked up outfielder Spike Shannon from the Giants in late July and he played all three outfield positions but struggled with the bat, hitting .197 in 32 games. It was his only season with the team and his last year in the majors. The team had a rookie outfielder early in the year named Beals Becker, who they gave up too soon on as he went on to have a productive career in the majors until 1915. As a 21 year old he hit .154 in 20 games before his contract was sold to the Boston Doves in August. Becker had hit .310 in the Western Association in 1907, a top minor league at the time.

The Pirates tried a lot of players at first, especially when Swacina and Storke couldn’t help out on offense. In late August they called on 29 year old Warren Gill who had never played in the majors. He was purchased by the Pirates early in 1908 and had been in the minors all season playing for a team from Grand Rapids. He played 27 games for Pittsburgh, hitting .224 with 14 RBI’s in what would be his only season in the majors during his 12 year pro career. Jim Kane played 55 games for Pittsburgh in 1908 as a 26 year old rookie. He was with the team the entire year and hit .241 with 22 RBI’s. Just like Gill, it was his only season in the majors. He played eight years in the Western League, hitting .318 for his minor league career.

The backup infielder was Charlie Starr, a 29 year old with just 26 games of major league experience, all coming in 1905 for the St Louis Browns. He played 20 games and hit .186 with 13 walks and eight runs batted in during his only season with the team. Paddy O’Connor was the third string catcher, a role he had for three seasons with the Pirates. He was a 28 year old rookie who had spent seven seasons in the minors prior to 1908. Paddy played only 12 games all season, caught in four of them and hit .188 in his 17 plate appearances

On the pitching side the Pirates started the year with a pitcher named Harley Young, a rookie who made three starts and five relief appearances in the first two months. He had a 2.23 ERA in 48.1 innings. The wanted a more experienced pitcher so they traded Young for Young. Irv Young was a teammate of Vic Willis in the 1905 Boston rotation and he won 20 games that year while leading the league in innings pitched. The next season he again threw the most innings in the NL. He struggled a bit in 1907 but seemed to be back in form at age 30 for Boston in 1908 prior to the trade. For the Pirates he went 4-3 2.01 in 16 games, seven of them starts. The interesting thing about this trade is at the time if you were a pitcher with the last name Young, you had the unfortunate comparison put on you to Cy Young, no matter how good you were. Irv was known as Cy Young the second while Harley had the tag “Cy the Third.” Irv was a decent pitcher for a few seasons but Harley won exactly 511 less games in the majors than Cy Young.

The pitching staff was rounded out by Tom McCarthy, a pitcher they got from the Reds in May and who was included in the Young/Young trade. Bob Vail, a rookie who pitched in late August through mid-September and Chick Brandom, a September call-up also saw time on the mound. They combined for nine appearances, one start each and 48 innings. All three started their career this season and only Brandom pitched with the Pirates after 1908.

The Pirates had three players on offense play one game that year, John Sullivan, Cy Neighbors and Hunky Shaw. For Shaw and Neighbors it was their only game in the majors while Sullivan, who was 35 years old,  had previously played for the 1905 Tigers. It would be his last major league game. One player who was signed during the 1908 season but spent the entire season in the minors was John “Dots” Miller, who played for McKeesport of the Ohio-Pennsylvania League that season and hit .306 in 43 games. When we pick up next week, we will cover the career of Miller, who was a big part of the 1909 Pirates World Series run and who would spend five seasons in a Pittsburgh uniform.

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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