Obscure Pittsburgh Pirates: Ken Heintzelman

Ken Heintzelman was a left-handed pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1937 until 1947, though three of those years he was off serving in the Army during WWII. He still ended up playing six full seasons with the Pirates and parts of two other years, yet he’s a relatively unknown in team history. Here’s his story.

The first mentions of Heintzelman came up in 1935 when he was a was a 19-year-old, pitching for McKeesport of the Pennsylvania State Association (PASA). In his first year of pro ball, he went 10-11, 3.00 in 195 innings. He remained in the PASA the following season, this time playing for the Jeannette Little Pirates, where he went 20-8, 3.07 in 243 innings. While his stats say that he had 90 strikeouts in 1936, the Pittsburgh Press ran a story about his strikeout prowess, saying that he picked up 229 strikeouts for Jeannette and earned the nickname “Cannonball”, which was a popular 19th century nickname for strikeout pitchers.

While in Jeannette, he was under the tutelage of the great Wilbur Cooper, the Pirates all-time wins leader, who was also a lefty pitcher. On July 23rd, it was announced that the Pirates would give Heintzelman a tryout.

Heintzelman joined the Pirates in September of 1936 and worked out closely with catcher Al Todd and coach Jewel Ens, but he never got into a game. It was said at the time that the experience was good for him, but he would probably pitch in “Class AA” the following year. Heintzelman had some off-season buzz, as numerous minor league clubs were contacting the Pirates, trying to get him for the 1937 season.

The Pirates announced on February 9, 1937, that they officially signed Heintzelman and that announcement came with a guarantee from Wilbur Cooper that Heintzelman will “make the grade” in his first year and that he can’t miss stardom. Cooper told Pirates manager Pie Traynor that he shouldn’t be so quick to decide to send Heintzelman to the minors and he (Cooper) believed that the 21-year-old lefty could contribute in 1937.

Heintzelman was with the group of Spring Training players who reported first in early March. By mid-March he was getting public praise from Pie Traynor, though the Hall of Fame third baseman said that the young lefty was no more than a year away from “making the big time”.

On March 20th, coach Johnny Gooch, a former catcher for the Pirates, said that he cleaned up some flaws in Heintzelman’s delivery and he wouldn’t be surprised if the young lefty took the eighth spot on the pitching staff. At the time, the eighth spot was the last spot, reserved for mop-up duty and spot starts/long relief.

In a March 21st game in which the Pirates split up into two squads, Heintzelman allowed three runs on four hits in his two innings of work. Five days later he pitched one inning against a minor league team from Los Angeles and allowed six runs. That was followed three days later by a disastrous outing against the Chicago Cubs in which he allowed eight runs in one inning.

Heintzelman threw five shutout innings against a minor league team from San Diego on April 1st. It was a nice impression after his poor performances in the three previous games. He got some more chances to impress before being shipped out to Montreal of the International League on April 18th, where he played for former Pirates shortstop Rabbit Maranville, sending him from one Hall of Fame player as his manager (Traynor) to another.

His stay there didn’t last long, as he was soon shipped to a lower level after posting a 9.00 ERA in three games. Heintzelman spent the majority of his 1937 season with Knoxville of the Southern Association, where he had a 3.95 ERA in 195 innings, while posting a 4-16 record.

The Pirates recalled Heintzelman on August 27th, though it came with a report date on September 12th, after the season ended in Knoxville. It was said at the time that he would probably see some action. That action turned out to be one start on the last day of the season. At Forbes Field on October 3rd against the Cincinnati Reds, Heintzelman tossed a complete game victory, allowing two earned runs on six hits and three walks. As a side note, the two teams played a doubleheader that date and the total game time for the two contests was two hours and 24 minutes.

Pie Traynor’s assumption that Heintzelman would be big league ready within a year turned out to be off by one year. He would spend the majority of the 1938 season back with Montreal. Heintzelman made the Pirates out of Spring Training by showing impressive results, but it was said at the time that his control could be better and his curveball needed more work. He ended up pitching one game in relief for the Pirates on May 6th and gave up two runs in two innings. A week later, he was shipped to Montreal for the season and did not return in September.

Heintzelman had a 5.48 ERA for Montreal in nine starts and 15 relief appearances. The next time that the young lefty played minor league ball after 1938, he was a 37-year-old crafty lefty who had played his final big league games months earlier for the 1953 Philadelphia Phillies.

In 1939, Heintzelman saw very limited use all season. His appearances were spread out over the entire year. Going into the final day of the season, he had pitched just 26.2 innings in 15 relief appearances and one spot start. The Pirates mostly used him in a mop-up role, with all 15 of his relief appearances coming in losses.

Once again Heintzelman was starting during a doubleheader on the final day against the Cincinnati Reds, though this time he had game two of the day. He dominated the Reds, throwing a complete game shutout on four hits. You can tell by the coverage that day that some of the luster had worn off of their young lefty. The Pittsburgh Press didn’t even post full boxscores, which was extremely unusual for them. Their entire game recap was one sentence, mentioning that he threw a shutout. Only 3,859 fans showed up for that doubleheader, while many others missed his outstanding performance.

Heintzelman may not have been getting the same attention as before, but his career in the majors was just beginning. He was still more of a mop-up pitcher in 1940, at least until he got a real opportunity in July. Through the team’s first 68 games, he pitched 15 times. He tossed 48.1 innings, though much of it came in long relief. On July 7th, he got a start in a doubleheader against the St Louis Cardinals and he gave up one run over nine innings in a 4-1 win.

That performance led to more starts and he finished the month with six runs over 33 innings. In August and September, he was switching back and forth between starting and relieving. On September 1st he lowered his ERA to 3.22 with a complete game shutout over St Louis. However, he faltered down the stretch in his swing role and posted an 8.25 ERA over his final 36 innings.

In 1941, Heintzelman had the same role through late June, posting a 5.06 ERA in five starts and ten relief appearances. He moved into the rotation on June 25th and made two decent starts before posting the best month of his career. In July of 1941, Heintzelman had a 1.57 ERA in 51.2 innings. That included a two-hit shutout over the New York Giants on July 13th. He was in the rotation for good after that performance.

Heintzelman had a 4.84 ERA in seven August starts, though the Pirates won five of those games. He had a 2.72 ERA in five September starts, which included another shutout in his final game of the season. Once again the victims were the St Louis Cardinals. He finished the year with an 11-11, 3.49 record in 196 innings.

The 1942 season started off outstanding for Heintzelman, as he had obviously developed a taste for St Louis bats. His first two starts were shutouts, both coming against the Cardinals, giving him 27 consecutive innings of scoreless ball, all against St Louis.

The rest of the year did not go as well. Heintzelman posted a 5.66 ERA from May until the end of July. It was announced in early August that he was having arm trouble and then he went 17 days between appearances. Over the final two months of the season, he pitched a total of 15 innings. He was scheduled to start on September 10th, but he didn’t go that day and was done for the year. He finished with an 8-11, 4.57 record in 130 innings.

Heintzelman joined the Army in the spring of 1943 and spent three years fighting in the war and occasionally playing baseball overseas. Unlike some baseball players in the war, Heintzelman saw heavy combat duty. Shortly before returning, he told the local press that he thought the wartime baseball was good for him and that he would return a better pitcher. He wrote the Pirates in late October of 1945 and said that he expected to be released from the Army soon and would be rejoining the team in the spring.

The 1946 season was a strong return for Heintzelman, who regained his starting spot and held it for the entire year. He was occasionally used in relief, but he made 24 starts from April through late September. The highlight of the season should come as no surprise. On August 16th, he threw a two-hit shutout over the St Louis Cardinals. Heintzelman also added a shutout against the Cubs, though the game against the Cardinals was the more dominant outing. He had an 8-12, 3.77 record in 157.2 innings in 1946.

Heintzelman seemed to lose his stuff overnight in 1947 and his first two outings of the season were awful. He gave up 11 runs over four innings in April. That was the end of his time with the Pirates. He remained with the team for 16 days after his final appearance in a Pittsburgh uniform, but on May 9th, he was sold to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Heintzelman finished his time with the Pirates with a 37-43, 4.14 record in 699.1 innings, making 86 starts and 68 relief appearances. They probably gave up on him a little too soon as he had a solid six-year run with Philadelphia that resulted in a 3.75 ERA over 802.1 innings. Heintzelman’s son Tom played four years in the majors. The Cardinals must have remembered what the father did to them, because they picked the son in the seventh round of the 1968 draft.

Here are the links to the previous Obscure Pittsburgh Pirates articles:

Aubrey Epps

Pete Castiglione

Pep Young

Ed Whitson

Jim Hughey and Bill Hart

Paul Popovich

Heinie Meine

Jim Russell

Denny Gonzalez

Reb Russell

Nick Strincevich

Odell Jones

Cy Blanton

George Grantham

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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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