Five former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date, plus a trade of note and a unique feat by the Great One.
Doug Drabek, pitcher for the 1987-92 Pirates. He was a workhorse in the Pirates rotation, averaging 33 starts and 227 innings pitched per season over his six years in Pittsburgh. He remains as the last Pirates pitcher to win the Cy Young Award. He was originally drafted by the Cleveland Indians out of high school in 1980, but chose not to sign. Three years later, his stock had dropped, going to the Chicago White Sox in the 11th round of the 1983 draft. Just one year after being drafted, Drabek was traded to the New York Yankees. He was up in the majors by the end of May, 1986. He made 21 starts and six relief appearances for the Yankees, posting a 7-8, 4.10 record in 131.2 innings. In the off-season, the Yankees and Pirates hooked up in a deal that sent veteran pitchers Rick Rhoden, Cecilio Guante and Pat Clements to New York in exchange for Drabek, Brian Fisher and Logan Easley.
Pittsburgh put Drabek in the rotation in 1987 and never looked back. He made 28 starts and went 11-12, 3.88 in 176.1 innings. It was just a glimpse of the true potential he would begin to reach the very next season. The 1988 Pirates finished second in the NL East and a big reason for that finish was the emergence of Drabek as the Pirates ace. He didn’t have the best ERA on the team (that belonged to Bob Walk, 2.71), but Drabek had the best record and lead the team in innings pitched. That season he finished at 15-7, 3.08 with 219.1 innings pitched.
The Pirates were expecting to contend in 1989 but they faltered through no fault of Drabek. He went 14-12, with five of those wins coming by shutout. His 2.80 ERA was .01 ahead of teammate John Smiley, who finished four games over the .500 mark. Doug pitched 244.1 innings that season, the fifth highest total in the NL. He made 34 starts and pitched eight complete games.
The Pirates’ ship was righted in 1990, and behind the pitching of Drabek they made the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. He had a remarkable season, winning the NL Cy Young award with a 22-6 record. He had the best winning percentage in the league, finished fifth with his 231.1 innings pitched and sixth with his 2.76 ERA. His season was strong enough that he also finished eighth in the NL MVP voting. He was strong in the playoffs, even during his 2-1 complete game loss in game two against the Reds. Drabek staved off elimination five days later, winning game five by a 3-2 score.
Drabek’s record in 1991 doesn’t tell the whole story. On the outside, it looks like a bad season, going 15-14 for a team that almost won 100 games, but his 3.07 ERA was one point better (for a second time) than John Smiley, who finished with a 20-8 record. Drabek made a career high 35 starts and finished fourth in the NL with 234.2 innings pitched. In more than half of his starts, the Pirates scored 0-3 runs. He topped his 1.65 playoff ERA from the previous season by allowing one earned run over 15 innings. Unfortunately, that one run led to a loss in game six as the Pirates were shutout by the Braves.
Drabek had one last season left in Pittsburgh before free agency kicked in, and he made the most of the 1992 season. He helped the Pirates to their third straight NL East pennant, by going 15-11, 2.77 in 34 starts, throwing ten complete games and four shutouts. He threw a career high 256.2 innings that season, en route to a fifth place finish in the Cy Young voting. His run of playoff dominance was over though, losing all three starts to the Braves that postseason.
After the season ended, Drabek signed with his hometown Houston Astros, where things didn’t go well. That first season he had a respectable 3.79 ERA, but he led the NL with 18 losses. His last two years with Houston, he went 17-18 combined with an ERA over 4.50 each year. Things got worse for him after leaving the Astros, posting a 5.74 ERA in 31 starts for the 1997 Chicago White Sox, then a 7.29 ERA in 108.2 innings for the 1998 Orioles, his last Major League stop.
Drabek made 196 starts for the Pirates, going 92-62, 3.02 in 1,362.2 innings. He ranks 20th in team history in wins and no pitcher over the last 42 years has won more games in a Pirates uniform. Overall in his career, he went 155-134, 3.73 with 387 Major League starts. He became a minor league pitching coach after his career ended. His son Kyle Drabek pitched parts of seven seasons in the majors, seeing time with three different clubs.
Alex Presley, outfielder for the 2010-13 Pirates. He was an eighth round draft pick in 2006, who rode a hot streak in 2010 to the majors and managed to play eight seasons, while seeing time with five clubs. Presley didn’t look like a surefire future MLB player until 2010, when he hit .320 with some power and speed, while splitting the season between Altoona and Indianapolis. By the end of the year he was in the majors, hitting .261 in 19 games. He was back in Triple-A in 2011, where he hit .330 and came back to the Pirates. Presley batted .298 in 52 games with Pittsburgh, showing some power and speed. That earned him a big league job in 2012, though he couldn’t repeat his success. He had a .683 OPS in 104 games and even saw some Triple-A time. He had a very similar season in 2013 before being traded for Justin Morneau in August. Over eight seasons in the majors, he hit .263/.306/.388 in 450 games (204 games with the Pirates), with 29 homers and 30 stolen bases.
Ed Sprague, third baseman for the 1999 Pirates. He was signed as a first round pick of the Blue Jays during the 1988 draft. Sprague was in the majors by 1991, although it took two partial seasons before he was a regular in the Toronto lineup. He drove in 73 runs during the 1993 season, as the Blue Jays won their second straight World Series title that year. During the 1995 season, which was shortened by the strike that ran over from the previous season, Sprague played in all 144 games for Toronto, driving in 74 runs. He had a career year the next season, setting personal bests with 88 runs scored, 36 homers and 101 RBIs in 159 games. His numbers fell off dramatically the next year and by the 1998 trading deadline he was dealt to the Oakland A’s, who chose to let him leave via free agency at the end of the season.
The Pirates signed Sprague on December 16, 1998 and made him their starting third baseman. He responded with his only All-Star season, helping the Pirates to 78 wins and a third place finish in the NL Central. He batted .267, his highest full season average in the majors and he hit 22 homers, while driving in 81 runs. Both of those numbers were his second highest totals, trailing only his big 1996 season. Sprague left as a free agent after the season, playing two more years in the majors, spending time with three different teams, before retiring. He was the head coach at Pacific University for 12 seasons. Ed’s father, Ed Sprague Sr., pitched for eight seasons in the majors.
Jack McMahan, pitcher for the 1956 Pirates. The Yankees signed the left-handed McMahan in 1952, sending him to Class-D ball, where he switched between starting and relief. By 1955 he was up in Double-A, pitching well in the long man role out of the bullpen. In 46 games, he threw 111 innings, going 11-5 with a 2.62 ERA. The Pirates took him in the November 1955 Rule 5 draft. In the first two months of the season, he was being used strictly in a mop-up role, making 11 appearances, with all of them coming during Pirates losses. He had a 6.08 ERA in 13.1 innings for Pittsburgh. On June 23, 1956 the Pirates traded McMahan, along with second baseman Curt Roberts, to the Philadelphia A’s in exchange for second baseman Spook Jacobs. The A’s tried him as a starter for awhile, though he didn’t pitch well, going 0-5, 6.35 in nine starts. In February of 1957, he was dealt back to the Yankees as part of a 13-player deal. McMahan never made it back to the majors, finishing his career two years later in the minors.
Marv Rackley, outfielder for the 1949 Pirates. He originally signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1941, but his baseball career was put on hold for three seasons while he served in the military during WWII. He made the Dodgers Opening Day roster in 1947, although he was used sparingly off the bench and by June he was back in the minors. Rackley was with the team during most of the 1948 season, and while he didn’t hit for power or take many walks, he did manage to bat .327 with 55 runs scored in 88 games. In 1949, he wasn’t seeing much playing time with Brooklyn, getting 11 plate appearances and two starts over the first month of the season. The Pirates acquired him in May, in exchange for outfielder Johnny Hopp. Within three weeks of the exchange, the deal was voided due to an arm injury to Rackley that the Pirates claimed he had before coming over in the trade. He batted .314 in 11 games in Pittsburgh. He was sent back to the Dodgers, where he hit .291 over the rest of the season. Just as the 1949 season ended, the Dodgers sold Rackley to the Cincinnati Reds. He lasted just five early season games there in 1950 before he was shipped to the minors, where he played out the rest of his career, retiring after the 1955 season. He had a career .317 average over 185 Major League games.
On this date in 1896, the Pirates traded star first baseman Jake Beckley to the New York Giants in exchange for first baseman Harry Davis and cash, in a very unpopular deal at the time. Beckley had been in Pittsburgh since 1888, spending all but one of those years with the Pirates. In 1890, with most of his teammates, he jumped to the newly formed Player’s League, a league that lasted just one season. In his seven full seasons with the Pirates, Beckley drove in 96 or more runs in five of them, batting over .300 five times as well. From 1891 until 1895, he hit 19+ triples every season. At the time of the deal, the 28-year-old was the Pirates all-time home run leader. The Pirates thought Beckley was slowing down due to his .253 average and just 15 extra base hits after 59 games in 1896. Davis was six years younger, though he was unproven with only 71 games in the majors at that point.
After the deal, Davis really struggled as the everyday first baseman for Pittsburgh, while Beckley resorted to his old ways. Davis batted .190 over the rest of the year, while Beckley hit .302 with 38 RBIs in 46 games. The trade took a favorable turn for the Pirates the next season, with Beckley getting released by New York after a really slow start, while Davis was hitting well. Beckley signed on with the Reds after two teams thought he was done and he proved both of them wrong. He went on to hit .325 over seven seasons in Cincinnati, putting together a resume that eventually landed him in the Hall of Fame. Davis had a strong 1897 season for Pittsburgh, leading the NL with 28 triples and he had a .305 average. Like Beckley, his career took off after multiple teams gave up on him. The Pirates sold him in early 1898 to Louisville, who moved him quickly to the Washington Senators. Davis went to the minors for two years, returning to the majors in 1901, this time playing in the newly formed American League. There he had a great ten-year stretch with the Philadelphia A’s, winning three home run titles, three times leading the league in doubles, twice in RBIs and once in runs. He played his last Major League game 21 years after this trade was made.
On this date in 1956, Roberto Clemente hit a bottom-of-the-ninth, walk-off, inside-the-park grand slam for a 9-8 win over the Chicago Cubs. He is the only player to accomplish that feat in Major League history. Inside-the-park homers are obviously rare on their own, though they were more common when the ballparks were bigger. To hit a walk-off grand slam and have it be an inside-the-park homer, you need the bases loaded obviously, you need to be the home team (that wasn’t always required), and it can only happen when you’re down by three runs. That’s unlike a regular grand slam, which just needs the score to be within three runs, but it could even be tied at the time. Most defenses in that situation would be playing to prevent extra-base hits, making a rare feat even more difficult…which is probably why it has only happened once, 64 years ago today.
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.