July 13, 2010
The 1952 Pirates
There are those who would argue, with one half of the National League season gone, that the Pirates are not only the worst team in the league but border upon being the worst in the 124-year history of the franchise.
There are some numbers to back that up. To begin with, no franchise has ever had more consecutive losing seasons than the Pirates, who are in the midst of No. 18. Then there was the stretch leading into the All-Star break when the Pirates went more than an entire month without hitting a home run with a runner on base. Truth is they didn’t hit many home runs at all, only 10 in the entire month.
They celebrated the end of that month by being one-hit by Roy Oswalt, a first-inning single by Neil Walker, in a 2-0 loss at Houston that resulted in the Pirates being shut out for the eighth time in their first 85 games. Oswalt’s last shutout, by the way, was two years earlier, against the Pirates, naturally.
Toss in a six-error game against the Chicago White Sox in a 7-2 defeat, leading their manager John Russell to say, “Embarrassing. We kicked the ball and threw it around. We’ve got a lot of work to do." You can also throw in a 20-0 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, the worst in franchise history, completing a three-game sweep in which the Pirates were outscored 36-1 and outhit 46-18.
Thus, there are those who are saying this is the worst Pirates team ever. However, they were wrong.
“We were the worst,” said Tony Bartirome, a distinguished member of the 1952 Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that came to be known as the Rickey Dinks, in part because one day it fielded an entire starting lineup with player under 6-foot.
How bad was the 1952 team? Well, it lost 112 games but before you go saying a lot of teams lost more than that, remember they were playing in an eight-team league with a 154-game schedule. They finished 27 ½ games out—of seventh place.
Bartirome was the first baseman on that team in what would be his only major-league season. Bartirome was a rookie, but then so was seemingly everyone. The Pirates broke camp with 12 rookies on the roster, including four teens—Bartirome, 19; centerfielder Bobby Del Greco and pitcher Jim Waugh, who were both 18 and 19-year-old outfielder Lee Walls.
“There wasn’t a day we went out on that field that we didn’t believe we were going to win the game,” Bartirome said. Ah, to be young and a Pirate.
The team was put together by Branch Rickey. Yes, that Branch Rickey. The genius, the man who facilitated the breaking of baseball’s color line by signing Jackie Robinson, the man who invented the farm system, the man who ran the Brooklyn Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals, the man whose quotes have been compiled in a book. They called him the Mahatma, but with no money to work with in Pittsburgh, he couldn’t compete.
“We were young. We just weren’t ready,” Bartirome said.
The Pirates ran every kind of problem possible. Gus Bell, a fine player who would hit .281 with 209 home runs in a 15-year career, was in his third year and missed time in spring training due to family problems and illness, forcing him to start the season in the minor leagues. The team’s best player, of course, was Ralph Kiner, who had won the home run championship in each of his first six major league seasons. Now in his eighth season, he was suffering from a painful back problem, to say nothing of having to battle Rickey for money in contract negotiations. Most at-bats were torturous, most days he needed an injection into the back. Yet he played and played, again leading the league in home runs with 37 and that gave the fans the only thing they had to cheer for. Fans at Forbes Field would wait for Kiner to have his final at-bat before rushing for the exits, no matter what the score.
The best team in the NL in 1952 was the Dodgers, a team filled with Hall of Famers like Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella and Robinson. Not surprisingly, the Dodgers won 19 of 22 games against the Pirates that year.
Oh, there was some budding talent on the team, talent that would turn the Pirates into world champions in 1960 on Bill Mazeroski’s ninth-inning, seventh-game winning home run to beat the Yankees in what still may be the most improbable World Series finish ever.
Rickey had a rookie shortstop that never played a day of minor league baseball. His name was Dick Groat. He’d been a two-time basketball All-American at Duke and would play a couple of NBA seasons, but baseball was his game. He was the NL MVP in that 1960 season. In 1952 he hit .284 for the Rickey Dinks. And then there was a catcher who always talked a good game, his name being Joe Garagiola. "You could see he was heading for show business,” Bartirome said of Garagiola.
In midseason, the Pirates made a move on their pitching staff, calling a 6-foot-5 string-bean right-hander named Ron Necciai up from the minor leagues, a move almost as celebrated as Stephen Strasburg’s promotion to the Washington Nationals this year. Necciai had become something of a national wonder when he struck out 27 batters in a minor league game, but at 20, he was not ready for the big leagues. He went 1-6 with a 7.08 ERA and to make matters worse injured his throwing arm and never would appear again in the major leagues.
The team was managed by Billy Meyer, a man so warm and well liked that his No. 1 uniform was retired by the Pirates, even though his record was 317-442. The fact is that in more than two decades of managing in professional baseball, Meyer fined only two players, one of them being his pitcher on that 1952 team, Bill Werle, who claimed his innocence and was eventually reinstated to the team but traded two weeks later.
But as bad as it was, Bartirome says he wouldn’t trade it for the world. “I enjoyed every minute of it,” he said.
Bartirome did, however, become an athletic trainer and worked for Chuck Tanner for many years both in Pittsburgh and Atlanta and shared in the 1979 “We Are Fam-a-lee” world champion Pirates.