The Greatest Teams of All Time
by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein
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Speaking of timing, before the birth of the Mets, many people considered the 1952 Pittsburgh Pirates one of the worst teams of all time. Joe Garagiola played for that club, and he spent many years as a broadcaster making fun of it. Speaking of Garagiola, he was actually one of the few Pirates to have a decent year in 1952. He posted a .369 on-base percentage, a .410 slugging percentage (better than the league averages in both cases), and he was a catcher.
The 1952 Pirates' record was 42-112, and they ended the season 54 1/2 games out of first place. Their -3.39 SD score is one of the ten worst of the twentieth century. That performance was not an anomaly. Pittsburgh suffered through nine consecutive losing seasons (1949-57) and finished last or next-to-last every season from 1950 through 1957. Looking at SD scores for periods of up to five consecutive seasons, a Pirates team from this era is among the worst in each time frame. (The 1952-53 Pirates have the eleventh-worst two-year SD score in the twentieth century, the 1952-54 Pirates have the fifth-worst three-year SD score, the 1952-55 Pirates have the fifth-worst four-year SD score, and Pittsburgh has two entries in the five-year rankings: the 1951-55 team has the sixth-worst SD score and the 1950-54 Pirates have the ninth-worst SD score.)
As opposed to the Spiders and Athletics, the Pirates were not particularly successful immediately preceding their nadir, but became very successful immediately after. In 1958, the Pirates finished in second place (84-70), eight games behind the Braves. They had a regrouping year in 1959, but still finished in the first division (remember that phrase?) at 78-76. Of course, in 1960 the Pirates won the National League pennant and a very memorable World Series. The Pirates had some up-and-down seasons in the 1960s, but they were never anywhere near as bad as they had been for most of the 1950s, and they contended for the National League pennant in 1962, 1965, and 1966.
Let me go back to the 1952 club, if I may. This is the team that brought us a now-famous admonition. After the 1952 season, in which he led the league in homers for the seventh straight time, Ralph Kiner felt he deserved a raise. Pirates president Branch Rickey, earlier the architect of dynasties in St. Louis and Brooklyn, supposedly responded to Kiner's request with, "We could have finished last without you."
It bears repeating: Kiner led the National League in homers his first seven seasons, the last one being 1952, which turned out to be his last full year with the Pirates. On June 4, 1953, he was traded to the Cubs in a ten-player deal that also sent Joe Garagiola to Chicago and netted a substantial amount of cash ($150,000) for Pittsburgh. Kiner had turned thirty years old after the 1952 season, and Rickey always preferred to trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.
The image of Kiner has changed dramatically compared to when he was playing. The truth is that Kiner was a very productive player and was viewed as such during his career. Kiner played only ten years due to back problems, but he scored 100-plus runs six times and drove in 100-plus runs six times. He led his league three times in slugging percentage and once in on-base percentage. His career marks in those two categories are very good: .548 career slugging, .398 career on-base. Rogers Hornsby is said to have once sneered that if you shake a tree, ten gloves will fall out-but no bats. Given Hornsby's skills, that was obviously something of a self-serving statement, but the fact is that if a player can really hit, he will play. Kiner could really hit.
It might also be said that Kiner was a gate draw and worth the money he was asking. Although I can't prove that Kiner was the sole or even the main reason, the Pirates did draw pretty well for a bad team. For example, despite a last-place finish in 1950-and remember that the Pirates did not have a good 1949 season-they drew 1,166,267 fans, which was more than the N.L. average of 1,040,077. The pennant-winning Phillies drew 1,217,035, essentially the same as the last-place Pirates.
Although Pittsburgh's attendance kept deteriorating as the team struggled, even their 1952 attendance wasn't awful under the circumstances. The Pirates drew 686,673 fans in 1952, not too far from the league average of 792,394, and they had better attendance than Cincinnati or Boston. Of course, that was the Braves' last year in Boston. Pittsburgh's attendance really dropped in the first two full years without Kiner, dipping under 500,000 in both 1954 and 1955, while league attendance was going up.
One could obviously argue that it was the monotony of losing and not the departure of Kiner that caused Pittsburgh's attendance to drop so sharply. I would argue that it was both. The team endured a horrible season of historic proportions in 1952 and then traded Kiner in the middle of the next season, which probably represented a total breach of faith for Pirates fans. Looking at it like this, the Pirates' attendance for 1949-51 was quite remarkable. Today, most people think that Pittsburgh is not a good baseball town. Clearly, though, this was not always the case.
Pittsburgh's attendance increased dramatically in 1956, perhaps due to the Pirates' 21-16 start. Turnout dropped a little in 1957 with another last-place finish, but increased sharply as the Pirates returned to contention in 1958.
Two regular players on the 1952 Pirates were still around to enjoy the good times, including the 1960 World Championship. Dick Groat, the National League's MVP in '60, debuted in June 1952 and played regularly from then through the 1966 season. Bob Friend was in his second major league season in 1952 and had the third-most starts on the team behind two former Cardinals, Murry Dickson and Howie Pollet. Although Pittsburgh's Vern Law won the Cy Young award in 1960, Friend led the Pirates that year in starts and innings pitched and went 18-12. In 1952, Friend went 7-17.
Dickson "lost" 21 games for the '52 Pirates, but he's a great example of how a pitcher's record, particularly for one season, can be so misleading. First of all, Dickson's 3.57 ERA in 1952 was better than the league average. More important, however, a pitcher's record is quite often a function of things over which he has no control. His record also has to be placed in context. In Dickson's case, his 14-21 record for a 42-112 team is damn good. That means, of course, that the Pirates were 28-91 in games in which Dickson didn't get the decision.
As for the team, their best record for one month came in August, when they went 10-20, whereas their worst was 4-18 in September. Just like the 1916 A's, the Pirates had an impact on the pennant race, although it was somewhat indirect. The pennant-winning Dodgers beat the Pirates 19 of 22 games. The Dodgers, in fact, were 38-6 against the league's two bottom feeders, Pittsburgh and Boston. The second-place Giants were 28-16 against those same two teams, so despite the Giants' head-to-head domination of Brooklyn (winning 14 of the 22 games), New York finished 4 1/2 games behind the Dodgers.
From Baseball Dynasties by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein.
Copyright © 2000 by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein. Reprinted with permission.