Sunday, January 13, 2019
Branch Rickey's Pittsburgh Pirates
One of the fun things about a completed set is deciding how you want to organize it. I have the 1956 Topps set in a binder, sorted by team, in the same order that the teams finished in the 1955 Standings. The Pittsburgh Pirates finished 8th in the National League in 1955 with a record of 60-94.
The 1956 season ended slightly better with a 7th place finish, but the future was bright with a pair of future Hall of Famers getting their feet wet in the majors that would soon make the team perennial contenders.
The 1956 Topps Set had fantastic team cards. The team photo on the front, and the back includes some relevant stats and a cool aerial view of the team's home ballpark.
The best player on the 1955 team was First Baseman Dale Long. Long had 16 homers to go along with 19 doubles and a league leading 13 triples.
Long was a career minor leaguer before coming to Pittsburgh in 1951 - as the cartoon above shows, he was a converted catcher. He followed up the 1955 season with an All-Star appearance and career highs in Homers and Runs Batted In. He set a then-record for consecutive games with a home run at 8 straight games.
Bob Friend was the team's best pitcher in 1955. He started 20 games and appeared in 24 more as a reliever. He finished the season with a team high 9 complete games and 2 shutouts. His 2.38 ERA was best in the National League.
Friend's age 24 season was stellar, and he would become the team's most reliable starter in the coming seasons. In 1956, he led the National League in games started and innings pitched, appearing in his first All-Star game. While he went 0-2 with a 13.50 ERA in the 1960 World Series, he helped the team get there.
The Pirates' only Hall of Famer in the 1956 Topps Set was Roberto Clemente. Clemente was the Pirates' choice in the 1954 Rule V draft, despite the Dodgers' efforts to disguise his talent in Montreal. The Pirates had a bit of inside information into the Dodgers' system, as the Pirates' General Manager was none other than Branch Rickey. Clemente was scouted by Clyde Sukeforth in the International League, the same scout that helped sign Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers.
Clemente, of course, could be covered in a series of posts all by himself. 1955 was his first full major league season, and the Pirates were required to have him on the Active roster for the entire season per the terms of the Rule V draft, or they would have to return him to the Dodgers. At 20 years old, Clemente still had 11 triples, and 23 doubles as a rookie. It would be several seasons before he would become the superstar that would lead the Pirates to the 1960 World Series. In 1956, however, he did something that had never been done before or since - a Walk-off Inside-the-park Grand Slam! This fantastic article by Martin Espada chronicles "The Greatest Forgotten Home Run of All Time"
In the binder, I have the first page of each team set with the position players that had the biggest impact in 1955 and 1956 in order - Catcher, First Base, Second, Short, Third, Left Field, Center, Right.
What's up with all the Pirates' hats? If you notice on the head shots, the Pirates have oddly rounded hats - but they are actually helmets. Branch Rickey had stock in a company that developed the head gear, and the Pirates became the team to experiment with the protective gear. Rickey required every player to have one. At first they wore the helmets in the field as well as at the plate, but they proved to be cumbersome to fielders so they only used them at the plate.The Pirates had a young rotation in 1955, only Max Sukront was over the age of 25. The growing pains of the mid 50s led to greater success throughout the 1960s.
Curt Roberts was the first African-American player to play for the Pirates, also signed by Branch Rickey. The Pirates had a poor record during Branch Rickey's tenure. In 1953, he traded away one of their greatest players, Ralph Kiner, who was asking for a raise. Rickey was reported as saying that if the Pirates could finish in last place with Kiner, they could finish in last place without him. While the team lost many games in his tenure- it was his moves that provided the foundation for their future success.