I went back and forth on whether or not to use Dick Bartell in an Obscure Pittsburgh Pirates feature or to highlight him in one of our The One Who Got Away articles. Even as I’m writing this very sentence I’m questioning which one fits him better. On one hand, his stay in Pittsburgh lasted just four seasons and they weren’t recent (1927-30). On the other hand, he’s not that obscure to people who like baseball history because he was a really good player on offense and defense, while playing 18 seasons in the majors, with the majority of his value coming after he left Pittsburgh. I chose the obscure article ultimately because he was already a very good player when he left Pittsburgh, so they knew they were giving up something of value at the time of his trade in late 1930.
Bartell debuted in pro ball with the Bridgeport Bears of the Eastern League in 1927. He needed just one season of minor league ball to prove that he was big league ready before his 20th birthday. The Pirates had signed him before the season, kept him around during Spring Training, and then brought him to the majors in September. A report in the August 6, 1927 edition of the Pittsburgh Press said Bartell had shown great improvements in the minors since the beginning of the year. He reported to the Pirates on September 19th and got into exactly one game, the final game of the season. He started at shortstop, batted second behind Lloyd Waner and went 0-for-2 with two walks. The Pirates went on to play in the World Series and Bartell returned to the team in Spring Training of 1928, where he won a bench job and remained in the majors.
During the 1928 season, starting shortstop Glenn Wright got injured and it opened the door for Bartell to get more time. He saw some time at shortstop during the middle of the year, but got to play second base as well after the starting second baseman (Sparky Adams) moved over to shortstop. Bartell ended up playing 72 games during his rookie season (63 starts) and he hit .305/.377/.386, with more walks (21) than strikeouts (18). Wright was traded after the season, opening room for Bartell to play more often in 1929.
Bartell played 143 games during the 1929 season. He began the year and ended the year as the starting second baseman, but still ended up with 76 starts at shortstop, compared to 63 starts at second base. His defense was solid at both spots (finished with an 0.4 dWAR), but he was there because of his bat. He put up a .302/.347/.420 slash line in 674 plate appearances, with 40 doubles, 13 triples, two homers and 101 runs scored. The Pirates were a loaded team that year and Bartell actually finished as their seventh best regular on offense. His 1.1 WAR was the 11th best on the team.
Hitting across the majors was up in 1929, then it really peaked in 1930, which is considered to be one of the best seasons for offense in baseball history. Bartell had the best season on offense during his 18-year career. He had better years after he left Pittsburgh when comparing his stats to the rest of the year, but looking at his personal totals only, it was his best season. His .320/.378/.467 slash line was only slightly above average for the season . For comparison sake, his .845 OPS was only the sixth best on the team, and the Pirates were the sixth best hitting team in the eight-team National League. The NL had an .808 OPS as a group. It was still a strong season for Bartell, especially since he was just 22 years old at the time, but it needed some historical perspective.
Bartell was the everyday shortstop in 1930 and he posted a 0.7 dWAR, so the reason that the Pirates decided to part ways, at least according to them, was a bit of a headscratcher. They said that they wanted to improve their defense at shortstop. They picked up veteran Tommy Thevenow from the Philadelphia Phillies on November 5, 1930 in exchange for Bartell. The Pirates also added veteran pitcher Claude Willoughby in the deal.
In the November 7, 1930 issue of the Pittsburgh Press, Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss said that he got Thevenow to help improve the defense at shortstop and he did just that in 1931, posting an outstanding 2.7 dWAR. He also said that Thevenow wasn’t as bad of a hitter that everyone claimed, and Willoughby would be helped by leaving Philadelphia for a better team. Both of those things ended up being wrong. Thevenow batted .286 in 1930, which was a career best at that point, but he also had a .326 slugging percentage in a year where almost everyone was hitting the ball well. He would hit .213/.266/.248 for the Pirates in 1931, taking away most of that added defensive value. Willoughby was done in the majors by the end of May after posting a 6.31 ERA in 25.2 innings.
The Pirates ended up with Thevenow for five years as a role player before they sold him to the Cincinnati Reds. His actual value though was -2.0 WAR during that time. Bartell’s career took off after leaving the Pirates and he actually became known as one of the better defensive shortstops. The Pirates didn’t miss him at shortstop by 1932 with Arky Vaughan coming around, but they certainly could have used him in place of Thevenow and others used at that time in utility roles.
While it wasn’t mentioned in the press, Bartell later hinted that owner Barney Dreyfuss wanted to get rid of him due to a contract dispute prior to the 1930 season. He said that he had a problem with Dreyfuss talking players down to help keep their salaries down. That might explain the trade better, with the Pirates willing to move a young shortstop having success for two veterans with very little success during their careers. It’s correct that Thevenow helped the defense in 1931, but they weren’t giving up a poor defense player to make room for him, plus there was a huge difference in their batting abilities. Willoughby had a 7.59 ERA in 1930, so any expectations for the 32-year-old veteran to turn things around weren’t based on reality.
Bartell played 14 seasons after leaving Pittsburgh and received MVP votes during six of those years. He peaked in 1936-37 with the New York Giants when he posted a total of 12.8 WAR during those two seasons. He compiled a career 40.5 WAR that is boosted by 15.6 dWAR, which ranks him 104th all-time in that category among all position players. He was a .284 career hitter, with 2,165 hits and 1,130 runs scored, while missing two years due to serving with the Army during WWII.
As far as his time with the Pirates goes, Bartell was a .308 hitter in 345 games with the Pirates. He batted over .300 in all three of his full seasons with the club. He had a .794 OPS, 197 runs scored, 168 RBIs and he put up 4.6 WAR. He was part of a string of successful shortstops in Pittsburgh that went from Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and Rabbit Maranville, to the under-appreciated Glenn Wright, to Bartell to Arky Vaughan, with very few years of mediocrity during a 40-year stretch in team history.
Bartell’s name never comes up though when talking about the top shortstops in team history. Part of that is because he was only around for three full seasons, but a bigger reason is that the Pirates foolishly traded him away just as he was starting to develop into an All-Star caliber player.
Here are the links to the previous Obscure Pittsburgh Pirates articles: