A very busy day for Pittsburgh Pirates birthdays. Ten in all, with some interesting (and tragic) stories among the group.
Rick Reed, Pirates pitcher from 1988 until 1991. He was signed by the Pirates in 1986 as a 26th round draft pick. It didn’t take him long to make the majors, despite the fact he spent the entire 1987 season pitching in Low-A ball strictly as a reliever. Reed made a huge jump in 1988, plus he made the move to a starting role. He began the year in High-A, playing for Salem of the Carolina League. Within four months he moved up to Double-A, on to Triple-A, then into the majors. He had a 12-4, 2.07 record in the minors and got better at each level as he went up the ladder. For the Pirates that year, he was 1-0, 3.00 in two starts. Even with the strong start, Reed never fully got established in Pittsburgh, splitting each of the next three seasons between Triple-A and the majors. In his four years with the Pirates, he went 4-7, 4.98 in 31 games, with just one of those games coming during the 1991 season, when he gave up six runs in 4.1 innings. The Pirates released him in April of 1992, just before Opening Day. He bounced around between three teams the next four years, never finding success and eventually, he spent the entire 1996 season in the minors with the New York Mets. That was the first time since 1987, that he didn’t play at all in the majors and it seemed to turn him career around. As a starter for the Mets and the Minnesota Twins over the next seven years, he went 84-61. That was after he picked up just nine wins from 1988 until 1996. He re-signed with the Pirates in January of 2004, but didn’t make the team out of Spring Training due to some late injuries. He decided to retire in early April, rather than pitch in Triple-A.
Al Holland, pitched for the 1977 and 1985 Pirates. He was drafted two times without signing, then eventually signed with the Pirates in June of 1975 as an amateur free agent. He made two September relief outings in 1977 for the Pirates, then spent the rest of his time with the team in the minors. Exactly four years after he signed with Pittsburgh, Holland was traded to the San Francisco Giants in the deal that brought Bill Madlock back to Pittsburgh. He immediately went to San Francisco and pitched well over four seasons, going 19-11, 2.56 with 19 saves in 162 appearances. Holland then moved on to Philadelphia, where he made a name for himself during the 1983-84 seasons. He had a total of 54 saves, while making 68 appearances each year, helping the Phillies to the 1983 World Series. The Pirates reacquired him on April 20, 1985 in exchange for longtime closer Kent Tekulve. After going 1-3, 3.38, with four saves in 38 games, he was traded away from the Pirates a second time on August 2, 1985 in a six-player deal with the California Angels. Holland finished the season with the Angels, then spent parts of two seasons with the New York Yankees before retiring. He had a 2.98 ERA in 384 games, with 78 saves.
Curt Roberts, second baseman for the 1954-56 Pirates. He was the first African-American player for the Pirates. He began his baseball career in the Negro Leagues, playing for the Kansas City Monarchs. He then played three years (1951-53) of minor league ball for Denver of the Western League, where he was picked up by the Pirates. In 1954, Roberts made the Opening Day roster and played 134 games that year, 131 of those games were at second base. He hit .232 with 55 walks, 47 runs scored and he committed the second most errors in the NL among second baseman. Roberts would spend most of the 1955 season playing for Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League, where he hit .321 in 123 games. He played just six early season games for the Pirates, going 2-for-17 (.118) at the plate before being sent down. In 1956, he again had his troubles at the plate, batting .177 through 31 games. On June 23, 1956, the Pirates traded Roberts, along with pitcher Jack McMahan, to the Kansas City A’s, in exchange for second baseman Spook Jacobs. After the deal, he played in the minors until 1963, never making it back to the big leagues. His life ended all too soon, as he was struck down while on the side of the road changing a tire at 40 years old.
Gene Woodling, outfielder for the 1947 Pirates. He had a 17-year career in the majors, and that was despite the fact he lost two seasons due to military service (1944-45). Woodling began his big league career with the 1943 Cleveland Indians, three years after they signed him as an amateur free agent. After serving during WWII, he returned to the Indians in 1946, batting .188 in 61 games. On December 7, 1946, the Pirates traded catcher Al Lopez to the Indians in exchange for Woodling. He played just two early season games for the Pirates before being sent to the minors. He was recalled in September and he went right into the starting center field job, finishing the year with .266 average and ten RBIs in 22 games. In September of 1947, he was one of three players (plus $100,000 cash) the Pirates sent to the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League for pitcher Bob Chesnes. While the deal didn’t work out for the Pirates, it was great for Woodling, who was soon picked up New York Yankees, a team that won five World Series titles during his first five seasons in New York. He played in the majors until 1962, finishing with a .284 average in 1,796 games, hitting 147 homers, driving in and scoring 830 runs each and drawing 921 walks. We wrote an article covering the unfortunate trade of Woodling and how it hurt the Pirates.
Tiny Bonham, pitcher for the 1947-49 Pirates. He pitched with the Yankees from 1940 until 1946, twice making the All-Star team (1942-43). During his 1942 season, Bonham went 21-5, leading the AL in winning percentage, complete games and shutouts. The following year he won 15 games. Most players got better as the level of play dropped during the war years, but Tiny (first name was Ernest) progressively went downhill each year from 1944 until 1946, going just 5-8 in that last season. He was able to pick up two World Series rings during his time in New York. On October 24, 1946, the Pirates acquired Bonham from the Yankees in exchange for pitcher Cookie Cuccurullo. For the Pirates, he went 11-8 that first year, but his ERA continued to rise. In 1948, he was 6-10, 4.31 in 135.2 innings. The next year he planned ahead of time for it to be his last and it was, albeit for the wrong reason. He was pitching slightly better than the previous year, going 7-4, 4.25 through the end of August when he began to feel sick and tired all the time. He went to the hospital for an appendectomy and there it was found out that he had intestinal cancer. Less than three weeks after his last game, he passed away at 36 years old. His career ended with a 103-72 record.
Andy Bednar, pitcher for the 1930-31 Pirates. He pitched just five Major League games, all in relief, and he did not fare well in any of them. In 1929, he went 21-4, 2.97 in 230 innings for the McCook Generals of the Nebraska State League, his first full season in pro ball. The Pirates brought him to Spring Training the next year, then sent him to Wichita of the Western League, when he didn’t make the team. There, Bednar went 18-7, 3.83 in 221 innings before rejoining the Pirates in September. He pitched twice for Pittsburgh, giving up four runs over 1.1 innings. In 1931, Bednar made the team out of Spring Training, but was seldom used and only in mop-up duty. In his three appearances through early May, he allowed five runs in four innings. He was soon sent to the Texas League, where he split the season between Galveston and Fort Worth. It marked the end of his Major League career. He allowed runs in all five brief appearances. He played two more years of minor league ball before retiring. He died in 1937 at the age of 29, a victim of a car accident.
Bill Keen, first baseman/pinch hitter for the 1911 Pirates. He began his career with Clarksville of the KITTY League in 1910, then moved on to the Indianapolis Indians of the American Association to finish the season, seeing limited time there with very little success. The next season he was with the Springfield Reapers of the Ohio State League, where he hit .339 in 66 games, before being acquired by the Pirates. He made his Major League debut on August 8th at first base and lasted just five innings, leaving after injuring his leg while running the bases. Over the last two months of the season, he was used as a pinch-hitter five times, never seeing time in the field again. In eight plate appearances total over six games, he failed to collect a hit, going 0-for-7 with a walk and four strikeouts. For a time, he was being saved as a backup catcher while Mike Simon was nursing an injury. The local paper was rather harsh on Keen after he pinch hit in the last inning of the season saying “Rebel (his nickname) Keene (sic?) got another chance as a pinch-hitter yesterday, and as usual he failed to connect”.
That at-bat on the last day of the year was once thought to be the last at-bat of his pro career. There was some confusion between a 1911 story on him and his career stats for a while. In the 1911 story he claimed that his name is Brown “Rebel” Keene and he was born on the same date in 1891. A later story, that refers to him being reserved for the 1912 season, calls him “W.B. Keene”. Brown Keene played minor league ball until 1914, spending three more years playing for Springfield. The Pittsburgh Press, during his time with the team, always called him either Rebel or Brown Keene, but his real name is now recorded as William Brown Keen, which would be the reason that he’s listed as “Bill” now, though it appears that “Brown” or “Rebel” would be more appropriate. There’s no explanation for the spelling difference with the last name.
Hank Robinson, pitcher for the 1911-13 Pirates. In his third season of pro ball in the minors, Robinson went 28-7 for Fort Worth of the Texas League, pitching 300 innings. He joined the Pirates in late August of that season (1911) and made his Major League debut on September 2nd, allowing two runs in his one inning of work. He ended up pitching five times in relief that year, posting a 2.77 ERA in 13 innings. The next season he was a regular on the pitching staff, pulling starting and relieving duty. He started 16 games, came out of the bullpen 17 times, going a combined 12-7, 2.26 in 175 innings. Although not a tracked stat at the time, his WHIP that season (1.01) was the best in the NL. In 1913 he saw even more action and performed just as well. In 196.1 innings, he went 14-9, 2.38, with 22 starts and 21 relief outings. On December 12, 1913, he was sent to the Cardinals along with Dots Miller and Chief Wilson, in an eight-player deal that did not work out well for the Pirates. Robinson wasn’t quite the same in St Louis, though he still sported a strong ERA. In two seasons, he went 14-16, 2.71 in 269 innings. After not pitching in the majors in 1916-17, he briefly returned with the Yankees in 1918 for one last season. It was far from the end of his playing career though, Robinson went on to win 255 minor league games, to go along with his 42 major league wins. He is a Little Rock legend, a hometown boy who pitched 13 seasons for the team in the Southern Association, four times winning over twenty games in a season.
Gene Steere, shortstop for the 1894 Pirates. Back when Brown University was a powerhouse for baseball, Steere became the 11th player from that school since 1879 to make the majors. He played just one minor league game in 1894, the year he graduated from Brown, then joined the Pirates on August 28th for his Major League debut. The next day, he played that first game at shortstop and went hitless, with the local paper saying “the college boy was evidently nervous” during his debut. The next day he played both games of a doubleheader, committing an error, but also collecting three hits. After an off-day he made his debut in Pittsburgh and played another doubleheader. The Pittsburgh Press called him “Little” Steere and said he impressed in the field, showing great range and was very lively. Despite the praise, he made an error in each game and collected just one hit. After another off-day, he was too sick to play a Monday contest on September 4th, but traveled with the team after the game for New York. The Pirates did quite well without him, winning 22-1 that day. After sitting out at the start of the Giants series, Steere played five games over the next nine days, ending with a quiet game at the bat and in the field on September 15th. In ten games with the Pirates, he hit .205 with four RBIs and five errors. In 1895, Steere began to play for New Bedford of the New England League, seeing plenty of action in 1896, but just a handful of games over his last two seasons of pro ball there.
Willie Clark, first baseman for the 1898-99 Pirates. He was a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh, a left-handed first baseman, who spent one year and one day with the Pirates. Clark put up some big minor league stats, including a .338 average, but he was known more for his strong fielding. He spent three seasons (1895-97) in New York, hitting .281 with 124 RBIs in 210 games. Clark had not played at all during the 1898 season, when the Giants sold him to the Pirates in early August. He played 57 games over the last two months of the season, batting .306 with 31 RBIs and playing strong defense, something the Pirates were sorely lacking at first base. He was even better defensively the next season, leading the league with a .989 fielding percentage. In 81 games through early August, he batted .283 with 44 RBIs and 49 runs scored before being released. His release came as a surprise to most, as he was hitting well at the time after struggling early, and his defense was as strong as ever. The Pirates had two quality catchers, plus they were about the sign another, so they decided to move Frank Bowerman to first base for the rest of the season. Clark would end up playing just one season of minor league ball before retiring. It was said that he was possibly released due to a poor decision to bunt days earlier, when the Pirates lost two games in a row to a team they’ve should’ve beaten easily. Another guess on his release, was just to save on travel expenses during a long eastern trip. The move didn’t look bad in the long run though, as Clark’s big league career ended with his release.