The One Who Got Away: Joe Cronin

If you’ve followed this feature on the site, you know that the Pittsburgh Pirates have given away some very talented players over the years. Our section titled The One Who Got Away already features three Hall of Fame players who the Pirates gave very brief chances to early in their careers. They then went on to do much bigger things elsewhere, leaving the Pirates with nothing to show for identifying a future great at a young age. Unfortunately for the Pirates, they gave up on more than three Hall of Famers too soon. Today’s article looks at the fourth player in that group, though chronologically he was the fifth future Hall of Famer. I’ll get to the last one (who was actually the first one) sometime soon. For now, we look at the Pirates career of Hall of Fame shortstop Joe Cronin.

Cronin spent a total of 20 seasons in the majors. He hit .301/.390/.468 in 2,124 games, with 1,233 runs scored, 515 doubles, 118 triples, 170 homers and 1,424 RBIs. He received MVP votes in eight different seasons, five times finishing among the top seven in voting. He was a top defensive shortstop during his day, three times leading the league in defensive WAR according to modern metrics. The Pirates gave him a total of 50 games at the big league level, most of them when he was still a teenager, and many of them were as a late-innings replacement. He compiled 64.1 WAR during his brilliant career, with 0.2 of that coming with the Pirates.

Shortly after his 18th birthday in 1924, Joe Cronin was put on the reserve list by the Pirates. They were allowed to reserve a maximum of 40 players that year and they ended up signing up to that limit. He could have signed with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, but took a better offer from the Pirates. It was a great get for the Pirates, because Cronin was born in San Francisco, so they were getting him to sign away from a team that would allow him to stay close to home.

A few days after being put on the reserve list, it was announced that he would be attending Spring Training with the Pirates. A month later, the Pittsburgh Daily Post had an article about Cronin, detailing how scout Joe Devine has kept an eye on him and Cronin was playing well in winter ball in San Francisco. On that particular day, he went 4-for-4 with two triples and outstanding defense. An opposing manager said that Cronin was the best prospect he has seen in many years. The paper talked down the excitement a little by saying that he was unlikely to make the big league club in 1925, at least out of Spring Training.

Cronin arrived to 1925 Spring Training on February 28th with a large group of players/coaches from California. The Pirates held Spring Training at Paso Robles, California that year, so he was at least close to home for the start of his pro career. Just two days after he arrived, he was getting praise for his hitting ability during batting practice. The local press said that he could be a substitute for the Pirates very soon, while noting that star shortstop Glenn Wright would be hard to knock off the position.

The Pirates were soon playing intrasquad games and Cronin impressed on March 10th with a three-hit game. Two days earlier, his defense received praise, though the paper seemed surprised that he was so good, saying “Even 18-year-old Cronin played a strong defensive game at shortstop”. Shortly after his big game, the Pirates were using Cronin as a late-inning replacement for Wright at shortstop. Manager Bill McKechnie liked what he saw though and said that the Pirates would bring Cronin back to Pittsburgh, noting that he was destined for a minor league team in Williamsport, though he could end up elsewhere.

On April 2nd, Cronin had a very odd appearance late in a game. Carson Bigbee reached base, but he hurt his ankle. Cronin went in to run for him, but after the next batter struck out, George Grantham went in to run for Cronin. It was the rare “pinch-runner for a pinch-runner” switch. The Pirates were playing split-squad games in April and Cronin went with the young players, where he saw regular action. He was among the small group of young players who went east with the Pirates when camp broke for the April 14th opener. The Pirates went on a road trip to open the season, but the younger players went on to Pittsburgh.

On May 4th, the Pirates played an exhibition game on an off-day and they noted that Cronin would see some action. That “action” basically amounted to standing in the rain, because shortly after he took over at shortstop, the game was stopped due to rain. He remained with the Pirates for another week without playing before being sent to Johnstown of the Middle Atlantic League, along with many other younger players for the Pirates. Cronin spent the season there, hitting .313 in 99 games, with 32 extra-base hits.

On June 7th, the Pirates played an exhibition game against Johnstown, with Cronin going 1-for-4 against his big league team. He would see his big league club again for a time in September, but never got into a game. The Pirates went on to win the World Series that year and Cronin was around the team as they headed towards their epic match-up with the Washington Senators.

Spring Training of 1926 started on March 4th for Cronin. He was getting the same type of praise as he did in 1925, with good play, but he would likely end up in the minors for more seasoning. On March 19th, it was noted that he would probably report to New Haven for the season, but he was good enough that he would be back next spring. Sounded like they were writing off his 1926 chances already, which proved to be a mistake. That being said, just two days later the papers were talking about his wonderful improvements and how he could one day be a superstar shortstop in the majors.

Cronin was seeing similar usage in Spring Training in 1926, getting into a lot of games late. The Pirates were still impressed with his play and they said on March 30th in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he was ready for a better level of competition than what he saw at Johnstown in 1925. Even going into April, it sounded like a trip to the minors was a foregone conclusion for the 1926 season.

On April 5th, Cronin replaced Pie Traynor at third base late in a spring game, with Traynor limping off the field. The Pirates were already without infielder Eddie Moore, who was also injured. By April 11th, it was said that the Pirates will hold onto Cronin for a time before sending him to the minors. He was also called a “rapidly rising” player that day.

Cronin stayed with the team, but early on, it felt a lot like his role with the 1925 club, where he was just there until they had to trim the roster. He sat on the bench for the first 15 games before making his Major League debut as a pinch-runner late in a one-sided loss on April 29th. He pinch-ran again the next day late in  a one-sided win. A week later, Cronin pinch-ran again in back-to-back games. On May 9th, the Pirates played an exhibition game against Johnstown and Cronin homered twice in the win. That batting feat would mark the end of his time with the Pirates. As guessed earlier, he was sent out to New Haven for some seasoning just two days later.

Cronin played 66 games for New Haven, batting .320 with 21 extra-base hits. On July 14th, the Pirates decided to bring him back to the majors. It was an odd decision because he barely played until September. From his first game back on July 20th, until August 31st, he played nine games, all as a late inning replacement, receiving a total of six plate appearances.

On September 3rd, Cronin got his first big league start, playing second base and batting seventh in the order. He would start 24 of the final 29 games that season and he finished with a .265/.315/.337 slash line in 92 plate appearances. Johnny Rawlings was playing second base, but he got injured when a grounder badly bruised his shin, so Cronin replaced him. Rawlings, who spent 12 years in the majors, ended up getting just two more big league appearances, both as a defensive replacement without an at-bat.

In 1927, new manager Donie Bush took over and he wanted Cronin to report to Spring Training a week early to not only get a better look at the 20-year-old infielder, but to get some extra time to work with him. When the players first started to arrive, Cronin was the only infielder there and getting full attention of the coaches, who were helping him with his fielding at second base. Bush was a shortstop for 16 years in the majors, so he was as good as anyone to help Cronin.

By March 9th, it was said that there was a hard battle being fought between Cronin and Hal Rhyne for the second base job. Rhyne was a 27-year-old rookie in 1926, who put up a .649 OPS, with above average defense at second base and some time at shortstop. Cronin and Rhyne were forming the double play combo for a time during the spring, with Rhyne at shortstop. On March 29th, it was announced that Rhyne had won the starting second base job. The local paper thought it was a good decision, as the team needed veteran presence on the field to play their best baseball. Here’s an excerpt from The Pittsburgh Press:

Knowing what we know now, it was obviously not a good decision. Besides the fact that Cronin went on to greatness, Rhyne played just 62 games for the Pirates in 1927 and then was sent back to the minors. As it turns out, the Pirates weren’t really sold on Rhyne either and they decided to acquire veteran infielder Ed Sicking right before the season started. He would play just six games before being released. George Grantham ultimately ended up with the second base job and did excellent work.

Cronin was with the Pirates for the entire 1927 season, which is hard to believe when you see his numbers. He went 5-for-22 in 12 games and didn’t play a single game in June, August and September, yet he played an entire game at first base on October 2nd. His first start of the year was actually a May 3rd exhibition game. He started a June 5th exhibition contest at first base. From July 1-3, Cronin started three regular games in a row at shortstop and even had three hits in the middle game, but that wasn’t enough to keep him in the lineup. His next start was the October 2nd game, and he had just four at-bats in between those games.

In 1928, Cronin had a new battle in Spring Training. The Pirates had a 20-year-old shortstop named Dick Bartell, who you might remember from an Obscure Pittsburgh Pirates article in which I noted that he could also fit in a One Who Got Away article. The two battled all spring and Bartell won out. That wasn’t exactly a bad choice, since Bartell was an All-Star caliber player for many years, but the Pirates didn’t exactly do their best with him on the team either, trading him away at 22 years old for a lackluster return.

In what seemed like a cruel April Fool’s joke, it was announced on April 1st that the Pirates sold Cronin to Kansas City of the American Association. At the time it was noted that he didn’t hit during his big league trials despite appearing to have plenty of talent. In his three seasons with Pittsburgh, he received 105 plate appearances, and he was just 21 years old when they made the decision, so he wasn’t exactly given a fair trial.

Cronin played 74 games with Kansas City until his contract was purchased by the Washington Senators in mid-July. He didn’t exactly tear up the league in the minors, hitting .245 with 18 extra-base hits. He put up similar numbers for the Senators, who gave him the chance to play everyday. By age 22 in 1929, Cronin was a solid big league regular, and during the high offense year of 1930, he hit .346 and drove in 126 runs. Proving it wasn’t a fluke, he picked up 100+ RBIs seven more times over the next ten years.

This is clearly a player who came back to haunt the Pirates. While they were winning nothing during the 1930-40 time frame, Cronin was one of the best infielders in the game, combining above average offense and defense. They had nothing to show, other than the meager amount they got back from his sale to the minors. That makes Joe Cronin, The One Who Got Away.