One of the most under the radar seasons in Pittsburgh Pirates history came from a 28-year-old rookie catcher in 1945. Bill Salkeld was already a veteran of minor league baseball by the time he reached the Pirates. He began at 17 years old in 1934 and he had nearly 1,000 games to his credit by the time he was purchased from the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League late in the 1944 season. Salkeld even missed two full seasons due to an injury suffered during a play in late 1936. That injury kept him from missing playing time during WWII years later, which in turn helped him have his big rookie season for the Pirates.
At the beginning of the 1945 season, Salkeld was the backup catcher to future Hall of Famer Al Lopez. It wasn’t a huge split in playing time, but it also wasn’t a 50/50 deal either. The season began on April 17th and exactly a month later, Salkeld had made nine starts and two appearances off of the bench. He next started in game one of a doubleheader on May 20th and went 0-for-3, then three days later, he caught the final inning of a 13-inning game. The Pirates were 13-14 and he was hitting .257/.333/.257 in 39 plate appearances. That’s not exactly a great start to a season worth featuring here, so you know that things got better.
On May 24th, his season took a turn for the best. Over the next five games, he went 5-for-13 with two homers, six RBIs and five walks. He didn’t even start two of those games, but still got on base ten times. After going 0-for-2 off of the bench on May 31st, he had a nice four-game run to start June. Salkeld went 6-for-13 with two more homers and five RBIs. He was now hitting .317/.411/.524 through his first 23 games.
The rest of June saw him take a platoon role with the 36-year-old Lopez, who was having a rough season at the plate, but he was an accomplished veteran with a strong track record, especially on defense. A 28-year-old rookie wasn’t going to usurp him just because of a hot streak at the plate.
Over the final 22 June games for the Pirates, Salkeld made ten starts and appeared four times off the bench. He posted a .790 OPS during that stretch, bringing him into July with a .302/.388/.481 slash line in 38 games.
The Pirates continued with a platoon situation behind the plate in July. Lopez made 15 starts that month, while Salkeld started 14 games. Lopez hit .289 during the month, but it was a rather empty average with a .718 OPS. Salkeld hit .333 for the month and it came with six doubles, three homers and a 12:4 BB/SO ratio. That gave him a 1.112 OPS in 60 games.
As well as July went, he saved his best day for August 4th. Playing the St Louis Cardinals at Forbes Field, Salkeld hit for the cycle, going 5-for-5, while driving in all five runs in a 6-5 loss. The triple, which came in the seventh inning, was the first of his career. Salkeld even singled in the bottom of the ninth to put the tying run on base for the Pirates. He left for a pinch-runner, but the Pirates still lost. The triple was his only one of the season and he hit just one more in his career.
Despite the career day at the plate, the platoon with Lopez still continued. Salkeld had a strong week (August 23-30) to end the month, posting a 1.513 OPS to give him a .315/.409/.553 slash line through 77 games. Lopez also had 77 games played at the end of August and he had a .602 OPS.
September was no different and the baffling platoon continued. In retrospect, it wasn’t a bad decision to play Lopez, because he did well in 1946, bouncing back nicely. However, he was a known commodity, so they could have given Salkeld the bulk of the duty while they crawled to a fourth place finish. Lopez had a .375 OPS in September, while Salkeld continued to hit the ball well. He hit .292/.460/.521 in 63 plate appearances in September, while picking up 15 walks without a strikeout. Salkeld went 78 straight plate appearances without a strikeout to end the season.
The final slash line for Salkeld showed a .311/.420/.547 performance in 317 plate appearances. Lopez hit .218/.317/.251 in 280 plate appearances. Salkeld was also slightly above average defensively according to modern standards, posting an 0.1 dWAR. Despite the huge difference in hitting, the Pirates were 44-33 when Lopez started and 36-36 with Salkeld as the starter.
Salkeld had an outstanding season at the plate under normal standards, but that’s without noting that it was his rookie season and he was a catcher, making it even more impressive. His .966 OPS ranks as the 28th best single season total in franchise history. The .420 OBP ranks 35th best and the .547 slugging is 40th best. His adjusted OPS+ of 163 is 29th best. Salkeld’s at-bats per home run rate of 17.8 was the best in team history at that point. He even managed to garner a few MVP votes, finishing 24th in the voting.
His time in Pittsburgh didn’t last long. He was a seldom-used backup by 1947, and then moved on to the Boston Braves in the trade that brought Danny Murtaugh to the Pirates after the 1947 season. However, his rookie season is one that deserves more attention, especially coming from a player who had what appeared to be a career-ending injury nine years earlier. Even after he returned from missing 2+ seasons, it still took him six years to make it to the majors. When he got his chance, he made the most of it, leading to one of the best rookie seasons in Pittsburgh Pirates history.