There are some articles on the history site I write despite knowing that it will appeal to a small audience. I write them anyway because they are just as much for me as anyone else. They’re also “evergreen content”, meaning that it’s not something that won’t be relevant a few days from now, such as a minor transaction made in 2020 or a random game recap from a team that just finished with a 19-41 record. This article will be just as interesting five years from now as it is today. If it gets a good reception, I might do other “Snapshot in Time” articles, looking at the rosters on a specific off-season date and seeing what happened to those players.
Here’s the quick back story on why I’m writing this particular article. I was recently doing research for one of our mini bios you can find for every player on their birthday in our This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History features. I noticed that during early February in 1944, there were a lot of articles talking about how the Pittsburgh Pirates looked good on paper and could compete for the World Series. They were 80-74 in 1943, finishing in fourth place. Most of those articles were Associated Press type articles, where it’s the same in every newspaper. That in itself is odd because a large article talking about the Pirates having a good team doesn’t seem like something that has mass appeal across the U.S. As a local story, it’s great to hear, but I doubt many people reading the Joplin Globe in Missouri or the Gazette in Montreal, Quebec, really cared much.
The local papers had a little extra, which is what really caught my eye. They listed the current 30-man roster that was released by the Pirates on February 5th. Here’s the photo:
On paper, the roster does not have the look of a potential World Series team, but this was 1944. The world was at war and many of the best players were drafted into (or willingly joined) the war efforts. A strong roster in 1944 has a different definition of a strong roster in almost any other year. It was likely the lowest level of play in the majors at any point. Many guys who were around in 1944, lost their big league jobs when the league was back to normal strength in 1946. That being said, there are definitely some players of note on that roster. Rip Sewell, Max Butcher, Bob Klinger, Preacher Roe, Bob Elliott, Vince DiMaggio, Lee Handley, Babe Dahlgren, Frankie Gustine, Jim Russell and Pete Coscarart are all names you should know if you have an interest in Pirates team history. Al Lopez was a great catcher and he’s a Hall of Fame manager, so his name stands out there as well. Frankie Zak was the most unlikely All-Star in baseball history, so he’s another name to know. The other 17 names probably aren’t as familiar to the masses.
What I wanted to do here is look at those 30 players and see how they ended up helping the 1944 Pirates, as well as their contributions beyond that season. I’ll save the suspense and note that the 1944 Pirates finished with a 90-63 record, good for second place. The early talk about them being a strong team was correct. They didn’t win it all, but it was still a great season. In fact, the 1944 season was the best record for the Pirates during a 33-year stretch between World Series appearances (1927 and 1960).
I’m going to tackle the list as written up, starting with Max Butcher and working down to Jim Russell. I’ll note their 1944 contribution and then what happened to them after that season. If they were traded away, I’ll continue on until that trade tree ends. I’ll also note that there were obviously other players who contributed in 1944, who aren’t on that roster. Most notable would be veteran pitcher Fritz Ostermueller, who was acquired early in the season and posted a 2.73 ERA in 204.2 innings.
Max Butcher – He went 13-11, 3.12 in 199 innings in 1944. He had a very similar season in 1945, then was released in 1946 during Spring Training.
Cookie Cuccurullo – His experience prior to 1944 was just his MLB debut on October 3, 1943. He was mostly used as a reliever in 1944 and he had a 4.06 ERA. He had a rough time in 1945 and was sent to the minors in 1946. The Pirates traded him for pitcher Tiny Bonham, who put in three decent seasons before passing away unexpected from surgery complications late in 1949.
Johnny Gee – Most notable as being the tallest player in baseball history at the time at 6’9″, which wasn’t surpassed for over 40 years. He pitched briefly for the 1944 Pirates before being sold to the New York Giants in early June.
Hank Gornicki – Five weeks after the roster was released, he was inducted into the Army. He returned for a time in 1946, but was the first cut of Spring Training in 1947, sold to Indianapolis of the American Association.
Wally Hebert – He got a job working at a war plant in the off-season and decided in the spring of the 1944 to remain at the job, ending his pro career.
Jim Hopper – His big league career consisted of two games in 1946, allowing five runs in 4.1 innings. On March 14, 1944, he was inducted into the Army. He was sent to the minors in June of 1946.
Bob Klinger -Went into the Navy in March of 1944 and he was released by the Pirates after coming back in 1946 when he couldn’t make the team out of Spring Training. He had some strong years prior to his time in the war.
Xavier Rescigno – He went 10-8, 4.35 in 124 innings, making six starts and 42 relief appearances in 1944. He struggled in 1945 with a 5.72 ERA in 78.2 innings, which ended up being his final big league time. He played another six seasons in the minors
Preacher Roe – He went 13-11, 3.11 in 185.1 innings in 1944. He was even better in 1945 with a 2.87 ERA in 235 innings, but then he did poorly in 1946-47. The Pirates traded him to Brooklyn and he turned into a superstar, going 93-37 in seven seasons. The returns in the trade, which also included two other players going to Brooklyn, provided very little in return. They were all gone within three years and none of them brought anything back to the Pirates in the future. Two were released, one was bought by a minor league club.
Rip Sewell – Sewell was the star pitcher on this team. He won 21 games in 1943 and repeated that feat in 1944, when he had a 3.18 ERA in 286 innings. He lasted until 1949 with the club before being released, which ended his 13-year career.
Harry Shuman – He had 12 games of big league experience prior to 1944. He didn’t pitch for the Pirates that year before being selected off waivers by the Philadelphia Phillies. It was a very minor loss. Shuman pitched 27 innings total in the majors after leaving the Pirates.
Nick Strincevich – He played briefly for the 1941-42 Pirates, then spent 1943 in the minors. He was a solid pitcher over the next three seasons, including his best year in 1944 when he went 14-7, 3.08 in 190 innings. He began to fade in 1948 and was sold to the Phillies.
Junior Walsh – Just ten days after the roster was released, the news came in that Walsh was inducted into the Army. He would rejoin the Pirates in 1946 and pitch 89 games over five seasons in Pittsburgh. He was sent to Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League in 1952 and never returned to the majors.
Bill Baker – He was a backup catcher, who the Pirates thought they might lose to the war effort when they released the roster. That proved to be true. He was in the Navy by March and returned by spring in 1946 to play 53 games that season. On January 2, 1947 he was sold to the minors.
Hank Camelli – He had one game of big league experience prior to 1944, but the loss of Baker opened up a spot for him. Camelli hit 296 in 63 games and played solid defense. He played one game for the Pirates in 1945 before joining the Army. His stay in the military was brief and he was back with the Pirates by November of 1945. He played for the Bucs as a backup in 1946 before being sent mid-season to the minors. He was traded to Boston in a deal for manager Billy Herman. Camelli was a minor part in the deal so I’ll leave the trade recap for Bob Elliott below.
Al Lopez – He was a strong defensive catcher, who once held the games caught record. Lopez hit .230 with 34 RBIs in 115 games. He played two more years in Pittsburgh before being traded to the Cleveland Indians for Gene Woodling, who was traded in 1948 for pitcher Bob Chenes, a phenom from the Pacific Coast League, who did not live up to the hype, partially due to a shoulder injury. Chesnes was out of baseball by early 1951, ending the Lopez trade tree.
Pete Coscarart – The starting second baseman, he hit .264, with 89 runs scored in 139 games in 1944. He had a similar season in 1945, but was out of the majors by May of 1946 when he was sold to the minors.
Babe Dahlgren – The Pirates acquired Dahlgren prior to 1944 and he went on to have a big season, batting .289 with 101 RBIs, leading the league with 158 games played. He finished 12th in the MVP voting. His numbers dropped off a little in 1945 and the Pirates sold him to the St Louis Browns during the following April.
Bob Elliott – He made his third All-Star appearance in 1944, hitting .297 with 108 RBIs and 85 runs scored. He did just as well in 1945, then saw a slide in his stats in 1946. The Pirates decided to part ways with him and it backfired. He won the MVP award in 1947, and followed that up with three more big seasons. The big return was player-manager Billy Herman, who was a Hall of Fame second baseman, but well past his prime. He was gone after one season, while the others provided very little. Pitcher Elmer Singleton had two mediocre campaigns before being sold to the minors. Infielder Whitey Wietelmann lasted 48 games before his career was done. Outfielder Stan Wentzel was in the minors at the time and never played in the majors again.
Frankie Gustine – He spent ten years in Pittsburgh and 1944 was right in the middle. He batted just .230 in 127 games that year after a solid season in 1943. Gustine played well in 1945 and then made the All-Star team three straight seasons. Before 1949, he was part of a two-for-two swap with the Chicago Cubs. The Pirates got Cliff Chambers and Clyde McCullough. The latter was a backup catcher, who stayed around through 1952 before being traded for cash and a minor leaguer. Chambers threw a no-hitter for the Pirates before being part of the big deal with the St Louis Cardinals in 1951. Those players included Dick Cole, who was part of the deal to acquire Don Hoak, Smoky Burgess and Harvey Haddix. It also had Joe Garagiola and Howie Pollet who were part of the Ralph Kiner deal with the Chicago Cubs in 1953. Also, Ted Wilks, who was part of a big trade with the Cleveland Indians in 1952. You can trace the Gustine trade tree until 1964.
Lee Handley -He hit .221 in 40 games in 1944, then had a strong 1945 season, with a .298 average in 98 games. After seeing his numbers slide in 1946, He was released on April 13, 1947 after a poor showing in Spring Training.
Tony Ordenana – His only big league game happened in 1943. He made the 1944 Pirates out of Spring Training, but was on the bench the entire time until being sold to a minor league team on May 5th.
Al Rubeling – He hit .245 with four homers and 30 RBIs in 92 games, playing second base, third base and both corner outfield spots. He worked in a war plant in 1945, retiring from baseball. He decided to come back in October, then the Pirates sold his rights to Syracuse of the International League. He never played in the majors again, spending seven seasons in the minors before retiring.
Frankie Zak – He hit .300 in 87 games as a rookie in 1944 and made the All-Star team due to a combination of injuries and war travel restrictions. The rest of his career consisted of 36 games with the 1945-46 Pirates. The Pirates lost him in the Rule 5 draft, but he never played in the majors again.
Harry Amato – Amato was still in high school when he signed, attending Spring Training of 1944 at 17 years old. He was getting comparisons to Mel Ott in Spring Training. He was sent to the minors for 1944, entered into the military after he turned 18, then returned to pro ball in 1946, spending four years playing for lower level teams before retiring.
Johnny Barrett – He hit .269 with seven homers and 83 RBIs. Barrett led the NL with 19 triples and 28 steals in 1944. He did just as well in 1945, then started off slow in 1946 and was traded in June for Chuck Workman, who lasted 58 games with the Pirates. He spent the rest of his career in the minors.
Frank Colman – His best big league season was 1944 when he hit .270 with 53 RBIs in 99 games. He was a .233 hitter in 244 games for the 1942-46 Pirates. He was sold mid-1946 to the New York Yankees.
Vince DiMaggio – He had a down year in 1944, hitting .240 with nine homers and 55 RBIs, while leading the league in strikeouts. Before 1945, he was traded for pitcher Al Gerheauser, who played two seasons with the Pirates before being traded for infielder Eddie Basinski, who hit .199 in 56 games for the 1947 Pirates. Basinski was in the minors in 1948 when he was sent to the New York Yankees as compensation for the Pirates acquiring Mel Queen. Since it wasn’t really a trade, that’s the end of this trade tree.
Tommy O’Brien – He was a backup outfielder in 1944, who hit .250 in 85 games. He saw limited time in 1945, spent 1946 in the minors, then was sold to the St Louis Cardinals in December of 1946.
Jim Russell – He batted .312 with eight homers, 66 RBIs and 79 walks in 152 games in 1944. He was a solid player over the next three seasons before bringing back the most important piece in a trade. The actual player part of the deal didn’t work out well, but Russell was one of three players traded for Danny Murtaugh and Johnny Hopp in 1947. Hopp’s line with the Pirates ends in 1950 when he was sold to the New York Yankees. Murtaugh stayed around for a long time and led the Pirates to two World Series titles.
The Best of the 1944 Bunch
According to Baseball-Reference, these are the WAR leaders for the 1944 Pirates among the 30 players above:
Rip Sewell 6.3
Jim Russell 5.0
Johnny Barrett 4.5
Bob Elliott 4.4
Max Butcher 3.5
Preacher Roe 2.7
Nick Strincevich 2.4
Babe Dahlgren 2.2
Pete Coscarart 1.0
Frank Colman 1.0
What Remained Three Years Later
By spring of 1947, everyone was back from the war and it was the first full year that rosters were back to normal. That didn’t last long with players being lost to the Korean War a few years later, but 1947 is a good cutoff point. If you were only in the majors due to all of the player losses in 1944-45, you were probably done by 1947. Out of the 30 players above, here is the list of players who suited up for the 1947 Pirates.
Frankie Gustine, Jim Russell, Preacher Roe, Rip Sewell, Nick Strincevich
That’s quite a turn over during a short period of time. Only 16.7% of the roster remained. Just two batters and three starting pitchers. In 1949, five years later, the 42-year-old Rip Sewell, hanging in for one final season, was the last remaining piece from the 1944 squad.