This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: Hal Smith and the Giant Gee

Eight former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date, plus we also have a trade of note.

The Trade

On this date in 1946 the Pittsburgh Pirates traded catcher Al Lopez to the Cleveland Indians for outfielder Gene Woodling. Lopez had a Hall of Fame career as a manager but he was also a fine player for 19 seasons, including seven in Pittsburgh. Woodling lasted just 22 games for the Pirates, but played another 14 seasons in the majors. Lopez only played 61 big league games after the trade. While the Pirates got the better return, almost all of that value came after he left Pittsburgh. We posted an in depth article about Woodling’s time in Pittsburgh here.

The Players

Steve Baron, catcher for the 2019 Pirates. He was a first round draft pick in 2009 by the Seattle Mariners, taken 33rd overall at 18 years old out of high school. Baron was known for his defense, but his bat never came around in the minors. He made his big league debut in September of 2015 with the Mariners, going 0-for-11 in four games. He remained in the Mariners’ system through the end of 2017 without getting another big league trial, then signed as a free agent with the St Louis Cardinals. He got called up in May and collected his first MLB base hit on May 19th before being sent down. Baron signed with the Pirates as a minor league free agent in January of 2019 and he was rewarded for his play in Triple-A with a September call up. He went 2-for-10 in seven games, with his first double and first RBI. He spent the 2020 season with the Cleveland Indians, though he didn’t get into any big league games.

Bo Belinsky, pitcher for the 1969 Pirates. Belinsky was originally signed by the Pirates in 1956, but didn’t play for the team until 13 years later. In three starts and five relief appearances for the 1969 Pirates, he went 0-3, 4.58 in 17.2 innings. Belinsky gained instant fame by throwing a no-hitter as a rookie in 1962, then built on that by dating famous actresses and appearing in TV roles. His baseball career was considered a disappointment though. After a 7-2 start to his career, he went 21-49 over eight seasons. The Pirates signed him as an amateur in May of 1956 and he pitched poorly during his only season in their system. He actually quit mid-season, then got sold to the Baltimore Orioles. He was in the minors until 1962. The Los Angeles Angels took him in the Rule 5 draft after their first season in existence and they had room in their rotation to give him a starting role. Belinsky was an immediate success in 1962, starting off with a 5-0, 1.72 record, including his May 5th no-hitter in his fourth career start. Over the rest of the season, he went 5-11, 4.00 in 150.2 innings, with 110 strikeouts and 102 walks. His second season saw him go 2-9. 5.75, but he bounced back in 1964 to go 9-8, 2.86 in 135.1 innings. After the 1964 season he moved around a lot, going to the Philadelphia Phillies, Houston Astros, St Louis Cardinals, back to the Angels, before being purchased by the Pirates on July 30, 1969. He pitched fine in his relief appearances, allowing two runs over nine innings, but he lost all three starts and lasted a total of 8.2 innings in those outings. In February of 1970, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for Dennis Ribant. Belinsky lasted eight innings with the Reds before finishing his baseball career later that season in the minors.

Don Cardwell, pitcher for the Pirates from 1963 to 1966. The Pirates acquired him from the St Louis Cardinals as the main return in the four-player Dick Groat trade following the 1962 season. He went 33-33, 3.38 in his four seasons with the Pirates, including a 13-10, 3.18 mark in 1965 when he threw 240 innings. He had a lower ERA in 1963 (3.07), but he finished with a 13-15 record. He was injured for most of the 1964 season and saw more time in 1966 as a reliever. Cardwell pitched for some poor teams during his 14-year career, which led to a 102-138 lifetime record, despite a career total of 16.9 WAR. He seemed to pitch in tough luck a lot, such as 1968 for the New York Mets, when he had a 2.95 ERA in 180 innings, but it came with a 7-13 record. The next year when the Mets won 100 games and the World Series, he had a 3.01 ERA and an 8-10 record. Fellow starter Gary Gentry had a winning record with a 3.43 ERA, as did Nolan Ryan with a 3.53 ERA. Cardwell’s winning season with the Pirates in 1965 was one of just two in his career, and his other one came for a very bad 1961 Chicago Cubs squad. He was 15-14, 3.82 in 259.1 innings that season. His team finished 64-90, despite four future Hall of Famers as regulars in the lineup.

When the Pirates traded Cardwell to the Mets on December 6, 1966, they brought back pitcher Dennis Ribant as part of that two-for-two swap. You might remember Ribant from the previous bio as the return for Bo Belinsky. In between those two trades, the Pirates sent Ribant to the Detroit Tigers in a 1967 trade. The Pirates acquired Cardwell from the Cardinals, but he actually never played for St Louis. He was traded by the Cubs in a six-player deal to the Cardinals on October 17, 1962. The Pirates-Cardinals trade then happened 33 days later.

Hal Smith, catcher for the 1960-61 Pirates. Smith came to the Pirates in a trade with the Kansas City A’s. He had a decent bat, but defensively he had his problems. He led the league in errors, passed balls and stolen bases allowed in 1957 alone. With the Pirates, Smith hit .264 with 14 homers and 71 RBIs in 144 games. In the 1960 World Series, he went 3-for-8, including the three-run homer he hit in the eighth inning of game seven, helping to set up Bill Mazeroski’s famous home run. Smith was signed by the New York Yankees in 1949 at 19 years old. He didn’t debut in the majors until April of 1955, five months after he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in a 17-player deal (yes, 17 players in one trade). Smith played 1 1/2 seasons in Baltimore, then got traded to the Kansas City A’s in August of 1956. He spent three full years with the A’s, hitting .287 with 25 homers and 142 RBIs in 351 games. In December of 1959, the Pirates traded Hank Foiles, Dick Hall and Ken Gables to the A’s for Smith.

As a platoon catcher in 1960 with Smoky Burgess, Smith hit .295 with 11 homers and 45 RBIs in 77 games. His stats really dropped off in 1961, hitting .223 with three homers in 67 games. After the season, he was lost to the Houston Colt .45s in the expansion draft. He played three more seasons in the majors, finishing up with the 1964 Cincinnati Reds. Smith hit .267 with 58 homers and 323 RBIs in 879 games. There have been three players named Hal Smith in MLB history and all three played for the Pirates. One was a catcher in 1965, the other a pitcher in 1932-35. Smith’s nephew is Tim Flannery, who played 11 years in the majors, all with the San Diego Padres.

Vinnie Smith, catcher for the 1941 and 1946 Pirates. He was one of many players from that era who had his career cut short due to service during WWII. Smith also missed significant time when he returned due to injuries. His big league career consisted of his two seasons with the Pirates. He played 16 games total in Pittsburgh, hitting .259 with five RBIs. Smith went on to become an MLB umpire after his playing days ended in 1953 and he was part of a famous game in Pirates history. He was the home plate umpire during Harvey Haddix’s 12-inning perfect game. Smith debuted in pro ball in 1938, playing two seasons for Greenville of the Coastal Plain League. He moved up to Memphis of the Southern Association in 1940 and spent two seasons there. The 1941 season was his first big year at the plate. He hit .282 in 85 games. The Pirates acquired him on September 6, 1941 for cash and a player to be named later, which turned out to be seldom-used catcher Joe Schultz. Smith joined the Pirates on September 9th and debuted the following day. He ended up hitting .303 with five RBIs in nine games, all as a starter. Six of his starts came during doubleheaders. In January of 1942, he joined the Navy and remained there through mid-December of 1945. Some players in the service during that time entertained the troops through playing baseball and according to Smith, he caught approximately 500 games during his time in the service. Bob Feller called him the best catcher serving in the military during WWII.

Despite that praise from the legendary pitcher, Smith lasted just seven more games in the minors. On April 27, 1946, he suffered a knee injury in a game against the Cincinnati Reds and had to leave early. He ended up having an operation, then required a second operation and he was still receiving treatment on the knee well into the off-season. In January of 1947, he had his third operation on the knee. He didn’t officially join the Pirates again until April 15, 1947, but he was immediately placed on the 60-day disabled list and never played that year. Smith went to Spring Training in 1948 trying to win the #1 catching spot, but on April 12th the Pirates placed him on waivers. The Boston Braves offered him a shot, but he ended up finishing his career in the minors, playing for Richmond of the Piedmont League (1948-50) and Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League (1951-53).

Johnny Gee, pitcher for the Pirates in 1939, 1941 and 1943-44. At 6’9″, he was the tallest player in Major League history until Randy Johnson came along. Gee spent three seasons in the minors with Syracuse, winning 20 games in 1939, before the Pirates purchased his contract on July 31st, with the understanding that he would join them on September 10th, or later if Syracuse made the playoffs. Reports said that the Pirates gave up cash (reportedly $75,000) and three players (some said four players). Gee joined the Pirates on September 13th and debuted four days later. He played three games in the majors that first year, going 1-2, 4.12, including his debut of eight innings and seven unearned runs. He missed the entire 1940 season with arm pain and barely pitched in 1941 and 1942, getting into a combined seven minor league and three big league games. He was suffering from a dead arm during Spring Training in 1940 and was optioned back to Syracuse. He worked out with the team, but never pitched and he was sent home. On July 15th, the Pirates optioned Gee to Albany, though he refused to go, saying that his arm wasn’t better yet.

Gee was back in 1941, though he pitched a total of 13.1 innings between the Pirates and the minors. In January of 1941 he reported that his arm felt better, but that didn’t last long. The Pirates again had an issue with him refusing an optional assignment, this time it was in July (1941) to Dallas of the Texas League. This time Gee agreed to go to Albany, the team he refused to go to the previous year. All of his big league appearances came in September that year. In 1942, he was optioned to Toronto before Spring Training and lasted there a short time before he had to be moved to a different club. For the third year in a row, Gee refused a minor league assignment (this time Atlanta) and he decided to retire instead, though he was back by early 1943. Gee missed the first two months of the 1943 season, but ended up pitching a career high 15 games for the Pirates, going 4-4, 4.28 in 82 innings. He pitched poorly for the Pirates in May of 1944, posting a 7.15 ERA in four games before they sold him on June 12th to the New York Giants, where he went 2-4 in 19 games over three seasons. He pro career was basically over at that point. He pitched six minor league games in 1951, five years after his final big league game. His total record with the Pirates was 5-8, 4.64 in 15 starts and ten relief appearances.

Tony Piet, second baseman for the 1931-33 Pirates. In 305 games for the Pirates, Piet hit .298 with 151 RBIs and 41 stolen bases. After leaving Pittsburgh, his numbers fell off dramatically, finishing with a .277 average five years later. He also spent time in the majors with the Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers. Piet split his time between second base and third base after leaving Pittsburgh. In 1932, he led the league with 154 games played. He began his pro career in 1928 at 21 years old and the Pirates purchased his contract on September 12, 1930 while he was playing for Waco of the Texas League. Three days earlier, Piet was purchased by Fort Worth of the Texas League for $5,000. They received $7,500 from the Pirates, making a quick $2,500 on their pricey purchase. Piet hit .319 with 63 extra-base hits in 150 games for Waco in 1930.

He reported to the Pirates during the following spring and on April 9th (five days before the season opener) he was sent to Wichita of the Western League, where he hit .336 with 55 extra-base hits in 105 games. He was recalled on August 13th and hit .299 with 16 extra-base hits and ten stolen bases in 44 games. Piet hit .282 and drove in 85 runs during the 1932 season, then he batted .323 in 107 games the next season. He had just two at-bats over the final five weeks of the season because he was having defensive issues at second base, so it’s no surprise what happened next. On November 17, 1933, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds along with outfielder Adam Comorosky, for pitcher Red Lucas and outfielder Wally Roettger. Piet immediately slumped with the Reds and he was gone by early 1935. He played three seasons for the White Sox and posted a .739 OPS in 286 games. He finished his MLB career with the Tigers in 1938. According to newspapers from the day, his real name was Anthony Francis Pietruszka.

Bobby Schang, catcher for the 1914-15 Pirates. He wasn’t much of a hitter during his time in Pittsburgh, batting .194 with five RBIs over 67 games. Schang spent most of his 16-year pro career in the minors. He had a long stretch between major appearances that is worth noting. The Pirates sold him to the New York Giants near the end of the 1915 season. After appearing in a few games for the Giants that season, he went to the minors and didn’t return to the big leagues until a three-game stint with the 1927 Cardinals. He played one more season in the minors before retiring.  Schang began his career in 1912, playing for a team in Erie, PA. He split the 1913 season between Erie of the Interstate League and St Joseph of the Western League. Schang was playing for St Joseph in 1914 before debuting with the Pirates on September 23rd. In 124 games, he had 30 extra-base hits, 25 steals and 61 walks, to go along with a .283 batting average. He was purchased by the Pirates on July 24th from St Joseph and allowed to stay with his team.

A big headline from a local Pittsburgh paper read “Pirates Get George Schang”. His name was Robert Martin Schang, so it’s a bit strange to see that headline. On September 13th, the papers said he was on his way to Pittsburgh, only to find out the next day that St Joe’s refused to give him up until their season ended because they were battling for the title. He finally showed up on the 21st and got into a game two days later. Schang batted .229 with a double and triple in 11 games for the Pirates over the final two weeks of the season. In 1915, he was the starter for much of May, then saw more of a platoon role through mid-August when he dropped down to a .184 average. Exactly one week after his final Pirates game, Schang was purchased by the New York Giants. Exactly one week after that, he played his first game for the Giants. His brother Wally Schang was a catcher for 19 seasons in the majors

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