On Saturday May 25, 1901, the Pittsburgh Pirates took on the Boston Beaneaters at South End Grounds. Boston sent out veteran Kid Nichols, who was one year removed from winning his 300th game, becoming the youngest pitcher ever to reach that mark. The Pirates were sending Sam Leever to the mound, who at 30 years old at the time, was just one year younger than Nichols and he had just 42 big league wins to his credit. Their two careers would go in opposite directions and this game was an indication of things to come for the two all-time pitching greats. One was just getting things started, while the other had his best days behind him.
The 1901 Pirates won the first NL pennant in team history. Back before the modern World Series started, this team was considered to be the champions of baseball. However, this was still early in the season and they were off to a 13-12 start. Boston was having their troubles, though at 10-12, the two teams were still very close in the standings. The Beaneaters probably felt good on this day because they had their ace on the mound.
The Pirates lineup that day had Hall of Famers Fred Clarke and Honus Wagner batting 3-4 in the lineup. This was back when Wagner mostly played outfield. He was stationed in right field that day, with Clarke in his normal left field spot and Ginger Beaumont playing center field. Beaumont did a great job getting on base ahead of the two star hitters. In 1902, he started a string of three straight seasons in which he led the NL in hits. He wasn’t far from that peak in 1901, batting .332 in 133 games.
The Boston lineup included Hall of Fame speedster Billy Hamilton at the top. The original Billy Hamilton set a career stolen base record that stood until it was topped by Lou Brock. No one has topped his runs scored record set in 1894. In 132 games, he scored 198 runs. He did that by batting .403, leading the league in walks (128), stolen bases (100) and he collected 44 extra-base hits. That was a huge year for offense all around baseball, but he personally took it to another level. Boston’s lineup also had long-time Pirates outfielder Elmer Smith (he’s listed as “Mike Smith”, but 99.99% of old references called him Elmer, which is his real name). They had Herman Long at shortstop, one of the underappreciated stars of that position and a top 100 defensive player all-time. They also had Fred Tenney, who put together a 17-year career with a .294 average, and Gene DeMontreville, who was a .303 career hitter in 11 big league seasons.
The game was played on a cold day, with rain threatening all game, which was something that affected the thinking mid-game for the Pirates. The announced crowd was 1,000, but the game report from Boston made it sound like far fewer were actually in attendance. The umpire for the day was Hank O’Day (yes, only one umpire at the time). He once pitched for Pittsburgh, back when they were in the American Association. He’s also a Hall of Famer, making it a total of five Cooperstown inductees on the field that day. The Pirates batted lead-off, which wasn’t always the case back then when teams were on the road. Often during this era, the home team would choose to bat in the top of the inning.
There isn’t a full play-by-play available for this game, but we do have all of the important information thanks to multiple game summaries available from the era. The Pirates got things started in the first with a one-out single to left field by Beaumont. A wild pitch from Nichols allowed him to move up two bases. A long at-bat from Fred Clarke resulted in a single and an early 1-0 lead. Honus Wagner followed with a single and Kitty Bransfield reached on an error, loading the bases. The Pirates nearly piled on runs early, as Herman Long made what was described as a sensational catch on a ball off of the bat of Claude Ritchey for the second out. The next batter was catcher Jack O’Connor and he hit two balls down the line that cleared the outfield fence, but both were long foul balls. The Pirates got their second run when O’Connor eventually worked a walk, but they failed to break this game open in the first. With the bases still loaded, Bones Ely grounded out to third base to end the inning.
Boston came right back with a run in the bottom of the frame. Billy Hamilton drew a lead-off walk and then moved to second on a grounder by Fred Tenney. A grounder to third base by Gene DeMontreville was booted by Tommy Leach, putting runners on the corners. Herman Long hit one back to the mound and Hamilton was caught between third base and home. A rundown ensued and Hamilton was out at the plate, but on the play DeMontreville went for third base and first baseman Kitty Bransfield made a wild throw trying to catch him, which allowed DeMontreville to scamper home.
It was 2-1 going into the second, but the score would change quickly. As one Boston paper put it, “the Pirates had some fun in the second”. The first three batters of the inning reached base, with singles by Leever and Leach, followed by a walk to Beaumont. The Pirates had their second chance to break the game open, with their two best hitters up, the bases full, and no outs. Clarke came through with a two-run single, then Wagner fouled out with a man on third. Beaumont would come home on a sacrifice fly by Bransfield, which made it a 5-1 games.
This game was all offense early, though each team had a chance to add more and they didn’t take advantage. Leever retired the first two batters in the bottom of the second, then loaded the bases on three straight singles by eighth place hitter Pat Moran, pitcher Kid Nichols (who was hitting .353 at the time) and Hamilton. Fred Tenney grounded out to third base, much to the disappointment of the few local fans in attendance.
The Pirates continued their hitting in the third. Jack O’Connor missed hitting a home run by a few feet for the third time in this game when he doubled high off of the left field fence. A sacrifice by Bones Ely set up Leever for an RBI single to make it 6-1. Could you imagine the eighth place hitter sacrificing now to get to the pitcher? Yet somehow it worked back then on this day. Leever moved to third base on a passed ball and an out by Leach. Beaumont walked again, then Clarke singled home Leever for the second run of the inning. Wagner couldn’t extend the lead and the Pirates went to the bottom of the third up 7-1.
Leever was once again in trouble in the third, putting two men on with one out. He took care of that however, by inducing a 6-4-3 inning-ending double play.
I mentioned the threatening rain and the Boston papers noted that the Pirates seemed to try to get quick outs as they held on to a big lead, hoping to get through five frames so the game was official. That happened often back then, but almost just as often you would read that the other team would try to delay the game long enough that the rain would come and they would be saved from a loss. That apparently didn’t happen on this day, as this game moved quickly for a contest that had a lot of offense early.
The middle part of this game was quiet for both sides. Leever pitched well and Nichols settled in after three innings. The game went to the eighth with the same 7-1 score.
In the eighth, the Pirates once again put it on Nichols. Leever got things started with a single. Leach grounded to third baseman Daff Gammons, who booted the ball. As a side note, this game was the only MLB game at third base for Gammons and the Boston papers noted that “he made a failure of it”. The Pirates loaded the bases on a bunt single from Beaumont. A ground out by Clarke scored Leever, then Wagner singled home Beaumont. Clarke would score one batter later on an out by Bransfield, making it a 10-1 game. The Pirates added a run in the ninth when O’Connor walked, then scored one batter later on a double by Bones Ely. Leever finished things off in the ninth for the 11-1 win, with the game played in one hour and 50 minutes.
Leever allowed just six hits and two walks, so obviously a lot of those runners came early in the game. Half of the hits he allowed were consecutive in the second inning. The only run he allowed was unearned. The Pirates didn’t exactly give him great support in the field, with all four infielders committing their own error. Leever not only pitched well, he collected three hits, scored three times and drove in a run.
After this game, Leever won another 151 games in his big league career. Nichols still had some future success, this was just a bad day for him against a great team, but he couldn’t keep up his amazing early career pace. He went 49-36 during the rest of his career. That was coming from a guy who had seven seasons with 30-35 wins each year.
Fred Clarke had the big game on offense, going 3-for-5 with two runs and four RBIs. He was batting .368 at the end of the day. Wagner had three hits and two RBIs.
One interesting note here is that the original boxscore has a hit for Bransfield and specifically mentions that Claude Ritchey was the only man without a hit. They also credited the Pirates with 15 hits. However, modern boxscores give them 14 hits and nothing for Bransfield. How or why he lost a hit is a mystery to me.
Here’s the boxscore, courtesy of Retrosheet.org