This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: December 26th, Jeff King and Mario Mendoza

Five former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date, plus one trade of note.

The Trade

On this date in 1953 the Pittsburgh Pirates traded infielder Danny O’Connell to the Milwaukee Braves in exchange for six players and $100,000 cash. O’Connell had a strong season for the Pirates in 1953, hitting .294 with 57 walks and 88 runs scored. He was 26 years old at the time of the trade and had played just one prior season in the majors (1950) due to serving two years in the military. This deal, along with another trade a month later that included $70,000 cash and the departure of Murry Dickson, who was one of the higher paid players on the team, gave the team financial flexibility that they wouldn’t have had due to very poor attendance in the early-to-mid 50’s. It was done as much for the cash aspect as it was done for the players in return, despite the fact they received six players back. As it turned out, O’Connell had his best seasons with the Pirates. In four years in Milwaukee, he was a .248 hitter with 127 RBIs in 457 games, so the deal turned out to be a good one for the Pirates even if the players they received weren’t that good.

The best player they got back was Sid Gordon, a veteran OF/3B, who had a better year in 1954 with the Pirates than O’Connell had in any year. Gordon hit .306 with 12 homers and 67 walks in 131 games during his one season in Pittsburgh. He was sold the following season to the New York Giants. Max Surkont was the second most valuable player in the deal and the Pirates got two years of starting pitching out of him. He was just 16-32, but the team was barely any better when he didn’t pitch. Curt Raydon was a 20-year-old minor league pitcher at the time of the trade. It took him until 1958 to reach Pittsburgh and he played just one year in the majors due to arm injuries derailing his career. Another pitcher named Fred Waters pitched well for the Pirates in 25 games between 1955-56, but he was on the older side at the time and he finished his career six years later in the minors. The two other returns were veteran Sam Jethroe, who played just two games for the Pirates in 1954, and Larry LaSalle, a minor league pitcher who retired after the 1954 season.

The Players

Jeff King, third baseman for the Pirates from 1989 to 1996. King was the first overall pick in the 1986 amateur draft by the Pirates out of the University of Arkansas. The Chicago Cubs drafted him in the 23rd round three years earlier, but he decided to attend college instead. King signed with the Pirates five weeks after the draft and he went right to Low-A ball, where he had a .752 OPS in 37 games. He had 28 homers and 86 RBIs in 116 games during his first full season in pro ball, making it to Double-A for a month. The Pirates had him spend the entire 1988 season in Double-A and he did so with mediocre results, posting a .732 OPS in 117 games. He didn’t do any better in Triple-A in 1989, but the Pirates jumped him to the majors in June and he looked over-matched, hitting .195 with five homers in 75 games. They still stuck with him in 1990 and he had a low average/OBP, with a little bit of power mixed in. The Pirates won the pennant that year and he went 1-for-10 in the playoffs, with a single, walk and five strikeouts. In 1991, King was limited to 33 big league games and nine games in Triple-A due to a back injury.  He served in a utility role in 1992, playing five different positions, while batting .231 with 14 homers in 130 games.

King struggled during his first four seasons in the majors (1.4 WAR total), then hit .295 with 35 doubles, 98 RBIs and 82 runs scored in 1993, while playing a career high 158 games. The following season he regressed due to the back problems that he suffered from most of his career. Those problems seemed to take a toll on him during the middle of that strike-shortened 1994 season when he hit just .263 with five homers in 94 games. He drove in 87 runs in 122 games for the Pirates in 1995, then set career highs with 30 homers, 111 RBIs, 91 runs scored and 36 doubles in 1996 for a team that finished 73-89. King was traded to the Kansas City Royals along with Jay Bell in December 1996 for four players. In three seasons with the Royals, he hit .249 with 55 homers and 216 RBIs in 307 games. He retired in early 1999 due to losing passion for playing the game. His .781 OPS in Kansas City was 44 points higher than during his time in Pittsburgh. His final stats with the Pirates over eight seasons showed a .258 average, 99 homers and 493 RBIs in 894 games. Third base was his primary position in Pittsburgh, but he also saw plenty of time at first base and second base. King batted .205 with two RBIs in 12 playoff games for the Pirates, seeing action in both 1990 and 1992. He did not play during the 1991 playoffs.

Mario Mendoza, shortstop for the Pirates from 1974 to 1978. Mendoza was signed as an amateur free agent in 1970 out of Mexico and he slowly worked his way through the minors, earning promotions based more on his defense than his hitting. He is still often referenced to this day due to his poor hitting skills, when someone who has a batting average hovering near .200 is said to be near the Mendoza line. He hit below .200 in three of his five seasons in Pittsburgh, and five times overall in his nine-year career. His best season with the Pirates was actually his rookie year when he hit .221 in 91 games. In was the only time in his five seasons in Pittsburgh he batted over 100 times. He played 324 total games with the Pirates, coming to the plate just 478 times, which resulted in a .204 average. He was traded to the Seattle Mariners in December of 1978 in a six-player deal that brought Enrique Romo to the Pirates. Mendoza played regularly in Seattle over two seasons, seeing nearly half of his career at-bats in the majors. During the 1980 season, he hit a career high .245 and belted half of his career homers (he hit two this year). After the season, he was involved in a huge trade with the Texas Rangers that included a total of 11 players. It turned out to be an unfortunate trade for Mendoza. He went from playing regularly, to playing 100 games over two seasons in Texas. That would be his final season in the majors. He went to Mexico and played until he was 39 years old in 1990. Since retiring as a player, he has managed for 20 seasons between the minors and Mexico. In his MLB career, he hit .215 in 686 games, with 106 runs scored and 101 RBIs.

Lee King, outfielder for the 1916-18 Pirates. The Pirates first noticed King in late 1915 when he had three hits against them in an exhibition game, while showing off impressive speed and an even better arm. King joined the Pirates in late 1916 after hitting .315 over 125 games for Wheeling of the Central League. He was selected by Pittsburgh in the Rule 5 draft on September 15th. He reported to the Pirates three days later and played his first game on September 20th. He went 2-for-18 with seven strikeouts in eight games during that first trial, then gained a regular spot on the 1917 club during the following spring. King hit .249 with 35 RBIs and 32 runs scored in 111 games that season. He spent most of his time in right field, as the Pirates finished with a 51-103 record. In 1918, King batted .232 with 11 RBIs before deciding to leave the team on June 20th to enlist in the military to aid the fight in WWI. The war was over shortly thereafter and in January of 1919, he was sold to the New York Giants. He ended up playing in the majors until 1922 and then retired from minor league ball four years later. He played for New York each year from 1919 through 1922, but he spent parts of 1921 and 1922 with the Philadelphia Phillies. There were two players named Lee King who debuted in the majors in 1916 and both of them had the actual first name Edward, with the same full name, Edward Lee King. The other one was a utility man for the Philadelphia A’s in 1916, then played very briefly for the 1919 Boston Braves. When he joined the Pirates, King told the local reporters the story of how he was lucky to be alive. He was supposed to be working in the Monongah mine shafts on December 6, 1907 at 14 years old, but on the way to work he saw a frozen pond and decided to ice skate. An explosion occurred at the mine that killed 362+ people, with just five survivors. King actually worked in the mines after the explosion and prior to signing to play pro ball.

Bonnie Hollingsworth, pitcher for the 1922 Pirates. The Pirates signed him with very little pro experience. He played one season for LaGrange in the Georgia-Alabama League prior to WWI, then spent the 1919-20 seasons playing for independent teams in Tennessee. The Pirates signed him on February 16, 1921 and brought him to Spring Training a month later. He was with the Pirates for the first eight games of the 1921 season, before being shipped to Wichita Falls of the Texas League on April 22nd.  After going 21-11, 2.56 in 41 games for Wichita Falls, Hollingsworth went to Spring Training with the 1922 Pirates looking to earn a spot. He made the Opening Day roster, but didn’t make his first appearance until the end of May. He ended up being used only in a mop-up role through mid-July, posting a 7.90 ERA in 13.2 innings. The Pirates lost all nine games in which they used him. On July 18th, he was traded to Minneapolis of the American Association for outfielder Reb Russell. Hollingsworth ended up playing for the Washington Senators in 1923, then briefly with the Brooklyn Robins in 1924. After spending three years in the minors, he resurfaced one last time to pitch for the 1928 Boston Braves. He finished his big league career going 4-9, 4.91 in 117.1 innings over 36 games (11 as a starter). His real name was John, which he went by with the Pirates, but he was often referred to as “Bonnie” in the minors. He pitched a total of ten seasons in the minors and won 114 games before retiring following the 1930 season.

Al Jackson, pitcher for the Pirates in 1959 and 1961. Jackson was signed by the Pirates as an amateur free agent in 1955 at 19 years old, and he got to pitch in his hometown of Waco, Texas for the Waco Pirates during that first season. He was loaned to the Mexican League in 1956 and then he pitched just eight games in 1957, but he would break out the next year in A-ball. Jackson went 18-9, 2.07 in 1958, then followed that up the next season in Triple-A with a 15-4, 2.33 record. He earned a Major League call-up in early May for one game and allowed four runs on seven hits in three innings in his MLB debut. That was followed by a month-long recall on May 31st, then one more appearance at the end of September. He pitched eight games that 1959 season for the Pirates and had a 6.50 ERA in 18 innings. Jackson spent the entire 1960 season in the minors, despite a strong 3.06 ERA in 197 innings. He pitched well in 1961 back in Triple-A, posting a 2.89 ERA in 196 innings, which earned him a September call-up and three appearances for the Pirates, two as a starter. He won his final game in a Pirates uniform by throwing a complete game in an 11-6 win over the Cincinnati Reds.

On October 10, 1961, Jackson was selected by the New York Mets in the expansion draft. After pitching just 41.2 innings in the majors for the Pirates over a three-year span, he saw regular time with the Mets. In his first season, he went 8-20, 4.40 for a team that lost 120 games. Jackson won 13 games in 1963, then 11 more in 1964, before posting his second 8-20 record with the 1965 Mets. He was traded to the St Louis Cardinals before the 1966 season and pitched in some real bad luck, going 13-15, with a 2.51 ERA. After seeing his innings cut in half in 1967, he went back to the Mets in a trade and stayed there until early 1969. Jackson finished his career with the Reds in 1969, joining them in June after giving up 13 runs over 11 innings with New York. During the 1962-66 seasons, he averaged 220 innings per season, topping the 200 mark each year. He had a 67-99, 3.98 career record in 302 games, 184 as a starter.