This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: January 1st, Hall of Fame First Baseman Hank Greenberg

Three former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date, plus a manager with an interesting footnote.

Hank Greenberg, Hall of Fame first baseman for the 1947 Pirates. He missed nearly five seasons due to World War II, but the 35-year-old Greenberg still led the American League with 44 homers and 127 RBIs his first full season back in baseball in 1946. The Pirates purchased him from the Detroit Tigers for $75,000 in January of 1947 and then signed him to a $100,000 contract, the first NL player to make six figures in a season. The addition of Greenberg gave the Pirates a potent 1-2 punch in the middle of their lineup when combined with Ralph Kiner, who was the NL leader in homers in 1946. The Pirates adjusted the left field fence at Forbes Field to accommodate their two sluggers, bringing it in 30 feet and calling the new home run territory Greenberg Gardens, later renamed Kiner’s Korner. Greenberg didn’t have a big season in Pittsburgh, hitting a career low .249 with 25 homers and 74 RBIs, although he did walk 104 times. His biggest contribution to the Pirates that year was his tutelage of Kiner, making the young player a better hitter by teaching him to pull the ball more to take advantage of the shorter distance in left field, and he also made him take extra batting practice. The move may not have paid off in the standings as the Pirates finished in seventh place with a disappointing 62-92 record, but they did get their money back on Greenberg with an increase of over 500,000 fans from the previous season. The broke the one-million mark in attendance for the first time in team history.

Greenberg retired following the season due to lingering injuries, but he still had some remarkable career stats to his credit. He played just nine full seasons and four partial years but he was still able to hit 331 homers and drive in 1,276 runs with a .313 career average. Besides the missed time due to the war, he also missed nearly the entire 1936 season, in the middle of his prime, due to a wrist injury. His career OPS of 1.017 ranks seventh all-time. He led the AL four times in home runs including an amazing 58 in 1938, just two off the big league record at the time. He drove in 184 runs in 1937, the third highest single season total ever. Two years prior he drove in 168 runs, the ninth highest total ever. He was the AL MVP in 1935 and 1940, while also finishing third in the voting twice. Despite the great stats over a short time it still took until 1956 for him to get elected to the Hall of Fame, even though he first appeared on the ballot in 1949 (He also received votes in 1945 before he came back from the war). Greenberg debuted in pro ball in 1930 and made it to the majors that first season, though he received just one September at-bat from the Tigers. He didn’t reappear in the majors until 1933, after hitting 39 homers for Beaumont of the Texas League in 1932. He batted .301 as a rookie in 1933, which ended up being his lowest full-season batting average until the year before he joined the Pirates.

Bob Owchinko, pitcher for the 1983 Pirates. The Pirates originally acquired him in December 1980 from the Cleveland Indians in the Bert Blyleven/ Manny Sanguillen trade. Owchinko had five years of big league experience at the time, including three seasons as a regular in the starting rotation for the San Diego Padres. He was a first round draft pick in 1976 by the Padres, taken fifth overall. He went directly to Double-A and made 13 starts, then San Diego gave him two late season big league starts, just three months after he was drafted. In three full seasons (and two games in 1976) with the Padres, he went 25-39, 4.00 in 526 innings. Owchinko was traded to Cleveland in mid-February of 1980, so his total time there was less than a full year. In his only season in Cleveland, he went 2-9, 5.27 in 14 starts and 15 relief appearances, throwing a total of 114.1 innings. Before Owchinko could play a regular season game for the Pirates, they shipped him to the Oakland A’s in exchange for pitcher Ernie Camacho. He was released by the A’s just prior to the start of the 1983 season and the Pirates signed him one month later. He spent the season in Triple-A,  before getting called up in September. On September 5th he came in during the ninth inning of the second game of a doubleheader with the Pirates up 6-5 and gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, Andy Van Slyke. The next batter doubled, then Owchinko was pulled and he didn’t pitch for the Pirates again, despite remaining with the club through the end of the season 27 days later.

In November of 1983, Owchinko was lost on waivers to the Cincinnati Reds. He put up a 4.12 ERA in 94 innings over 49 appearances in 1984, then spent all of 1985 in Triple-A, splitting time between the A’s and Chicago White Sox organizations. Owchinko signed with the Montreal Expos in 1986 and made his final three big league appearances at the end of the season, getting three starts. That also ended his pro career. He pitched a total of ten years in the majors, going 37-60, 4.28 in 104 starts and 171 relief appearances.

Gary Wilson, pitcher for the 1995 Pirates. He was an 18th round draft pick by the Pirates in 1992 out of Cal State. Four years earlier, the New York Mets took him in the 35th round out of Arcata HS in California. Wilson split the 1992 season between Welland of the New York-Penn League and Low-A Augusta, posting a combined 2.36 ERA in 84 innings. He split the 1993 season between Low-A and High-A, while splitting his time between starting (21 starts) and relief (14 appearances) He struggled, posting a 5.64 ERA in 129.1 innings. In 1994, Wilson went 11-6, 2.82 in 28 minor league starts between High-A and Double-A. Wilson had quite the rise through the season over the course of 12 months. He was in high-A ball at the beginning of the 1994 season and jumped to the majors at the start of the 1995 season. He had an 0-1, 5.02 record in 14.1 innings over ten relief appearances for the Pirates before being sent back to the minors for good in mid-June. He was with the Pirates originally through May 17th when he was sent to Triple-A to make room for Rick White, who was coming off of the disabled list. On June 1st, Wilson was recalled when Jim Gott went on the disabled list. When Gott was activated after 15 days, Wilson returned to the minors. At 25 years old, that ended up being his last big league shot. The Pirates lost all ten games he appeared in during his brief MLB time. Wilson stayed in the Pittsburgh system until late 1998, before finishing his pro career with the Minnesota Twins in Triple-A later that season. He had a 5.08 ERA in 1996 in Triple-A, then saw it drop to 5.87 in 1997, while also seeing a brief demotion to Double-A. With Triple-A Nashville in 1998, he lost his starting role and had a 5.98 ERA in 58.2 innings before moving on to the Twins.

Bill McGunnigle, manager the Pirates during the second half of the 1891 season, going 24-33 with two ties. He had previously managed the Brooklyn Bridegrooms from 1888-90, winning the American Association pennant in 1889, then when Brooklyn moved to the NL for the 1890 season, he won a second consecutive title. Despite that success, he had just two more seasons of managing left in him. His first was in 1891 with the Pirates and then 1896 with the Louisville Colonels. McGunnigle pitched two seasons in the majors (1879-80) and played outfield when he wasn’t on the mound, also getting into one big league game in 1882. He has an interesting footnote in Pirates history that not many people know.

During the 1891 season, most sources say that the Pirates switched names from the Alleghenys to the current Pirates name. That isn’t quite true, as there was never any official name change back then and “Alleghenys” was still used over the next few years. It’s true that 1891 was the first time that the club was called “Pirates”, but that was far from official and mostly done by a few outside sources, such as the press in Cincinnati and Boston, and some unhappy baseball people in Philadelphia. The team name from the local press never really changed until Pirates was fully embraced in 1895. They were still called the Alleghenys in early 1891, sometimes referred to as the Pittsburgs or the Hanlon’s after manager Ned Hanlon. That changed when McGunnigle took over. He used to run practices with a whistle and the team was quickly referred to as the “Pets”, as in McGunnigle’s pets. It was used daily in headlines and stories by the Pittsburgh media for the second half of the season and into the off-season, before he was replaced at the helm by Al Buckenberger for the 1892 season.