Four former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date, including a catcher for two World Series teams and one of the most unlikely All-Stars ever. As a side note, the pitcher listed below hit twice as many big league homers as the three batters combined, with the batters combining for 2,205 more at-bats. We start with a transaction of note.
On this date in 1985, the Pirates signed 18-year-old Orlando Merced as an amateur free agent out of Puerto Rico. He did not show much prospect potential at first, batting .228 in the Gulf Coast League during the 1985 season, followed by a .191 average the next season. That was followed by a season in which he was limited to eight games due to injury. So after three years, he had poor results and basically missed an entire season. Just three years late, Merced was a mid-season call-up during the 1990 season, seeing bench time for the NL East champs that year, then regular work for the second and third straight division titles. Merced was an everyday starter for six seasons in Pittsburgh (1991-96) before he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in a nine-player deal made on November 14, 1996. He ended up playing 13 seasons in the majors. In seven seasons with the Pirates, he hit .283 with 65 homers, 394 RBIs and 396 runs scored in 776 games. He split his playing time fairly evenly between first base and right field during his time with the Pirates.
Roy Spencer, catcher for the Pirates from 1925-27. Spencer signed with the Detroit Tigers when he was 21 in 1921, and he got tryouts with the team over the next two seasons. His pro career opened up in the minors in 1922, spending the year in the Western League. By 1924, he was playing for Birmingham of the Southern Association, where he hit .316 in 107 games. Spencer was sold to the Pirates on September 14, 1924, just days before the Pirates and Birmingham announced that they had an affiliation together. He was the third-string catcher during all three seasons in Pittsburgh, getting just 31 starts over those years, with 22 of them coming during the 1927 season. The Pirates had Earl Smith and Johnny Gooch ahead of him during his time in Pittsburgh. Both were strong hitters who could throw out runners at a decent clip, although by 1927 Smith was beginning the downside of his career. Despite not playing much, Spencer still managed to hit .301 in his 80 games with the Pirates, including a .395 average over 43 at-bats in 1926. The Pirates made the World Series in both 1925 and 1927, winning it all the first year. Spencer had one postseason at-bat, a ground out in game three in 1927. Following that World Series, the Pirates traded him and pitcher Emil Yde to Indianapolis of the American Association. After spending all of 1928 in the minors, Spencer made in back to the majors in 1929 with the Washington Senators and played nine more seasons in the big leagues. He hit just .155 in 50 games during the 1929 season, then raised his average exactly 100 points the following season. That 1930 season was one of the best for offense in baseball history and Spencer’s .618 OPS in 93 games was actually 154 points below league average. In 1931, he got his one chance to start full-time over the course of an entire season and he .275 with 60 RBIs. He saw a dip in his overall numbers in 1932 over 102 games played, then got traded to the Cleveland Indians in the off-season. Spencer hit .203 in 75 games during the 1933 season, then barely played during the first month of 1934. He was sold to the minors, only to return for 19 games with the 1936 New York Giants and 67 games for the 1937-38 Brooklyn Dodgers. His pro career ended in the minors in 1938. In 636 Major League games he was a .247 hitter with three homers and 203 RBIs.
Frankie Zak, shortstop for the 1944-46 Pirates. He began in the minors as a teenager in 1941, spending his first two seasons in Class-D ball. By 1943 he was at the upper level of the minors playing in the International League, where he hit .246 with 22 stolen bases, 101 runs scored and 104 walks. Zak was a Spring Training participant with the Pirates in 1943, getting cut the same day as Ralph Kiner (April 17th). Both were sent to Toronto to play for former Pirate/Hall of Fame pitcher Burleigh Grimes. With help from player losses to the war effort, Zak made the Pirates Opening Day roster in 1944, but didn’t get his first at-bat of the season until the team’s 36th game. Up to that point he had either been used as a pinch-runner or finished the game defensively at shortstop. In his first start he went 2-for-2 at the plate, then followed that up with four hits in six at-bats over the next two days. In fact, the first seven games he started he had at least one hit in each game. After his first hitless game, he went 4-for-4 on June 10th, giving him a .538 average nine starts into his career. Zak’s bat cooled off right away, going 0-for-13 in the next six games, and he hit .196 over the next 24 games. By August 9th he was back on the bench in his defensive replacement/pinch-runner role. In the last 50 games of the season he played 16 times and batted just twice. Luckily for Zak, the All-Star game was in early July in Pittsburgh and he was still batting .350 as late as July 2nd. He made the All-Star team as an injury replacement, although he didn’t play. He was helped by the wartime travel restrictions, which forced the NL to use someone with the Pirates. Zak just happened to be the only middle infielder for the Pirates who remained in Pittsburgh during the break, so he got his All-Star selection. He got some starts at the beginning of the 1945 season, but after going 0-for-4 on April 21st, he didn’t get another at-bat over the next 5 1/2 weeks. On May 29th, he was optioned to Kansas City of the American Association, where he played 104 games before returning to the Pirates in September. Zak made the 1946 Opening Day roster, lasting 21 games before being sent to the minors after going 0-for-2 as the starting shortstop in his final game on June 10th. On June 13th, he was released outright to Kansas City as part of an earlier deal in which the Pirates acquired pitcher Ed Bahr. Zak never returned to the majors, retiring after the 1949 season. He hit .269 in 123 games with the Pirates. He never homered in the majors and hit just two in 2,910 minor league at-bats.
Tom Griffin, pitcher for the 1982 Pirates. He already had 13 seasons in the majors when the Pirates acquired him from the San Francisco Giants on December 11, 1981 in exchange for first baseman Doe Boyland. Griffin bounced between starter and relief his whole career, but in 1981 for the Giants he was a starter the entire year, going 8-8 3.76 in 22 games and 129.1 innings. With the Pirates he started the third game of the season and allowed five runs in six innings. He then pitched out of the pen twice, including a one-inning outing in which he allowed eight hits and five runs. The Pirates moved him back to starter ten days later and got an eight-inning performance out of him in a 10-4 win over the Atlanta Braves. Griffin followed up his good start with back-to-back starts in which he pitched a total of seven innings, allowing 22 base runners and nine runs. Four days later the Pirates released him and his career was over. In his 14-year career, Griffin went 77-94 4.07 in 401 games, 191 as a starter. He was originally a first round pick in 1966, selected fourth overall by the Houston Astros out of Grant HS in California. It took his just three seasons to reach the majors and he had a big rookie year, going 11-10, 3.54 in 31 starts, with three shutouts. In 188.1 innings, he had 200 strikeouts, giving him the best strikeout rate in the NL. He never came close to approaching that strikeout number in the future. Griffin had a sophomore and junior slump, going 3-19 over the two seasons, with a 5.50 ERA. He spent part of 1970 and most of 1971 in the minors. He bounced back in 1973 in a bullpen role, posting a 3.24 ERA. Griffin split 1974 between starting and relief, putting up a 4.15 ERA in 99.2 innings. He started full-time in 1975, going 14-10, 3.54 in 211 innings, setting career highs in wins and innings. He had just 110 strikeouts, his best season after his rookie year. Griffin started off poorly as a reliever in 1976, before the Astros lost him on waivers to the San Diego Padres. In 11 starts with the Padres, he had a 2.94 ERA. After splitting the 1977 season between relief and starting, Griffin signed a free agent deal with the California Angels.He lasted one year there in a swing-man role, putting up a 4.02 ERA in 56 innings. From there it was on to San Francisco, where he had a 3.91 ERA in 59 games and 94.1 innings in 1979, followed by a strong 1980 season, with a 2.76 ERA in 104.2 innings, pitching mostly in long relief. Griffin’s first home run as a batter was an inside-the-park homer at Forbes Field off of Bob Moose.
Bill Baker, catcher for the 1941-43, and 1946 Pirates. He started his pro career in 1931 at 21 years old, and despite the fact he was a catcher who hit over .290 in seven of the next eight seasons, he didn’t make his Major League debut until 1940 with the Cincinnati Reds. Baker played 27 games that rookie season and batted .217, with a .521 OPS. He played just two games off the bench in the first month of the 1941 season before the Pirates purchased his contract from the Reds on May 12th. After starting his first three games while with the Pirates, he took over the backup role and finished with 80 plate appearances, putting up a .224 batting average and zero strikeouts in 35 games. That odd part about that strikeout stat is that he struck out in his only official at-bat while with the Reds that season. In 1942, he was a seldom used third-string catcher behind future Hall of Famer Al Lopez and veteran Babe Phelps. Baker played just 18 games all year (one start) and he went 2-for-17 with no strikeouts. With Phelps gone in 1943, Baker became the backup to Lopez and saw much more time, hitting .273 with 26 RBIs in 63 games. After the season he joined the military and spent two years serving in the Navy during WWII. Baker returned to the Pirates in 1946 and hit .239 in 53 games. On January 1, 1947, the Pirates sold Baker to Columbus of the American Association, one week after acquiring veteran catcher Clyde Kluttz from the St Louis Cardinals. After spending 1947 in the minors, Baker played 65 games with the 1948-49 Cardinals, before finishing his career in the minors in 1952 at the age of 41. He was a .247 hitter in 263 big league games, with two homers and 68 RBIs. Baker was a .297 hitter in the minors over 13 seasons and 1,139 games, with 53 homers to his credit.