This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: February 24th, Honus Wagner and Wilbur Cooper

Five former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date, including one of the best players in baseball history and the team’s all-time leader in wins.

Honus Wagner, shortstop for the 1900-17 Pirates. Of all the players mentioned on this site, Wagner should need no introduction. He is one of the all-time greats in baseball history, who just happened to play the last 18 years of his career with the Pirates. He led the league in OPS eight times between 1900 and 1911. He led the league in average eight times during that period, four times he had the highest OBP, and six times he led in slugging. Wagner had five stolen base titles, four RBI titles, seven times he led the league in doubles, three times in triples and twice each in runs and hits. Nine times he led the league in offensive WAR and he ranks 44th all-time in defensive WAR. Wagner was in the original group of five Hall of Famers elected in 1936. He ranks third all-time in triples, eighth in hits, tenth in doubles and tenth in stolen bases. He’s the Pirates all-time leader in runs scored, triples, games played (tied with Roberto Clemente) and times on base.

Wagner’s career began in the minors in 1895 at age 21 when he played for four different teams in three different leagues. He played for Paterson of the Atlantic League in 1896, where he hit .313 in 109 games. Wagner was with Paterson in 1897 until July, hitting .375 in 75 games before joining the Louisville Colonels. As a rookie, he batted .335 in 62 games, stealing 20 bases. He broke the 100-RBI mark during his first full season, hitting .299 with 105 RBIs, 27 stolen bases and 80 runs scored in 151 games, while spending most of his time switching between first base and third base. Wagner had a strong 1899 season, hitting .341 with 114 RBIs, 100 runs scored, 45 doubles and 37 steals. After the 1899 season, the National League decided to go from 12 teams down to eight teams. One of those teams being bought out was the Colonels. Their owner Barney Dreyfuss bought into the Pittsburgh Pirates and with that deal came the famous Honus Wagner trade that changed the face of the Pirates franchise forever. The original deal included 13 players, including Wagner, Fred Clarke, Rube Waddell, Claude Ritchey, Tommy Leach and Deacon Phillippe, going to the Pirates. The Colonels got six players and $25,000 in cash, but the Pirates later got a bigger pool of players when Louisville officially folded, with most of the players being sold off before the season.

In his first year in Pittsburgh, Wagner won his first batting title with a .381 average, which ended up being his career high. That was an impressive number considering that the level of player in the majors was at a high during his career, with just eight big league teams for the only time. Wagner also led the league with 45 doubles, 22 triples, a .573 slugging percentage and career best 1.007 OPS. He surpassed 200 hits for the first time, scored 107 runs, picked up 100 RBIs and he stole 38 bases. The Pirates won their first NL title in 1901 and Wagner was a big part. He hit .353 and led the league with 126 RBIs, which stood as a Pirates record for 26 years until Paul Waner set the still-standing record. Wagner scored 101 runs and secured his first stolen base title with 49. The next season the Pirates had their best season ever, going 103-36. Wagner batted .330 and led the league in both runs (105) and RBIs (91). He also led the NL with 30 doubles and 42 steals.

The World Series was created during the 1903 season and Wagner helped the Pirates to their third straight NL title. He won his second batting title with a .355 average and he led the NL with 19 triples. He scored 97 runs, had 101 RBIs and stole 46 bases.  This was also his first full season at shortstop. He played 105 games there during the 1901-02 seasons, but he also played 115 games in the outfield during those years, while also getting in 31 starts at first base. Many people who saw him play said that he was the best defensive player wherever he played. In 1904, Wagner had a huge year. He led the NL with a .349 average, .423 OBP, .520 slugging, 45 doubles and 53 stolen bases. It was the first of four times that he led the league in all three slash line categories (AVG, OBP, Slugging). As good as all of his seasons were prior, Wagner had a better season in 1905, compiling 10.2 WAR. It was the fifth time he led the league in WAR. While that stat was obviously unknown at the time, he was already considered by many to be the best player in the game. Wagner batted .363 with 114 runs scored and 101 RBIs.

Wagner picked up his fourth batting title in 1906, putting up a .339 average. He led the league with an .875 OPS, 38 doubles and 103 runs scored. In 1907, he led in all three slash line categories again, hitting .350, with a .408 OBP and a .513 slugging percentage. He also led the league with 38 doubles and set a career high with 61 steals, which was the second highest mark in team history to that point. The 1908 season ended up being the best in his career, compiling 11.5 WAR, which is a team record for position players. He led the NL in hits with 201, doubles (39), triples (19), RBIs (109), steals (53), average (.354), OBP (.415) and slugging (.542). His 205 OPS+ is a team record.

The Pirates went to the World Series in 1909 and Wagner once again led the team. He was the league leader with a .339 average, .420 OBP, .489 slugging, 100 RBIs and 39 doubles. Wagner got some heat for hitting just .222 during the first World Series, but he made up for that in 1909.  He batted .333 with six RBIs and six steals, as the Pirates won their first World Series title. The 1909 season marked the end of Wagner’s decade-long utter dominance over the NL, but he still had his final batting ahead of him. He hit .320 in 1910 and led the league with 178 hits, then won title #8 with a .334 mark in 1911, while also leading the league with a .903 OPS. He hit .324 in 1912, while cracking the 100 RBI mark (101) for a ninth time. He also finished second in the NL MVP voting, an award that was only around at the end of his career. In 1913, Wagner hit .300 (finished exactly .300) for the final time in his career. He topped out at a .287 mark over his final four seasons. Near the end of his career, he moved over to first base, as injuries took their toll during his final year at 43 years old.

Wagner hit .328 in 2,433 games for the Pirates, collecting 2,967 hits, 551 doubles, 232 triples, 82 homers, 1,474 RBIs, 639 steals and 1,521 runs scored. Including his time in Louisville, he batted .328 with 3,240 hits, 1,739 runs scored and 1,732 RBIs. After his playing days, he was a long-time coach for the Pirates, and the #33 he wore as a coach was retired by the team in 1956. His brother Albert Wagner played in the majors in 1898 and had a long career in minor league ball. He’s known as Butts Wagner for an unknown reason, and my own extensive searches couldn’t find a reference to that nickname until long after he passed away.

Wilbur Cooper, pitcher for the Pirates from 1912 until 1924. He began his pro career one year prior to joining the Pirates. Playing for three different teams in Ohio at 19 years old, Cooper went 20-14, while pitching 43 games. He began 1912 with the Columbus Senators of the American Association, where he went 16-9 2.76 in 31 games before being brought to Pittsburgh in late August to make his big league debut. The deal at the time between Columbus and Pittsburgh, which was made on August 24, 1912, included Hall of Fame first baseman George Sisler, who never ended up with the Pirates. Cooper was required to join the Pirates immediately, but the payment for the two players, would be a group of players that would join Columbus at a later date. The local papers reported that eight teams made cash offers for Cooper, but Columbus wanted players. Cooper made quite an impression that first five weeks with Pittsburgh, going 3-0 1.66 in 38 innings. He pitched mostly out of the pen in 1913, throwing a total of 30 games and 93 innings, while putting up a 5-3, 3.29 record. He moved to a starting role in 1914 and never looked back during his next 11 seasons in Pittsburgh. He won 16 games with a 2.13 ERA in 1914, then had a poor showing with a 5-16 record in 1915, albeit with a 3.30 ERA, though it was during the deadball era, so that wasn’t as good as it sounds. The Pirates finished with a 65-89 record in 1916, and Cooper posted a mediocre 12-11 record, though it came with a terrific 1.87 ERA. The 1917 season was the beginning of the peak of his career. He would win 17 games, which was a total he would meet or exceed in each of the next seven years. The Pirates as a team finished with just 51 wins. Cooper was 17-11, while the team was 34-92 in all other decisions. He went 19-14, 2.11 in 1918, throwing 273.1 innings. He had a similar season in 1919, going 19-13, 2.67 in 286.2 innings. Despite a strong season on paper, he led the National League in earned runs allowed, homers and hit batters.

Cooper won a career high 24 games in 1920 for a team that finished just over the .500 mark. He had a 2.39 ERA in 327 innings, then followed that up with an NL leading 22 wins in 1921. He also led the league in games started with 38, and for the second straight season he finished with exactly 327 innings pitched. His ERA jumped to 3.25 but that was a by-product of the end of the deadball era. Spitballs and other pitches were outlawed, while MLB decided not to keep baseballs in play as long, which led to much better offense. In 1922, Cooper won 23 games and threw a league leading 27 complete games. After winning 20 games for a fourth time in 1924 the Pirates decided to ship the 32-year-old to the Chicago Cubs in a six-player deal. Cooper pitched just two more seasons in the majors, winning a total of 14 games over that time. He joined the Detroit Tigers mid-season in 1926, then finished the year in the minors. It wasn’t unusual for MLB stars to continue on in the minors because often times their salary wasn’t much lower in the minors, since they were a star attraction for their teams. Cooper ended up pitching until 1930, ending his career with 296 wins as a pro. He won 216 big league games and finished with a 2.89 ERA. Among the Pirates all-time leaders he ranks first in both wins with 202 and complete games with 263. He’s second to Bob Friend in both innings pitched and games started, third in strikeouts and fourth in shutouts. Cooper ranks 86th all-time in wins, tied with Charlie Hough and Curt Schilling. He ranks 85th in ERA for pitchers who played at least ten seasons in the majors. Cooper was a decent hitting pitcher, batting .239 with six homers during his career. He didn’t hit a single homer during his first ten seasons, then belted four in the 1922 season, including an inside-the-park homer on August 23rd.

Bronson Arroyo, pitcher for the Pirates from 2000 until 2002. He was a third round draft pick of the Pirates in 1995 at 18 years old out of Hernando HS in Florida. At age 20 in High-A ball he won 12 games and posted a 3.31 ERA in 24 starts. Arroyo struggled the next season in his first try at Double-A, but then was able to win 15 games while repeating the level in 1999, which earned him a promotion to Triple-A for three starts. He was pitching well through 13 starts in 2000 at Triple-A when the Pirates called him up and put him in the rotation. After pitching poorly, he was moved to the bullpen, although he ended up making three September starts. Arroyo finished 2-6, 6.40 in 71.2 innings over 12 starts and eight relief appearances. He opened up the 2001 season in the majors, but after his ERA rose to 6.24 in June, he was sent to the minors. Arroyo returned for a spot start in July then came back in August, eventually lowering his ERA to a 5.09 mark by the end of the season. He finished with a 5-7 record and pitched 88.1 innings. He spent most of 2002 in the minors, getting called up three different times throughout the season, twice for just one game. He ended up making four starts and five relief appearances, posting a 4.00 ERA in 27 innings. Arroyo was put on waivers just prior to spring training in 2003, where he was picked up by the Boston Red Sox. After spending most of 2003 in the minors, he established himself as a reliable everyday starter in 2004 by posting a 10-9, 4.03 record in 173.1 innings. He would end up winning 139 games after leaving Pittsburgh. In 2005, he started a string of six straight seasons with 200+ innings. He missed nine straight years of 200+ innings by throwing “just” 199 innings for the 2011 Cincinnati Reds.

Not only did the Pittsburgh give up on Arroyo too soon, but so did the Red Sox. Despite throwing 205.1 innings in 2005, while posting a 14-10 record, it was more a product of the team’s success. He had a 4.51 ERA that season for a team that won 95 games. Arroyo was traded to the Reds prior to the 2006 season and he responded with a 3.29 ERA in 240.2 innings. He made his only All-Star appearance that season and got his only MVP votes as well. Arroyo saw his ERA go up to 4.23 in 2007 and 4.77 in 2008. He rebounded in 2009 by going 15-13, 3.84 in 220.1 innings. In 2010, Arroyo went 17-10, 3.88 in 215.2 innings. He received mild Cy Young support and won the Gold Glove award for the only time in his career. He dropped down to a 5.07 ERA in 2011, before putting in two more solid years with the Reds. Arroyo had a 12-10, 3.74 record in 202 innings in 2012, then he was 14-12, 3.79 in 2013, while throwing 202 innings for a second consecutive season. He signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks for 2014 and lasted 14 games before needing Tommy John surgery. He had elbow and shoulder problems in 2016 and pitched once again for the Reds in 2017, going 3-6, 7.35 in 14 starts, which ended up being his final time in pro ball. In between his time with the Diamondbacks and his return to Cincinnati, Arroyo was also a member of the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals. He finished with a 148-137, 4.28 record in 2,435.2 innings. With the Pirates, he was 9-14, 5.44 in 187 innings.

Clarence “Steamboat” Struss, pitcher for the Pirates on September 30, 1934. His only Major League game was a start in game two of a doubleheader against the Chicago Cubs. The Pirates lost the opener 8-2, to drop them a game below .500 at 74-75. Struss faced off against another rookie making his first start named Charlie Wiedemeyer. It is doubtful that either pitcher knew that would be their last game in the majors that day. Steamboat would pitch seven innings, allowing six runs on seven hits and six walks while picking up the loss that day. Five of the runs he allowed were earned and he struck out three batters. Struss actually made his debut in a Pirates uniform 25 days earlier, pitching and losing 4-3 in an exhibition game against a team from Hazelton, PA. Struss pitched a total of ten seasons in the minors, retiring after the 1941 season. He had a 76-88 record in the minors, going 14-18, 4.36 in 266 innings for Little Rock of the Southern Association during that 1934 season before joining the Pirates. He was sold to the Pirates on July 26th, which came as a surprise to the locals, who already thought he was property of the Pirates. The Little Rock team cleared up the misunderstanding by stating that they purchased him outright on recommendation from a scout of the Pirates. He joined the Pirates after pitching his final game for Little Rock on August 30th. Struss was a fastball pitcher, who Pirates scout Carleton Molesworth expected big things from during the 1935 season. During his first day with the club, they said that he was known as “the strikeout king of the dixie”. The Pirates released Struss on option to Kansas City of the American Association on February 16, 1935. He was slowed that minor league season by a Spring Training illness and an arm injury mid-season. He was with the Pirates during Spring Training in 1936 and was actually with the team for the first nine days of the regular season, but on April 23rd, he was sold outright to Los Angeles of the Pacific Coast League. He had the nickname Steamboat in the minors, but was referred to as “Steamer” more in the majors.

Earl Grace, catcher for the Pirates from 1931 until 1935. Grace debuted in the minors in 1925 at 18 years old. During the 1928 season, he batted .336 in 91 games for Little Rock of the Southern Association. He began his big league career in 1929 with the Chicago Cubs, making the Opening Day roster. He played 27 games that season, hitting .250 with two homers and 17 RBIs. In late June he was sent to Reading  of the International League. After spending all of 1930 in the minors, he made the Cubs Opening Day roster again in 1931. He played just seven games over the first month of the season, hitting .111 in nine at-bats before Chicago sent him to the Pirates in exchange for catcher Rollie Hemsley on May 29th. In was swap of 24-year-old catchers, although Hemsley had much more Major League experience at the time. Grace would hit .280 with the Pirates that year in 47 games, striking out just five times in 150 at-bats. The following season saw him catch a career high 114 games and lead the league with a .998 fielding percentage, a Major League record for catchers at the time. The next three seasons Grace split the catching duties, mostly with Tom Padden, getting about half the games behind the plate. He set a career high with a .720 OPS in 1933, while batting .289 in 93 games. He hit .270 in 95 games in 1934, then saw his average and playing time slip in 1935, with a .263 mark over 77 games. Shortly after the 1935 season ended, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies along with rookie pitcher Claude Passeau in exchange for catcher Al Todd. Grace hit .275 with 117 runs scored, 19 homers and 172 RBIs in 427 games for the Pirates. He would play two seasons for the Phillies in a platoon role, hitting .230 with ten homers, while drawing 67 walks, compared to just 35 strikeouts. After hitting just .211 during the 1937 season, he was sent to the minors, where he finished out his pro career three years later. He played for Minneapolis of the American Association during all three seasons, though he also saw times with other clubs in both 1938 and 1939.