This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: March 12th, Vern Law

Seven former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date, led by one of their greatest all-time pitchers.

Vern Law, pitcher for the 1950-51 and 1954-67 Pirates. His  total of 16 seasons in a Pirates uniform has been topped by just eight players, seven of them Hall of Famers. Law won 162 games, which has been topped by only five pitchers in team history. The Pirates signed Law as an amateur free agent in 1948 out of high school and that first year of pro ball didn’t go so well. He was in Class-D ball, a very low level of the minors, where he had a 4.65 ERA and 96 walks in 110 innings. It didn’t take long for him to start making a good impression though. The following season while moving up to Class-B, he posted a 2.94 ERA and cut his walks to 75 in 144 innings. He jumped up to Double-A to start the next year and pitched so well that he was in the majors by early June at 20 years old. For 1950 and 1951 he switched between the bullpen and starting role for the Pirates, winning 13 games and throwing 242 innings over those two seasons. He made 17 starts and ten relief appearances as a rookie, posting a 4.92 ERA. He had 14 starts and 14 relief outings in 1951, while putting up a 4.50 ERA. His baseball career would take a short break as he joined the military during the Korean War and missed all of the 1952-53 seasons.

Law struggled when he returned in 1954. He pitched as a starter (18 starts) and reliever (21 appearances), posting a 5.51 ERA in 161.2 innings. The following season, at age 25, he showed his first sign of being a top notch pitcher. He went 10-10 for a team that finished 60-94. He lowered his ERA to 3.83 and pitched 200 innings for the first time in his career. Law made a high number of relief appearances that year (19), but his 1955 success led to a steady job as a starter for the first time. The Pirates were again bad in 1956 and his record suffered, losing a career high 16 games, while posting a 4.32 ERA in 195.2 innings. He was just 40-57 through 1956, but during the next 11 seasons he posted a record that was 32 games over the .500 mark.

In 1957 he went 10-8, dropping his ERA (2.87) below 3.00 for the first time. The next season would see him set a career high with 14 wins, a total he would then increase each of the two following seasons, going from 18 in 1959 to his only 20 win season in 1960. Law also set a personal best with 202.1 innings, but just like with his win total, that too would increase over the next two years. The 1959 Pirates disappointed after a strong year in 1958, but Law was a bright spot. He went 18-9, 2.98 in 266 innings, throwing a career high 20 complete games. His 6.5 WAR for that season was his career best, and it ranked him second best among all National League pitchers. That 1960 season was a magical one for Law and the Pirates. He would go 20-9, 3.08 in 271.2 innings over 35 starts, with a league leading 18 complete games. The team would go on to the World Series and defeat the Yankees in seven games, with Law going 2-0 in his three starts. His regular season performance earned him the Cy Young Award. Back when they used to play two All-Star games in one year, Law pitched in both contests, picking up the save in the first one, followed by the start and win in the second game. That year ended up being his only All-Star season, though he actually had two seasons that ranked higher according to WAR.

The high point was fleeting for Law though. In 1961 he suffered from a shoulder injury and all he could muster over the next three seasons combined was 17 wins and 42 starts. He was limited to 11 games in 1961, and he had a 4.70 ERA in 59.1 innings. His 1962 season was limited, but he still had a decent year, going 10-7, 3.94 in 139.1 innings. That was followed by a rough campaign in 1963, with Law posting a 4.93 ERA in 76.2 innings. He had an average year in 1964, but the important thing was that he was healthy all season. He went 12-13, 3.61 in 192 innings. Law still had one more great season left in his arm. The 1965 campaign saw him go 17-9 with a career low 2.15 ERA. He pitched 217 innings that year, the only season after 1960 that he was able to top the 200-inning mark. At 36 years old in 1966, Law 12-8, 4.05 in 177.2 innings. He suffered injuries to his elbow and hip that would limit his success in his last two seasons and coax him into retirement after the 1967 season, in which he went 2-6, 4.18 in 97 innings. Law finished 162-147, 3.77 over 2,672 innings. Besides ranking sixth in team history in wins, he’s fourth in games pitched, fourth in innings, fifth in strikeouts (1,092), third in starts (364) and fifth in shutouts (28). He turns 91 years old today.

David Williams, pitcher for the 2001-02, 2004-05 Pirates. The Pirates drafted him in the 17th round of the 1998 at 19 years old, taken out of Delaware Technical and Community College. It’s a school that has produced just ten drafted players and Williams is the only one to make the majors. It didn’t take him long to make it either, debuting with the Pirates in 2001, almost exactly three years to the day he was drafted. Williams pitched short-season ball in 1998, putting up a 3.23 ERA in 47.1 innings for Erie of the New York-Penn League. He split the 1999 season between the NYPL and Low-A, going 7-3, 2.92 in 104.2 innings over 16 starts. He spent almost all of 2000 in Low-A, getting just two starts at High-A. For the season, he went 12-9, 3.18 in 181 innings, while striking out 201 batters. Despite the slow climb during his first three seasons, Williams was in the majors by early June of 2001. After just 11 innings in High-A, in which he had a 6.55 ERA, he started 2001 in Double-A. It took just 58.2 innings for him to get to Triple-A and his stay there lasted two games. On June 6th, he debuted for the Pirates, and he stayed for the rest of the season. As a rookie, Williams went 3-7, 3.71 in 114 innings, making 18 starts and four relief appearances. After nine starts in 2002, he was placed on the disabled list with a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder. Once he returned, Williams spent the entire 2003 season back in Triple-A, where he had a 4.19 ERA in 16 starts. He was in Triple-A for most of 2004, returning to the Pirates as a reliever in August, before moving back to the starting role in September. He had a 4.42 ERA in 38.2 innings. Williams got in a full big league season in 2005, going 10-11, 4.41 in 25 starts and 138.2 innings. That December, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for Sean Casey and cash. His stay in Cincinnati wasn’t long. After a 7.20 ERA in eight starts, he was dealt to the New York Mets. Williams pitched 33.1 innings for the Mets over the 2006-07 season, posting a 7.83 ERA. He pitched in Japan in 2008, then spent the 2009 season in the minors for the Washington Nationals, before finishing his career in independent ball in 2011. Williams briefly coached in the minors for the Toronto Blue Jays after retiring. For the Pirates, he went 17-26, 4.25 in 334.2 innings.

Greg Hansell, pitcher for the 1999 Pirates. He was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 1989, and by the time he made it to the Pirates in 1999, he had pitched three seasons in the majors with three different teams. Hansell was 18 years old when the Red Sox took him in the tenth round out of John F Kennedy HS in California. Just one year later, he was traded to the New York Mets, then in December of 1990, he was traded for a second time, this time going to the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he would remain for the next five seasons. Hansell was a starting pitcher in the minors and he made a strong first impression with the Dodgers, going to the hitter-friendly California League (High-A) in 1991, where he went 14-5, 2.87 in 150.2 innings, striking out 132 batters. He put up a strong performance for San Antonio of the Texas League in 1992, which earned him a mid-season promotion to Triple-A. His fast-track to the majors ended there. Hansell had a 5.24 ERA in 13 starts for Triple-A Albuquerque that year. He spent the next two seasons in the same place, putting up a 6.93 ERA in 1993, before moving to relief in 1994, where he had a lot of success. His chance at the majors that season was derailed by the August strike that ended the year early, but he remained solid at Albuquerque, another high offense park, where he had a 2.99 ERA in 123.1 innings. Hansell made the Dodgers Opening Day roster in 1995 and struggled in his first big league trial. In 19.1 innings over 20 games, he had a 7.45 ERA. He returned to Triple-A, then got traded to the Minnesota Twins on July 31st, where he pitched in Triple-A. His best year in the majors was 1996 when he went 3-0 with three saves in 50 relief appearances for the Twins. Despite the record and a chance to close games, he had a 5.69 ERA over 74.1 innings. The Boston Red Sox picked him up on waivers after the season, then released him late in Spring Training of 1997. He signed with the Milwaukee Brewers and had a very brief stint in the majors. He signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks for 1998, but once again he was released near the end of Spring Training. Hansell ended up spending all of 1998 in Triple-A for the Kansas City Royals and Oakland A’s, posting a 2.69 ERA in 59 games He had pitched a total of 73 Major League games prior to 1999 and his career ERA was 6.22 up to that point. He signed with the San Francisco Giants during the winter and for the third straight year, he was a late Spring Training cut. Pittsburgh signed him as a free agent five days later, just as the 1999 season got under way, sending him to Triple-A, where he had a 2.00 ERA in 22 games. He was called up in June and pitched 39.1 innings over 33 games with a 3.89 ERA. The Pirates sold Hansell to a Japanese team in December of 1999 and he pitched five more seasons without making it back to the majors. He split that time between overseas and back in the minors, spending time with the New York Yankees in 2003 and the Diamondbacks in 2004.

Raul Mondesi, outfielder for the 2004 Pirates. He was a Rookie of the Year winner, an All-Star, a two time Gold Glove winner and seven times in his career he drove in 84 or more runs, but by the time he reached the Pirates at age 33 in 2004, his career was nearly over. Mondesi was signed at 17 years old out of the Dominican Republic by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988. It took him three seasons to establish himself as a prospect. In 1990, he hit .303 with 30 steals and an .892 OPS in 44 games for Great Falls of the Pioneer League. The Dodgers jumped him all of the way to High-A ball, skipping two levels in 1991. He stayed there just 28 games before heading to Double-A, then finished the year in Triple-A. His 1992 season was a rough one due to an injury and a discipline issue that limited him to 53 games. He bounced back in 1993 to make the majors by July. He had two separate stints with the Dodgers that year, hitting .291 in 42 games.  He was still eligible for the Rookie of the Year award in 1994 and he took that title by hitting .306 with 16 homers and 56 RBIs in 112 games during the strike-shortened season. Once the 1995 season got started in late April, Mondesi picked up right where he left off, hitting .285 with 26 homers, 88 RBIs and 27 steals. He made his only All-Star appearance that year and won the Gold Glove award, while spending most of his time in right field, with occasional center field starts. For the second year in a row, he led the National League with 16 outfield assists. He had another strong year in 1996, hitting .297 with 24 homers and 88 RBIs, scoring a career best 98 runs. Mondesi took it to another level in 1997, putting together a 30/30 HR/SB season, while finishing 15th in the MVP voting. He set a career high with a .310 average, 42 doubles and191 hits, while hitting 30 homers, stealing 32 bases and driving in 87 runs. He also won his second (and final) Gold Glove award.

In 1998, Mondesi saw a drop in his average, walks, OPS and steals, but he still managed to hit 30 homers and drive in 90 runs for the first time. His average dropped to .253 in 1999, but it was still a strong season. He set career highs with 33 homers and 99 RBIs, His career high 36 steals gave him a second 30/30 season, and he drew 71 walks. His previous high for walks was 44 in 1997. In November of 1999, Mondesi was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays. He remained there for 2+ seasons and saw a decline in his stats, putting up a .798 OPS in 320 games, compared to the .838 OPS he put up in 916 games with the Dodgers. His 2001 seasons still looked good on paper, with 27 homers, 30 steals, 84 RBIs and a career best 73 walks. He also led the league in outfield assists with 18, which was his career high. The Blue Jays traded him to the New York Yankees in July of 2002 and he continued to see a drop to his OPS, while still being a run producer. In 169 games with the Yankees, he had a .777 OPS, with 95 RBIs and 92 runs scored. In 2003, playing for the Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks, he hit a combined .272 with 24 homers and 22 stolen bases in 143 games. It was his sixth 20/20 HR/SB season. The Pirates signed him as a free agent in late February of 2004. He played just 26 games before he asked to return to his home in the Dominican Republic due to a lawsuit, and what he said was concerns over his family and their safety. When he didn’t return to the Pirates on time, they put him on waivers, then released him when no one picked him up. He signed with the Anaheim Angels nine days later, but got hurt within eight games of signing. After missing his rehab assignment, he was cut. He played with the Atlanta Braves in 2005, but they cut him after just two months and a .211 average, ending his career at 34 years old. He finished with a .273 average, 271 homers, 909 runs scored, 860 RBIs and 229 stolen bases in 1,525 games over 13 seasons. His son Adalberto has been in the majors since 2015 with the Kansas City Royals. He made his big league debut in the postseason and won the World Series before playing his first regular season game.

Reb Russell, outfielder for the 1922-23 Pirates. He began his career as a successful pitcher, injured him arm, retired from baseball, then came back to the majors as a strong-hitting outfielder for the Pirates. He had just 13 games of minor league experience before debuting in the majors with the 1913 Chicago White Sox at 24 years old. Russell pitched 316.2 innings as a rookie in 1913, winning 22 games and posting a 1.90 ERA. He threw eight shutouts. He made 36 starts and pitched another 16 times in relief, leading all American League pitchers with 52 appearances. He had a bit of a sophomore slump, but still put up a decent ERA that was average for the deadball era (AL had a 2.73 ERA in 1914). Russell had a 7-12, 2.90 record in 167.1 innings in 1914. He bounced back in 1915, going 11-10, 2.59 in 229.1 innings, making 25 starts and 16 relief appearances. In 1916, he went 18-11, 2.42 in 25 starts and 31 relief appearances, throwing a total of 264.1 innings. He was even better for the 1917 White Sox, helping them to the World Series that year. Russell went 15-5, 1.95 in 189.1 innings. He pitched once in the World Series, starting game five, and all three batters he faced reached base before he was removed. His work was somewhat limited in 1918, though the season was shortened due to the war. He went 7-5, 2.60 in 124.1 innings. Six years after his great debut season, he faced just two batters in his only outing for the 1919 White Sox (known now as the Black Sox), before being sent to the minors where he played outfield for Minneapolis of the American Association. He tried to pitch for the White Sox in 1920, but didn’t make the team and decided to retire. He had a record of 80-59, 2.33 in 242 Major League games and never had an ERA higher than 2.90 in any of his six full seasons. The Minneapolis team he played for in 1919 asked him to come back to play the next year when they were short on players and he did, as a full-time outfielder. He hit .339 in 85 games in 1920, then followed it up with a .368 average and 33 homers in 1921.

In 1922 Russell was hitting .331 with 17 homers through 77 games when the Pirates signed him to play right field. He was not a good fielder but he could certainly hit. He played 60 games the rest of the way for Pittsburgh and drove in an amazing 75 runs, while batting .368 in just 220 at-bats. He hit a team leading 12 homers that year, thanks in part to two big days at the plate. On August 25th and September 1st the Pirates played doubleheaders each day. Russell connected for three homers on each day, doubling his previous home run output during a seven-day span. He actually didn’t hit a homer during the last 23 games of the season, so his team leading total came in just 37 games. In 1923 Russell wasn’t nearly the strong hitter he was the previous season and by the end of July, despite raising his batting average 33 points that month, the Pirates sent him to the bench. He returned to the minors in 1924, playing another seven seasons before retiring, finishing with a .329 minor league average in 1,314 games In 1925 he hit 30 homers for Columbus of the American Association, and in 1927 he put up a .385 average for in 128 games for Indianapolis of the American Association. He was a decent hitter as a pitcher with the White Sox, batting .266 in 1914 and .279 with a .712 OPS in 1917.

Denny Lyons, third baseman for the Pirates in 1893-94 and 1896-97. He was a star in the American Association for five seasons before the league folded, forcing him to the National League. Lyons debuted in the majors at 19 years old, playing four late-season games for Providence of the National League. He saw limited work for the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association in 1886, batting .211 in 32 games. However, that was enough to get him a starting spot for the next year and he responded with a big season.  In 1887, he batted .367 with 128 runs scored in 137 games. He had 43 doubles, 14 triples, 73 stolen bases and 102 RBIs. On defense, he set a still standing record for putouts in a season by a third baseman with 255. He saw a drop in his stats in 1888, but still did well.  He hit .296, with 83 RBIs and 93 runs scored in 111 games. He improved the next year, hitting .329 in 131 games, with 135 runs scored, 82 RBIs and 79 walks. In 1890 he led the league with a .461 OBP and .531 slugging percentage, while leading all third basemen with a .909 fielding percentage. He finished his time in the American Association with the St Louis Browns, batting .315 with 124 runs scored in 120 games.

After the American Association went out of business following the 1891 season, Lyons played for the New York Giants in 1892 and did not hit well, batting .257, which was well below his .325 career average coming into the season. He signed with the Pirates for 1893 and regained his form at the plate, hitting .306 with 97 walks, 105 RBIs and 103 runs scored. He also led all third basemen in putouts that year. The Pirates signed Lyons after they had a dispute with 1892 third baseman Duke Farrell, who claimed that he had a three-year contract with the Pirates and refused a pay cut after a poor 1892 season. He hit well in 1894, but missed nearly half of the season. His .876 OPS that year looks great, but it was a huge year for offense after the league decided to change the pitching distance and how pitchers could deliver pitches. It took pitchers more than a year to adjust and hitters feasted off of them in the meantime. Lyons batted .319 in 1894, which ranked him fourth among regulars for the Pirates, with three part-time players also hitting better. He moved on to St Louis in 1895, where he played just 34 games and put up a .295 batting average before getting injured in a collision in mid-May. St Louis released him a month later because he was injured, then he re-signed with Pittsburgh on November 16th. Lyons returned to the Pirates in 1896 and hit .307 with 67 walks and 71 RBIs in 118 games. That would be his last good season in the majors, and by July of 1897 his time with the Pirates (and the majors) was done. He hit just .206 in 37 games during his final year. He returned to the minors for three seasons, didn’t play for two years (1901-02), then returned for one more year in 1903 as a player-manager for Beaumont of the South Texas League. He also managed in the minors in 1906. Lyons was a .310 hitter in the majors over 1,123 games and he scored 933 runs while driving in 756 runs. With the Pirates, he hit .299 in 358 games, with 254 RBIs and 244 runs scored.

Phil Knell, pitcher for the 1888 Pittsburgh Alleghenys and 1894 Pirates. Knell made his Major League debut with the Alleghenys at 23 years old on July 6, 1888. He lasted with the team for three starts, then didn’t appear in the majors again until 1890, when he was with the Philadelphia Athletics of the Player’s League. He had almost no pro experience prior to joining the Alleghenys, starting his minor league time on June 19, 1887 for Greenhood and Moran of the California League, often referred to as the San Francisco club back then, though it’s called Oakland now. However, he already had a reputation, as his arrival in Pittsburgh on July 1, 1888 was met in the local papers by the line “Knell, the California wonder, has arrived”. It took Pittsburgh owner William Nimick some time to finally come to an agreement with the Oakland club for Knell’s release, and it took some time for Knell to arrive from the west coast. He deal was finalized on June 20th and announced in the local papers on June 23rd, eight days before his arrival. The scout for the Alleghenys who watched Knell, wasn’t a scout at all. It was catcher/outfielder Fred Carroll’s father, who was a baseball fan. Nimick had Carroll’s father was 12 starts for Knell and keep stats. His report was that Knell allowed just one earned run in those 12 games and struck out 129 batters.

In his July 6th debut, Knell won 3-2 over Washington, with Fred Carroll as his catcher. It was not a great outing though, with seven walks, two hit batters and three wild pitches to his credit. The local papers said that he showed some good curves, speed and he did a good job of holding runners. He was supposed to pitch on July 18th against the Philadelphia Quakers (Phillies) but the game was rained out. The Alleghenys left on a road trip and Knell stayed behind to workout with catcher Jocko Fields. Knell was supposed to pitch during an early August series against Detroit, but captain Ned Hanlon talked manager Horace Phillips out of using him in that series. The local papers kept noting that he was anxious to pitch his second game, but the Alleghenys were doing well and didn’t want to make any changes. He finally got into his second game on August 25th during the second game of a doubleheader and lost 7-6 to Indianapolis, giving up five runs early, before setting down for two runs over the final seven innings. Two days later, he lost 10-1 to Chicago in the second game of a doubleheader. He was wild and Fred Carroll committed four errors behind the plate. Knell was left home during an early September road trip, then got released on September 13th, ending his time in Pittsburgh.

Knell pitched in the minors in 1889, then returned to the majors when the Player’s League was formed. He went 22-11, 3.83 in 286.2 innings for Philadelphia. The Player’s League was finished after one season and he signed with Columbus of the American Association in 1891, the final season for that league at the Major League level. Knell went 28-27, 2.92 and threw 462 innings. He hit 54 batters that season, the most in baseball history for a season, 11 more than the second highest total. He spent 1892 in the National League, splitting the season between the Phillies and Washington Senators. Knell went 14-18, 3.78 in 250 innings. He pitched in California in 1893, then played with the Pirates for one game. He was with the club during Spring Training, and on May 2nd, the team took a three-hour batting practice session against him because they needed practice against the left-handed pitcher. Five days later, he was the third pitcher used in a 17-6 loss, giving up nine runs in seven innings. He was released the next day. He went to Louisville (NL) to finish the year and posted a 7-21, 5.32 record. His final big league season in 1895 saw him split the year between Louisville (0-6) and the Cleveland Spiders (7-5). In six years in the majors, he went 79-90, 4.05 in 1,452.1 innings. He ended up pitching in the minors off and on until age 43 in 1908.