The 1952 Pittsburgh Pirates and Their Roster Filled with Youth

The 1952 Pittsburgh Pirates were one of the worst teams in franchise history. Some might even say the worst in the last 130 years. They finished with a 42-112 record, putting them 54.5 games out of first place. In fact, they finished 22.5 games out of seventh place, back when each league had eight teams. They weren’t a group of complete unknowns, though some of them gained fame in later years. Pitcher Murry Dickson managed to put up 5.3 WAR, picking up exactly 1/3rd of the team’s wins that year. Ralph Kiner was the big draw with his seventh straight home run title. They also had Joe Garagiola and Gus Bell on offense, as well as two young future stars in Dick Groat and Bob Friend.

As you might expect, the 1952 Pirates were the youngest team in the league, coming in at an average age of 26.2 years old. They were far from being the youngest team in franchise history however. That honor belongs to the 1956 Pirates, who averaged 25.1 years old. There’s a group of 11 teams between the 1956 and 1952 squads in average age, mostly consisting of 19th century teams and other years in the 1950s. Then there’s the curious case of the 1917 team, which ranks as the ninth youngest, while the 1916 club is near the middle of the 139-team pack, and the 1918 team ranks near the bottom in age, coming over the hill at 28.4 years old on average.

The 1952 group is still in the top ten percent when it comes to the youngest teams in franchise history, but what I recently learned about them makes it a bit hard to believe that they aren’t in that top spot. During the 1952 season in the National League, the Pittsburgh Pirates had seven of the eight youngest players in the league. Ron Kline was the old man in that group, celebrating his 20th birthday 37 days before Opening Day. The youngest player was pitcher Jim Waugh, who was 18 years and 143 days old on Opening Day (April 15th), making him one of the youngest players in franchise history. For comparison sake, Ke’Bryan Hayes was the youngest player for the 2020 Pirates, making his big league debut at 23 years and 217 days old.

What I wanted to do here was take a quick look at those seven young players and see how they did in 1952 and beyond.  I’ll note that the “Bonus Baby” rule during that time led to some players staying in the majors. The rule was designed so that the wealthier teams couldn’t stack up on prospects in the minors. The rules were tweaked over the years, but the general idea was that if you gave a player a large bonus, they were forced to stay on your Major League roster for a time. A team like the early 1950s Pirates had no problem “hiding” prospects on their bench when they were realistically eliminated from the playoffs before Opening Day. Anyway, here are the seven players, listed from youngest to oldest:

Jim Waugh – He went 1-6, 6.36 in seven starts and ten relief appearances. The next year he went 4-5, 6.48 in 11 starts and 18 relief appearances. The rest of his career was spent in the minors. His career was sidetracked by arm soreness, which he said never fully went away before he retired in 1957.

Bill Bell – Bell was just 32 days younger than Waugh, which also puts him among the youngest players in franchise history.  If you’re wondering, Andy Dunning from the 1889 team is the youngest at 17 years and 284 days for his debut. As a rookie, Bell debuted in September and made one start and three relief appearances, posting a 4.60 ERA. His only other big league game was a shutout inning for the 1955 Pirates. He missed two years in the service (1953-54) and then bounced around the minors until 1959.

Bobby Del Greco – He hit .217 with a homer and 20 RBIs in 99 games during the 1952 season. He spent the next three seasons in the minors, then returned to the Pirates briefly in 1956 before he was traded to the St Louis Cardinals for Bill Virdon in a deal that worked out great for the Pirates. Del Greco played nine seasons in the majors, hitting .229 with 42 homers in 731 games.

Lee Walls – He hit .188 with two homers in 32 games in 1952. He had six pinch-hit appearances during the first month of the season, went to the minors until early August, then played semi-regularly over the last seven weeks of the season. He spent the next three seasons in the minors with Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League. Walls returned in 1956 to hit .274 with 20 doubles, 11 triples, 11 homers and 50 walks in 143 games. Early in 1957, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs with Dale Long for Dee Fondy and Gene Baker.

Ron Necciai – Necciai came to the Pirates later in the season after making huge waves in the lower levels of the minors. In 43 innings for Bristol, he had 109 strikeouts in 43 innings, including a 27-strikeout performance. He debuted with the Pirates on August 10th and he went 1-6, 7.08 in 54.2 innings, with 32 walks and 31 strikeouts. It turned out to be his only big league time due to multiple reasons, including military service, bad stomach ulcers, arm soreness and a rotator cuff injury.

Tony Bartirome – Bartirome shows you why this 1952 team was so bad, though he was obviously very young for a big league regular. He was the starting first baseman for the 1952 Pirates and he hit .220 with no homers and 16 RBIs in 124 games. That put him at -1.7 WAR on offense, while his defense was also below average. He spent the next two years in the service, then nine years in the minors, meaning he played 124 career games in the majors, all in one season.

Ron Kline – Kline easily became the best player in this group, but he was far from his peak in 1952. He went 0-7, 5.49 in 11 starts and 16 relief appearances. He had a 66:27 BB/SO ratio in 78.2 innings. Needless to say, he wasn’t ready for the majors. He spent the next two years in the service, then returned for 16 straight years in the majors. His career record was bad at 114-144, but he had a respectable 3.75 ERA and pitched over 2,000 innings. For the Pirates, he stuck around until 1959, twice leading the league in losses. Before the 1960 season, he was traded for pitcher Tom Cheney and outfielder Gino Cimoli.

As you can see from this group, making it to the majors young didn’t always equal future success. In fact, only one player here truly had a successful career and he was the oldest of the group at the time of his debut. Four of them saw no or very little time in the majors after 1952. The two outfielders, Del Greco and Walls, had solid big league careers without major success, though Walls was an All-Star in 1958.