This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: April 22nd, Notable Opening Days

Two former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date and two season openers of note.

The Players

Mickey Vernon, pinch-hitter for the 1960 Pirates. He joined the Pirates as a first base coach for the 1960 season, but ended up being used as a pinch-hitter nine times in September as Pittsburgh fought for the National League pennant. He went 1-for-8 at the plate with a walk and an RBI. For Vernon, it was the end of a playing career that spanned four decades. It is possible that if he had not missed two years to military service, he would be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The year he returned from the service, he won the American League batting crown with a .353 average. In his career he had 2,495 hits, 1,311 RBIs, 1,196 runs scored, two batting titles, three times he led the league in doubles and he was elected to seven All-Star teams. Vernon was a Pirates coach for just that one season. The following year he took over the helm of the expansion Washington Senators, where he stayed through early in the 1963 season.

Vernon debuted in the majors in 1939 at 21 years old. He had 2 1/2 years of minor league ball before making it to the majors. He batted .287 with 40 extra-base hits for Easton of the Eastern Shore League in 1937, then moved up two levels to play for Greenville of the South Atlantic League in 1938. He batted .328 with 44 extra-base hits in 132 games that year. In 1939, he was with Springfield of the Eastern League for nearly three months, where he hit .343 in 69 games. He joined the Washington Senators in early July and batted .257 in 76 games as their everyday first baseman. Vernon played just five big league games in 1940, spending the rest of the year with Jersey City of the International League, where he hit .283 in 154 games. He was in the majors for good the next season. Vernon batted .299 with 93 RBIs in 138 games in 1941. The next year he hit .271 with 34 doubles, 25 stolen bases and 86 RBIs. He batted .268 in 1943, with 89 runs scored, 24 steals, 67 walks and 70 RBIs. He missed two prime years of his career serving during WWII, then returned to win the aforementioned batting title in 1946. He also made his first All-Star appearance that year, while leading the AL with 51 doubles. Vernon added 88 runs scored, a career high 207 hits, and 85 RBIs.

In 1947, Vernon saw his average drop down to .265 in 154 games. He still managed to drive in 85 runs for a second straight year, while scoring 77 runs and collecting 48 extra-base hits. He was an All-Star in 1948 despite a .248 average and a .641 OPS, but he was hitting over .300 as late as June 5th that year and just finished poorly. Vernon was dealt to the Cleveland Indians, along with Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn, for three players after the 1948 season. In 1949, he batted .291 with 18 homers and 83 RBIs. He was hitting poorly at the start of the 1950 season when the Indians dealt him back to the Senators. Vernon batted .306 over the final 90 games of the season after the trade. He put up a .293 average and 87 RBIs in 1951, then hit .251 with 80 RBIs and a career high 89 walks in 1952. He won his second batting title in 1953, while making his third All-Star appearance. He batted .337 that season, with career highs in runs (101) and RBIs (115). He led the league with 43 doubles and he finished third in the MVP voting.

Vernon set career highs with 14 triples and 20 homers in 1954. He was once again an All-Star and he picked up his third doubles crown with 33 two-baggers. He batted .290 with 97 RBIs and 90 runs scored. All of that led to a ninth place finish in the MVP voting.  In 1955, he batted .301 with 14 homers, 85 RBIs and 74 walks. The 37-year-old Vernon was part of a nine-player deal with the Boston Red Sox in the off-season. In his first year in Boston, he hit .310 with 15 homers and 84 RBIs, making his fourth straight All-Star appearance. Age started catching up to him in 1957 when he batted .241 in 102 games. The Indians picked him up off of waivers and he had a bit of a bounce back, a last hurrah if you will, hitting .293 in 119 games, which earned him his final All-Star appearance. Vernon was traded to the Milwaukee Braves prior to 1959, where he batted .220 in 74 games, mostly off of the bench. He was released once the season ended and signed on to coach the Pirates. While he compiled impressive offensive numbers despite missing two prime years, Vernon all led AL first baseman in fielding percentage four times, and he finished in the top 12 in fielding percentage 12 times. He ranks fourth all-time in games played at first base, and he was part of 2,044 double plays, which is an MLB record for all positions.

Jake Pitler, second baseman for the 1917-18 Pirates. He was a light-hitting second baseman in the minors for four seasons before breaking out in early 1917 when he hit .364 in 42 games for the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern Association. Pitler played his first 2 1/2 seasons of pro ball with Jackson of the Southern Michigan League, where he batted .298 in 145 games as a 20-year-old in 1914. He split the 1915 season between Jackson (a Class-C team at the time) and Chattanooga, which was considered to be two levels higher. Pitler spent the entire 1916 season in Chattanooga, hitting .261 in 142 games. He hit the first two homers of his pro career during his fourth season of ball. The Pirates acquired his rights on May 22, 1917 from Chattanooga in exchange for 22-year-old second baseman Billy Gleason and $3,500 in cash. Their was a bit of controversy around the deal, because the Detroit Tigers once held rights to Pitler, but Chattanooga claimed that they defaulted on their option and the Lookouts were free to move him to any other team. He made his big league debut on May 30, 1917 and it was a successful one in front of the home crowd. During a doubleheader, he went 2-for-7 and was twice robbed of hits, Pitler stole a base, laid down a successful sacrifice and handled all twelve balls hit his way without an error. The local press spoke highly of his play that day and also noted he had many friends in the stands. Playing alongside the great Honus Wagner all season, Pitler held his own in the field, finishing second among National League second baseman in fielding percentage. However, his batting reverted back to pre-1917 numbers, as he hit .233 with 23 RBIs in 106 games. He was with the team early in the next season, but was at the end of the bench and all but forgotten. On May 4, he played the second half of the game at second base, going 0-for-1 with a walk and an error. Then twenty days later he pinch-ran for Bill Hinchman in the ninth inning of a 6-1 game with the Pirates losing. Pitler stole second, stole third, then scored the Pirates final run that day on a double by George Cutshaw. Dissatisfied with him playing time, Pitler asked to be traded. The Pirates sold him to Jersey City of the International League, where he first refused to report, but did so after finding out that he would lose two weeks salary. He played four games, then jumped to a semi-pro team and eventually ended up getting a job in a factory doing war-related work in July. He was out of organized ball between 1919 and 1927, playing and managing for various semi-pro teams over the years. He would return to the minors in 1928, playing until 1936 without ever making it back to the big leagues. He also managed for 17 seasons in the minors. His brother was a famous Pittsburgh boxer named Johnny Ray, who was never knocked out in 138 pro fights.

The Season Openers

In 1891 Pittsburgh heard the name Pirates for the first time, though they were still locally known as the Alleghenys for the next few years, and they were known as the Braves for all of 1894 (as well as the Patriots for all of 1898). The “Pirates” opened their season coming off the worst year in franchise history. The team went 23-113 in 1890, when the roster was decimated by players leaving for the newly formed Player’s League. When that league ended after just one season, many of the players returned to their old teams, but Pittsburgh was also able to sign other star players such as Louis Bierbauer and Pete Browning. Those signings led to the “Pirates” name. There’s a lot more to that story, including the fact that the current team should be considered a different team than the 1882-90 teams (that definitely deserves more explaining, right?).

Pittsburgh opened the 1891 season at home against Cap Anson and the Chicago Colts. With Pud Galvin on the mound, they lost 7-6 in front of 5,500 fans. The lineup that day, which include four future Hall of Famers (should be five with Browning), was as follows:

Doggie Miller, SS
Jake Beckley, 1B
Fred Carroll, RF
Pete Browning, LF
Louis Bierbauer, 2B
Ned Hanlon, CF
Connie Mack, C
Charlie Reilly, 3B
Pud Galvin, P

In 1897 the Pirates opened their season against the St Louis Browns. It was an easy 4-1 win for Pittsburgh, with the only run they allowed coming off a double steal in the second inning. Frank Killen was in the pitcher’s box for the Pirates, coming off a 30-win season in 1896. It was his second 30-win season while with the team. Killen allowed six hits, all singles, struck out four and threw a complete game. Steve Brodie made his Pirates debut in center field that day. He was a star defensive outfielder who Pittsburgh acquired in the off-season for Jake Stenzel, the franchises all-time leader in batting average with a .360 mark. Brodie hit two doubles while batting in the fifth spot and all four men ahead of him in the lineup scored one run apiece. The Pirates lineup that day was:

Elmer Smith, LF
Bones Ely, SS
Patsy Donovan, RF
Jim Donnelly, 3B
Steve Brodie, CF
Denny Lyons, 1B
Dick Padden, 2B
Joe Sudgen, C
Frank Killen, P