Five former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date, plus a trade of note and a unique feat by the Great One.
Doug Drabek, pitcher for the 1987-92 Pirates. He was a workhorse in the Pirates rotation, averaging 33 starts and 227 innings pitched per season over his six years in Pittsburgh. He remains as the last Pirates pitcher to win the Cy Young Award. He was originally drafted by the Cleveland Indians out of high school in 1980, but chose not to sign. Three years later, his stock had dropped, going to the Chicago White Sox in the 11th round of the 1983 draft out of the University of Houston. He went 6-7, 3.65 in 103.2 innings in the New York-Penn League during that 1983 season. Most of the 1984 season was spent three levels higher in Double-A, where he went 12-5, 2.24 in 124.2 innings for Glens Falls of the Eastern League. Just one year and two months after being drafted, Drabek was traded to the New York Yankees for veteran shortstop Roy Smalley. Drabek finished the year in Double-A with the Yankees, then spent the entire 1985 season back at the level, despite strong results both years. He went 13-7, 2.99 in 192.2 innings during his second stint in Double-A, throwing nine complete games, while picking up 153 strikeouts. He struggled badly through eight starts at Triple-A in 1986 (7.29 ERA in 42 innings), but he was up in the majors by the end of that May. He made 21 starts and six relief appearances for the 1986 Yankees, posting a 7-8, 4.10 record in 131.2 innings. In the off-season, the Yankees and Pirates hooked up in a deal that sent veteran pitchers Rick Rhoden, Cecilio Guante and Pat Clements to New York in exchange for three young pitchers, Drabek, Brian Fisher and Logan Easley.
Pittsburgh put Drabek in the rotation in 1987 and never looked back. He made 28 starts and went 11-12, 3.88 in 176.1 innings during his first season with the Pirates. It was just a glimpse of the true potential he would begin to reach the very next season. The 1988 Pirates finished second in the National League East and a big reason for that finish was the emergence of Drabek as the Pirates ace. He didn’t have the best ERA on the team (that belonged to Bob Walk, 2.71), but Drabek had the best record and lead the team in innings pitched. That season he finished at 15-7, 3.08 with 219.1 innings pitched. The Pirates were expecting to contend in 1989, but they faltered through no fault of Drabek. He went 14-12, with five of those wins coming by shutout. His 2.80 ERA was .01 ahead of teammate John Smiley, who finished four games over the .500 mark. Drabek pitched 244.1 innings that season, the fifth highest total in the NL. He made 34 starts and pitched eight complete games. The Pirates’ ship was righted in 1990, and behind the pitching of Drabek they made the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. He had a remarkable season, winning the NL Cy Young award with a 22-6 record. He had the best winning percentage in the league, finished fifth with his 231.1 innings pitched and sixth with his 2.76 ERA. His season was strong enough that he also finished eighth in the NL MVP voting. He was strong in the playoffs, even during his 2-1 complete game loss in game two against the Cincinnati Reds. Drabek staved off elimination five days later, winning game five by a 3-2 score.
Drabek’s record in 1991 doesn’t tell the whole story. On the outside, it looks like a bad season, going 15-14 for a team that almost won 100 games, but his 3.07 ERA was one point better (for a second time) than John Smiley, who finished with a 20-8 record. Drabek made a career high 35 starts and finished fourth in the NL with 234.2 innings pitched. In more than half of his starts, the Pirates scored 0-3 runs. He topped his 1.65 playoff ERA from the previous season by allowing one earned run over 15 innings. Unfortunately, that one run led to a loss in game six as the Pirates were shutout by the Atlanta Braves. Drabek had one last year left in Pittsburgh before free agency kicked in, and he made the most of the 1992 season. He helped the Pirates to their third straight NL East pennant, by going 15-11, 2.77 in 34 starts, throwing ten complete games and four shutouts. He threw a career high 256.2 innings that season, en route to a fifth place finish in the Cy Young voting. His run of playoff dominance was over though, losing all three starts to the Braves that postseason.
After the season ended, Drabek signed with his hometown Houston Astros, where things didn’t go well. That first season he had a respectable 3.79 ERA, but he led the NL with 18 losses. He had a strong 1994 season, which was shortened to 23 starts due to the mid-season strike. That year he went 12-6, 2.84 in 164.2 innings and made his only career All-Star appearance. In his last two years with Houston, he went 17-18 combined with an ERA over 4.50 each year. While he was still making all of his starts, his innings totals dropped significantly after leaving Pittsburgh. He averaged over 230 innings per season from 1988 through 1993, then saw that average drop to just over 170 innings per season during the next four years. He finished 32-40, 4.00 in 762.2 innings with Houston. Things got worse for Drabek after leaving the Astros, posting a 5.74 ERA in 31 starts for the 1997 Chicago White Sox, then a 7.29 ERA in 108.2 innings for the 1998 Baltimore Orioles, his last Major League stop. Drabek made 196 starts for the Pirates, going 92-62, 3.02 in 1,362.2 innings. He ranks 20th in team history in wins and no pitcher over the last 43 years has won more games in a Pirates uniform. Overall in his career, he went 155-134, 3.73 with 387 Major League starts, throwing a total of 2,535 innings. He became a minor league pitching coach after his career ended. His son Kyle Drabek pitched parts of seven seasons in the majors, seeing time with three different clubs.
Alex Presley, outfielder for the 2010-13 Pirates. He was an eighth round draft pick in 2006, who rode a hot streak in 2010 to the majors and managed to play eight seasons, while seeing time with five clubs. He was selected by the Pirates out of the University of Mississippi. In 2006, he went to the New York-Penn League, where he batted .260 in 61 games, with 18 extra-base hits. In 2007, he was with Low-A Hickory, where he had a .293 average, 41 extra-base hits and 18 stolen bases. The Pirates sent him to winter ball in Hawaii, where he batted .306 in 13 games. In 2008, Presley played at High-A Lynchburg for the first of two seasons and it appeared that his career stalled. He hit .258 with a .705 OPS in his first year, then batted .257 with a .684 OPS in 2009. Presley didn’t look like a surefire future MLB player until 2010, when he hit .320 with some power and speed, while splitting the season between Altoona and Indianapolis. He had a .932 OPS in 67 games with Altoona, then put up an .809 OPS in 69 games with Indianapolis. By the end of the year he was in the majors, hitting .261 in 19 games for the Pirates. He was back in Triple-A in 2011, where he hit .330 before coming back to the Pirates in late June. Presley batted .298 in 52 games with Pittsburgh, showing some power and speed. That earned him a big league job in 2012, though he couldn’t repeat his success. He had a .237 average and a .683 OPS in 104 games and even saw some Triple-A time before the season was over. He batted .264 in 29 games for the Pirates in 2013 before being traded to the Minnesota Twins for Justin Morneau in August.
Presley was made the starting center fielder for the Twins in September of 2013 and he hit .283 in 28 games, though low power/walk numbers led to a .699 OPS. The Twins lost him on waivers to the Houston Astros during Spring Training of 2014 and that year he batted .244 in 89 games for Houston. His OPS dropped to .628 that season. He played just eight big league games in 2015, then became a free agent at the end of the year. Presley signed with the Milwaukee Brewers and hit .198 in 47 games before being released in early July. He quickly signed with the Detroit Tigers, although he played just three big league games there in 2016. During the 2017 season, he hit .314 in 71 games, with a .770 OPS. Despite the success, he became a free agent after the season and spent the 2018 season with the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox in Triple-A before being released in late June, ending his pro career. Over eight seasons in the majors, Presley hit .263/.306/.388 in 450 games, with 29 homers and 30 stolen bases. With the Pirates, he hit .261 with 16 homers and 19 steals in 204 games.
Ed Sprague, third baseman for the 1999 Pirates. He was originally drafted by the Boston Red Sox out of high school in the 25th round in 1985, but decided to go to college. He was signed as a first round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays during the 1988 draft out of Stanford University. He signed too late to play his first year, then the Blue Jays were ultra aggressive with him in 1989. After starting off in High-A and hitting just .219 in 52 games, he played 86 games in Triple-A and had a .208 average and a .580 OPS. He remained in Triple-A in 1990 and batted .239, though it came with 23 doubles and 20 homers. Sprague was in the majors by early May of 1991, although it took two partial seasons before he was a regular in the Toronto lineup. He hit .275 with four homers and 20 RBIs in 61 games during his rookie season, then spent a majority of 1992 back in Triple-A, where he played 100 games. For the Blue Jays that season, he hit .234 with one homer in 22 games. Sprague was the starting third baseman in 1993, playing 150 games. He batted .260 with 31 doubles, 12 homers and 73 RBIs, as the Blue Jays won their second straight World Series title that year. He played 109 of 115 games during the strike-shortened 1994 season, hitting .240 with 11 homers and 44 RBIs. During the 1995 season, which was also shortened by the strike, Sprague played in all 144 games for Toronto, driving in 74 runs, with hitting .244 with 27 doubles and 18 homers. He also drew 58 walks, which matched his combined total from the previous three seasons. He had a career year the next season, setting personal bests with 88 runs scored, 35 doubles, 36 homers, 101 RBIs and 60 walks in 159 games. His .821 OPS was easily the highest of his career to that point, but he would approach that number in the future.
Sprague’s numbers fell off dramatically the next year, hitting .228 with 14 homers and 48 RBIs in 138 games. His power returned slightly in 1998, hitting .238 with 17 homers and 51 RBIs in 105 games with the Blue Jays. At the July 31st trading deadline, he was dealt to the Oakland A’s, where he batted just .149 in 27 games. He became a free agent after the season. The Pirates signed Sprague on December 16, 1998 and made him their starting third baseman. He responded with his only All-Star season, helping the Pirates to 78 wins and a third place finish in the NL Central. He batted .267, his highest full season average in the majors, and he hit 22 homers, while driving in 81 runs. Both of those numbers were his second highest totals, trailing only his big 1996 season. His .817 OPS fell just short of his career best. Sprague left as a free agent after the season and played two more years in the majors, spending time with three different teams. With the San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox in 2000, he hit .243 with 12 homers and 36 RBIs in 106 games. With the 2001 Seattle Mariners, he had a .298 average in 45 games, though he saw a lot of bench time, while playing five different positions. Sprague finished his 11-year big league career with a .247 average in 1,203 games, with 225 doubles, 152 homers, 558 RBIs and 506 runs scored. He was the head coach at Pacific University for 12 seasons. Ed’s father, Ed Sprague Sr., pitched for eight seasons in the majors.
Jack McMahan, pitcher for the 1956 Pirates. The Yankees signed the 19-year-old left-handed McMahan in 1952, sending him to Class-D ball for McAlester of the Sooner State League, where he switched between starting and relief, going 9-7, 3.43 in 134 innings. He split the 1953 season between Class-D Owensboro of the KITTY League and Class-C Joplin of the Western Association. McMahan threw a total of 220 innings between both stops, going 13-11, 3.68, with slightly better results at the higher level. In 1954, he played for Quincy of the Three-I League, where he pitched mostly in relief. He had an 11-7, 3.79 record in 159 innings. By 1955 he was up in Double-A, pitching well in the long man role out of the bullpen. In 46 games, he threw 111 innings, going 11-5 with a 2.62 ERA. The Pirates took him in the November 1955 Rule 5 draft. In the first two months of the 1956 season, he was being used strictly in a mop-up role, making 11 appearances, with all of them coming during Pirates losses. He had a 6.08 ERA in 13.1 innings for Pittsburgh. On June 23, 1956 the Pirates traded McMahan, along with second baseman Curt Roberts, to the Philadelphia A’s in exchange for second baseman Spook Jacobs. The A’s tried him as a starter for awhile, though he didn’t pitch well, going 0-5, 6.35 in nine starts. He ended up pitching 14 times in relief and finished his half season there with a 4.82 ERA in 61.2 innings. He walked 31 batters during that time while picking up just 13 strikeouts. He ended up appearing in just two wins during his 34 appearances that year, and both were starts that he got knocked out of early. In February of 1957, he was dealt back to the Yankees as part of a 13-player deal that also included Curt Roberts. McMahan never made it back to the majors, finishing his career two years later in the minors, playing for Denver of the American Association in 1957-58, Richmond of the International League in 1958-59 and ending with Atlanta of the Southern Association.
Marv Rackley, outfielder for the 1949 Pirates. He originally signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1941 at 19 years old, but his baseball career was put on hold for three seasons while he served in the military during WWII. He played for Class-D Valdosta of the Georgia-Florida League that first year, hitting .322 with 40 extra-base hits in 133 games. In 1942, he split the season fairly evenly between Class-C Dayton of the Middle Atlantic League and Class-C Durham of the Piedmont League. Rackley hit .261 with 24 extra-base hits in 106 games that season, with better results at the lower level. The 1943-45 seasons were spent in the military. He returned in 1946 and played for Montreal of the International League, where he hit .305 in 124 games, with 78 walks, 102 runs scored and 65 stolen bases. He made the Dodgers Opening Day roster in 1947, although he was used sparingly off the bench and by June he was back in the minors. He finished the year getting just nine at-bats in 18 games for the Dodgers. Rackley was in the majors during most of the 1948 season, and while he didn’t hit for power or take many walks, he did manage to bat .327 with 55 runs scored in 88 games. In 1949, he wasn’t seeing much playing time with Brooklyn, getting 11 plate appearances and two starts over the first month of the season. The Pirates acquired him in May, in exchange for outfielder Johnny Hopp. Within three weeks of the exchange, the deal was voided due to an arm injury to Rackley that the Pirates claimed he had before coming over in the trade. Despite the reported injury, he batted .314 in 11 games in Pittsburgh. There were rumors that Rackley just didn’t want to be traded and there was nothing wrong with his arm. He was sent back to the Dodgers, where he hit .291 in 54 games over the rest of the season. Just as the 1949 season ended, the Dodgers sold Rackley to the Cincinnati Reds. He lasted just five early season games there in 1950 before he was shipped to the minors, where he played out the rest of his career, retiring after the 1955 season. He had a career .317 average over 185 Major League games, with one home run and 35 RBIs. While he had those big stolen base numbers in the minors, he went 10-for-20 in steals in the majors. His minor league time from 1950 on saw him plays parts of two seasons with four different teams, starting with Seattle of the Pacific Coast League in 1950-51, Birmingham of the Southern Association in 1951-52, Baltimore of the International League in 1952-53, and Richmond of the International League in 1954-55.
On this date in 1896, the Pirates traded star first baseman Jake Beckley to the New York Giants in exchange for first baseman Harry Davis and cash, in a very unpopular deal at the time. Beckley had been in Pittsburgh since 1888, spending all but one of those years with the Pirates. In 1890, with most of his teammates, he jumped to the newly formed Player’s League, a league that lasted just one season. In his seven full seasons with the Pirates, Beckley drove in 96 or more runs in five of those years, batting over .300 five times as well. From 1891 until 1895, he hit 19+ triples every season. At the time of the deal, the 28-year-old was the Pirates all-time home run leader. The Pirates thought Beckley was slowing down due to his .253 average and just 15 extra base hits after 59 games in 1896. Davis was six years younger, though he was unproven with only 71 games in the majors at that point.
After the deal, Davis really struggled as the everyday first baseman for Pittsburgh, while Beckley resorted to his old ways. Davis batted .190 over the rest of the year, while Beckley hit .302 with 38 RBIs in 46 games. The trade took a favorable turn for the Pirates the next season, with Beckley getting released by New York after a really slow start, while Davis was hitting well. Beckley signed on with the Cincinnati Reds after two teams thought he was done and he proved both of them wrong. He went on to hit .325 over seven seasons in Cincinnati, putting together a resume that eventually landed him in the Hall of Fame. Davis had a strong 1897 season for Pittsburgh, leading the National League with 28 triples, to go along with a .305 average. Like Beckley, his career took off after multiple teams gave up on him. The Pirates sold him in early 1898 to Louisville, who moved him quickly to the Washington Senators. Davis went to the minors for two years, returning to the majors in 1901, this time playing in the newly-formed American League. There he had a great ten-year stretch with the Philadelphia A’s, winning three home run titles, three times leading the league in doubles, twice in RBIs and once in runs. He played his last Major League game 21 years after this trade was made.
On this date in 1956, Roberto Clemente hit a bottom-of-the-ninth, walk-off, inside-the-park grand slam for a 9-8 win over the Chicago Cubs. He is the only player to accomplish that feat in Major League history. Inside-the-park homers are obviously rare on their own, though they were more common when the ballparks were bigger. To hit a walk-off grand slam and have it be an inside-the-park homer, you need the bases loaded obviously, you need to be the home team (that wasn’t always required), and it can only happen when you’re down by three runs. That’s unlike a regular grand slam, which just needs the score to be within three runs, but it could even be tied at the time. Most defenses in a bases loaded/down by three runs situation would be playing to prevent extra-base hits, making a rare feat even more difficult…which is probably why it has only happened once, 65 years ago today.