This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: August 14th, Let’s Talk About First Basemen

A light day in Pittsburgh Pirates history for transactions (two) and birth dates (three), and it’s all about first basemen.

The Transaction

On this date in 1911, the Pirates sold first baseman John Flynn to St Paul of the American Association, the minor league team that they had purchased him from twenty months earlier. After winning the 1909 World Series, the Pirates parted ways with first baseman Bill Abstein, who was not well-liked in town by fans or management due to his occasional poor play and lack of baseball smarts (Abstein was often referred to as “bonehead”). They brought in two minor leaguers to compete for the open spot, Flynn and Bud Sharpe. Flynn was a strong bat with a passable glove, while Sharpe was a strong defender, who wasn’t much of a hitter. The Pirates ended up settling with Flynn as the starter due to his bat being much better, and the fact that his defense wasn’t so far behind Sharpe that his offensive contributions wouldn’t make up for it. Flynn hit .274 with 52 RBIs in 96 games during the 1910 season. The next year he was moved to a bench role, starting 13 of the 33 games he played before being sold back to St Paul. He would play just twenty more Major League games after the Pirates parted ways with him, all as a member of the 1912 Washington Senators.

On this date in 1917, the Pirates lost first baseman George “High Pockets” Kelly to the New York Giants on waivers.  He was 21 years old and played just eight games with the Pirates before the waiver loss. Kelly went on to help New York to four straight World Series appearances. We posted an article here on his time with the Pirates, which goes into great detail for his short time.

The Players

Josh Bell, first baseman for the 2016-2020 Pirates. The Pirates paid big money to sign Bell away from college in 2011, giving him a $5M bonus  as a second round pick. He signed too late to play in 2011, and his debut in 2012 didn’t go so well when a knee injury sidelined him for all but 15 games. In 2013 he played at Low-A, where he hit .279 with 37 doubles and 13 homers in 119 games. In 2014, Bell moved up to High-A Bradenton and tore up the league, batting .335 with 33 extra-base hits in 84 games. He moved up to Altoona (Double-A) and batted .287 in 24 games before an injury ended his season early. Up to this point, Bell was an outfielder, but he lacked range and had a below average arm, so the Pirates moved him to first base in the Arizona Fall League. He batted .214 with no homers in 23 games that fall. In 2015, he spent the majority of the season in Double-A, hitting .307 with 28 extra-base hits and 44 walks in 96 games. He moved up to Triple-A Indianapolis at the end of the year and hit .347 with a .946 OPS in 35 games. Bell opened up 2016 in Indianapolis and hit .295 with 23 doubles, 14 homers and 57 walks in 114 games before joining the Pirates. He likely would have been up sooner, but his defense at first base was very poor, something that stayed with him throughout his entire career. For the 2016 Pirates, he hit .273 with eight doubles and three homers in 45 games. The Pirates sat him on the final day of the season so he remained eligible for the Rookie of the Year award in 2017. He would finish third in that voting, thanks to a .255 average with 26 doubles, 26 homers, 90 RBIs and 66 walks in 159 games. His power went through a bit of a sophomore slump in 2018, though he did a better job of getting on base to off-set some of that loss. Bell hit .261 with 77 walks in 148 games, to go along with 31 doubles, 12 homers and 62 RBIs. In 2019, the power returned in a big way, especially early in the season. He finished up with a .277 average, 37 doubles and 37 homers, while driving in 116 runs. Those numbers dropped off greatly during the shortened 2020 season when he hit .226 with eight homers and 22 RBIs in 57 games. In December of 2020, Bell was traded to the Washington Nationals for pitching prospects Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean. Through early August in 2021, Bell was hitting .251 with 14 doubles and 17 homers in 89 games for the Nationals. Up to that point, he had 641 big league games, with a .260 average, 119 doubles, 103 homers, 364 RBIs and 332 runs scored.

Dale Coogan, first baseman for the 1950 Pirates. He was signed by the Pirates in 1948 as an amateur free agent. Coogan played that first season for Keokuk of the Central Association as a 17-year-old, hitting .288 with three homers in 70 games. He then batted .291 with 26 extra-base hits and 71 RBIs in 83 games over a partial 1949 season for Double-A New Orleans of the Southern Association. By the middle of his second season, the Pirates already had Coogan up to Triple-A, where he hit .265 with four homers in 64 games. He made the Pirates Opening Day roster in 1950, though by July it was acknowledged that he could’ve used another season at Triple-A before he came up. He started just one of the first 25 games that season, then got a string of starts over the next three weeks before his playing time became more sporadic. On May 30th he played both games of a doubleheader against the St Louis Cardinals with vastly different results. He went 0-for-5 in the first game and collected four hits in the nightcap. That ended up being his only big league game with more than two hits. He played his final game on July 5th and was sent down to Indianapolis of the American Association seven days later. Coogan was a September recall in both 1950 and 1951, but he didn’t play any games after being sent down in July of 1950, leaving him with .240 career Major League average in 53 games. It was said during the 1951-52 off-season, that Coogan had a good chance to be the Pirates Opening Day first baseman in 1952, but he spent the next two years in the Army. He was given a chance to win the first base (or bench) job in 1954, though the time off took it’s toll on him and he ended up in Double-A ball, never playing above that level in his last five seasons of pro ball. He spent the 1954 season back in New Orleans, and played there part of 1955 as well, though he also spent time in A-Ball that year. He returned to Double-A for his final three seasons, playing for two different teams in the Texas League. He was Pirates property until November 30, 1955 when he was sold to Shreveport of the Texas League. He was nicknamed Whistlin’ Dale because he used to whistle a lot while playing infield.

Alex McKinnon, first baseman for the 1887 Pittsburgh Alleghenys. He made his Major League debut at the age of 27 for the 1884 New York Gothams (Giants) of the National League. Playing first base everyday, he hit .272 with 21 doubles, 13 triples and 73 RBIs in a league leading 116 games played. The Gothams had tried their slugging first baseman Roger Connor in a utility role in 1884, with minimal success on offense and very poor defense. He moved back to first base in 1885 and McKinnon moved on to the St Louis Maroons of the National League. He hit .294 with 21 doubles and 44 RBIs in 100 games during his first year in St Louis, then followed it up in 1886 with a .301 average, 75 runs scored, 39 extra-base hits and 74 RBIs. McKinnon was traded to Pittsburgh in December of 1886 in exchange for first baseman Otto Schomberg and cash. McKinnon batted sixth and played first base during the first National League game in franchise history for the Pirates/Alleghenys. He had four hits that day in a 6-2 win, including a home run and a triple. It looked like the Alleghenys had found themselves a superstar with McKinnon, who was batting .340 through the first 48 games. He unfortunately came down with Typhoid Pneumonia in early July and while it initially looked like he would recover from it, he passed away 20 days after he left the team. He was a .296 career hitter in 386 games, with 209 runs scored and 219 RBIs.

McKinnon debuted in minor league ball in 1877 at 20 years old, in what was the first year for organized minor league ball. He spent his first three seasons (1877-79) playing in upstate New York, followed by a season in California in 1880. He had no minor league experience during the 1881-83 seasons before joining New York. McKinnon was listed in January of 1882 as being expelled from the National League. Boston (NL) President Arthur Soden worked hard to get McKinnon off of the expelled list in hopes that he would sign with Boston, but McKinnon ended up signing with the Philadelphia Quakers (Phillies) in March of 1883 instead. He didn’t play at all in 1883, despite going through Spring Training as Philadelphia’s starting first baseman. He played an exhibition game on April 30th at first base, then the next day on Opening Day, rookie Sid Farrar played first base instead and had a good game. Farrar ended up starting all 99 games that season at first base. McKinnon was reserved by Philadelphia for the 1884 season when the lists were released in late September of 1883. He ended up being released a short time later and signed with New York in late December.