This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: November 15th, Maurice Van Robays and Gus Bell

Four former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date.

Gus Bell, outfielder for the 1950-52 Pirates. Bell was signed as an amateur free agent in 1947 at 18 years old. By age 20, he already had two .300 seasons in the minors, and by age 21 he was a starter in the majors. He split his first season between Class-C Keokuk of the Central Association and Class-D Leesburg of the Florida State League, combining to hit .242 with 40 RBIs and 33 runs scored in 76 games. He spent the entire 1948 season with Keokuk and hit .319 in 128 games, with 27 doubles, 20 triples and six homers. In 1949, Bell moved up to Albany of the Class-A Eastern League, where he hit .325 in 134 games, with 27 doubles, 13 triples, 12 homers and 86 RBIs. He began the 1950 season in Triple-A playing for Indianapolis and did so well in the first 38 games, hitting an even .400 (66-for-165), that the Pirates called him up on May 30th for a doubleheader. He went 2-for-5 in each game of the doubleheader, although the Pirates lost both games. Bell would play 111 of the final 117 Pirates games that rookie season, hitting .282 with 22 doubles, 11 triples, eight homers and 53 RBIs. He finished second in the National League in triples that year. The next year as an everyday starter all season in right field, he played 149 games and led the National League in triples with 12, while adding 16 homers. He drove in 89 runs and scored 80 runs, ranking second on the Pirates in each category behind Ralph Kiner.

In 1952, Bell had a down year from the previous season, hitting just .250 with 59 RBIs, while striking out 72 times. That strikeout total was the tenth highest in the NL, and he got there despite the fact that he spent three weeks in the minors after a 1-for-18 start to the season. Right after the 1952 season ended, the Pirates traded Bell to the Cincinnati Reds for three players who provided very little in return, while Bell went on to have a nice career. In his first season in Cincinnati, he hit .300 with 37 doubles, 30 homers, 105 RBIs and 102 runs scored, which earned him mild MVP support. In 1954, he batted .299 in 153 games, with career highs of 104 runs scored and 38 doubles. He also added 17 homers and 101 RBIs, while making his second All-Star appearance. In 1955, Bell hit for a career best .308 average. He scored 88 runs, to go along with 30 doubles, 27 homers and 104 RBIs, while also setting a personal best with 54 walks. Despite what rated as the second best season in his career, he didn’t make the All-Star team in 1955.

In 1956, Bell made his third All-Star appearance. He hit .292 with 31 doubles, 29 homers, 84 RBIs and 82 runs scored in 150 games. He made his final All-Star appearance in 1957 when he batted .292 in 121 games, with 20 doubles, 13 homers, 61 RBIs and 65 runs scored. He had a down year in 1958 before bouncing back for one more big league in 1959. Bell played 112 games in 1958, missing time later in the year due to an ankle injury he suffered in late July. He was already hitting poor by his standards at the time, but he was worse after the injury, finishing with a career low (to that point) .696 OPS. He was healthy in 1959 and he responded with a career high of 115 RBIs, which was the fourth most in the NL. He batted .293 that season in 148 games, with 27 doubles and 19 homers. In 1960, Bell hit .262 with 36 extra-base hits, 65 runs and 62 RBIs in 143 games. In his last season in Cincinnati in 1961, he batted .255 with three homers and 33 RBIs in 103 games.

The New York Mets took Bell in the Expansion draft right after the 1961 season ended. He didn’t last long there, as they traded him to the Milwaukee Braves on May 21, 1962 in a deal for his former Pirates teammate Frank Thomas. Bell hit .241 with six homers, 30 RBIs and 36 runs scored in 109 games between both teams in 1962. He suffered a freak injury in 1963 that basically ended his big league career. During pregame warm-ups in the outfield, another fielding ran into him when he wasn’t looking and injured his knee. Bell played six games between the 1963-64 seasons, all as a pinch-hitter, before he was released in May of 1964, ending his career. He was a four-time All-Star during his 13 full seasons in the majors, finishing with a .281 average, 865 runs, 311 doubles, 206 homers and 962 RBIs in 1,741 games. He is the father of Buddy Bell and grandfather of both David Bell and Mike Bell, making them one of five three-generation families in baseball history.

Maurice Van Robays, outfielder for the Pirates from 1939-43 and 1946. He played briefly in the minors at 19 years old in 1934 with two different teams, playing 11 games total, but he didn’t see his first full-time play in pro ball until 1937 when he would hit .368 with 28 doubles, nine triples and 43 homers in 105 games with Ogdensburg of the Class-C Canadian-American League. During the 1935-36 seasons, he was playing for a local team called the Karp Coal, near his home in Detroit. In 1938 he moved up to A-ball after an early season demotion from Montreal of the International League. Montreal owned his rights since September of 1937, but they felt early on in 1938 that he wasn’t ready for that level of play, so he spent the majority of the season playing for Knoxville of the Southern Association. In Knoxville, Van Robays batted .307 with 22 doubles, 15 triples and 23 homers in 135 games. The Pirates purchased him from Montreal over the winter of 1938-39 and brought him to Spring Training, though it was said that he wasn’t competing for a big league job. Van Robays returned to Montreal for 1939 and hit .320 with 47 extra-base hits in 136 games, earning a September call-up to Pittsburgh. He hit .314 in 27 games in his first big league trial, impressing enough to land the left field job for the 1940 Pirates. In his first full season in the majors, he hit .273, with 82 runs scored, 45 extra-base hits and  116 RBIs, which led the team and was the third highest RBI total in the National League.

Van Robays hit .282 with 62 runs scored, 32 extra-base hits and 78 RBIs in 129 games in 1941, showing a big drop in RBIs  from the previous season, but it was still the second highest total on the Pirates. His stats dropped way off in 1942, hitting just .232 in 100 games, with one home run and a .311 slugging percentage. He rebounded a bit in 1943 after spending the beginning of the year in the minors with Toronto of the International League (he played one April game for the Pirates), hitting .288 in 69 games in Pittsburgh. However, after the season ended, he entered the Army during WWII, and spent the next 32 months away from baseball. Van Robays returned for the start of the 1946 season, but struggled due to the off-time, hitting just .212 in his last Major League season. The Pirates cut ties with him after the season, sending him to Oakland of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League as part of the deal to acquire Wally Westlake. Van Robays was actually sold to Indianapolis of the American Association on September 30, 1946, who then in turn sold him to Oakland on February 3, 1947. He spent four seasons with Oakland before retiring at 35 years old. He batted .300 in 342 games during that time, but never got another chance at the majors. He had a career .267 average in 529 Major League games with 232 runs scored, 20 homers and 303 RBIs.

Craig Hansen, pitcher for the 2008-09 Pirates. He was part of the return in the Jason Bay trade at the 2008 trade deadline, but injuries limited him to just 21 games with the Pirates. He was a first round pick out of St John’s by the Boston Red Sox in 2005, selected 26th overall. He signed with Boston on July 26th, and on September 19th he made his Major League debut. He pitched 12.2 scoreless innings in the minors (mostly in Double-A) before his debut. He gave up two runs over three innings in four appearances with the Red Sox. Hansen began 2006 in the minors, where he dominated with Portland of the Double-A Eastern League, allowing one run in 11 innings on four hits. He pitched 36 innings for Pawtucket of the International League that year, where had a 2.75 ERA, though it came with a large increase in his WHIP over Portland (0.73 vs 1.39). He joined the Red Sox in June and pitched a total of 38 games, posting a 6.63 ERA in 38 innings. Hansen spent all of 2007 in Pawtucket, while also participating in the Arizona Fall League. He made 40 appearances for Pawtucket, posting a 3.86 ERA in 51.1 innings, with three saves and a high walk rate (32:48 BB/SO ratio), which led to a 1.75 WHIP. He gave up three runs over five innings in five appearances in the AFL.

Prior to his trade to the Pirates on July 31, 2008, Hansen had a 5.58 ERA in 30.2 innings over 30 appearances with the Red Sox. After the trade, he had a 7.47 ERA in 16 appearances for the Pirates. He also saw time in Pawtucket and Indianapolis (two games) that season, pitching a total of 65 innings and 61 games between the two levels. His control was poor before the trade, with 23 walks in those 30.2 innings, but it got even worse with the Pirates, where he walked 20 batters in 15.2 innings. In 2009, he suffered from brachial plexus neuropathy, which weakens/numbs muscles in the arm, shoulder and upper back. He was limited to five big league appearances in April of 2009, and then 12 minor league games after he finally returned in July of 2010. He pitched a total of 22.1 innings during the 2009-10 seasons combined. He went to Spring Training with the Pirates in 2011, but after seeing his fastball velocity drop about 7-8 MPH, he asked (and received) his release on April 6th. After not pitching in 2011, Hansen had a brief comeback at the lower levels of the minors with the New York Mets in 2012, which lasted just six innings over seven appearances. Hansen had a 6.95 ERA in 22 innings with the Pirates. In parts of three years with the Red Sox, he had a 6.15 ERA in 74 appearances.

Randy Niemann, pitcher for the 1982-83 Pirates. He was drafted three times out of the College of the Redwoods before he finally signed, first going to the Montreal Expos in the fifth round in June of 1974, then the Minnesota Twins in the third round in January of 1975, before the New York Yankees signed him as a second round pick in June of 1975. Just two years later, he was traded to the Houston Astros, where he made his big league debut in May of 1979. He debuted in the minors at 19 years old in 1975, playing for Oneonta of the short-season New York-Penn League, where he went 3-3, 2.45 in 55 innings. He moved up to Fort Lauderdale of the Florida State League in 1976, where he had a 9-10, 2.84 record in 190 innings over 25 starts, with ten complete games. Niemann had a 5.52 ERA in 62 innings with West Haven of the Double-A Eastern League before his trade to the Astros. After the deal, he remained in Double-A (Columbus of the Southern League), posting a 4.76 ERA in 34 innings. He spent the 1978 season in Columbus, going 9-5, 2.05 in 123 innings, with 14 starts and 15 relief appearances. In 1979, Niemann began the season in Triple-A, but he was in the majors by Mid-May, where he went 3-2, 3.76 for the Astros in 67 innings spread over seven starts and 19 relief appearances. He had a similar time split between Triple-A and the majors in 1980, though his big league time was almost all out of the bullpen. Niemann went 0-1, 5.45 in 33 innings with Houston that year, with 22 appearances (one start). He did not pitch in the majors in 1981, spending the year in Triple-A, where he made ten starts. He had surgery in early July to remove bone chips from his elbow, which ended his season.

Niemann came to the Pirates from the Astros on September 9, 1981 as the player to be named later in the Johnny Ray for Phil Garner trade made nine days earlier. Niemann pitched 28 games total for the Pirates over two seasons, spending part of each year as a starting pitcher in the minors and a reliever in the majors. He went 1-2, 6.24 in 49 innings for Pittsburgh, with most of that time coming in 1982.  He was traded to the Chicago White Sox for Miguel Dilone in September of 1983, ending his time in Pittsburgh. After leaving the Pirates, he played briefly for the White Sox in 1984, where he allowed one run over 5.1 innings in five appearances. He was traded to the New York Mets on March 30, 1985, and made four scoreless appearances that year in the majors. He then had a 3.79 ERA in 35.2 innings over 31 appearances for the 1986 Mets, helping them to their second World Series title. Niemann finished his big league career with six appearances for the 1987 Minnesota Twins after signing with them as a free agent on January 16, 1987. He played pro ball until 1988, returning to the Mets on a minor league deal for his final season. In his eight-year big league career, he went 7-8, 4.64 in 200 innings over ten starts and 112 relief appearances.

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