This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: December 12th, Bad Trades and a Phenomenal Player

Six former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date, plus a few major trades of note, two that did not go well.

The Trades

On this date in 1941 the Pirates traded away superstar shortstop Arky Vaughan to the Brooklyn Dodgers in exchange for catcher Babe Phelps, pitcher Luke Hamlin, infielder Pete Coscarart and outfielder Jimmy Wasdell. The only reason this trade didn’t look so bad was that Vaughan retired for three years (1944-46) before coming back to play two more seasons as a part-time player. The best value they got (by far) in return for one of the greatest shortstops in baseball history was Coscarart, who hit .245 with 262 runs scored in 531 games for Pittsburgh. The Pirates were worried about losing players to the war effort, so they felt it was best to get four players to fill out holes in their roster, as opposed to getting upside for their All-Star shortstop. Hamlin had one mediocre year before he was traded to the Philadelphia Athletics. The 1943 season was one of the most watered down due to talent lost to the war, but Hamlin still spent the entire season in the minors. Babe Phelps played one season in Pittsburgh before he was traded for Babe Dahlgren in a deal that worked out well for the Pirates. Wasdell hit .266 in 126 games before being sold to the Philadelphia Phillies in April of 1943, meaning that 16 months after this deal was made, only Pete Coscarart was still with the Pirates. Vaughan hit .305 in 1943, leading the league in runs scored and stolen bases. The Pirates got 4.1 WAR in nine combined seasons from their players, while Vaughan gave Brooklyn 10.4 WAR in four years, though 8.4 came from the first two years before he retired. If he played through the watered down competition in the 1944-46 seasons, he might actually get the recognition he deserves, but also this deal would have been one of the worst (meaning top 3/4) in team history.

On this date in 1913 the Pirates traded pitcher Hank Robinson, outfielders Chief Wilson and Cozy Dolan and infielders Art Butler and Dots Miller to the St Louis Cardinals in exchange for pitcher Bob Harmon, first baseman Ed Konetchy and third baseman Mike Mowrey. The local Pittsburgh papers were rather sure when this deal was made that it would work out for the Pirates, but it went south in a hurry. Owner Barney Dreyfuss had a long-time man-crush on Konetchy that he didn’t hide and he gave up way too much to get him. He was a target of the Pirates for many years before this deal. In fact, this deal was so bad that Dots Miller alone outperformed that combined value of the three players Pittsburgh got in return. Chief Wilson played well for his first two (of three) seasons in St Louis, and the other three players in the deal all were regulars with the Cardinals. The Pirates went through a down stretch from 1914 until the early 1920s. The Cardinals added 30 wins in 1914 over their 1913 total, while the Pirates went from 78-71 to 69-85 in one year due in part to the poor return from this deal. Konetchy rewarded Dreyfuss by jumping to the Federal League after one down season with a .634 OPS, while Miller also played first base and finished fifth in the NL MVP voting in 1914. Mowrey played just 79 games with the Pirates before he was released in August of 1914, then had two of his better seasons in 1915-16. Harmon provided the most (only) value to the Pirates with a 2.60 ERA over four seasons, though it was the height of the deadball era and he had a losing record each year. An example of the deadball era effect is shown in his 1916 season when his 2.81 ERA was only the fourth best for starters on the team that finished sixth out of eight teams in ERA.

On this date in 1932 the Pirates traded pitcher Glenn Spencer and outfielder Gus Dugas in exchange for future Hall of Famer, Freddie Lindstrom. It was a three-team trade that also involved the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies. This trade worked out for the Pirates, as neither player they gave up amounted to much after the deal, while Lindstrom put in two solid seasons before he was traded to the Chicago Cubs in a deal that didn’t work out as well, but not due to Lindstrom’s production, as he put up -0.3 WAR after the trade. He hit .302 with 129 runs scored and 104 RBIs in 235 games for the Pirates. Spencer had a 5.13 ERA in 47.1 innings for the 1933 Giants, which ended up being his final big league season. Dugas hit .139 in 37 games for the Phillies in 1933, then he went 1-for-19 in 24 games for the Washington Senators in 1934. In comparison, the Pirates got 5.0 WAR from Lindstrom, while giving up two players who combined for -2.3 WAR. Then they were able to trade him (along with Larry French) for three solid players following the 1934 season.

The Players

Jose Osuna, outfielder/infielder for the 2017-2020 Pirates. Osuna signed as an international free agent out of Venezuela at 16 years old in 2009 and he was famously known by the last name “Ozuna” during his first season in the system. It took him until the middle of his eighth season before he debuted in the majors. He debuted in the Venezuelan Summer League, where he hit .251 with 16 doubles and ten homers in 64 games in 2010. In 2011, he moved up to the Gulf Coast League and hit .331 with 21 extra-base hits and 32 RBIs in 48 games. He was in Low-A ball in 2012, playing for West Virginia of the South Atlantic League, where he hit .280 in 126 games, with 36 doubles, 16 homers and 72 RBIs. The 2013-14 seasons were spent entirely in the Florida State League with Bradenton. Osuna batted .244 with 25 doubles and eight homers in 123 games. He stole 18 bases that season, which is 11 more than his next highest season total. In 2014, he hit .296 in 97 games, with 23 doubles, ten homers and 57 RBIs. The 2015 season started back in Bradenton, before he hit his way to Altoona of the Double-A Eastern League mid-season. He hit nearly identical in each spot, posting a .764 OPS in Bradenton and a .763 OPS in Altoona. Osuna had played some winter ball in prior seasons, but he got a chance to play full-time in Venezuela in the 2015-16 off-season and put up huge numbers, batting .330 in 59 games, with 13 doubles and nine homers.

In 2016, Osuna split the season between Altoona (70 games) and Indianapolis of the Triple-A International League (63 games). He combined to hit .279 with 37 doubles, 13 homers and 69 RBIs. He played a full season of winter ball again and his stats regressed, with a .279 average, 15 doubles and three homers in 60 games. He began 2017 back in Indianapolis, but after a short stint, he was in the majors for the rest of the season. In 104 games as a rookie, Osuna hit .233 with 24 extra-base hits, 30 RBIs and a .697 OPS. In 2018, he split the season between the Pirates and Triple-A. In the majors that year, he hit .226 with three homers and 11 RBIs in 51 games. He played a half season of winter ball that off-season and dominated, hitting .368 in 18 games, with a .971 OPS. During the 2019 season, Osuna saw his most big league time, hitting .264 with 20 doubles and ten homers in 95 games. That was followed by a .205 average and four homers in 26 games during the shortened 2020 season.

In 660 at-bats over 276 games with the Pirates, Osuna hit .241 with 24 homers and 88 RBIs. He was a solid defender at first base, but the Pirates also used him at third base and in both corner outfield spots. On July 6, 2017, he threw out three runners at second base while playing left field. While he provided decent offense despite a low OBP (.280 career), his defense was below average every season. His best year for WAR was 2018 when he had a 0.0 mark and his total over four years was -1.1 WAR. His .641 OPS in 26 games during the shortened 2020 season was his lowest season mark. After being let go by the Pirates following the 2020 season, Osuna signed to play in Japan for the 2021 season, where he helped lead his team to a league title.

John Gammon, pitcher for the Pittsburgh Alleghenys in 1884 when they were in the American Association and then again when they were in the National League in 1890. His birth name was John Gammon but he is better known as Phenomenal Smith. He got the nickname from a reporter after an amazing 16-strikeout performance while in the minors in 1885 and the name stuck despite the fact he posted just a 54-74 record over eight Major League seasons. During his first stint with Pittsburgh he lost his only game 10-5 to the Richmond Virginias, a franchise that won just 12 games total in their history. He debuted in pro ball that season with the Philadelphia Athletics on August 14th and lost his only start by giving up six runs on 14 hits. His lone start for the Alleghenys came 18 days later. As an interesting side note to that start, it was actually started by pitcher Bill Nelson making his big league debut, but he suffered a hand injury while batting in the top of the first, so he didn’t pitch at all. Smith pitched the entire game in his place. In 1885, Smith made one start for Brooklyn of the American Association and one for the Athletics. Just like in the previous year, he lost both starts, this time by giving up 27 runs over 12 innings of work. The rest of his year was spent with Newark of the Eastern League, where he picked up his famous nickname and had a 9-8, 0.84 record, with 212 strikeouts in 171.1 innings.

In 1886, Smith spent most of the year with Newark, going 22-10, 0.74 in 292 innings, with 317 strikeouts. He got a brief chance with the Detroit Wolverines of the National League in October of 1886 and had one win, one loss and one tie in three complete games. Smith never had a winning record during any of his eight seasons in the majors, though he did win 25 games for Baltimore of the American Association in 1887. He finished up 25-30, 3.79 in 491.1 innings, with 176 walks and 206 strikeouts. In 1888, he went 14-19, 3.61 in 292 innings with Baltimore, and he had his third stint with the Athletics, going 2-1, 2.86 in three starts. He stayed with Philadelphia for the start of the 1889 season, going 2-3, 4.40 in five starts before joining Hartford of the Atlantic League. He returned to Philadelphia to start 1890, but this time it was with the Phillies in the National League. He had an 8-12, 4.28 record in 204 innings, but he was released on September 10th.

Smith returned to the Alleghenys in mid-September 1890, near the end of the worst season in franchise history. He pitched five games, lost three, one ended in a tie, and then in game 136 of the year for the team, he beat the Phillies 10-1 for Pittsburgh’s 23rd win of the year. His signing with the Alleghenys was a bit confusing right before it happened. Just three days after his release from the Phillies, it was said that he would sign for $500 for the rest of the season, but Pittsburgh owner J. Palmer O’Neill was satisfied with his team’s pitching at the time (and who wouldn’t be on a 113-loss team) and he was looking for hitters instead. The very next day, it was announced that Smith signed. After his brief stint with the team in 1890, which also included some postseason exhibition games, Smith was still reserved for the 1891 season. However, when the Player’s League folded after one season, the Alleghenys were strengthened by returning players and pirated players from other teams, so they no longer needed Smith’s services. He went through part of Spring Training with Pittsburgh, but didn’t make the team.

Smith went back to the Phillies in early 1891, for what turned out to be his final three big league games. His career in pro ball was far from over though. Part of that 1891 season was spent with Milwaukee of the Western Association. He played for Green Bay of the Wisconsin-Michigan League in 1892, then played for Reading and Pottsville of the Pennsylvania State League during the 1893-95 seasons. His career moved around a lot after that point and he made the switch from pitching to a position player during that time.  He played until age 41 in 1906, most of that time as an outfielder for Manchester of the New England League. After his final big league game in 1891, until he settled down in Manchester in 1901, Smith played for 11 different minor league teams (12 if you count Manchester) in eight different leagues. He was a player-manager for six of those teams, including four seasons with Manchester. He also managed briefly in 1906 and 1909 in the minors, giving him a total of 13 seasons as a minor league manager. He ended up living out his life in Manchester, passing away in 1952 as one of the last players who played during the 19th century. As a big league pitcher, he went 54-74, 3.89 in 1,169.1 innings over 129 starts with 123 complete games. Technically his one start with the Alleghenys in 1884 should be a relief appearance, even though he pitched the entire game (it should also count as Bill Nelson’s debut, but records don’t show that).

Bill Howerton, outfielder for the 1951-52 Pirates. He originally signed with the Boston Red Sox in 1943 at 21 years old. He was playing semi-pro ball on the west coast before signing his first affiliated pro contract. While he didn’t serve during WWII, he was in minors during that time, and even well beyond the end of the war, debuting with the Cardinals in September of 1949. He debuted at a high level for someone who took so long to make the majors. Howerton played for Scranton of the Class-A Eastern league in 1943, hitting .303 with 71 runs scored, 25 doubles, eight triples and 69 RBIs in 139 games. In 1944, he moved up to Double-A Louisville of the American Association, where he hit .252 in 133 games, with 62 runs scored, 30 extra-base hits and 52 RBIs. In 1945, he split the season between Louisville and Scranton, while also seeing brief time in the Class-B Piedmont League. He combined to hit .247 at the two upper levels in 116 games, with 60 runs scored, 30 extra-base hits and 49 RBIs. In 1946, Howerton joined Columbus of the American Association (then a Triple-A level), where he stayed for the next four seasons. Columbus was an affiliate of the St Louis Cardinals, who acquired Howerton late in the 1946 season. In his first season in Columbus, he hit .302 in 73 games, with 30 extra-base hits for the third straight season. He hit .246 in 150 games in 1947, with 76 runs scored, 29 doubles, 17 homers, 86 RBIs and 85 walks. He improved in 1948 to a .299 average in 150 games, with 104 runs scored, 33 doubles, 25 homers, 114 RBIs and 66 walks. He was even better in 1949, which finally earned him his shot at the majors at 27 years old. That year for Columbus, he batted .329 in 148 games, with 101 runs scored, 43 doubles, 21 homers, 111 RBIs and 91 walks, resulting in a .963 OPS.

Howerton batted .308 in nine games for the Cardinals to finish out the 1949 season. He put up solid stats in 1950 as a regular, hitting .281 with 38 extra-base hits, 47 walks and 50 runs scored in 110 games. Howerton was part of a big seven-player deal between the Cardinals and Pirates in mid-1951 that sent five players to Pittsburgh, while Cliff Chambers and Wally Westlake headed to the Cardinals. At the time of his acquisition by the Pirates, he was batting .262 in 24 games, with a homer and four RBIs. With Pittsburgh, Howerton hit .279 with 11 homers and 41 RBIs in 79 games over two partial seasons. He saw time at all three outfielder positions and third base. He played more center field than anything else in Pittsburgh, though he also received ten starts in right field and he played a few games each at third base and left field in 1951. In 1952, he made one start at third base and committed two errors. During the 1952 season, he was put on waivers and picked up by the New York Giants. He was batting .320 through 13 games at the time he was lost on waivers. During the 1952 season, teams started the year with 30 active players, but they needed to cut that down to 25 by May 15th. Howerton was the first cut on May 7th. He played only 11 games in New York and never played in the majors again. He played a total of 11 seasons in the minors, finishing out his career in 1955. He spent the 1953-54 seasons with Oakland of the Pacific Coast League and really excelled the first year, hitting 32 homers, while driving in 106 runs. He hit 145 homers in the minors and had three seasons with 100+ RBIs. In his four big league seasons, he hit .274 in 247 games, with 95 runs scored, 22 homers and 106 RBIs.

Clyde Kluttz, catcher for the 1947-48 Pirates. He debuted in pro ball in 1938 at 20 years old, playing for Johnson City of the Class-D Appalachian League. He batted .318 with 28 extra-base hits in 79 games that season. In 1939, Kluttz moved up to Kilgore of the Class-C East Texas League, where he hit .316 in 110 games, with 31 extra-base hits. In 1940 he played for two Class-B teams, splitting the season between Decatur of the Three-I League and Columbus of the South Atlantic League. In 92 games, he hit .248 with 32 extra-base hits (25 doubles). The next year was split between 15 games at Decatur and 83 games for Sacramento of the Double-A Pacific Coast League. Kluttz hit .327 that year with 21 extra-base hits. That strong performance for Sacramento led to him being taken by the Boston Braves in the September 1941 Rule 5 draft. As a rookie in 1942, he hit .267 in 72 games, with 12 extra-base hits and 31 RBIs. He had just seven walks and 13 strikeouts all season. In 1943, he played 66 games, hitting .246 with 20 RBIs. He had seven extra-base hits (all doubles) and a 15:9 BB/SO ratio. In 1944, Kluttz hit .249 in 81 games, with 16 extra-base hits and 19 RBIs. During the 1945 season, he had a nice feather in his cap moment when he was traded to the New York Giants in a deal for Hall of Famer Joe Medwick. To top things off, the Giants threw in another player in the 2-for-1 deal. Medwick was nearly the end of his great career, but it still looks good on your resume to get traded for a Hall of Fame player (and a second player). Kluttz hit .284 during the 1945 season between both stops, with 34 runs scored, 23 extra-base hits and 31 RBIs in 98 games. He started 1946 with the Giants, but he ended up with the St Louis Cardinals on May 1st. He was actually traded to the Philadelphia Phillies that day, then they turned around and sent him to the Cardinals. Kluttz hit .251 in 57 games that year, with seven extra-base hits (all doubles) and eight runs scored all season.

The Pirates purchased Kluttz from the Cardinals in December of 1946. He ended up having the best season of his nine-year career in 1947, hitting .302 with six homers and 42 RBIs in 73 games. He also threw out 56.1% of stolen base attempts. A home plate collision on June 8th caused him to miss five weeks with a hand injury. In 1948, his batting dropped off significantly. He played 94 games that year and hit .221 with four homers and 20 RBIs, while watching his OPS drop from .790 in 1947 to .600 in 1948. He still played strong defense according to modern metrics, which credits him with a career best 0.9 dWAR. He also threw on 54% of base runners. Kluttz ended up spending the entire 1949 season in the minors, then joined the St Louis Browns near the end of the 1950 season, though he didn’t play in the majors again until 1951. He actually had a lot of movement to get from Pittsburgh to St Louis in a short time. The Pirates released him outright to Indianapolis of the American Association on January 29, 1949. They had a working agreement with the Pirates at the time, but some of the players were also their own property. The Baltimore Orioles of the American Association then purchased his contract on December 6, 1949 from Indianapolis, before the Browns claimed him in September of 1950 under a working agreement with the Orioles. Kluttz played just four games for the Browns, then moved on to the Washington Senators, where he played the final 111 games of his MLB career over the 1951-52 seasons. He played back in Baltimore (AA) in 1953, then he finished his pro career as a manager in 1954-55 for Savannah of the South Atlantic League. Kluttz played two games in 1954. He was a .268 hitter in 656 career games. He hit 19 homers in his career, with more than half (ten) coming while with the Pirates. His career mark for throwing out runners was 50.3%, which ranks as the 14th best percentage all-time.

Joe Rickert, left fielder for the 1898 Pirates. He played just two games for Pittsburgh at the end of the 1898 season, going 1-for-6 at the plate. Three years later, he got his only other chance in the majors, playing 13 games for the Boston Beaneaters. He went 10-for-60 at the plate with them, giving him a .167 average in both of his big league stints. Rickert spent time with the 1899 Pirates, but he never got into any games. He played over 1,800 minor league games from 1898 until he retired in 1915 (his first two years of stats from 1896-97 are unknown, so he actually played more). Rickert was lucky to get into a game when he did for Pittsburgh. The Pirates had three of their last four games rained out, so when he was used during a doubleheader on October 12th, it ended up being the only day he played for the team. He was said to be weak at the plate, but he performed well in the field, catching all ten balls hit his way. His scouting report before joining the Pirates basically said the same thing, with his fielding being as good as anyone, including big league players, but his hitting lagged behind. However, one local paper noted that he was hitting around .400 over the last two months of the season, so there was hope that it was the start of things to come. Rickert’s first career hit came off of Cy Young. In July of 1898, it was said that the Chicago Orphans (Cubs) were in pursuit of him. Later the Boston Beaneaters were also said to be after him, but he ended up being purchased by the Pirates two months later, partially because they were also willing to purchase his teammate Whitey Guese as a package deal.

Rickert debuted in pro ball at 19 years old in the Class-C Interstate League in 1896, and ended up playing for three different teams in the league during his first year. He spent the 1897 season with a fourth Interstate League team, playing the full year for the Youngstown Puddlers, as the league was reclassified as a Class-B level of play. He was with the New Castle Quakers of the Interstate League in 1898, returning there after playing for the team during his first season. Rickert hit .277 with 41 extra-base hits, 112 runs scored and 55 stolen bases in 149 games in 1898 before joining the Pirates on September 30th. He was one of three players picked up that day, along with Tully Sparks, who shares his birthday (see below). The Pirates loaned Rickert to Worchester of the Class-A Eastern League for the 1899 season and he returned to the majors on September 12, 1899 while the Pirates were playing in Brooklyn. It was said that he might play some games in left field for the Pirates over the last four weeks of the season, but he never played in any of the final 26 games. Rickert was back in Worchester for the 1900 season, and stayed there until joining the Boston Beaneaters for the final three weeks of the 1901 season. In 1902, he returned to Worcester and stayed there into the 1903 season. From there, he played for New Orleans of the Class-A Southern Association during the 1903-04 seasons, split the 1905 season between Atlanta of the Southern Association and Kansas City of the Class-A American Association, then returned to New Orleans for the 1906-08 seasons. In 1909, he dropped down to Class-C ball, playing for Chattanooga of the South Atlantic League. In 1910, Rickert was with Danville of the Class-C Virginia League. Strangely enough, he struggled at the plate at the lower competition level in 1909-10, then moved up to Topeka of the Class-A Western League and batted .281 and .282 during the 1911-12 seasons. After not playing in the minors during the 1913-14 seasons, he finished his pro career in the Class-B Texas League with Shreveport in 1915 at 38 years old.

Tully Sparks, pitcher for the 1899 Pirates. He debuted in pro ball in 1895, playing briefly for Montgomery of the Class-B Southern League. He remained in that same league in 1896, splitting the season between Birmingham and Mobile. Sparks went 15-17 that year, with 32 complete games in 34 starts, and 278.1 innings pitched. He’s credited with 160 strikeouts. In 1897, he played for two teams in the Class-C Texas League (no stats available). He made his Major League debut at 22 years old with the Philadelphia Phillies in September of 1897, getting hit hard in his only game with the team. Sparks allowed nine earned runs on 12 hits and four walks in eight innings. He spent the 1898 season in the minors with Richmond of the Atlantic League before being purchased by the Pirates on September 30th, the same day as Joe Rickert, who shares his birthday (see above). There was word that Sparks could appear in one of the remaining games, but he didn’t debut with the Pirates until 1899. He would make 17 starts and 11 relief appearances during the 1899 season, going 8-6, 3.86 in 170 innings. Prior to the 1900 season, the Pirates sold him to their former catcher/manager Connie Mack, who managed the Milwaukee Brewers of the American League, which was a minor league at the time.

Sparks spent all of 1900 in Milwaukee, posting a 16-12 record, while throwing 261 innings. He then pitched with the Brewers (current day Baltimore Orioles) in the first season that the American League was considered a Major League in 1901. That year he went 7-17, 3.51 in 210 innings. Sparks split the 1902 season between the Boston Americans (Red Sox) and the New York Giants, combining to go 11-19, 3.79 in 265.2 innings, with similar results in each stop. He ended up back with the Phillies for a second time in 1903, and this time he stuck with them for eight seasons and 95 wins. In 1903, he had an 11-15, 2.72 record in 28 starts, with 248 innings pitched. He followed that up in 1904 with a 7-16, 2.65 season in 200.2 innings. The Phillies finished 52-100 that season, so his record was in line with the team’s performance. In 1905, Sparks went 14-11, 2.18 in 259.2 innings. He had his busiest season in 1906, posting a 19-16, 2.16 record in 316.2 innings. He had a career high 114 strikeouts that year, the only time he cracked the century mark in a season. His best season was 1907, when he went 22-8, 2.00 in 265 innings. The Phillies finished 83-64 that season.

In 1908, Sparks had a 16-15, 2.60 record in 263.1 innings. That was his last of eight straight seasons with 200+ innings. In 1909, he went 6-11, 2.96 in 121.2 innings over 16 starts and eight relief outings. He pitched three times in the first two months of the 1910 season, before finishing the year in the minors, with Chattanooga of the Southern Association. He pitched for Montgomery of the Southern Association during the 1911 and 1913 seasons before retiring. Sparks went 121-137 over his 12-year career, posting a 2.82 ERA over 2,343.2 innings. He made 270 starts, completed 203 games and he tossed 19 shutouts. He also pitched 44 times in relief during his career.