This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: January 1st, Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg

Three former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date, plus a manager with an interesting footnote.

Hank Greenberg, Hall of Fame first baseman for the 1947 Pirates. He missed nearly five seasons due to World War II, but the 35-year-old Greenberg still led the American League with 44 homers and 127 RBIs his first full season back in baseball in 1946. The Pirates purchased him from the Detroit Tigers for $75,000 in January of 1947 and then signed him to a $100,000 contract, the first National League player to make six figures in a season. The addition of Greenberg gave the Pirates a potent 1-2 punch in the middle of their lineup when combined with Ralph Kiner, who was the NL leader in homers in 1946. The Pirates adjusted the left field fence at Forbes Field to accommodate their two sluggers, bringing it in 30 feet and calling the new home run territory Greenberg Gardens, which was later renamed Kiner’s Korner. Greenberg didn’t have a big season in Pittsburgh, hitting a career low .249 with 25 homers and 74 RBIs, although he did walk 104 times. His biggest contribution to the Pirates that year was his tutelage of Kiner, making the young player a better hitter by teaching him to pull the ball more to take advantage of the shorter distance in left field, and he also made him take extra batting practice. The move may not have paid off in the standings as the Pirates finished in seventh place with a disappointing 62-92 record, but they did get their money back on Greenberg with an increase of over 500,000 fans from the previous season. That year they broke the one-million mark in attendance for the first time in team history.

Greenberg retired following the season due to lingering injuries, but he still had some remarkable career stats to his credit. He played just nine full seasons and four partial years but he was still able to hit 331 homers and drive in 1,276 runs with a .313 career average. Besides the missed time due to the war, he also missed nearly the entire 1936 season, in the middle of his prime, due to a wrist injury. His career OPS of 1.017 ranks seventh all-time. He led the AL four times in home runs including an amazing 58 in 1938, just two off the big league record at the time. He drove in 184 runs in 1937, the third highest single season total ever. Two years prior he drove in 168 runs, the ninth highest total ever. He was the AL MVP in 1935 and 1940, while also finishing third in the voting twice. Despite the great stats over a short time it still took until 1956 for him to get elected to the Hall of Fame, even though he first appeared on the ballot in 1949 (He also received votes in 1945 before he came back from the war).

Greenberg debuted in pro ball in 1930 and made it to the majors that first season at 19 years old, though he received just one September at-bat from the Tigers. Playing most in Class-C ball for Raleigh of the Piedmont League in 1930, he hit .303 in 139 games, with 27 doubles, 16 triples and 21 homers. In 1931, Greenberg spent most of the year with Evansville of the Class-B Three-I League. He batted .318 with 41 doubles, ten triples and 15 homers. He didn’t reappear in the majors until 1933, after hitting .290 with 31 doubles, 11 triples and 39 homers for Beaumont of the Class-A Texas League in 1932.  He batted .301 as a rookie in 1933, which ended up being his lowest full-season batting average until the year before he joined the Pirates. In 117 games that year, he hit 33 doubles, 12 homers and he had 85 RBIs. In 1934, Greenberg batted .339 in 153 games, with 118 runs scored, and incredible 63 doubles, 26 homers and 139 RBIs. That double total is the fourth highest ever for a season, and at the time it was the second best total. He finished sixth in the MVP voting.

In 1935, Greenberg hit .328 in 152 games, with 120 runs scored, 46 doubles, 36 homers, 168 RBIs, 87 walks, and a 1.039 OPS. He set career highs with 203 hits and 16 triples, while leading the league with 389 total bases. He played just 12 games in 1936, then returned in 1937 to hit .337 in 154 games, with 137 runs scored, 49 doubles, 14 triples, 40 homers, 184 RBIs, 102 walks and a 1.105 OPS. He set a career high with 397 total bases. He made his first All-Star appearance that season and finished third in the MVP voting. In 1938, Greenberg hit .315 in 155 games and led the league with 143 runs scored, 58 homers and 119 walks. He also had 147 RBIs and a career best 1.122 OPS. He finished third again in the MVP voting and made his second All-Star appearance. In 1939, Greenberg hit .312 in 138 games, with 111 runs scored, 42 doubles, 33 homers, 113 RBIs, 91 walks and a 1.042 OPS. He was an All-Star and received mild MVP support.

Greenberg won his second MVP award in 1940 when he hit .340 in 148 games, with 129 runs scored, 50 doubles, 41 homers, 150 RBIs and 93 walks. He led the league in doubles, homers, RBIs, slugging (.670) and OPS (1.103). In 1941, he played 19 games before heading off to the service. His next big league game came on July 1, 1945. He batted .311 with 60 RBIs in 78 games that season, then hit .277 with 44 homers and 127 RBIs in his final season before joining the Pirates. Greenberg has three of the top 24 seasons all-time in extra-base hits, including the sixth highest total in 1937 (103). His 1.017 career OPS is sixth all-time for players with at least 5,000 plate appearances.

Bob Owchinko, pitcher for the 1983 Pirates. The Pirates originally acquired him in December 1980 from the Cleveland Indians in the Bert Blyleven/ Manny Sanguillen trade. Owchinko had five years of big league experience at the time, including three seasons as a regular in the starting rotation for the San Diego Padres. He was a first round draft pick in 1976 by the Padres, taken fifth overall out of Eastern Michigan. He went directly to Double-A and made 13 starts, where he had a 6-2, 3.26 record in 91 innings. That was followed by two late season big league starts just three months after he was drafted. Those games did not go well, as he allowed a total of eight runs in 4.1 innings. After going 5-1, 1.43 in six starts for Triple-A Hawaii of the Pacific Coast League in 1977, he was back in San Diego for good. Owchinko went 9-12, 4.45 in 170 innings over 28 starts and two relief outings. His 101 strikeouts that season were his big league high. In 1978, he had a 10-13, 3.56 record in 202.1 innings over 33 starts and three relief appearances. During the 1979 season, he posted a 6-12, 3.74 record in 149.1 innings over 20 starts and 22 relief outings.

Owchinko was traded to Cleveland in mid-February of 1980, ten months before he joined the Pirates. In his only season in Cleveland, he went 2-9, 5.27 in 14 starts and 15 relief appearances, throwing a total of 114.1 innings. Before Owchinko could play a regular season game for the Pirates, they shipped him to the Oakland A’s on April 6, 1981 in exchange for pitcher Ernie Camacho. Owchinko pitched strictly in relief for Oakland. During the strike-shortened 1981 season, he had a 4-3, 3.20 record in 39.1 innings and 29 appearances. In 1982, he went 2-4, 5.21 in 102 innings over 54 games. He was released by the A’s just prior to the start of the 1983 season and the Pirates signed him one month later. He spent the season in Triple-A, going 10-6, 4.25 in 137.1 innings before getting called up in September. On September 5th he came in during the ninth inning of the second game of a doubleheader with the Pirates up 6-5 and gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, Andy Van Slyke. The next batter doubled, then Owchinko was pulled and he didn’t pitch for the Pirates again, despite remaining with the club through the end of the season 27 days later.

In November of 1983, Owchinko was lost on waivers to the Cincinnati Reds. He put up a 4.12 ERA in 94 innings over 49 appearances in 1984 with the Reds, then spent all of 1985 in Triple-A, splitting time between the A’s and Chicago White Sox organizations. Owchinko signed with the Montreal Expos in 1986 and made his final three big league appearances at the end of the season, getting three starts. That also ended his pro career. He pitched a total of ten years in the majors, going 37-60, 4.28 in 890.2 innings over 104 starts and 171 relief appearances.

Gary Wilson, pitcher for the 1995 Pirates. He was an 18th round draft pick by the Pirates in 1992 out of Cal State. Four years earlier, the New York Mets took him in the 35th round out of Arcata HS in California. Wilson split the 1992 season between Welland of the short-season New York-Penn League and Low-A Augusta of the South Atlantic League, posting a combined 2.36 ERA in 84 innings. He split the 1993 season between Low-A and High-A (Salem of the Carolina League), while splitting his time between starting (21 starts) and relief (14 appearances) He struggled, posting an 8-12, 5.64 record in 129.1 innings, with nearly identical results at each level. In 1994, Wilson went 11-6, 2.82 in 196.2 innings over 28 minor league starts between Salem and Double-A Carolina of the Southern League. His 123 strikeouts that year represented the only time he broke the century mark in strikeouts for a season. Wilson had quite the rise in the Pirates system over the course of 12 months. He was in high-A ball at the beginning of the 1994 season and jumped to the majors at the start of the 1995 season, which was delayed three weeks due to the strike that started during the previous August. He had an 0-1, 5.02 record in 14.1 innings over ten relief appearances for the Pirates before being sent back to the minors for good in mid-June.

Wilson was with the Pirates originally through May 17th when he was sent to Triple-A to make room for Rick White, who was coming off of the disabled list. On June 1st, Wilson was recalled when Jim Gott went on the disabled list. When Gott was activated after 15 days, Wilson returned to the minors. At 25 years old, that ended up being his last big league shot. The Pirates lost all ten games he appeared in during his brief MLB time. Wilson missed some time after being sent down, pitching just seven times after mid-June, though he was healthy during the minor league playoffs. He was dropped from the 40-man roster on November 20, 1995, but he stayed in the Pittsburgh system until late 1998, before finishing his pro career with the Minnesota Twins in Triple-A later that season. He He had a 5.08 ERA in 161.1 innings as a starter in 1996 with Triple-A Calgary of the Pacific Coast League. He then saw that ERA rise to 5.87 in 113 innings in 1997, while also seeing a brief demotion to Double-A, along with a move to the bullpen during the season. With Triple-A Nashville in 1998, he lost his starting role and had a 5.98 ERA in 58.2 innings before moving on to the Twins, where he finished his career by posting a 6.17 ERA in 23.1 innings for Salt Lake City of the PCL.

Bill McGunnigle, manager the Pirates during the second half of the 1891 season, going 24-33 with two ties. He had previously managed the Brooklyn Bridegrooms from 1888-90, winning the American Association pennant in 1889. He started off his big league managerial career strong at 33 years old, finishing in second place with an 88-52 record. During the 1889 season, he led his team to a 93-44 record. Then when Brooklyn moved to the National League for the 1890 season, he won a second consecutive title, finishing with an 86-43 record. Despite that success, he had just two more seasons of managing left in him. His first was in 1891 with Pittsburgh, and then in 1896 with the Louisville Colonels, where he took over mid-season and led them to a 36-76 record. They were a last place team that started off with a 2-17 record, so things actually got better once he took over, despite that record.

McGunnigle got his baseball start as a player. He debuted in pro ball during the first season of organized minor league ball in 1877. He pitched two seasons in the majors (1879-80) and played outfield when he wasn’t on the mound, also getting into one big league game in 1882. He went 9-5, 2.63 in 120 innings as a rookie with the Buffalo Bisons of the National League in 1879. That season he combined with Pud Galvin to be the only two pitchers that the team used during the entire season, with Galvin getting a large majority of the work. He would end up managing Galvin during the 1891 season with Pittsburgh. McGunnigle made five starts for Buffalo in 1880, then finished his season with one game for Worcester as an outfielder. He finished his career two years later with one game in center field for the Cleveland Blues on August 17, 1882. His minor league playing career extended into 1893, but he played just a handful of games after 1887. His final three full seasons in the minors (1885-87) were spent as a player-manager. McGunningle has an interesting footnote in Pirates history that not many people know.

During the 1891 season, most sources say that the Pirates switched names from the Alleghenys to the current Pirates name. That isn’t quite true, as there was never any official name change back then and “Alleghenys” was still used a large majority of the time over the next few years. It’s true that 1891 was the first time that the club was called “Pirates”, but that was far from official and mostly done by a few outside sources, such as the press in Cincinnati and Boston, and some unhappy baseball people in Philadelphia. The team name from the local press never really changed until Pirates was fully embraced in 1895. They were still called the Alleghenys in early 1891, while sometimes being referred to as the Pittsburgs (no H) or the Hanlon’s after manager Ned Hanlon. That major usage of Alleghenys changed quite a bit when McGunnigle took over mid-season. He used to run practices with a whistle, and the team was quickly referred to as the “Pets”, as in McGunnigle’s pets. It was used daily in headlines and stories by the Pittsburgh media for the second half of the season and into the off-season, before he was replaced at the helm by Al Buckenberger on December 7, 1891. If you were to check the team name in print during the 1891 calendar year by Pittsburgh media, Pets would be there above Pirates for usage (not including reports used from opposing media during road games).