Four former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date, including a catcher for two World Series teams and one of the most unlikely All-Stars ever. As a side note, the pitcher listed below hit twice as many big league homers as the three batters combined, with the batters combining for 2,205 more at-bats. We start with a transaction of note.
On this date in 1985, the Pirates signed 18-year-old Orlando Merced as an amateur free agent out of Puerto Rico. He did not show much prospect potential at first, batting .228 in the Gulf Coast League during the 1985 season, followed by a .191 average the next season. That was followed by a season in which he was limited to eight games due to injury. So after three years, he had poor results and basically missed an entire season. Just three years late, Merced was a mid-season call-up during the 1990 season, seeing bench time for the National League East champs that year. He then saw regular work for the second and third straight division titles during the 1990-92 run. Merced was an everyday starter for six seasons in Pittsburgh (1991-96) before he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in a nine-player deal made on November 14, 1996. He ended up playing 13 seasons in the majors. In seven seasons with the Pirates, he hit .283 with 65 homers, 394 RBIs and 396 runs scored in 776 games. He split his playing time fairly evenly between first base and right field during his time with the Pirates.
Roy Spencer, catcher for the Pirates from 1925-27. Spencer signed with the Detroit Tigers when he was 21 in 1921, and he got tryouts with the team over the next two seasons. His pro career opened up in the minors in 1922, spending the year in the Class-A Western League, splitting his time between Denver and Omaha. His stats are incomplete, but they show a .272 average in 123 games, with 28 doubles, four triples and four homers. In 1923, Spencer played for Augusta of the Class-B South Atlantic League, where he hit .276 in 123 games, with 32 extra-base hits. By 1924, he was playing for Birmingham of the Class-A Southern Association, where he batted .316 in 107 games, with 14 doubles and six triples. Spencer was sold to the Pirates on September 14, 1924, just days before the Pirates and Birmingham announced that they had an affiliation together. He was the third-string catcher during all three seasons in Pittsburgh, getting just 31 starts over those years, with 22 of them coming during the 1927 season. The Pirates had Earl Smith and Johnny Gooch ahead of him during his time in Pittsburgh. Both were strong hitters who could throw out runners at a decent clip, although by 1927 Smith was beginning the downside of his career. Despite not playing much, Spencer still managed to hit .301 in his 80 games with the Pirates, including a .395 average over 43 at-bats in 1926. He batted just 29 times in 14 games during the 1925 season, then had a .283 average and 13 RBIs in 97 plate appearances during the 1927 season. The Pirates made the World Series in both 1925 and 1927, winning it all in the first year. Spencer had one postseason at-bat between the two years, a ground out in game three in 1927. Following that World Series, the Pirates traded him and pitcher Emil Yde to Indianapolis of the Double-A American Association. Spencer caught 25% of base runners attempting to steal during his time in Pittsburgh, going 7-for-28 in that category.
After spending all of 1928 in Indianapolis, where he batted .296 with a .740 OPS in 140 games, Spencer made in back to the majors in 1929 with the Washington Senators. He ended up playing nine more seasons in the big leagues after leaving Pittsburgh. He hit just .155 in 50 games during the 1929 season, then raised his average exactly 100 points the following season. That 1930 season was one of the best for offense in baseball history and Spencer’s .618 OPS in 93 games was actually 154 points below league average. In 1931, he got his one chance to start full-time over the course of an entire season and he .275 with 48 runs, 20 extra-base hits and 60 RBIs in 145 games. He saw a dip in his overall numbers in 1932 over 102 games played, batting .246, with nine doubles, a homer and 41 RBIs. He then got traded to the Cleveland Indians in the 1932-33 off-season. Spencer hit .203 with a .524 OPS in 75 games during the 1933 season, then barely played during the first month of 1934, getting seven at-bats in five games. He was sold to Buffalo of the International League (Double-A) in 1934, and hit .248 with 15 extra-base hits in 84 games. He spent the next two seasons with Baltimore of the International League, batting .259 in 120 games in 1935, followed by a .313 average in 19 games before returning to the majors for 19 games with the 1936 New York Giants over the final four months of the season, getting just 21 plate appearances. He then played 67 games for the 1937-38 Brooklyn Dodgers, hitting .222 with seven runs scored and ten RBIs in 183 plate appearances, before finishing his career back with Baltimore during the 1938 season. In 636 Major League games he was a .247 hitter with 177 runs, 57 doubles, three homers and 203 RBIs. He went 3-for-3 in steals in 1930, then attempted just one stolen base over his final seven seasons. Despite the slow start in the running game department with the Pirates, he ended up throwing out just over 50% of runners during his career, including a league best 71% in 1933.
Frankie Zak, shortstop for the 1944-46 Pirates. He began in the minors as a 19-year-old in 1941, spending his first two seasons in Class-D ball. He was with Tarboro of the Coastal Plain League in 1941, hitting .255 with five doubles and a triple in 58 games. In 1942, he played for Hornell of the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League, where he batted .271 with 21 extra-base hits in 119 games. By 1943 he was playing in the Double-A International League (highest level at the time), where he hit .246 with 22 stolen bases, 101 runs scored and 104 walks for Toronto. Zak was a Spring Training participant with the Pirates in 1943, getting cut on the same day as Ralph Kiner (April 17th). Both were sent to Toronto to play for former Pirate/Hall of Fame pitcher Burleigh Grimes. With help from player losses to the war effort, Zak made the Pirates Opening Day roster in 1944, but didn’t get his first at-bat of the season until the team’s 36th game. Up to that point he had either been used as a pinch-runner or finished the game defensively at shortstop. In his first start he went 2-for-2 at the plate, then followed that up with four hits in six at-bats over the next two days. In fact, the first seven games he started he had at least one hit in each game. After his first hitless game, he went 4-for-4 on June 10th, giving him a .538 average nine starts into his career. Zak’s bat cooled off right away, going 0-for-13 in the next six games, and he hit .196 over the next 24 games. By August 9th he was back on the bench in his defensive replacement/pinch-runner role. In the last 50 games of the season he played 16 times and batted just twice. Luckily for Zak, the All-Star game was in early July in Pittsburgh and he was still batting .350 as late as July 2nd. He made the All-Star team as an injury replacement, although he didn’t play. He was helped by the wartime travel restrictions, which forced the National League to use someone with the Pirates. Zak just happened to be the only middle infielder for the Pirates who remained in Pittsburgh during the break, so he got his All-Star selection.
Zak got some starts at the beginning of the 1945 season, but after going 0-for-4 on April 21st, he didn’t get another at-bat over the next 5 1/2 weeks. On May 29th, he was optioned to Kansas City of the Triple-A American Association, where he played 104 games and had a .591 OPS before returning to the Pirates in September, batting eight times in six games after rejoining the club. He ended up batting .143 in 15 games for the Pirates that year. Zak made the 1946 Opening Day roster, lasting 21 games before being sent to the minors after going 0-for-2 as the starting shortstop in his final game on June 10th. On June 13th, he was released outright to Kansas City as part of an earlier deal in which the Pirates acquired pitcher Ed Bahr. Zak never returned to the majors, retiring after the 1949 season. After finishing 1946 with Kansas City, he played for Newark of the International League in 1947, Portland of the Pacific Coast League in 1948, followed by three teams during his final season, including a stint with Portland. He hit .269 with 43 runs and 14 RBIs in 123 games with the Pirates. He never homered in the majors and hit just two in 2,910 minor league at-bats, both coming with Hornell during his second season.
Tom Griffin, pitcher for the 1982 Pirates. He was originally a first round pick in 1966, selected fourth overall by the Houston Astros out of Grant HS in California at 18 years old. He played A-Ball in the short-season Northern League during his pro debut, going 3-5, , 5.67 in 46 innings, with 66 strikeouts. He also saw time in Double-A that year with Amarillo of the Texas League, where he allowed 16 base runners and four runs in seven innings. In 1967, Griffin pitched for Asheville of the Class-A Carolina League and Oklahoma City of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, with similar work/results in each league. He finished the season with a 3-9, 5.67 record in 92 innings over 15 starts and five relief appearances. In 1968, he spent the entire year with Oklahoma City, going 7-14, 4.34 in 168 innings, with 144 strikeouts. Despite poor results in the minors, it took him just three seasons to reach the majors and he had a big rookie year, going 11-10, 3.54 in 31 starts, with three shutouts. In 188.1 innings, he had 200 strikeouts, giving him the best strikeout rate in the National League. He never came close to approaching that strikeout number in the future. Griffin had a sophomore and junior slump, going 3-19 over the two seasons, with a 5.50 ERA in 149 innings. He spent part of 1970 and most of 1971 in the minors. He bounced back in 1972 in a bullpen role, posting a 3.24 ERA in 94.1 innings over 39 outings (five starts). He picked up 83 strikeouts that year, giving him his second best strikeout rate of his career.
Griffin split 1973 between starting and relief, putting up a 4-6, 4.15 record in 99.2 innings over 12 starts and 13 relief appearances. He started full-time in 1974, going 14-10, 3.54 in 211 innings over 34 starts, setting career highs in wins and innings. He had just 110 strikeouts, his best season total after his rookie year. He had three shutouts that year, matching his career high set during his rookie season. He saw limited work during the 1975 season, finishing up with a 3-8, 5.33 record in 79.1 innings. He didn’t pitch after late June due to a circulation problem in his right hand. Griffin started off poorly as a reliever in 1976, posting a 6.05 ERA in 41.2 innings, before the Astros lost him on waivers to the San Diego Padres. In 11 starts with the 1976 Padres, he had a 4-3, 2.94 record in 70.1 innings. After splitting the 1977 season between relief and starting, going 6-9, 4.46 in 151.1 innings over 20 starts and 18 relief appearances, Griffin signed a free agent deal with the California Angels. He lasted one year there in a swing-man role, putting up a 4.02 ERA in 56 innings, with four starts and 20 relief appearances. From there it was on to the San Francisco Giants, where he had a 3.91 ERA in 59 games and 94.1 innings in 1979. That was followed by a strong 1980 season, with a 2.76 ERA in 104.2 innings, pitching mostly in long relief, with four starts and 38 relief outings.
Griffin bounced between starter and relief his whole career, but in 1981 for the Giants he was a starter the entire year, going 8-8 3.76 in 22 games and 129.1 innings. He already had 13 seasons in the majors when the Pirates acquired him from the San Francisco Giants on December 11, 1981 in exchange for first baseman Doe Boyland. With the 1982 Pirates, Griffin started the third game of the season and allowed five runs in six innings. He then pitched out of the pen twice, including a one-inning outing in which he allowed eight hits and five runs. The Pirates moved him back to starter ten days later and got an eight-inning performance out of him in a 10-4 win over the Atlanta Braves. Griffin followed up his good start with back-to-back starts in which he pitched a total of seven innings, allowing 22 base runners and nine runs. Four days later the Pirates released him and his career was over. He finished with an 8.87 ERA in 22.1 innings with the PiratesIn his 14-year career, Griffin went 77-94 4.07 in 1,494.2 innings over 401 games, with 191 of those appearances coming as a starter. His first home run as a batter was an inside-the-park homer at Forbes Field off of Bob Moose. He batted .163 in 405 at-bats during his career, finishing with 16 doubles, ten homers and 32 RBIs.
Bill Baker, catcher for the 1941-43, and 1946 Pirates. He started his pro career in 1931 at 21 years old, and despite the fact he was a catcher who hit over .290 in seven of the next eight seasons, he didn’t make his Major League debut until 1940 with the Cincinnati Reds. Baker was an outfielder during his first season of pro ball, playing 13 games for Greensboro of the Class-C Piedmont League. In 1932, he played mostly outfield, but he began to catch that year, they stayed behind the plate for a large majority of his future time. That year he played for Monroe of the Class-D Cotton States League and Nashville of the Class-A Southern Association, with surprisingly similar results at both levels, hitting a combined .315 in 85 games, with 14 doubles, five triples and 11 homers. In 1933, he played for Nashville all season and hit .274 in 112 games, with 27 doubles, three triples and he failed to collect a homer after reaching double digits in the previous season. Baker spent 1934 with Williamsport of the Class-A New York-Penn League, hitting .335 in 131 games, with 37 doubles, nine triples and four homers. He moved up to Double-A Newark of the International League (the highest level at the time) for the 1935-36 seasons. That first year he hit .303 in 117 games, with 28 extra-base hits. In 1936, he batted .296 with 24 extra-base hits in 106 games. Baker moved across the country to Oakland of the Double-A Pacific Coast League in 1937, hitting .292 with 28 extra-base hits in 111 games that year. From there it was on to Indianapolis of the Double-A American Association for the 1938-39 seasons. He hit .307 with 28 extra-base hits in 90 games in 1938, and .338 with 31 doubles and three homers in 98 games in 1939, which helped earn him a big league spot for 1940.
Baker played 27 games for the 1940 Reds, and batted .217, with a .521 OPS. He played just two games off of the bench in the first month of the 1941 season before the Pirates purchased his contract from the Reds on May 12th. After starting his first three games while with the Pirates, he took over the backup role and finished with 80 plate appearances for Pittsburgh, putting up a .224 batting average and zero strikeouts in 35 games. That odd part about that strikeout stat is that he struck out in his only official at-bat while with the Reds that season. His next strikeout wouldn’t come until just over two years later. In 1942, he was a seldom used third-string catcher behind future Hall of Famer Al Lopez and veteran Babe Phelps. Baker played just 18 games all year (one start) and he went 2-for-17 with no strikeouts. With Phelps gone in 1943, Baker became the backup to Lopez and saw much more time, hitting .273 with 26 RBIs in 63 games. After the season he joined the military and spent two years serving in the Navy during WWII. Baker returned to the Pirates in 1946 and hit .239 in 53 games. On January 1, 1947, the Pirates sold Baker to Columbus of the Triple-A American Association, one week after acquiring veteran catcher Clyde Kluttz from the St Louis Cardinals. After spending all of 1947 and the start of 1948 in the minors with Columbus, Baker played 65 games with the 1948-49 Cardinals, before finishing his career in the minors in 1952 at the age of 41. He batted .262 with 19 RBIs and 15 runs in 161 plate appearances with the Cardinals, with most of that time coming during the 1948 season. He was a .247 hitter in 263 big league games, with 45 runs, 25 doubles, two homers and 68 RBIs. He had 68 walks and 30 strikeouts in a devilish total of 666 plate appearances in the majors. Baker was a .297 hitter in the minors over 13 seasons and 1,139 games, with 53 homers to his credit.