This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: April 22nd, Mickey Vernon and Notable Opening Days

Two former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date and two season openers of note.

The Players

Mickey Vernon, pinch-hitter for the 1960 Pirates. He joined the Pirates as a first base coach for the 1960 season, but ended up being used as a pinch-hitter nine times in September as Pittsburgh fought for the National League pennant. He went 1-for-8 at the plate with a walk and an RBI. For Vernon, it was the end of a playing career that spanned four decades. It is possible that if he had not missed two years to military service, he would be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The year he returned from the service, he won the American League batting crown with a .353 average. In his career he had 2,495 hits, 1,311 RBIs, 1,196 runs scored, two batting titles, three times he led the league in doubles and he was elected to seven All-Star teams. Vernon was a Pirates coach for just that one season. The following year he took over the helm of the expansion Washington Senators, where he stayed through early in the 1963 season.

Vernon debuted in the majors in 1939 at 21 years old. He had 2 1/2 years of minor league ball before making it to the majors. He batted .287 with 40 extra-base hits for Easton of the Class-D Eastern Shore League in 1937, then moved up two levels to play for Greenville of the Class-B South Atlantic League in 1938. He batted .328 with 84 runs, 44 extra-base hits, 72 RBIs and 20 steals in 132 games that year. In 1939, he was with Springfield of the Class-A Eastern League for nearly three months, where he hit .343 with 23 extra-base hits in 69 games. He joined the Washington Senators in early July for his big league debut and batted .257 in 76 games as their everyday first baseman. He had 20 extra-base hits, 23 runs scored, 30 RBIs and a .668 OPS. Vernon played just five big league games in 1940, spending the rest of the year with Jersey City of the Double-A International League (highest level of the minors at the time), where he hit .283 with 40 extra-base hits in 154 games. He went 3-for-19 with all singles and no walks during five late September games that year, but he was in the majors for good the next season.

Vernon batted .299 with 73 runs, 27 doubles, 11 triples, nine homers and 93 RBIs in 138 games in 1941. His .794 OPS was his high before joining the war effort. The next year he hit .271 with 76 runs, 34 doubles, nine homers, 86 RBIs, 25 steals and 59 walks. He batted .268 in 1943, with 89 runs scored, 44 extra-base hits, 70 RBIs, 24 steals and 67 walks. He missed two prime years of his career serving during WWII, then returned to win the aforementioned batting title in 1946 with his .353 average. He also made his first All-Star appearance that year, while leading the AL with 51 doubles. Vernon added 88 runs scored, a career high 207 hits, and 85 RBIs. His .910 OPS was easily his best mark to that point, but he would top in later in his career. He finished fifth in the MVP voting that year, one of five times that he received MVP support in his career.

In 1947, Vernon saw his average drop down to .265 in 154 games. He still managed to drive in 85 runs for a second straight year, while scoring 77 runs and collecting 48 extra-base hits, but he had a .201 point drop with his OPS. He was an All-Star in 1948 despite a .242 average and a .641 OPS, but he was hitting over .300 as late as June 5th that year and just finished poorly. In 150 games, he had 78 runs, 37 extra-base hits and 48 RBIs. Vernon was dealt to the Cleveland Indians, along with Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn, for three players after the 1948 season. In 1949, he batted .291 with 72 runs, 27 doubles, 18 homers, 83 RBIs and 58 walks, leading to an .801 OPS. He was hitting poorly at the start of the 1950 season when the Indians dealt him back to the Senators. Vernon had a .189 average in 28 games prior to the deal, then batted .306 over the final 90 games of the season after the trade. While his season OPS of .779 in 115 games looks like a solid number, he had a strong .863 mark after the deal. He put up a .293 average and 87 RBIs in 141 games in 1951, to go along with 69 runs, 46 extra-base hits and 53 walks. He then hit .251 with 71 runs, 33 doubles, nine triples, ten homers, 80 RBIs and a career high 89 walks in 1952.

Vernon won his second batting title in 1953, while making his third All-Star appearance. He batted .337 that season, with career highs in runs (101) and RBIs (115). His .921 OPS was his career high. He led the league with 43 doubles, added 11 triples, 15 homers and 63 walks, which all led to a third place finish in the MVP voting. Vernon set career highs with 14 triples and 20 homers in 1954. He was once again an All-Star and he picked up his third doubles crown with 33 two-baggers. He batted .290 with 97 RBIs and 90 runs scored. All of that led to a ninth place finish in the MVP voting. In 1955, he batted .301 with 74 runs, 23 doubles, 14 homers, 85 RBIs and 74 walks. He was an All-Star for the third straight season and he received mild MVP support, finishing 23rd in the voting. The 37-year-old Vernon was the biggest name in a nine-player deal with the Boston Red Sox in the off-season.

In his first year in Boston in 1956, Vernon hit .310 with 67 runs, 28 doubles, 15 homers, 84 RBIs and 57 walks in 119 games, making his fourth straight All-Star appearance. He finished 21st in the MVP voting, and his .914 OPS was the second best of his career. His career best OBP was .404 in 1950, but the 1956 season was his third year that he finished with a .403 mark. Age started catching up to him in 1957 when he batted .241 in 102 games, though his .743 OPS was still a respectable mark that year. The Indians picked him up off of waivers and he had a bit of a bounce back season, hitting .293 with an .812 OPS in 119 games, which earned him his seventh and final All-Star appearance. Vernon was traded to the Milwaukee Braves prior to 1959, where he batted .220 in 74 games, mostly off of the bench, accumulating 99 plate appearances all season. He was released once the season ended and signed on to coach the Pirates. While he compiled impressive offensive numbers despite missing two prime years, Vernon all led AL first baseman in fielding percentage four times, and he finished in the top five in fielding percentage 12 times. He ranks fourth all-time in games played at first base (2,237), and he was part of 2,044 double plays, which is an MLB record for all positions.

Jake Pitler, second baseman for the 1917-18 Pirates. He was a light-hitting second baseman in the minors for four seasons before breaking out in early 1917 when he hit .364 in 42 games for the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Class-A Southern Association. Pitler played his first 2 1/2 seasons of pro ball with Jackson of the Class-D Southern Michigan League, where he batted .255 in 86 games as a 19-year-old in 1913. He then hit .298 in 145 games in 1914, when the league was reclassified to Class-C. He had 73 runs scored, 17 doubles, seven triples and 25 steals that season. He split the 1915 season between Jackson and Chattanooga, hitting .272 with 42 runs and 16 extra-base hits in 63 games with Jackson, then batting .212 in 74 games at the higher level. He had just six extra-base hits with Chattanooga, all doubles, which led to a .237 slugging percentage. Pitler spent the entire 1916 season in Chattanooga, hitting .261 with 19 extra-base hits in 142 games. He recorded the first two homers of his pro career during his fourth season of ball (extra-base hits are missing for 1913, so he may have hit one during his first season). The Pirates acquired his rights on May 22, 1917 from Chattanooga in exchange for 22-year-old second baseman Billy Gleason and $3,500 in cash. Pitler batted .364 in 42 games before the deal. Their was a bit of controversy around the deal, because the Detroit Tigers once held rights to Pitler, but Chattanooga claimed that they defaulted on their option and the Lookouts were free to move him to any other team.

Pitler made his big league debut on May 30, 1917 and it was a successful one in front of the home crowd. During a doubleheader, he went 2-for-7 and was twice robbed of hits, He stole a base, laid down a successful sacrifice and handled all twelve balls hit his way without an error. The local press spoke highly of his play that day and also noted he had many friends in the stands. Playing alongside the great Honus Wagner all season, Pitler held his own in the field, finishing second among National League second baseman in fielding percentage. However, his batting reverted back to pre-1917 minor league numbers, as he hit .233 with 23 RBIs in 106 games. He finished with a .578 OPS, 39 runs scored and 23 RBIs. He was with the Pirates early in 1918, but was at the end of the bench and all but forgotten. On May 4, he played the second half of the game at second base, going 0-for-1 with a walk and an error. Then twenty days later he pinch-ran for Bill Hinchman in the ninth inning of a 6-1 game with the Pirates losing. Pitler stole second, stole third, then scored the Pirates final run that day on a double by George Cutshaw. Dissatisfied with him playing time, Pitler asked to be traded. The Pirates sold him to Jersey City of the Double-A International League, where he first refused to report, but did so after finding out that he would lose two weeks salary.

Pitler played four games for Jersey City, then jumped to a semi-pro team and eventually ended up getting a job in a factory doing war-related work in July. He was out of organized ball between 1919 and 1927, playing and managing for various semi-pro teams over the years. He would return to the minors in 1928, giving him ten years between games in pro ball. Pitler spent the 1928-32 seasons playing in the Class-B New York-Penn League for three different teams. He was also a manager for the last four years of that stretch. He spent the 1933-34 seasons in the Class-C Middle Atlantic League as a player-manager. He played until 1936 without ever making it back to the big leagues, then managed for another nine years. He spent a total of 17 seasons in the minors as a manager and 14 years as a player. His brother was a famous Pittsburgh boxer named Johnny Ray, who was never knocked out in 138 pro fights.

The Season Openers

In 1891, Pittsburgh heard the name Pirates for the first time, though they were still locally known as the Alleghenys for the next few years, and they were known as the Braves for all of 1894 (as well as the Patriots for all of 1898). The “Pirates” opened their season coming off the worst year in franchise history. The team went 23-113 in 1890, when the roster was decimated by players leaving for the newly formed Player’s League. When that league ended after just one season, many of the players returned to their old teams, but Pittsburgh was also able to sign other star players such as Louis Bierbauer and Pete Browning. Those signings led to the “Pirates” name. There’s a lot more to that story, including the fact that the current team should be considered a different team than the 1882-90 teams (that definitely deserves more explaining, right?).

Pittsburgh opened the 1891 season at home against Cap Anson and the Chicago Colts. With Pud Galvin on the mound, they lost 7-6 in front of 5,500 fans. The lineup that day, which include four future Hall of Famers (should be five with Browning), was as follows:

Doggie Miller, SS
Jake Beckley, 1B
Fred Carroll, RF
Pete Browning, LF
Louis Bierbauer, 2B
Ned Hanlon, CF
Connie Mack, C
Charlie Reilly, 3B
Pud Galvin, P

In 1897 the Pirates opened their season against the St Louis Browns. It was an easy 4-1 win for Pittsburgh, with the only run they allowed coming off a double steal in the second inning. Frank Killen was in the pitcher’s box for the Pirates, coming off a 30-win season in 1896. It was his second 30-win season while with the team. Killen allowed six hits, all singles, struck out four and threw a complete game. Steve Brodie made his Pirates debut in center field that day. He was a star defensive outfielder who Pittsburgh acquired in the off-season for Jake Stenzel, the franchises all-time leader in batting average with a .360 mark. Brodie hit two doubles while batting in the fifth spot, and all four men ahead of him in the lineup scored one run apiece. The Pirates lineup that day, which was completely different than six years earlier, was:

Elmer Smith, LF
Bones Ely, SS
Patsy Donovan, RF
Jim Donnelly, 3B
Steve Brodie, CF
Denny Lyons, 1B
Dick Padden, 2B
Joe Sudgen, C
Frank Killen, P