This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: August 14th, A Day All About First Basemen

A light day in Pittsburgh Pirates history for transactions (two) and birth dates (three), and it’s all about first basemen.

The Transaction

On this date in 1911, the Pirates sold first baseman John Flynn to St Paul of the American Association, the minor league team that they had purchased him from twenty months earlier. After winning the 1909 World Series, the Pirates parted ways with first baseman Bill Abstein, who was not well-liked in town by fans or management due to his occasional poor play and lack of baseball smarts (Abstein was often referred to as “bonehead”). They brought in two minor leaguers to compete for the open spot, Flynn and Bud Sharpe. Flynn was a strong bat with a passable glove, while Sharpe was a strong defender, who wasn’t much of a hitter. The Pirates ended up settling with Flynn as the starter due to his bat being much better, and the fact that his defense wasn’t so far behind Sharpe that his offensive contributions wouldn’t make up for it. Flynn hit .274 with 52 RBIs in 96 games during the 1910 season. The next year he was moved to a bench role, starting 13 of the 33 games he played before being sold back to St Paul. He would play just twenty more Major League games after the Pirates parted ways with him, all as a member of the 1912 Washington Senators.

On this date in 1917, the Pirates lost first baseman George “High Pockets” Kelly to the New York Giants on waivers.  He was 21 years old and played just eight games with the Pirates before the waiver loss. Kelly went on to help New York to four straight World Series appearances. We posted an article here on his time with the Pirates, which goes into great detail for his short time.

The Players

Josh Bell, first baseman for the 2016-2020 Pirates. The Pirates paid big money to sign Bell away from college in 2011, giving him a $5M bonus  as a second round pick. He signed too late to play in 2011, and his debut in 2012 didn’t go so well when a knee injury sidelined him for all but 15 games in which he had a .691 OPS for Low-A West Virginia of the South Atlantic League. In 2013 he played at West Virginia all season, where he hit .279 with 75 runs, 37 doubles, 13 homers, 76 RBIs and an .806 OPS in 119 games. In 2014, Bell moved up to High-A Bradenton of the Florida State League and tore up the pitcher-friendly league, batting .335 with 33 extra-base hits and an .886 OPS in 84 games. He moved up to Altoona of the Double-A Eastern League mid-season and batted .287/.343/.309 in 24 games before an injury ended his season early. Up to this point, Bell was an outfielder, but he lacked range and had a below average arm, so the Pirates moved him to first base in the Arizona Fall League that year. He batted .214 with no homers and a .629 OPS in 23 games that fall. In 2015, he spent the majority of the season in Altoona, hitting .307 with 47 runs, 28 extra-base hits, 60 RBIs, 44 walks and an .803 OPS in 96 games. He moved up to Triple-A Indianapolis of the International League at the end of the year and hit .347 with a .946 OPS in 35 games. Bell opened up 2016 in Indianapolis and hit .295 with 57 runs, 23 doubles, 14 homers, 60 RBIs and 57 walks in 114 games, before joining the Pirates. He likely would have been up sooner, but his defense at first base was very poor, something that has stayed with him throughout his entire career. For the 2016 Pirates, he hit .273 with eight doubles, three homers and a .775 OPS in 45 games. The Pirates sat him on the final day of the season so he remained eligible for the Rookie of the Year award in 2017.

Bell would finish third in that 2017 Rookie of the Year voting, thanks to a .255 average, with 75 runs, 26 doubles, 26 homers, 90 RBIs, 66 walks and an .800 OPS in 159 games. His power went through a bit of a sophomore slump in 2018, though he did a better job of getting on base to off-set some of that loss. Bell hit .261 with 77 walks in 148 games that year, to go along with 31 doubles, 12 homers and 62 RBIs, leading him to a .768 OPS. In 2019, the power returned in a big way, especially early in the season. He finished up with a .277 average, 94 runs, 37 doubles and 37 homers, while driving in 116 runs. He had a .936 OPS that year and made his first All-Star appearance. Those numbers dropped off greatly during the shortened 2020 season when he hit .226 with 22 runs, three doubles, eight homers and 22 RBIs in 57 games. In December of 2020, Bell was traded to the Washington Nationals for pitching prospects Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean. Bell hit .261 in 144 games in 2021, with 75 runs, 24 doubles, 27 homers, 88 RBIs, 65 walks and an .823 OPS. With the 2022 Nationals, he batted .301 in 103 games, with 52 runs, 24 doubles, 14 homers, 57 RBIs and an .877 OPS. At the trading deadline on August 2nd, he was sent to the San Diego Padres in the blockbuster deal that included Juan Soto and handful of the top prospects for the Padres. Through that day, Bell had a career .266 average in 799 games, with 410 runs, 153 doubles, 127 homers and 454 RBIs.

Dale Coogan, first baseman for the 1950 Pirates. He was signed by the Pirates in 1948 as an amateur free agent. Coogan played that first season for Keokuk of the Class-C Central Association as a 17-year-old, hitting .288 with 40 runs, 12 doubles, six triples, three homers, 40 RBIs and a .785 OPS in 70 games. He then batted .291 with 48 runs, 26 extra-base hits, 71 RBIs and a .783 OPS in 83 games over a partial 1949 season for Double-A New Orleans of the Southern Association. By the middle of his second season, the Pirates already had Coogan up to Triple-A Indianapolis of the American Association, where he hit .265 with 36 runs, four homers, 38 RBIs and a .729 OPS in 64 games. He made the Pirates Opening Day roster in 1950, though by July it was acknowledged that he could’ve used another season at Triple-A before he came up. He started just one of the first 25 games that season, then got a string of starts over the next three weeks before his playing time became more sporadic. On May 30th he played both games of a doubleheader against the St Louis Cardinals with vastly different results. He went 0-for-5 in the first game and collected four hits in the nightcap. That ended up being his only big league game with more than two hits. He played his final game on July 5th and was sent down to Indianapolis of the American Association seven days later. Coogan was a September recall in both 1950 and 1951, but he didn’t play any games after being sent down in July of 1950, leaving him with .240 career Major League average in 53 games. He had 19 runs, eight extra-base hits (one homer) and 13 RBIs.

After being sent to Indianapolis in 1950, Coogan hit .239 in 65 games, with 29 runs, 20 extra-base hits and 20 RBIs.  That was followed by a 1951 season split between New Orleans and Triple-A Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League. He batted .262 in 103 games that year (73 games with New Orleans), finishing with 16 doubles, six triples and 11 homers. It was said during the 1951-52 off-season, that Coogan had a good chance to be the Pirates Opening Day first baseman in 1952, but he ended up spending the next two years in the Army. He was given a chance to win the first base (or bench) job in 1954, though the time off took it’s toll on him and he ended up in Double-A ball, never playing above that level in his last five seasons of pro ball. He spent the 1954 season back in New Orleans, and played there part of 1955 as well, though he also spent time in A-Ball that year with Williamsport of the Eastern League. Coogan hit .263 with 80 runs, 20 doubles, 11 homers, 77 RBIs, 80 walks and a .740 OPS in 148 games in 1954. Between both stops in 1955, he batted .284 in 130 games, with 72 runs, 17 doubles, 16 homers, 82 RBIs and 79 walks, with much better results at the lower level. He returned to Double-A for his final three seasons, playing for two different teams in the Texas League. He was Pirates property until November 30, 1955 when he was sold to Shreveport of the Texas League. Coogan had a .301 average and a .783 OPS in 153 games for Shreveport in 1956. He hit .264/.316/.370 in 151 games in 1957, then finished up with a .338 average and an .823 OPS 47 games for Victoria in 1958. He was nicknamed Whistlin’ Dale because he used to whistle a lot while playing infield.

Alex McKinnon, first baseman for the 1887 Pittsburgh Alleghenys. He made his Major League debut at the age of 27 for the 1884 New York Gothams (Giants) of the National League. Playing first base everyday, he hit .272 with 66 runs, 21 doubles, 13 triples and 73 RBIs in a league leading 116 games played. He had a .676 OPS, which was above league average at the time. The Gothams had tried their slugging first baseman Roger Connor in a utility role in 1884, with minimal success on offense and very poor defense. He moved back to first base in 1885 and McKinnon moved on to the St Louis Maroons of the National League, a franchise that existed during the 1884-86 seasons. He hit .294 with 42 runs, 21 doubles, six triples, 44 RBIs and a .690 OPS in 100 games during his first year in St Louis. He then followed it up in 1886 with a .301 average, 75 runs scored, 24 doubles, seven triples, eight homers and 74 RBIs. He had 21 walks that year, which was five more than he had in his first two seasons combined. His eight homers were double his total from his first two seasons combined, and that 1886 total ranked him sixth in the National League in homers.

McKinnon was traded to Pittsburgh in December of 1886 in exchange for first baseman Otto Schomberg and cash. McKinnon batted sixth and played first base during the first National League game in franchise history for the Pirates/Alleghenys. He had four hits that day in a 6-2 win, including a home run and a triple. It looked like the Alleghenys had found themselves a superstar with McKinnon, who was batting .340 with 26 runs, 21 extra-base hits, 30 RBIs and an .840 OPS through the first 48 games. He unfortunately came down with Typhoid Pneumonia in early July, and while it initially looked like he would recover from it, he passed away 20 days after he left the team. He was 30 years old at the time. He was a .296 career hitter in 386 games, with 209 runs scored, 82 doubles, 30 triples, 13 homers and 219 RBIs.

McKinnon debuted in minor league ball in 1877 at 20 years old, in what was the first year for organized minor league ball. His baseball playing started years earlier when he played for a strong amateur team in Massachusetts called the Stars, which featured some other players who would go on to play in the majors. He then had a semi-pro gig with the Lowells in 1875 and a team from Syracuse in 1876, before the minor leagues were formed. He spent his first three seasons of pro ball (1877-79) playing in upstate New York, seeing time with Syracuse in two different leagues (1877 League Alliance and 1878 International Association). In 1879, he played briefly for a team that split the season between Albany and Rochester, though he missed part of the year due to illness. That was followed by a season in California in 1880 with the San Francisco Athletics. He had no minor league experience during the 1881-83 seasons before joining New York and even quit baseball for a short time to work in the printing industry.

McKinnon was listed in January of 1882 as being expelled from the National League. That was because he took advanced money to play for the Troy Trojans of the National League in 1879, and even though he returned the money, he was expelled because he played in a different league that year. Boston (NL) President Arthur Soden worked hard to get McKinnon off of the expelled list in hopes that he would sign with Boston, but McKinnon ended up signing with the Philadelphia Quakers (Phillies) in March of 1883 instead. He didn’t play at all in 1883, despite going through Spring Training as Philadelphia’s starting first baseman. He played an exhibition game on April 30th at first base, then the next day on Opening Day, rookie Sid Farrar played first base instead and had a good game. Farrar ended up starting all 99 games that season at first base and McKinnon asked to be released in May due to an illness. McKinnon was reserved by Philadelphia for the 1884 season when the lists were released in late September of 1883. He ended up being released a short time later and signed with New York in late December.

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