This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: December 15th, Pirates Trade for Hall of Famer Jim Bunning and Vic Willis

Three former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date, plus two trades of note, both involving Hall of Fame pitchers.

The Trades

On this date in 1967, the Pittsburgh Pirates traded pitcher Woody Fryman, minor league third baseman Don Money and minor league pitchers Bill Laxton and Harold Clem to the Philadelphia Phillies for Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning. This trade didn’t work out well for the Pirates, despite Bunning coming off of a second place finish in the Cy Young voting that season. He went 14-23, 3.84 over 316 innings in two seasons for the Pirates, before being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a package much smaller than what they gave up to acquire him. The ERA doesn’t sound too bad until you realize that the 1968 season was a low point for offense, so his 3.88 ERA was much worse than league average (2.99). His 1969 ERA was 22 points higher than league average as well. The Phillies didn’t get anything from the two minor league pitchers (Laxton pitched two games for them), but easily got the best of the deal with the other two players. Fryman pitched 18 years in the majors, while Money was a four-time All-Star third baseman, though his best years were after the Phillies traded him in October of 1972. In terms of WAR, the Pirates got -0.9 from Bunning, while Money had 36.5 career WAR and Fryman put up 18.9 WAR after the trade. The other bad part of the deal is that Bunning was one of the highest paid players in the league in 1969, so it ranks as one of the worst deals in team history.

On this date in 1905, the Pirates traded infielder Dave Brain, first baseman Del Howard and pitcher Vive Lindaman to the Boston Beaneaters in exchange for Hall of Fame pitcher Vic Willis. Boston got decent production from their three players, but Willis made this trade a major win for the Pirates, despite playing just four seasons in Pittsburgh. He won over 20 games each season while averaging 302 innings pitched per year, and he had a 2.08 ERA in his 160 games. He completed 108 of his 146 starts in Pittsburgh. He helped the Pirates to their first World Series title in 1909 by going 22-11. He compiled 22.1 career WAR during his short time with the Pirates, including an 8.3 mark in 1906, which was the best for all Major League pitchers that season. Getting traded to the Pirates actually got Willis into the Hall of Fame because he previously played with some very poor teams in his career. He had an 89-46 record in Pittsburgh and 160-159 with his two other teams. Brain won a home run crown in Boston in 1907, but he was out of baseball by the next year after putting up a .125 average. Howard played 1 1/2 years in Boston before he was traded for two players. Lindaman pitched four years in Boston and had a 2.92 ERA in 904 innings, which turned out to be his only big league experience. Boston received a total of 9.9 WAR from their three players, but they made up some of the difference in trade value by dealing Howard for Bill Sweeney, an infielder who put up 12.6 WAR in seven seasons with Boston.

The Players

Art Howe, infielder for the 1974-75 Pirates. He began his career in 1971 when he was signed as an amateur free agent by the Pirates. He was born in Pittsburgh and attended Shaler High School in town, but he went undrafted out of the University of Wyoming. He spent that 1971 season at 24 years old with Salem of the Class-A Carolina League, where he hit .348 with 77 runs, 27 doubles, seven triples, 12 homers, 11 steals and 82 walks in 114 games. He finished with a 1.017 OPS. Howe jumped up to Triple-A Charleston of the International League in 1972. He batted .271 that season in 109 games, with 68 runs, 21 doubles, 14 homers, 53 RBIs and 63 walks, helping him to an .845 OPS. He repeated the level for all of 1973 and struggled, hitting .228 in 119 games, with 50 runs, 20 doubles, eight homers, 44 RBIs, 54 walks and a .684 OPS. He was called up to the majors in early July of 1974, after he hitting .338/.432/.575 in 60 games at Charleston. Howe played 29 games his rookie season, mostly as a third baseman, and he hit .243/.321/.365 with ten runs scored, six extra-base hits and five RBIs in 84 plate appearances. He was with the Pirates for most of the 1975 season, getting 162 plate appearances in 63 games, but he hit just .171/.248/.253 with 13 runs, ten extra-base hits and ten RBIs. Following the 1975 season, the Pirates traded Howe to the Houston Astros for veteran second baseman Tommy Helms. Howe spent more than half of his first season with Houston in Triple-A, where he hit .355 in 74 games and put up a 1.032 OPS with Memphis of the International League. He played just 21 games in 1976 for the Astros, hitting .138/.286/.172 in his limited plate appearances.

Howe became an everyday player in 1977. Over a six-year stretch, he had seasons with the Astros in which he was primarily the first baseman (1980), the second baseman (1977-79) and the third baseman (1981-82). He hit .264 over 125 games in 1977, with 44 runs scored, 38 extra-base hits, a career high 58 RBIs and 41 walks, leading to a .748 OPS. He followed that up in 1978 by hitting .293 with career highs of 46 runs scored and 33 doubles, to go along with seven homers, 55 RBIs and a .779 OPS. He slumped a bit in 1979, seeing a 111-point drop in his OPS. Howe batted .248 in 118 games, with 32 runs scored, 23 extra-base hits and 33 RBIs. In 1980, he bounced back to have his highest OPS. He hit .283 in 110 games, with 34 runs, 12 doubles, five triples, a career high ten homers, 46 RBIs, and more walks (34) than strikeouts (29). He finished with a .795 OPS. Howe received MVP votes during the strike-shortened 1981 season for hitting .296 with 43 runs scored, three homers, 36 RBIs and 41 walks in 103 games. His .770 OPS that year was the third highest of his career.

Howe’s best seasons at the plate were followed by his worst. He hit .238 in 1982, with 15 doubles, five homers and 38 RBIs in 110 games, leading to a .641 OPS. Things got worse when he missed all of 1983 due to having both ankle and elbow surgery. He signed with the St Louis Cardinals for the 1984 season, when he hit .216/.300/.295 over 89 games, with much of his time coming off of the bench, leading to 161 plate appearances all season. He was released after just four games in 1985, ending his playing career. He hit .269 in seven seasons with Houston, collecting 39 homers and 266 RBIs over 706 games. In his big league career, he hit .260 in 891 games over 11 seasons, with 268 runs scored, 139 doubles, 43 homers and 293 RBIs. While he had a solid career, he had a better post-career. Howe recorded 1,129 wins as a Major League manager over 14 seasons. He was at the helm of the Astros from 1989 until 1993, then took over the Oakland A’s from 1996 until 2002. His last two seasons (2003-04) were disasters with the New York Mets, putting up two 90+ loss seasons. Howe had back-to-back 100+ win seasons in Oakland during his final two seasons with the team, though his 2001 squad finished in second place. He had three straight playoff appearances (2000-02), but never got out of the first round, losing in five games each time.

Joe Nealon, first baseman for the 1906-07 Pirates. He played three seasons in his home start of California prior to the Pirates signing him just before his 21st birthday. He has no stats available from the 1903-04 seasons when he played for three different teams in the California State League. He was with the Oakland Reliance and San Francisco in 1903, and San Jose in 1904. He played for San Francisco of the Pacific Coast League in 1905, where he hit .286 with 48 doubles, 11 triples and five homers in 207 games, during a season in which his team had a 125-100 record (plus at least one tie). The Pirates were able to sign Nealon as a free agent because he had a non-reserve contract with San Francisco, which was very rare for the day. Scout George Van Haltren tipped the Pirates off that Nealon wanted to sign with an eastern team, while also letting them know that he was being scouted by two other teams, Boston Americans (Red Sox) and the New York Highlanders (Yankees). Manager Fred Clarke went to the west coast in early November to talk to Nealon about signing. Clarke was given instructions from owner Barney Dreyfuss that if they needed to up their offer for Nealon, Clarke had to see him play 1-2 games first. By the time that Clarke arrived, the Cincinnati Reds were also interested and put in an offer. Nealon decided on November 7th to sign with the Pirates. The signing of Nealon allowed the Pirates to include first baseman Del Howard in the trade for Hall of Fame pitcher Vic Willis.

As a rookie in 1906, Nealon was the only player on the Pirates to play in all 154 games. He would lead the National League with 83 RBIs, to go along with a .255 average, 82 runs scored, 21 doubles, 12 triples, 15 steals, 53 walks and a .679 OPS. He then hit .257 with 29 runs, ten doubles, eight triples, 47 RBIs, 11 steals and a .627 OPS in 105 games for the 1907 Pirates. He announced his retirement after the season and returned to his home to go into business with his father. Nealon missed extended time in 1907 with an ankle injury in April, a bad spike wound in August and an illness for much of September. Over the last 30 games of the season he had one at-bat, as a pinch-hitter. Despite his retirement announcement, he ended up playing the next two seasons in the minors in California before contracting typhoid fever and passing away at the age of 25 in April of 1910. He spent those two seasons playing in the independent California League, which made it possible for him to play without actually being released from the reserve list by the Pirates. It was said that the Pirates gave him permission to play in California for the 1908 season, but he jumped his contract that called for $500 per month to sign with an outlaw team for $550 per month. He batted .372 in 62 games for Sacramento in 1908, then posted a .274 average for Oakland in 1909, finishing with 59 runs, 22 doubles, 12 triples, five homers and 15 steals.

JJ Clarke, catcher for the 1920 Pirates. He played just three games for the Pirates, but Clarke had a long career with three very interesting footnotes. Clarke came to the Pirates as a waiver claim on November 29, 1919 from the Philadelphia Phillies. He hit .242/.299/.290 in 26 games for the Phillies in 1919. He went 0-for-7 with two walks in two starts behind the plate and one pinch-hit appearance for the 1920 Pirates. That was the end of his big league career, but he continued on in the minors another five seasons. Clarke was not a power hitter, belting six homers in his nine-year big league career. In his last eight seasons of minor league ball, he hit a total of eight homers. So this may come as a huge surprise to most, but he holds the single game record for homers in all of pro ball.

On June 15, 1902 while playing for Corsicana in the Class-D Texas League, Clarke came to the plate eight time and hit eight homers. The story goes, that his team wanted to play on Sunday, so to avoid Blue Laws, they moved their game to a high school field out of town. Everyone on his team hit well that day on the smaller field, but no one else came close to what Clarke did. Clarke’s second claim to fame was the fact that he caught a perfect game in 1908 thrown by Hall of Famer Addie Joss. The third footnote for him wasn’t as enviable as the first two feats. He was in the majors from 1905 until 1911, then went eight years before he played big league ball again, though I guess it shows that he was willing to stick it out all of those year to get another shot. In 506 career games, he hit .254 with 157 runs, 64 doubles, 20 triples, six homers and 127 RBIs.

Clarke was born in Canada and he debuted in pro ball in 1902 at 19 years old, though there is some mystery behind his age. During the 1919 season with the Phillies, his mom gave an interview and confirmed with certainty that he was 34 years old, so he may have been 17 when he started in the pros. Most of that 1902 season was spent with the aforementioned Corsicana, where he hit .316 in 105 games, with 24 doubles, nine triples and 11 homers (meaning he hit three total besides his record-setting game). He appeared briefly with Little Rock of the Class-A Southern Association in 1902, going 1-for-6 in four games, then spent the entire season there back in 1903, hitting .254 in 41 games. He remained in the Southern Association with Atlanta in 1904, where he hit .264 in 135 games. At the time, Class-A was the highest level of the minors.

Clarke debuted in the majors in 1905 with the Cleveland Naps (Indians). He was seeing very limited playing time that year, then got loaned to the Detroit Tigers for about a week. He returned to Cleveland on August 11th and remained there until December of 1910. He batted .248 with 12 runs, six doubles, a homer and ten RBIs in 45 games in 1905. Included in those stats is his 3-for-7 batting line in three games with Detroit. Clarke hit .358 in 57 games during the 1906 season, finishing with 22 runs, 17 extra-base hits and 21 RBIs. He didn’t qualify for league leaders, but his average tied the league leader and his .890 OPS would have placed him second in the league during that deadball era season. He got a full-time role for the first time in 1907, and ended up playing 120 games. He hit .269 that season, with 44 runs scored, 28 extra-base hits, 33 RBIs and a .704 OPS. Those runs, extra-base hit and RBI totals are all career highs. Clarke hit .241 in 1908, with 34 runs scored, 15 extra-base hits, 27 RBIs and a .635 OPS in 97 games. He threw out 56% of runners attempting to steal that season, and his 1.3 WAR on defense is his best career ranking. During the 1909 season, he saw his playing time diminish to 55 games. He batted .274 with 15 runs, six extra-base hits, 14 RBIs and a .639 OPS. He developed typhoid fever during the 1910 season and hit just .155/.258/.190 in 69 plate appearances over 21 games. He was out from late May until returning to play one game in October. Clarke was traded in December of 1910 to the St Louis Browns, where he hit .215 in 82 games, with 22 runs, ten doubles, 18 RBIs and a .549 OPS in 1911.

After one year with the St Louis Browns, Clarke jumped all around the minors up until 1917 when he enlisted in the Mariners during WWI. He played for Indianapolis of the Double-A American Association during the 1912-13 seasons (1912 was the first year of the Double-A level). He hit .266 in 92 games in 1912, with 30 runs and 13 extra-base hits (12 doubles). He batted .282 with ten runs and six doubles in 28 games for Indianapolis in 1913. He was with San Francisco of the Double-A Pacific Coast League for all of 1914 and parts of 1913 and 1915. He also saw time with Memphis of the Southern Association and Houston of the Class-B Texas League in 1915. Clarke finished out that 1913 season by hitting .281 with 18 runs and eight extra-base hits in his 54 games with San Francisco. He batted .222 with a double and a homer in 65 games in 1914. He went 1-for-9 with a single for San Francisco in 1915. He hit .280 with seven singles in 12 games for Memphis that year, and he had a .281 average and 11 extra-base hits for Houston.

Clarke played for Mobile of the Southern Association in 1916, hitting .149 in 20 games, with five singles and two homers. When he returned to pro ball in 1919 after he stint in the Marines, he was with the Philadelphia Phillies, where he was as a coach at first, but worked his way into the lineup for 26 games. His three games with the Pirates were in April of 1920, and he was given his unconditional release on May 13th, 19 days after his final game. He was with Toledo of the American Association in 1921, but got released on April 22nd. He was picked up on waiver by Milwaukee of the American Association, where he hit .254 with 13 extra-base hits in 75 games. Clarke spent the 1922-23 seasons with Reading of the Double-A International League. He hit .288 with 19 extra-base hits in 104 games in 1922, then followed it up with a .296 average and 19 extra-base hits in 84 games in 1923. Each of those seasons he finished with 17 doubles, one triple and one homer. Clarke then played his final pro game for the Salisbury Indians of the Class-D Eastern Shore League in 1925. In his nine seasons in the majors, he hit .254 in 506 games, with 157 runs scored, 90 extra-base hits and 127 RBIs.