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 Pittsburgh 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/.281/.294 over 40 games in the Gulf Coast League during the 1985 season. That was followed by a .191 average and a .547 OPS the next season, while splitting his time between Low-A and the short-season New York-Penn League. 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 had a .283 average with 396 runs, 146 doubles, 65 homers and 394 RBIs 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. He got trials with the team over the next two seasons. His pro career opened up in the minors in 1922, splitting his time between Denver and Omaha of the Class-A Western League. His stats are somewhat incomplete, but they show a .272 average in 123 games, with 28 doubles, four triples and four homers. Spencer played for Augusta of the Class-B South Atlantic League in 1923, where he hit .276 in 123 games, with 32 extra-base hits. He was played for Birmingham of the Class-A Southern Association in 1924, 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 Spencer 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. He batted just 29 times in 14 games (four starts) during the 1925 season. He put up a .214/.241/.250 slash line during that time. The Pirates won the World Series that year, though he didn’t play in the postseason.
Spencer batted .395/.409/.465 during the 1926 season, getting 47 plate appearances in 28 games. He batted .500 from May 6th through July 9th, then didn’t collect another hit until August 25th. He had a .283/.305/.337 slash line in 38 games during the 1927 season, finishing with nine runs and 13 RBIs in 97 plate appearances. The Pirates made the World Series again in 1927. Spencer had one postseason at-bat that year, which ended in a ground out during game three of the series. Following that World Series, the Pirates traded him and pitcher Emil Yde to Indianapolis of the Double-A American Association, which was the highest level of the minors at the time. 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 in 140 games, with 68 runs, 30 extra-base hits and a .740 OPS, 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.
Spencer hit just .155/.222/.216 in 130 plate appearances over 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. He had 32 runs, 15 extra-base hits and 36 RBIs. He got his one chance to start full-time over the course of an entire season in 1931. He batted .275 that season, with 48 runs, 20 extra-base hits, 60 RBIs and a .654 OPS in 145 games. He saw a dip in his overall numbers in 1932, batting .246 in 102 games, with 28 runs, nine doubles, a homer, 41 RBIs and a .585 OPS. He then got traded to the Cleveland Indians in the 1932-33 off-season. Spencer hit .203 during the 1933 season, with 26 runs, seven extra-base hits, 23 RBIs and a .524 OPS in 75 games. He then barely played during the first month of 1934, getting seven at-bats in five games. He was sold to Buffalo of the Double-A International League in 1934, where he hit .248 in 84 games, with nine doubles and six homers. He spent the next two seasons with Baltimore of the International League, batting .259 in 120 games in 1935, with 18 doubles, six triples and four homers. That was followed by a .313 average in 19 games before returning to the majors.
Spencer played 19 games with the 1936 New York Giants over the final four months of the season, getting just 21 plate appearances. He went 5-for-18, with a double and two walks. He then played 67 games for the 1937-38 Brooklyn Dodgers. Spencer hit .205/.256/.256 over 51 games for the 1937 Dodgers. He was the starting catcher for all of May, then played very little after that point. He batted .267/.340/.333 in 16 games for the 1938 Dodgers, before finishing his career back with Baltimore later that season. He had a .270 average and a .687 OPS in 71 games for Baltimore that year. Spencer was a .247 hitter in 636 Major League games, 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 in 58 games, with five doubles and a triple. He played for Hornell of the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League in 1942, where he batted .271 in 119 games, with 17 doubles, two triples and two homers. He was playing in the Double-A International League (highest level of the minors at the time) by 1943, where he hit .246 in 150 games, with 101 runs, ten extra-base hits (nine doubles), 22 RBIs, 22 stolen bases, 104 walks and a .642 OPS for Toronto. Zak was a Spring Training participant with the Pirates that season, before 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 some help from player losses to the war effort, Zak made the Pirates Opening Day roster in 1944, but he didn’t get his first at-bat of the season until the team’s 36th game. He had either been used as a pinch-runner or finished the game defensively at shortstop up to that point. He went 2-for-2 at the plate during his first start, then followed that up with four hits in six at-bats over the next two days. In fact, he had at least one hit in each of the first seven games he started. After his first hitless game, he went 4-for-4 on June 10th, giving him a .538 average through the first nine starts of his career. Zak’s bat cooled off right away, going 0-for-13 in the next six games, then he hit .196 over the next 24 games. He was back on the bench in his defensive replacement/pinch-runner role by August 9th. He played 16 times over the last 50 games of the season, batting just twice during that time.
The 1944 All-Star game was in early July, which was lucky for Zak. He was still batting .350 as late as July 2nd. The game was also played in Pittsburgh, which helped him out. He made the All-Star team as an injury replacement, although he didn’t get to play. He was helped by the wartime travel restrictions, which forced the National League to use someone with the Pirates as a last minute substitute. Zak just happened to be the only middle infielder for the Pirates who remained in Pittsburgh during the All-Star 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. He was optioned to Kansas City of the Triple-A American Association on May 29th. He played 104 games for Kansas City that season, putting up a .287 average, 87 runs, 16 extra-base hits, 30 RBIs, 19 steals and a .750 OPS. He returned to the Pirates in September, batting eight times in six games after rejoining the club. He ended up batting .143/.226/.214 in 15 games for the Pirates that year.
Zak made the 1946 Opening Day roster, playing 21 games for the Pirates before being sent to the minors. He went 0-for-2 as the starting shortstop in his final game on June 10th. He was released outright to Kansas City on June 13th 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. He hit .200/.238/.200 in 22 plate appearances for the 1946 Pirates. He batted .221 in 68 games with Kansas City that year, finishing with 26 runs, eight extra-base hits, 11 RBIs, nine steals and a .591 OPS. He played for Newark of the International League in 1947, where he dropped down to a .206 average in 76 games, with 23 runs, four extra-base hits (all doubles), 14 RBIs and a .549 OPS. Zak was with Portland of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 1948, where he hit .248 in 152 games, with 63 runs, 12 doubles, five triples, 27 RBIs, 11 steals, 52 walks and a .628 OPS. He played for three teams during his final season, including a stint with Portland, as well as 12 games with San Diego of the Pacific Coast League, and 84 games with Oklahoma City of the Double-A Texas League. He combined to hit .241 that season, with 78 runs, 11 doubles, three triples, 30 RBIs and 81 walks in 136 games. Zak had a .269 average during his three big league seasons, with 43 runs, six extra-base hits 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 with Bismark-Mandan in the short-season Northern League during his pro debut, going 3-5, 5.67 in 46 innings, with 66 strikeouts and a 1.59 WHIP. 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. Griffin pitched for Asheville of the Class-A Carolina League and Oklahoma City of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League during the 1967 season, with similar work/results in each league. He finished the season with a 3-9, 5.67 record and a 1.67 WHIP in 92 innings over 15 starts and five relief appearances. He spent the entire 1968 season with Oklahoma City, going 7-14, 4.34 in 168 innings, with 144 strikeouts and a 1.49 WHIP. Despite poor results in the minors, it took him just three seasons to reach the majors. He had a big rookie year for the Astros, going 11-10, 3.54 in 31 starts, with three shutouts. He had 200 strikeouts in 188.1 innings, 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 went 3-13, 5.74 in 111.1 innings for the 1970 Astros, with 72 walks and 72 strikeouts, while posting a 1.71 WHIP. He went 3-2, 1.29 in five starts for Oklahoma City. Griffin had a 6-8, 3.11 record in 107 innings over 16 starts for Oklahoma City in 1971. His time with the Astros that year saw him go 0-6, 4.78 in 37.2 innings, with a 1.70 WHIP.
Griffin bounced back in a bullpen role during the 1972 season, 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. He split 1973 between starting and relief, putting up a 4-6, 4.15 record and a 1.29 WHIP 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 and a 1.94 WHIP 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, a 1.37 WHIP and 82 strikeouts in 59 games (three starts) and 94.1 innings in 1979. That was followed by a strong 1980 season, with a 2.76 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP 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 he was a starter the entire year for the 1981 Giants, going 8-8, 3.76 in 22 games and 129.1 innings pitched. He had three complete games, one shutout and a 1.38 WHIP. 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 the starter role 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. The Pirates released him four days later and his career was over. He finished with an 8.87 ERA and a 2.10 WHIP in 22.1 innings with the Pirates. In 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. He had 29 complete games, ten shutouts, five saves and 1,054 strikeouts. 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. 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, where he had a .196 average and five doubles. He played mostly outfield in 1932, but he also began to catch that year, then 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. He played for Nashville all season in 1933, where he hit .274 in 112 games, with 27 doubles and three triples, while failing to collect a homer, just one season after reaching double digits. 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 of the minors at the time) for the 1935-36 seasons. That first year he hit .303 in 117 games, with 15 doubles, six triples and seven homers. He batted .296 in 1936, with 54 runs, 13 doubles, nine homers, 59 RBIs and an .816 OPS in 106 games.
Baker moved across the country to Oakland of the Double-A Pacific Coast League in 1937, hitting .292 that year, with 32 runs, 28 extra-base hits (24 doubles) and 41 RBIs in 111 games. From there it was on to Indianapolis of the Double-A American Association for the 1938-39 seasons. He hit .307 in 1938, with 40 runs, 28 extra-base hits, 38 RBIs and an .860 OPS in 90 games. That was followed by a .338 average in 1939, with 35 runs, 31 doubles, three homers, 58 RBIs and an .878 OPS in 98 games. That performance helped earn him a big league spot for 1940. Baker played 27 games for the 1940 Reds, batting .217/.260/.261 in 73 plate appearances. 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 a .224/.333/.269 slash line and zero strikeouts in 80 plate appearances over 35 games. That odd part about that strikeout stat with the Pirates 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. He was a seldom used third-string catcher behind future Hall of Famer Al Lopez and veteran Babe Phelps in 1942. Baker played just 18 games all year (one start), and he went 2-for-17 at the plate, with two singles, two RBIs and no strikeouts. With Phelps gone in 1943, Baker became the backup to Lopez and saw much more time, hitting .273/.366/.361 in 63 games, with 12 runs, ten extra-base hits and 26 RBIs. After the season he joined the military and spent two years serving in the Navy during WWII.
Baker returned to the Pirates in 1946. He hit .239/.312/.301 in 53 games that year, with seven runs, five extra-base hits and eight RBIs. 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. Columbus was the Triple-A affiliate of the Cardinals at the time. Baker hit .277 over 108 games in 1947 with Columbus, finishing with 34 runs, 18 doubles, four homers, 52 RBIs and a .717 OPS. He started the 1948 season back in Columbus, but he was in the majors before the season ended. He hit .305 in 64 games in Columbus, with 25 runs, 14 extra-base hits, 28 RBIs and an .861 OPS. He had an incredible 48:6 BB/SO ratio. 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, where he had a .294 average and a .768 OPS in 45 games. He hit just .133/.188/.167 in 20 games during the 1949 season. Baker served as a bullpen coach for the Chicago Cubs in 1950, before returning to the playing field. He had a .691 OPS in 106 games for Syracuse of the International League in 1951, then played one game for Little Rock of the Double-A Southern Association in 1952. 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.