This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: April 22nd, Mickey Vernon and a Pair of 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 1,196 runs scored, 2,495 hits, 1,311 RBIs, two batting titles, he led the league in doubles three times, and he was elected to seven All-Star teams. Vernon was a Pirates coach for just that one season. He took over the helm of the expansion Washington Senators in 1961, 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 had a .287 average, 41 runs, 40 extra-base hits and 64 RBIs in 83 games for Easton of the Class-D Eastern Shore League in 1937. He then moved up two levels to play for Greenville of the Class-B South Atlantic League in 1938. He batted .328 that year, with 84 runs, 44 extra-base hits, 72 RBIs, 20 steals and an .820 OPS in 132 games. He was with Springfield of the Class-A Eastern League for nearly three months in 1939, where he hit .343 in 69 games, with 13 doubles, seven triples and three homers. He joined the Washington Senators in early July for his big league debut. He batted .257/.317/.351 in 76 games as their everyday first baseman. He had 23 runs, 20 extra-base hits and 30 RBIs. Vernon played just five big league games in 1940, while spending the rest of the year with Jersey City of the Double-A International League (highest level of the minors at the time). He hit .283 for Jersey City, with 22 doubles, nine triples and nine homers in 154 games. He went 3-for-19 for the 1940 Senators, with three singles and no walks during five late September games, but he was in the majors for good the next season.

Vernon batted .299 for the 1941 Senators, finishing with 73 runs, 27 doubles, 11 triples, nine homers and 93 RBIs in 138 games. His .794 OPS was his high before joining the war effort. The next year saw him hit .271 over 151 games, with 76 runs, 34 doubles, nine homers, 86 RBIs, 25 steals, 59 walks and a .725 OPS. He batted .268 in 1943, with 89 runs scored, 44 extra-base hits, 70 RBIs, 24 steals, 67 walks and a .744 OPS. 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 it later in his career. He finished fifth in the MVP voting that year, one of five times that he received MVP support during his career.

Vernon saw his average drop down to .265 over 154 games in 1947. He still managed to drive in 85 runs for a second straight year, while scoring 77 runs and collecting 48 extra-base hits. He also had a .201 point drop with his OPS, though his .709 mark was still slightly above league average at the time. He was an All-Star in 1948, despite a .242 average and a .641 OPS over 150 games. He was hitting over .300 as late as June 5th that year, then finished poorly. He had 78 runs, 37 extra-base hits and 48 RBIs. Vernon was dealt to the Cleveland Indians after the 1948 season, along with Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn, for three players in return. Vernon batted .291 in 1949, 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 decided to deal 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 finished with a .281 average, 55 runs, 17 doubles, nine homers, 75 RBIs and 62 walks. He put up a .293 average over 141 games in 1951, to go along with 69 runs, 46 extra-base hits, 87 RBIs 53 walks and a .781 OPS. Vernon then hit .251 in 1952, with 71 runs, 33 doubles, nine triples, ten homers, 80 RBIs, a career high 89 walks and a .746 OPS in 154 games.

Vernon won his second batting title in 1953, while also making his third All-Star appearance. He batted .337 that season, with career highs in runs (101) and RBIs (115). His .921 OPS was also his career high. He led the league with 43 doubles, while adding 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 that year, with 90 runs, 97 RBIs, 61 walks and an .850 OPS. All of that production led to a ninth place finish in the MVP voting. He batted .301 in 1955, with 74 runs, 23 doubles, 14 homers, 85 RBIs, 74 walks and an .835 OPS. He was an All-Star for the third straight season that year, 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 1955-56 off-season.

Vernon hit .310 for Boston in 1956, 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 the third time 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. He had 36 runs, 18 doubles, seven homers, 38 RBIs and 41 walks. The Indians picked him up off of waivers in January of 1958. He had a bit of a bounce back season in 1958, hitting .293 in 119 games, with 49 runs, 22 doubles, eight homers, 55 RBIs and an .812 OPS. That performance earned him his seventh (and final) All-Star appearance. Vernon was traded to the Milwaukee Braves on April 11, 1959, one day after Opening Day. He batted .220/.283/.363 in 74 games that year, mostly coming off of the bench, which led to 99 plate appearances all season. He was released once the season ended, then signed on to coach the Pirates. While he compiled impressive offensive numbers despite missing two prime years, Vernon all led American League first baseman in fielding percentage four times. He finished in the top five in fielding percentage 12 times. He ranks fourth all-time in games played at first base (2,237). 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 (stats are limited for that year). He then hit .298 over 145 games in 1914, when the league was reclassified to Class-C. He had 73 runs scored, 17 doubles, seven triples, 25 steals and a .698 OPS that season. He split the 1915 season between Jackson and Chattanooga, hitting .272 in 63 games with Jackson, with 42 runs, 16 extra-base hits and 30 steals. He then batted .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, where he had a .261 average and 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 had a .364 average and nine extra-base hits in 42 games before the deal. Their was a bit of controversy around the deal. The Detroit Tigers once held rights to Pitler, but Chattanooga claimed that they defaulted on their option, so 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. He went 2-for-7 during a doubleheader, twice getting 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, while also noting that he had many friends in the stands. Pitler held his own in the field while playing alongside the great Honus Wagner at shortstop all season. He finished second among National League second baseman in fielding percentage. However, his batting reverted back to pre-1917 minor league numbers. He hit .233 in 106 games, with 39 runs, eight doubles, five triples, 23 RBIs and a .578 OPS. He was with the Pirates early in 1918, but he was at the end of the bench and all but forgotten. He played the second half of the game at second base on May 4th, going 0-for-1, with a walk and an error. He then pinch-ran 20 days later, taking over 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 of that day on a double by George Cutshaw. Dissatisfied with his playing time at that point, Pitler asked to be traded. The Pirates sold him to Jersey City of the Double-A International League (highest level of the minors at the time), where he first refused to report, but did so after finding out that he would lose his salary for two weeks.

Pitler played just four games for Jersey City, before jumping to a semi-pro team. He 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 of 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 had a .286 average in 136 games for Binghamton in 1928, finishing with 24 doubles and eight triples. He played for Elmira during the 1929-30 seasons. Pitler batted .279 in 1929, with six doubles and six triples in 121 games. He had a .305 average over 94 games in 1930, while collecting 21 doubles, seven triples and a homer. He spent the 1931-32 seasons with Hazelton. No stats are available for 1931, but the 1932 season saw him hit .270 over 27 games, with one double and one triple. He spent the 1933-34 seasons in the Class-C Middle Atlantic League as a player-manager. Pitler hit .262 over 98 games for Springfield in 1933, collecting 15 doubles and two triples. He had a .230 average and ten extra-base hits over 63 games in 1934, splitting his time between Springfield and Wheeling. He played for Wilkes-Barre of the New York-Penn League in 1936 (then a Class-A league), then managed for another nine years. No stats are available for that final season. 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. 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 strong defensive outfielder who could also hit a bit. 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 as follows:

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