This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: May 5th, Jose Pagan, Tommy Helms and a Deal with the Cardinals

Four former Pittsburgh Pirates players have been born on this date, plus one trade of note.

The Players

Beau Sulser, pitcher for the 2022 Pirates. He was a tenth round draft pick of the Pirates at 23 years old out of Dartmouth College in 2017. He signed quickly and reported to Morgantown of the short-season New York-Penn League, where he went 2-4, 5.31 in 40.2 innings, with 33 strikeouts and a 1.50 WHIP. He made six starts and 12 relief appearances. He moved up to West Virginia of the Low-A South Atlantic League for the 2018 season. Sulser went 5-8, 2.35 in 36 relief appearances, with eight saves, 63 strikeouts and an 0.82 WHIP in 57.1 innings. He skipped a level to Altoona of the Double-A Eastern League in 2019, where he made six starts and 27 relief appearances. He went 8-3, 2.72 in 96 innings, with 63 strikeouts and a 1.24 WHIP. Sulser went to the Arizona Fall League after the 2019 season, where he had a 3.14 ERA and a 1.60 WHIP in 14.1 innings. He didn’t play during the canceled 2020 minor league season, but he played winter ball in Australia over 2020-21 off-season. He went 2-0, 2.63 in 24 innings over five starts, with 23 strikeouts and an 0.92 WHIP. Sulser spent the entire 2021 season with Triple-A Indianapolis as a starting pitcher. He went 7-9, 5.65 in 122.2 innings, with 102 strikeouts and a 1.65 WHIP.

Sulser started 2022 back with Indianapolis, where he had a 2.13 ERA in three starts. The Pirates called him up in late April when they were dealing with multiple pitching injuries. He pitched four times in relief, posting a 3.72 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP in 9.2 innings. He actually allowed nine runs, but five were unearned. He was sent back to the minors 17 days after getting called, then was designated for assignment, where he was picked up by the Baltimore Orioles. Sulser was called up five different times with Baltimore, where he had a 3.55 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP in 12.2 innings over six appearances. A majority of his season was spent with Norfolk of the Triple-A International League, where he had a 4.70 ERA, a 1.48 WHIP and 46 strikeouts in 44 innings. He was designated for assignment after the 2022 season, then was picked up by the Pirates four days later on waivers. The Pirates passed him through waivers a short time later, then released him in late November so he could sign to play in Korea. He’s currently a starting pitcher for the KT Wiz. His brother Cole Sulser has pitched five seasons in the majors.

Tommy Helms, infielder for the 1976-77 Pirates. He already had 12 seasons in at the Major League level before joining the Pirates for the 1976 season. Helms was the 1966 National League Rookie of the Year, a two-time All-Star and a two-time Gold Glove winner during his career, but he was near the end when joining the Pirates. He was originally signed at 18 years old in 1959 by the Cincinnati Reds. He played his first two years with Palatka of the Class-D Florida State League, the lowest level of the minors at the time. Helms hit .252 during his first season, with 37 runs, four extra-base hits, 16 RBIs and a .572 OPS in 56 games. He did much better the second year, hitting .292 in 137 games, with 119 runs, 33 doubles, 69 RBIs and a .715 OPS. He moved up two levels to Topeka of the Class-B Three-I League in 1961, where he hit .277 in 121 games, with 86 runs scored, 25 extra-base hits, 57 RBIs and a .682 OPS. Helms played for Macon of the Class-A South Atlantic League in 1962, hitting .340 that year, with 102 runs, 38 doubles, seven triples, 50 RBIs, 15 steals and an .809 OPS in 139 games. He was bumped up in Triple-A in 1963, but really struggled with the jump. He batted just .225 in 138 games, with 40 runs, 26 extra-base hits, 39 RBIs and a .553 OPS for San Diego of the Pacific Coast League. He repeated the level in 1964, and turned things around. He hit .309 in 142 games, with 57 runs, 41 extra-base hits, 69 RBIs and a .757 OPS. That was followed by a cup of coffee in the majors, getting one at-bat in two late season games for the Reds. He had a brief early season stint with the 1965 Reds, then returned in late August after putting up a .319 average and a .788 OPS in 96 games with San Diego. Helms hit .381/.435/.524 in 21 games with the 1965 Reds, which earned him a spot for 1966 and beyond.

Helms won the Rookie of the Year award in 1966 by hitting .284 in 138 games, with 72 runs scored, 23 doubles, nine homers, 49 RBIs and a .695 OPS, while playing slightly above average defense at third base. He was an All-Star in 1967, when he hit .274 in 138 games, with 40 runs, 27 doubles and 35 RBIs, while splitting his time between shortstop and second base. His OPS was .661 that season, which was down slightly from his rookie year. He made the All-Star team again in 1968 as the regular second baseman for the Reds. He hit .288 in 127 games that year, with 35 runs, 28 doubles, 47 RBIs and a .668 OPS. Despite adding 14 points to his average that year, his OBP remained the same (.305) due to a low walk rate. Helms was great at putting the ball in play, which led to low walk and strikeout totals every season in his career. He didn’t hit the ball hard though, so his average/OBP suffered over the next few years. He hit .269 over 138 games in 1969, with 38 runs, 20 extra-base hits, 40 RBIs and 18 walks, leading to a .613 OPS. He batted .237 over 150 games in 1970, with 42 runs, 22 extra-base hits, 45 RBIs, 21 walks and a .543 OPS, which was his lowest career mark as a regular. His defense was strong that season, with a league best .983 fielding percentage, leading to a Gold Glove at second base. It was even better in 1971 when he put up 2.4 dWAR, which was the third best mark for all fielders in the National League. He won his second straight Gold Glove award, while posting a league best .990 fielding percentage. He hit .258 over 150 games in 1971, with 40 runs, 26 doubles, 52 RBIs and a .615 OPS. Helms was part of a seven-player trade with the Houston Astros that included Hall of Famer Joe Morgan coming to the Reds after the 1971 season.

Helms hit .259 in 135 games during his first season for Houston, with 45 runs, 30 extra-base hits and a .637 OPS. He had 60 RBIs that year, which was a career high that lasted one season. He hit .287 in 1973, with 44 runs, 34 extra-base hits and a career best 61 RBIs. He also set highs with 28 doubles and 32 walks. His .694 OPS that season was his highest since putting up a .695 mark during his Rookie of the Year season. His last season as a regular in the majors was 1974, when he batted .279 in 137 games, with 32 runs, 21 doubles, five homers, 50 RBIs and a .675 OPS. Helms saw his average drop to .207 over 64 games in 1975. He finished that year with two extra-base hits (both doubles) and ten walks, leading to a .488 OPS. Pittsburgh acquired him from the Houston Astros for a player to be named later in December of 1975. That player turned out to be Art Howe. Helms was used as a pinch-hitter often in 1976, as well as the backup at both second base and third base. He hit .276/.350/.391 in 102 plate appearances, with ten runs, seven extra-base hits and 13 RBIs. The Pirates sold him to the Oakland A’s on November 5, 1976, only to reacquire him on March 15, 1977, before he played with his new team. He was with the Pirates through the middle of June in 1977, being used strictly as a pinch-hitter. He received 14 plate appearances, going 0-for-12 with two sacrifice hits. He was released by Pittsburgh on June 14, 1977, then signed quickly with the Boston Red Sox, where he hit .271/.328/.356 in 21 games.

Helms went to Spring Training with Boston in 1978, but was released in late March, ending his career. He played 1,435 big league games over 14 seasons. He had a .269 career average, with 414 runs, 223 doubles, 34 homers and 477 RBIs. Despite accumulating some double-digit stolen base seasons in the minors, he went 33-for-73 in steals in the majors. He became a coach after his playing career was over, and even had two managerial stints with the Cincinnati Reds during the 1988-89 seasons. He also managed two years (2000-01) of independent ball. His nephew Wes Helms played 13 seasons in the National League between 1998 and 2011.

Jose Pagan, third baseman for the Pirates from 1965 until 1972. He signed with the New York Giants as 20 years old in 1955 out of Puerto Rico. Pagan debuted that year with El Dorado of the Class-C Cotton States League, where he hit .273 in 97 games, with 60 runs, 16 extra-base hits, 40 RBIs and a .690 OPS. He moved up to Danville of the Class-B Carolina League in 1956. He hit .283 that year, with 92 runs, 44 extra-base hits, 67 RBIs, 54 walks and a .751 OPS in 147 games. Pagan spent the next two seasons playing for Springfield of the Class-A Eastern League. He batted .264 in 1957, with 67 runs, 35 extra-base hits, 48 RBIs and a .670 OPS in 133 games. He improved to a .298 average in 1958, with 68 runs, 39 extra-base hits, 77 RBIs and a .738 OPS in 126 games. He moved up to Phoenix of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 1959, where he hit .312 in 105 games, with 79 runs, 29 doubles, 19 homers, 55 RBIs and an .869 OPS. That helped earn him an August call-up to the majors. He struggled with the Giants (by then in San Francisco) over the final two months of the 1959 season, batting .174 in 31 games, with just one extra-base hit (a double) and two walks, leading to a .404 OPS.

Pagan spent most of 1960 back in Triple-A with Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League. He didn’t do as well in the minors as he did in 1959, but did much better during his shot in the majors. He hit .295 in 128 games for Tacoma, with 69 runs, 22 doubles, six triples, eight homers, 51 RBIs and a .735 OPS. He played 18 for the Giants that year, putting up a .286/.300/.408 slash line in 50 plate appearances. Pagan spent the entire 1961 season in the majors. He batted .253 in 134 games, with 38 runs, 22 extra-base hits, 46 RBIs and a .638 OPS. The Giants went to the World Series in 1962. He batted .259 that year, with 73 runs, 25 doubles, six triples and seven homers, 57 RBIs and a .671 OPS in 164 games. That game total is the second highest all-time (tied with five players), but it didn’t even lead the league because that’s the year Maury Wills set the record with 165 games played. Teams used to replay ties, with both games (the tie and the replay) counting in the stats, so it was possible to play more than 162 games. He led all National League shortstops that year with a .973 fielding percentage, which led to 1.6 WAR on defense. That was easily a career best, as the rest of his career shows a combined -0.7 dWAR. Pagan hit .368 over seven games during the 1962 World Series, with two runs scored, a home run and two RBIs.

Pagan batted .234 over 148 games in 1963, with 46 runs, 19 extra-base hits, 39 RBIs and a .577 OPS. It was a drop in performance, but things got worse in 1964. That year he hit .223 in 134 games, with 33 runs, 12 extra-base hits, 28 RBIs and a .553 OPS. Pagan got off to a slow start in 1965, hitting .205/.272/.253 in 26 games with the Giants. The Pirates acquired him in a one-for-one deal with San Francisco on May 22, 1965, in exchange for veteran infielder Dick Schofield. Pagan was a .242 hitter in 655 games with the Giants, spending most of his playing time at shortstop. He didn’t see much playing time during his first year in Pittsburgh, getting only 41 plate appearances over 42 games to finish out the 1965 season. He hit .237/.275/.263 during his limited time. His playing time increased greatly during his first full year with the team. He played 109 games in 1966, with most of his time spent at third base. He had a .264 average, with 44 runs, 25 extra-base hits and 54 RBIs. His runs, RBIs and games played were all season highs during his eight years with the Pirates, though his .662 OPS was surpassed in four of the next six seasons. Pagan started 15+ games each at third base, shortstop and left field during the 1967 season. He made just five starts in the outfield prior to that year. He ended up hitting a career high .289 that season, albeit in just 211 at-bats. Despite the high average, he had low walk (ten walks) and power numbers (nine extra-base hits), leading to a .674 OPS. He finished with 17 runs scored and 19 RBIs. He hit .221/278/.350 in 1968, with 184 plate appearances over 80 games. He had 24 runs, seven doubles, four homers and 21 RBIs. He played five different positions that year, including all four infield spots.

Pagan bounced back with a strong season in the utility role in 1969. He hit .285 in 108 games, with 29 runs, 11 doubles, 42 RBIs and a career high nine homers. His .778 OPS was his career best, though he did it in 298 plate appearances. He hit .265 during the 1970 season, with 21 runs, 14 doubles, seven homers, 29 RBIs and a .748 OPS in 95 games. He mostly played third base that year, helping the Pirates to their first playoff appearance since 1960. He went 1-for-3 with a walk in his only playoff game. The Pirates would win it all in 1971 for their fourth World Series title. Pagan saw limited time during the regular season, putting up a .653 OPS 158 at-bats over 57 games. He had 16 runs, 15 RBIs and six extra-base hits, which included five homers. He had just one at-bat during the NLCS. He then got four starts during the World Series, playing in all of the odd numbered games. That included a game seven start in which he drove in what ended up being the game/series winning run. Pagan played one more season in Pittsburgh, hitting .252/.284/.394 in 1972, with three homers and eight RBIs in 137 plate appearances over 53 games. He was released by the Pirates in October of 1972. He played one final season for the Philadelphia Phillies before his playing career ended. The Pirates appeared to cut ties with him at the right time, as he had a .482 OPS in 46 games during that final season in Philadelphia, with no homers, no steals and one walk. He hit .263 in 625 games for the Pirates, with 168 runs, 111 extra-base hits and 189 RBIs. Pagan played a total of 1,326 games over his 15 year career, finishing with a .250 average, 387 runs, 138 doubles, 52 homers and 372 RBIs. He had a career 5.7 WAR, with 3.5 coming while with the Pirates.

Gene Curtis, left fielder for the 1903 Pirates. The 1903 Pirates clinched their third straight National League pennant on September 19th, which was then followed by an off-day. With just six games left before the first World Series was to take place, the Pirates rested some regulars. One of those regulars rested was left fielder/manager Fred Clarke, who injured his leg late in the year. Gene Curtis was a 20-year-old recruit up from the minors, playing his first season of pro ball. He went into left field for Clarke, where he played the last five games of the season. He batted .421 in 19 at-bats, with two runs scored and three RBIs. When the season ended, so did his Major League career. Curtis played six more years in the minors, then managed for two seasons, without ever getting another big league call.

The local paper was impressed with his play on the first day with the Pirates, although they said he has “some superfluous flesh” which was a nice(?) way of saying he needed to lose some weight. He went 2-for-2 with a walk during his first game, while batting sixth in a lineup that was also missing Honus Wagner, who was out with a badly hurt thumb. The Pittsburgh Press had a quote that said Curtis was the Hans (Honus) Wagner of the Central League in 1903.  Curtis hit .315 in 98 games for Wheeling of the Class-B Central League that season, one of three teams he played with during the year. He also saw a total of 24 games with Des Moines and Colorado Springs of the Class-A Western League. His limited combined stats show a .305 average in 122 games. The local Wheeling papers noted on September 16th that the team had at least four offers for Curtis. Two days later, the Pittsburgh Press said that Curtis had been drafted by Boston (National League) and he would be playing for them. Two days after that announcement, Curtis was with Wheeling still when they played a Sunday exhibition game against the Pirates. He collected three hits off of veteran pitcher Brickyard Kennedy, though the papers said that Barney Dreyfuss completed his signing before the game, so apparently his performance didn’t help his cause. The headlines the next day said that “Clarke Signs Curtis”, noting that Pittsburgh paid a heavy fee to sign him. He left with the Pirates, as they returned home for the final six games of the season.

After the season, the papers said that it was unlikely that Curtis would return to Pittsburgh in 1904. One paper said that his poor defense in the outfield was the reason he won’t stick. It was announced in mid-February of 1904 that he signed back with Wheeling, although he was coaching with Bethany College in the spring first before joining his new team. They also mentioned that he lost nearly 30 pounds, so his conditioning was much better. The Pirates apparently tried to trade him to the Philadelphia Phillies, who declined the offer. They then tried to sell him to Indianapolis of the Class-A American Association, only to have Wheeling block the move. Curtis batted .269 over 63 games for Wheeling in 1904, while also seeing time with Wilmington of the Tri-State League. He then bounced around a lot over the next three years. He played for Springfield and Terre Haute in the Central League in 1905, as well as 15 games back with Colorado Springs of the Western League, where his only available stats for the season show a .180 average in 61 at-bats. Curtis played for four teams at three levels/leagues in 1906, spending time with Atlanta and Montgomery of the Class-A Southern Association, as well as Macon of the Class-C South Atlantic League. He was actually on loan from Atlanta to Montgomery, then got released when they tried to return him. However, a large majority of that year was spent with Grand Rapids of the Class-B Central League, where he hit .249 in 127 games, with 22 doubles, 12 triples and nine homers.

Curtis played with three teams in the Central League in 1907, seeing time with Grand Rapids again, as well as Dayton and South Bend. By the end of that year, he had played for six of the eight Central League clubs. He hit .271 that year in 102 games, with 46 runs. He has no stats available for 1908, but a check of his whereabouts shows that he was with South Bend until late May when they sold him to Rockford of the Wisconsin-Illinois League. He was doing umpiring work in the Central League by mid-June. His last two seasons were spent in the Class-C Ohio-Pennsylvania League. He batted .303 over 120 games in 1909 with East Liverpool. He finished up by hitting .313 over 118 games in 1910 for Erie, where he had 32 doubles, six triples and 11 homers. He played his last game of pro ball at 27 years old in 1910, then was out of baseball two years later, retiring after the team he was managing in 1912 folded mid-season. He passed away on January 1, 1919 of the Spanish Flu at 35 years old.

The Trade

On this date in 1956, the Pirates traded pitcher Max Surkont to the St Louis Cardinals in exchange for pitcher Luis Arroyo. The Pirates had acquired Surkont two years earlier in a six-for-one deal with the Milwaukee Braves, in which they gave up young second baseman Danny O’Connell. Surkont went 16-32, 4.92 in 69 games (51 starts) with the Pirates, while playing for some really bad teams. Arroyo went 11-8, 4.19 over 159 innings in 1955 for the Cardinals as a 28-year-old rookie. He also made the All-Star team that season.

The Pirates got two mediocre seasons out of Arroyo, using him mostly in relief. He pitched a total of 159.1 innings between 1956-57, going 6-14, 4.69, with 11 of those losses coming in 1957 when he had an 0-6 record as a starter. Arroyo spent all of 1958 in the minors, before the Pirates traded him to the Cincinnati Reds that December. He ended up pitching against the Pirates, while with the New York Yankees, during the 1960 World Series.

Surkont didn’t last long in St Louis. He pitched poorly in five relief outings, before being sold to the Boston Red Sox less than a month after the Pirates trade. He would be sold again before the end of the year, this time to the New York Giants. He pitched briefly for New York in 1957, making a total of just 18 Major League appearances after leaving Pittsburgh. He had a 9.52 ERA with the Cardinals, followed by a 5.63 ERA over 38.1 innings for the Giants. He did not pitch for the Red Sox in the majors.