by The Last Hollywood Star
As the Pittsburgh Pirates embark on the team's 50th Anniversary celebratory season of its historic 1960 World Series triumph over the New York Yankees, fans have good reason to reach back in time to when the Buccos were truly great.
For too many fans, a 17-year sub-.500 Pirate record has blotted out the Bucco's rich history.
Others of a younger generation know nothing of previous Pirate glory days.
The place to begin your review of the early Pirates is a wonderful new book by James Forr and David Proctor, "Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography"
The book naturally focuses on Traynor and his sixteen-year Hall of Fame playing career from 1920 to 1937 (BA: .320) during which time he was widely considered to be baseball's best third baseman. The honor was officially bestowed on him in 1969 when Traynor was voted as the third baseman on baseball's all-time team.
In most of Traynor's Pirate seasons the team contended for the National League pennant.
An extraordinarily skilled fielder and a great hitter, Traynor once drove in more than 100 runs in five consecutive seasons (1927-1931). The only other third baseman to match that feat is the Atlanta Braves' Chipper Jones. I'll save you the trouble of looking it up. Neither 500 home run sluggers Eddie Matthews nor Mike Schmidt did it.
Forr and Proctor also devote chapters to Traynor's post-playing years as the Pirates manager, an evening sports talk show host and an announcer for the old "Studio Wrestling" program back in the days when wrestling was more or less legitimate.
Traynor was a widely recognized and beloved figure in Pittsburgh. Since he never learned to drive, Traynor walked everywhere and was more than willing to stop and chat with his admiring fans. Unlike many of today's stars, Traynor never turned down a request to appear at a youth group or address a charitable organization.
The book is rich with Pirate history that will fascinate even the most casual fan.
Here are two examples:
-- For years, some baseball analysts claim that when the Pirates met the New York Yankees in the 1927 World Series, the Bucs were so overwhelmed when they watched "Murderer's Row" take batting practice that they knew they would lose and played accordingly.
Traynor debunks that theory completely. According to Traynor, the Pirates took batting practice first and never even watched the Yankees warm up.
Lloyd Waner, Traynor's Hall of Fame teammate, confirms it. According to Waner: "We had our workout first and I...was just leaving the field as they were coming onto the field."
--- In 1938, when Traynor was manager and the team badly needed pitchers and catchers, Chester Washington of the black newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier sent Traynor the following telegram: "KNOW YOUR CLUB NEEDS PLAYERS STOP HAVE ANSWER TO YOUR PRAYERS RIGHT HERE IN PITTSBURGH STOP JOSH GIBSON CATCHER FIRST BASE B. LEONARD AND RAY BROWN PITCHER OF HOMESTEAD GRAYS AND S. PAIGE PITCHER COOL PAPA BELL OF PITTSBURGH CRAWFORDS. ALL AVAILABLE AT REASONABLE FIGURES STOP WOULD MAKE PIRATES FORMIDABLE PENNANT CONTENDERS STOP WHAT IS YOUR ATTITUDE? STOP WIRE ANSWER"
Years later, that Traynor never answered Washington puzzles many especially since if the Pirates had acquired Gibson, Leonard, Bell and Paige they likely would have run off a string of World Championships.
But in retrospect, the consensus is that Traynor's silence was not motivated by racism but that he acting individually did not have the authority from the Pirates' administration to integrate baseball.
Not quite a decade later, when Traynor was working as a sportscaster, he urged the Pirates to follow the lead of the Brooklyn Dodgers and sign black players.
What I also enjoy about Forr and Proctor's book is the insight into less well known early Buccos who had enormously productive careers.
Have you ever heard of Lee Meadows? In addition to being the first major league player to wear eye glasses, Meadows was the fastest working pitcher ever to take to the mound. In 1919, as a Philadelphia Phillie, Meadows was the 6-1 loser in a 51 minute complete game (!) against the New York Giants. Meadows anchored the Buc's staff from 1924 to 1928 when he won 20 games once and 19 games twice.
Did you ever wonder how Trayner's Hall of Fame teammate Hazen Shirley Cuyler became known as "Kiki"? Some think it was because of his slight speech impediment that often made it difficult for Cuyler to pronounce his name completely on his first attempt.
Others say that Cuyler was such an outstanding outfielder that players would call "Ki, Ki" for any fly ball within his reach.
How about the left-handed Cy Blanton who debuted for the Pirates in 1935 and after two and a half weeks had a 4-0 record with a 0.75 ERA. By the season's end, Blanton was 18-4 and led the league in ERA with 2.58.
Banton's story ends sadly, however. He never matched his early success and after being traded to the Phillies, was released in 1942. In 1945, Blanton died in a mental institution.
"Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography" is the first comprehensive study of Traynor's career. And the book offers many interesting and amusing anecdotes about the great Pirate teams and players from those wonderful days gone by.
Copies are available from Amazon.com and can also be ordered at http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/ or by calling 1-800-253-2187