August 17, 2010

Building A Champion: 1960 (Part 1)

Former Pirates general manager Joe L. Brown died Monday morning at the age of 91. In his 22 years as GM, Brown was at the helm for the 1960 and '71 WFC teams and built the core of the 1979 champions as well. He also presided over the playoff teams of 1970, '72, '74 and '75.

Brown's tenure undoubtedly was the golden age in Pirates history. In his honor, let's take a look at how the Pirates' greatest GM built his first champion. I'll cover 1955 through '57 here and I'll follow up in the next few days with Part 2 taking you through to 1960.

An Unknown GM Takes Over
The great general manager Branch Rickey is little remembered for his end-career stint with the Pirates. Though Rickey's presence would pay dividends down the line thanks to his signing of Roberto Clemente, during his six years running the Pirates the team finished no better than seventh.

When Rickey retired in October 1955 at the age of 74, he left a team that had finished last in the National League four years in a row and not coincidentally, had finished last in attendance three years running. But it was a less cynical time, and Pittsburgh Baseball Club stockholders voted in his handpicked successor Joe L. Brown to take over as GM. Brown inherited a 60-94 club that finished last but was stocked with young talent.

1955 PiratesThis team scored the fewest runs in the league and allowed the most. On the pitching side, clearly the task was to surround the five talented one-syllable youngsters with better filler than the ineffective veterans used in '55. The lineup was more of a mess, as only Long provided better than average hitting. The rookie Clemente already was playing great defense but had a long way to go as an offensive weapon.

1955-56 Offseason
Brown's first big move was hiring Bobby Bragan as the club's new manager. He invigorated the lineup a bit by bringing up left fielder Lee Walls, moving cleanup hitter Thomas to third base. Bob Skinner was called up for a fourth outfielder role. Veteran Red Munger and career minor leaguers Nellie King and Fred Waters were called up to strengthen the bullpen, freeing up Kline to become a front line starter.

In May, Brown dumped the three poorly performing veteran pitchers from '55. Surkont was dealt for reliever Luis Arroyo and Donoso was sent to the minors. Most importantly, for Littlefield and prospect Bobby Del Greco, Brown got 1955 Rookie of the Year Bill Virdon to play center field replacing the poor fielding Lynch. Spare part Preston Ward was traded for catcher Hank Foiles. And in early July, 19-year-old Bill Mazeroski was called up to play second base.

1956 Pirates
The '56 Pirates had a winning record as late as June 25 before stumbling to a seventh place finish at 66-88. The key success was the club's pitching, which improved from last to fourth in the league as new manager Bragan relied on his top five guys to a near preposterous extent. Virdon, Walls and an improved Clemente formed a fast and contact-hitting outfield, though the offense was still just seventh in the league in scoring. Pittsburgh was optimistic about the improved club - incredibly, attendance more than doubled to 950,000. The season has to be considered a great debut for the new GM Brown as pretty much all his moves worked. He had just inherited too poor of a team to win right away.

1956-57 Offseason
Again, Brown made no offseason trades. On the pitching side, Arroyo and Bob Purkey were called up to assume key swingman roles behind the Friend/Kline/Law trio of starters. Munger was released, which made room for 20-year-old bonus baby Red Swanson to assume a regular role in the bullpen. Waters was sent back to AAA.

The Pirates opened 1957 with the same lineup as the previous year, but Brown again made a blockbuster trade in May. Long and Walls, strong middle of the order hitters in '56, were sent to the Cubs for first baseman Dee Fondy and third baseman Gene Baker. It was an apparent attempt to win in 1957 since both new players were in their age 32 seasons. Foiles caught more often this season. Skinner also assumed a greater role and was the everyday cleanup hitter by the end of the year. Thomas kept hitting in the middle of the order, starting games at all four corner positions. Freese, who hadn't hit at all in '56, again was a semi-regular player while minor leaguer Paul Smith was called up for an outfield reserve role.

1957 Pirates
1957 was a disappointing year as the Pirates' record dropped to 62-92. The pitching was decent, ranking fifth in the NL and featuring a breakout performance from Law and another steady year for Friend. But the offense was downright awful scoring the fewest runs in the league. Clemente regressed to his poor offense of 1955, while Virdon joined him in posting a below-.300 on base percentage at the top of the lineup. Skinner, Groat, Mazeroski and Foiles all hit for good contact but could not make up for the club's lack of power.

By the end of 1957, the Long/Walls trade already looked like a shortsighted mistake. Long slugged .511 with Chicago and hit a home run in over 5% of his at bats. Fondy, for his part, could still stroke line drives but had lost nearly all his power. Walls had a sophomore slump and wouldn't have helped the Pirates much in '57 but was still just 24 years old. The move was Brown's first major mistake as GM, as he gave up the best player in the deal (Long) and received two players who were in serious decline.

While the final field results make 1957 look like a lost season, Brown made one move which caused fans to have optimism for '58. On August 3, he fired Bragan and replaced him with interim manager Danny Murtaugh. Murtaugh took the 36-67 ballclub and guided them to a 26-25 record the rest of the way. After the pitching staff blossomed under Murtaugh, Brown removed the interim tag in late September.

After 1957, the Pirates had suffered nine straight losing seasons. Yet there was much optimism that Murtaugh could coax a better performance in '58 out of his talented and young club. In an upcoming post I will finish examining how Brown's moves as GM led to the 1960 World Championship.

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