August 19, 2010

Building a Champion: 1960 (Part 2)

In honor of the life of the Pirates' greatest general manager, Joe L. Brown, I've been chronicling how he built his first World Series team. In Part 1 I examined 1955-57, in which Brown incrementally improved a moribund franchise that had finished last in the National League four years running before he was hired in 1955. The Pirates improved slightly to seventh place in their first two seasons under Brown, employing a solid pitching staff but still struggling to score runs.

1957-58 Offseason
In his first two offseasons Brown had stood pat, waiting until games started to make major moves. This time around Brown pulled off two challenge trades with Cincinnati in December.

In the first move, righthanded knuckleballer Bob Purkey was traded for lefthander Don Gross. Gross assumed Luis Arroyo's role as the main lefty in the bullpen with Arroyo returning to AAA. Completing the pitching staff, prospects Curt Raydon and George Witt were called up to assume swingman roles while Red Swanson was sent back to the minors.

The other move was a swap of first basemen as Brown traded Dee Fondy to Cincinnati for slugger Ted Kluszewski. The objective clearly was to add power to a lineup that had finished last in home runs. Big Klu hit 171 home runs from 1953-56 before an injury plagued and unsuccessful 1957 season, and was installed as the cleanup hitter for 1958. The team's only returning slugger, Frank Thomas, moved back to third base.

In May, Brown purchased veteran hurler Bob Porterfield from the Red Sox. On June 15 which at the time was the non-waiver trade deadline, Brown pulled off his first career deadline deal. Backups Gene Freese and Johnny O'Brien went to St. Louis for slick-fielding infield prospect Dick Schofield. Completing the 1958 club, Dick Stuart forced Brown's hand by hitting 31 home runs for AAA Salt Lake City by the All-Star break when he was called up to the big leagues.

The overhaul had been gradual, but by 1958 the Pirates now employed only three of the 11 primary position players Brown inherited in 1955 - Roberto Clemente, Dick Groat and Frank Thomas.

1958 Pirates
The 1958 season was nothing less than a revelation as Pittsburgh posted an 84-70 record and finished second in the league. Using the same primary players, the team made a stunning 22 game improvement over the previous season. The Pirates stayed close to eventual champion Milwaukee through September. The fans loved it; attendance increased to 1.3 million - three times the attendance of 1955.

The pitching was a big success, finishing second in the league. Actually this staff could have been even better, as the traded Purkey won 17 games and was an All-Star in Cincinnati.

On the hitting side, the high profile addition Kluszewski - though far more useful than the man swapped for him - was either over the hill or too injured to be an effective cleanup hitter. The lineup was strengthened when Stuart replaced him in midseason. The core hitters all improved greatly, although the offense still was seventh in the league in scoring.

Although this move obviously didn't affect the 1960 team, I have to mention that on August 7 Brown signed Willie Stargell as an amateur free agent.

1958-59 Offseason
Continuing Brown's practice of trading frequently with Cincinnati (called the Redlegs at that time due to anti-Communist hysteria), Brown pulled off his biggest trade yet on January 30. The popular slugger Thomas - a three time All-Star with 163 home runs already as a Pirate - went to Cincinnati for three players: catcher Smoky Burgess, pitcher Harvey Haddix, and third baseman Don Hoak.

While Thomas was a bona fide star, two everyday players plus a starting pitcher was a shockingly good return for him. Both Burgess and Hoak were good contact hitters. Hoak lacked the departed slugger's pop but unlike Thomas was a natural third baseman and an above average fielder there. One of the best hitting catchers in baseball, Burgess was a major offensive upgrade. Haddix was a veteran pitcher with 83 wins and a career 3.66 ERA.

Brown picked journeyman Rocky Nelson in the Rule V draft to be the fourth outfielder. Stuart got a full season as the everyday first baseman, pushing Kluszewski into a reserve role.

1959 Season
Even though all the players from the Thomas trade played well, the Pirates dropped back to fourth place with a 78-76 record. They were in the pennant race for half the season but never challenged after a nine game losing streak at the end of July. The biggest problem again was a lack of power as Pittsburgh's 112 home runs were last in the league.

1959-60 Offseason
Through a combination of trades and player development, under Joe Brown the Pirates improved from a laughingstock to a team with back to back winning seasons. Now the GM had a club that only required finishing touches to be a true contender.

At the winter meetings Brown got catcher Hal Smith from Kansas City for spare parts including pitcher Dick Hall, who had been relegated to the minors for three seasons. Smith had a good throwing arm and a .280 career average, but the A's were determined to sell off their best players - around the same time they also dumped Roger Maris to the Yankees.

In a second December deal, Ron Kline went to St. Louis for pitcher Tom Cheney and center fielder Gino Cimoli. Cheney was a hard-throwing but raw prospect while Cimoli was a former All-Star center fielder. Kline compiled a 66-91 record and a 3.77 ERA with Pittsburgh. With the trade he became the first of the four core pitchers from 1955 to leave town. His replacement came in May when Brown sent prospects Ed Bauta and Julian Javier to St. Louis for lefthander Vinegar Bend Mizell, who had 69 major league wins and an astoundingly great nickname.

1960 Pirates
The results, of course, are history. Fueled by Clemente's breakout season, the same offense that had never finished better than sixth in the league in run scoring led the league in offense in 1960. Every position player had an above average year. Friend and Law both had their best seasons while the trade acquisitions Haddix and Mizell rounded out a good starting staff in front of Face, the best Pirates reliever in history. Pittsburgh also had a great defense, getting positive contributions from all of their starters. The team went 95-59, easily winning the pennant, and of course beat the Yankees in a seven game World Series.

Overall, this was a remarkable job done by Joe Brown in his first five seasons as GM. Inheriting a terrible team, he correctly identified the core players - Groat, Clemente and Mazeroski in the field and Friend, Law and Face on the mound. He gave starting jobs to two promising minor leaguers, Stuart and Skinner, and traded either veterans at their peak value or prospects for the other key players on the roster.

Of course, really all a GM can do is put his team in a position to win. The Pirates were strong enough from 1958 on that they could have finished first. 1960 just happened to be the year everything came together.

The 1979 champions are more celebrated for being more recent, but it is the 1960 club that represents the real hope for the current Pirates. It was also the team that remains Joe Brown's greatest achievement in a long career with the Pirates.

1 comment:

  1. Reading about 1960 makes me think I was born too late. Oh well, I will always be able to remember the 1985 season!