Pirates lacking Hall-worthy arms

Bob Cohn
| Saturday, July 26, 2014, 8:55 p.m.

Former pitchers and Atlanta Braves teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine will enter the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, and a third, John Smoltz, figures to join them soon. Two pitchers from the same starting rotation being inducted into the Hall of Fame is rare. Three would be stunning.

On the flip side, what about no Hall of Fame pitchers in the history of a Pirates franchise that dates to the 19th century? That is unique.

Of the dozen Pirates players enshrined in Cooperstown, none is a pitchers as defined by the cap on the plaque or the Hall of Fame's designation of “primary team.” Even after almost 130 years, the Pirates are the only team with this dubious distinction among the 16 original, pre-expansion franchises.

“I always thought they had guys from way back there,” said Bob Friend, who started more games and pitched more innings than any Pirates pitcher. “Not modern-day baseball but way back. That is a surprise.”

Major League Baseball historian John Thorn said it should have helped that Forbes Field, the Pirates' ballpark from 1909 to 1970, generally favored pitchers, “but the Pirates were mostly lousy from 1925 to 1960.”

There were other lean times, notably during the past two decades. While the Braves and their pitching aces cruised to 14 division titles, five pennants and one world championship, the Pirates were headed to 20 straight losing seasons with the likes of Kris Benson, Kip Wells and Zach Duke.

The Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Browns/Baltimore Orioles franchises each has one pitcher in Cooperstown. So do the Boston Red Sox, although Pedro Martinez is knocking on the door, and Roger Clemens still is a possibility despite allegations of performance-enhancing drug use.

At least they're on the board. The Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals have two. Even the Los Angeles Angels (Nolan Ryan), born in 1961, and New York Mets (Tom Seaver), who came along a year later, can boast Hall of Fame pitchers.

“It's interesting and intriguing that the Pirates have never had a really great pitcher,” said author Jim O'Brien, a Pittsburgh sports historian.

Not for an extended period of time, anyway. Vern Law, Steve Blass, John Candelaria, Doug Drabek and others had their moments but not enough for Hall consideration. Ten Hall of Fame pitchers wore Pirates uniforms but represent other teams. A few such as Jack Chesbro (1899-1902), Vic Willis (1906-09) and Bert Blyleven (1978-80) were outstanding but too brief in their stay with the Pirates.

Some who stuck around had good credentials that simply were not enticing enough. Wilbur Cooper won 202 games (more than any Pirates pitcher) with a 2.74 ERA from 1912 through '24 but never got more than 4.4 percent of the votes (at least 75 percent is needed for election).

“Cooper is terrific but largely forgotten,” Thorn said.

Reliever Elroy Face (1953-67), one of the first true closers, peaked at 18.9 percent, the highest ever for a Pirates pitcher. Babe Adams, who won three games in the 1909 World Series and who many believe is overlooked, once drew 13.7 percent of the votes. Adams won 194 games, the same as Sam Leever, another star of the dead-ball era.

O'Brien cited Friend as the Pirates' best pitcher, even though he lost more games (218) than he won (191).

“He was with really bad baseball teams,” O'Brien said.

Blass, a Pirates broadcaster whose mysterious meltdown on the mound prematurely ended his pitching career, used the word “horrific” to describe some of Friend's teams. The Pirates lost 317 games in three seasons from 1952 to '54.

A three-time All-Star, Friend came up at 20 and immediately struggled but figured things out and pitched effectively for most of a decade. His 3.58 career ERA — he played one year each with the Mets and New York Yankees — was solid for a pitcher with so many losses. He won 22 games in 1958, 18 when the Pirates won the World Series in 1960 and 18 again two years later.

But he was known mainly as a workhorse. From 1955 to '65, only Warren Spahn, another Braves' Hall of Famer, pitched more innings. Friend's nickname was “Warrior.”

“He had to be good and trusted for them to keep putting him out there,” O'Brien said.

“He never missed a turn,” said Blass.

High praise for a pitcher. But it won't get you into the Hall of Fame.

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com.

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