Pittsburgh Pirates History: Branch Rickey And Their First Tank

WASHINGTON, DC - UNDATED: Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey photographed at a Congressional Hearing. (Photo by Sporting News/Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - UNDATED: Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey photographed at a Congressional Hearing. (Photo by Sporting News/Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images) /

While the term tanking might be more modern, the concept has been around for decades. Today, we’ll take a look at how Branch Rickey impacted the first tank the Pittsburgh Pirates ever executed

Today, you probably hear the terms “tanking” or “rebuilidng” thrown out a lot. It’s the process where a team focuses most of their development of prospects and the farm system. Usually, this also involves poor records, the trading of Major League players for prospects and attempting to get high draft picks. This is something the Pittsburgh Pirates are currently entrenched in.

Though the terms tanking and rebuilding have recently been used a lot throughout today’s game, the concept is nothing new. All teams have to do it at some point and the process of tanking/rebuilding has been around for decades. In the case of the Pittsburgh Pirates, they’ve gone through many rebuilds, but the very first modern tank in their history starts in the 1950s under Branch Rickey’s oversight.

Rickey is probably the most forward thinking general manager the game has ever seen. He was the grandfather of Moneyball. Not only was he the man who signed Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, but made many facets of the game today mainstream.

The use of such items like full-time spring training facilities, batting cages, helmets, pitching machines and farm systems were heavily pushed and developed by Rickey. His work with the St. Louis Browns and Cardinals helped create what we know today as the modern farm system. This helped develop legendary names in the Cardinals history like Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Pepper Martin, Dizzy Dean, Paul Dean and Joe Medwick.

He’s also the first general manager to introduce advanced statistics to the game. His hiring of statistician Allan Roth in 1947 was the first of his kind. Rickey, always a forward thinking man, hired Roth because of his “ideas that understanding situational statistics (home/road, day/night, left-handed/right-handed pitcher, etc.) could help win games, and that RBIs were deceptive,” according to SABR, or Society for American Baseball Research. Rickey and Roth are the reason we use on base percentage as a more advanced and more telling alternative to batting average, as they were the two who invented it.

So what was Rickey’s impact with the Pittsburgh Pirates and their first rebuild? He took over as the Pirate general manager in 1950 and the Pirates were not a very good team under Rickey’s control through his first few seasons. Their lowest loss total from 1950 to 1953 was 90. This is where Rickey took the Pirates through what I consider the franchise’s first modern rebuild.

On June 4, 1953, Rickey dealt long-time Pirate slugger Ralph Kiner, along with Howie Pollet, Joe Garagiola and George Metkovich to the Chicago Cubs for six different players. Rickey famously stated to Kiner “Son, we could have finished last without you!” before he was sent to Chicago.

However, during his early tenure in Pittsburgh, he started to develop and acquire some very young talent. Vern Law, who was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1948, was still a prospect when Rickey took over. He made his debut in 1950 and while he missed the 1952 and 1953 seasons because of military service, Law turned into a quality MLB arm by 1955.

Bob Friend and Roy Face made their debuts in 1951 and 1953. Friend was 20 when he made his debut and Face had just turned 25. First baseman Dick Stuart was one of Rickey’s amature signings as well, making a deal with the first baseman sometime before the 1951 season. During 1952, Rickey signed the defensively gifted shortstop Dick Groat. Sometime before the 1954 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed another gifted middle infield defender in Bill Mazeroski.

During that offseason, Rickey selected highly-athletic Puerto Rican outfielder Roberto Clemente in the Rule 5 Draft from the team he used to be the GM of, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Another notable player who reached the Majors when Rickey was GM was Frank Thomas.

The rebuild didn’t stop once Rickey left the Pittsburgh Pirates. Their next GM, Joe L. Brown, continued the rebuild when he traded veteran pitcher Dick Littlefield for Bill Virdon. By the early 1960s, the fruits of the rebuild paid off with the Pirates winning the 1960 World Series to a walk off home run from Mazeroski, one of the players Rickey signed and developed. He was far from the only player Rickey had signed or developed as Stuart, Mazeroski, Groat, Clemente, Friend, Face and Law all were large contributing factors to the Pirate World Series run.

While there was no amature draft like there is today, what makes this the closest thing to the first modern rebuild the Pirates underwent is the amount of time that was put into the development of players. Rickey, obviously, was a big proponent of the farm system with his advancements he made in St. Louis.

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Branch Rickey was a man beyond his time. He helped break baseball’s color barrier and many of the innovations we have today have roots that tie back to Rickey. He’s the grandfather of moneyball because of his innovations with advanced statistics that we use today. Rickey had a hand to play in the Pittsburgh Pirates first modern rebuild given his ability to develop talent through the farm system, one of the many innovations he made.