Monday, May 4, 2009

"PIRATES TALES": The Mysterious Case of Former Pirates Manager Billy Meyer

ABOVE LEFT: The "Stat Rat" makes an appearance on this episode of "Pirates Chest of Tales"

It's funny how stories can go sometimes. You can have an obvious topic such as the Penguins Stanley Cup run and draw a blank and then you can hear something as simple as a baseball statistic and have an entire story spring from it. That's how the "Mysterious Story of Billy Meyer" came about.

I was viewing the Pirate game yesterday when I heard it mentioned that the Pirates are 1017-971 all time. I either a) misunderstood the statistic or b) misheard what they were talking about, or c) they simply got their facts wrong. After consulting with the "Stat Rat", my initial suspicions were confirmed. After yesterday's loss, the Pirates all time record now stands at 9,703 wins and 9,492 losses. So in their 19,195 games played, their all time winning percentage is just .505%. By the way, the Pirates will hit the 20,000 games played mark right after the all star break in 2012...further proof of the oft-predicted apocalypse on December 21st of that year.

The Pirates being a mere 211 games over .500, means that in their 127 years of existence they are averaging just 1.66 games over that "magical" mark each season. Being currently tied for the worst losing-record streak in the entire history of professional sports in America obviously hasn't helped that percentage at all. Those 16 seasons of futility (13.5% of their entire history) have resulted in the franchise dropping over 300 games against their all time "over .500" mark.

You'll probably be amazed to know that the team's worst record didn't even take place during the current 16 year skid. That distinction belonged to the 1890 team that suffered to the tune of 23-113! The worst records in modern times took place in 1985 (57-104 under Chuck Tanner) and 62-100 under Lloyd McClendon) in 2001.

While the Pirates have had plenty of successful campaigns over the years, I got to wondering how many numbers have been retired by the team. I learned that nine numbers have been retired by the Buccos and one (Jackie Robinson's 42) by Major League Baseball. Here are the numbers that the Pirates have retired, see how many of them you know: 1, 4, 8, 9, 11, 20, 21, 33 and 40.

Number 1 is Billy Meyer. We'll come back to him later.
Number 4 was Ralph Kiner, number 8, Willie Stargell, number 9 Bill Mazeroski, number 11, Paul Waner, number 20, Pie traynor, number 21, Roberto Clemente, number 33, Honus Wagner, and number 40, Danny Murtaugh.

The Pirates have 41 players, managers, front office and broadcasters in the Hall, but two of their retired numbers aren't even in Cooperstown! The two who aren't in the Hall of Fame are managers Danny Murtaugh (now being considered by the Veterans committee) and Billy Meyer, the aforementioned number 1.

ABOVE: There is a current movement underway to have Clemente's "21" retired in the same fashion as Jackie Robinson's "42"

The Billy Meyer story is a very strange one. Meyer had been a successful minor league manager in the Yankees organization but was passed over four times by the big club for the manager's job. When he was offered the Pirates job in 1948, he quickly accepted and had an immediate successful season at 83-71. He was named "manager of the year" after uplifting the moribund Pittsburgh franchise in his initial campaign. Immediately afterward, Meyer was then offered the manager's job by his former employers, the New York Yankees, but in gratitude to the team that first gave him a chance, he rejected the Yankees overtures.

Meyer then proceeded to have four straight nightmarish campaigns including 1952 when he went 42-112. Newly-hired g.m. Branch Rickey had come in and cleaned house of veterans like Ralph Kiner ("we lost 100 games with him" was the logic). Unfortunately, the players in the minors were rushed to the majors before they were ready with disastrous consequences.

Meyer, who had a history of poor health apparently wasn't handling the losing well. The club released him after the '52 season. He had a stroke in 1955 and died in 1957, a year after having his number retired by the club. Obviously, Meyer's personality, his popularity with the players and loyalty to the team were all major factors in having his number "1" retired, because it certainly wasn't because of his all time record as a manager. Meyer finished his career in Pittsburgh at 317-452 (.412%). In fairness to him though, he was very successful in the minors and then had to work with basically a minor league roster (ever heard that one before)?

Meyer even managed to have a stadium named after him in his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. Residents of Knoxville still complain that this ballpark was torn down. It was in a bad section of the city, but the the fans loved it regardless.

ABOVE: Billy Meyer walked on water as far as the Pirates players were concerned.

For having had only a five year career with poor results, we're certain that Billy Meyer has to be one of the least qualified players or managers to ever have their number retired. But it certainly speaks volumes about the man that he was accorded that rare honor. When you stop to consider that in 127 years there have been 5,080 names on the 40 man roster and only nine numbers actually retired (.17%) this makes the action taken by the club even more amazing.

It's certainly one of those "Pirates Tales" that makes Pittsburgh one of the most-storied franchises in Major League Baseball.
ABOVE: Back in the '50s they had plenty of numbers to work with and I guess they figured that they'd never run out!

Among teams that have never left their original city, the Pirates rank fourth all time in games played behind the Cubs 19785, Cardinals 19376 and Reds 19370. Pittsburgh again has 19331. Of these four teams, the winning percentages look like this: Cubs .514, Reds .507, Buccos .505 and Phillies .470. The Yankees are (surprise, surprise) the gold standard in baseball with a .567 winning percentage. The Red Sox are a distant second at .516. So even after 16 years of losing, the Pirates are far ahead of the Phillies while just a shade below the Cubs and Reds. That goes to show you that there have been very successful times for this franchise as well. Maybe we're close to getting back to those days within the next few years.