Bill Swift spent eight seasons in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform, posting double digit win totals in each of his first five years, en route to 91 wins while in the Steel City. Born on June 19, 1908 in Elmira, New York, Bill began his pro career in 1928, pitching 182 innings in the Western Association, a Class-C minor league level. The twenty year old right-hander went 10-7 with a 3.16 ERA. He also made one start for Kansas City of the American Association that year, a team that he would return to two years later.
Prior to that start in pro ball, Swift had pitched in the Industrial Leagues, semi-pro ball at the time. He was taught how to pitch by his father, who was a minor league pitcher for eight seasons(1907-14). The last four years his father pitched, were spent in Bill’s hometown of Elmira. His father was a left-handed pitcher and so too was Bill at first, although that changed at an early age. For reasons unknown, his father didn’t like lefty pitchers and he switched his son into a right-hander. After getting a tryout with the St Louis Browns in 1928, the team sent him to the Western Association to begin his pro career.
Swift spent the 1929 season with the Augusta Tygers of the South Atlantic League, one level higher than the previous year. He went 13-13 with a 2.95 ERA, pitching a total of 226 innings. He also got in three games for Springfield of the Three-I League, a team he would pitch for most of the following season.
In 1930, Bill began to establish himself as one of the better minor league prospects. For Springfield, he went 17-7 3.78 in 205 innings. He also pitched six games for Kansas City, getting in another 26 innings. His ERA for Springfield doesn’t sound great, but he was easily the team leader, with no one else coming within a half of a run of him. Only one other player on the team won ten games and the team finished well below .500 on the year.
The 1931 season saw him go 16-7 with a 4.54 ERA for Kansas City, which again was a deceivingly high mark for earned runs allowed. He was the team’s best pitcher in a high offense league dominated by players who averaged nearly five years of age older than Swift. One of those pitchers alongside Bill that season was Tom Sheehan, who was in the bullpen all year with the 1925 Pirates team that won the World Series. Sheehan’s six year major league career had ended in 1926, but for Swift, he was just about to get his big league career started
On January 29,1932, the Pirates acquired Swift from Kansas City in exchange for catcher Eddie Phillips and pitcher Bob Osborn. Swift came highly recommended from two former Pirates players. The first was their scout Bill Hinchman, a first baseman for the team from 1915 until 1920. The other was a more recognizable name, Casey Stengel, who had played outfield for the 1918-19 Pirates and who was currently managing a team from Toledo that was also in the American Association with Kansas City. Stengel was still playing at the time as well, and called Swift one of the hardest pitchers he had ever faced.
The Pirates started slowly with the young pitcher during his rookie season, and he had a rough first month. He first pitched in relief during a blowout loss on Opening Day, allowing two runs in two innings. Swift got his first start three days later, giving up six runs over four innings of work, picking up a no-decision. His first major league win would come with help from the Pirates strong offense. In his fourth appearance, he allowed five runs in 4.1 innings of work out of the bullpen, picking up a 10-9 victory over the Cardinals. Six days later, he threw five innings of relief, allowing one hit and one unearned run. The excellent outing earned him another chance at starting.
Swift made two starts in early May, picking up the first two losses of his career. Back to the bullpen, he made three more appearances totaling 6.1 innings in which he faced the minimum amount of batters, allowing just one hit and no walks. On May 30th, during a doubleheader, he threw his first complete game, a 9-2 win over the Reds. Despite that strong outing, it was back to the pen for Swift. During the last week of June, he picked up three victories in relief, giving up a total of two runs in 8.2 innings.
On July 5th, Bill won a complete game over the Giants, pitching all ten innings in the 4-3 victory. He would go on to win his next three outings, two of them complete game starts, giving him victories in seven straight appearances. His streak of luck ended there though, as he would then lose six straight outings, the last three saw the Pirates score a total of one run. As quickly as things went bad, they turned around for him, reeling off four straight wins. Swift finished his rookie season with 14-10 3.61 record in 23 starts and 16 relief appearances. He pitched 214.1 innings with just 26 walks allowed, the lowest walk rate in the National League. Bill finished second on the team behind Larry French in both wins and innings pitched, while trailing French and Steve Swetonic(who finished 4th in the NL) in ERA.
In 1933, Swift pitched Opening Day, winning a 4-1 complete game over the Reds in Cincinnati. Nine days later, he again held the Reds to just one run and ten days after that, Bill threw his first major league shutout, a 10-0 whitewashing over the Phillies. By the end of May, he was 6-2 with five complete game victories. He would extend that streak of victories in complete games to ten by the end of July, finally losing his first one on August 3rd. Despite that streak, he actually went through a 73 day stretch(13 outings) in which he picked up just one win. Swift finished the season with a strong last month, going 4-1 with a 1.34 ERA in 40.1 innings. One of those wins was his second shutout, a four hit game over the Dodgers. His 14 victories was third on the team behind French(18) and 15 from Heinie Meine.
Swift had a rough 1934 season in the win-loss column, going 11-13 for a Pirates team that disappointed with a 74-76 record. Part of the problem was run support, as eight of his losses saw the Pirates score three or less runs. His 3.98 ERA was third best on the team behind French, who put up a 12-18 record with his 3.58 ERA and Hall of Famer Waite Hoyt, who has a 2.93 mark, third best in the NL. Bill topped 210 innings for a third straight season to start his career and matched his 13 complete games from the previous year.
The 1935 season turned out to be the best one of his career but it sure didn’t start out that way. Swift was pitching out of the bullpen through the end of May. He was seeing very little action until a brilliant pitching performance on May 15th against the Phillies. Guy Bush had been staked to a 4-0 lead in the first inning, but all he could get was one out before giving up five runs on six hits. Swift came in a finished the game without allowing a run, 8.2 scoreless innings of relief work. Prior to that game, he had worked just 10.2 innings all year. Within a month of that game, he had a 7-2 record, his fourth career shutout and a 2.11 ERA. Bill went on to pitch two more shutouts before the year was over, both four hit games. He had a 15-8 record and a 2.70 ERA in 203.2 innings, finishing second on the team in wins to Cy Blanton(18), who also had the best earned run average in the NL, with his 2.58 mark, twelve points ahead of Swift, who finished second.
The 1936 season wasn’t nearly as good as the previous year but Swift became the workhorse of the staff. He led the team with 262.1 innings, 45 appearances, 17 complete games and 16 wins. He also lost 16 times and posted his highest (4.01) full-season ERA. He had a 7-3 record on June 17th, but dropped 12 of his next 18 decisions, before reeling off three straight victories, including an 11 inning complete game over the Reds on September 19th. That 1936 season was the last time he would win double digits or pitch over 200 innings.
In 1937, Swift was back in the bullpen to start. In the 15th game of the season, he got his first start and threw a complete game over the Braves, allowing just one unearned run. By the end of May, he was 4-2 1.46, then the wheels fell off. Bill didn’t win again until July 4th, and even then he didn’t pitch well. By the end of the month, he was back in the bullpen, going over a month without a start. Two late season wins got his record to 9-10 and his ERA under 4.00, but it was clear his role on the team would be diminished.
The Pirates had a deep pitching staff in 1938, one good enough to keep two strong pitchers in Mace Brown and Rip Sewell in the bullpen all year alongside Swift, who made just nine starts. Bill was having much better success in relief that year, going the last two months of the season without a start, due to the disparity between each role. As a starter, he had a 4.60 ERA, in relief it dropped down to 2.37 in 91 innings.
The next season would see his lowest innings pitched total with the Pirates, as he made eight starts and 28 relief appearances for 129.2 innings. Swift finished with a 5-7 record and on December 8, 1939, he would be shipped to the Boston Bees, along with cash, for veteran pitched Danny MacFayden. For Swift, the trade would nearly mark the end of his major league career. He spent most of the next three seasons pitching for St Paul, back in the American Association. He pitched 9.1 innings for the Bees in 1940, then 22 IP for the Dodgers in 1941 before finishing his career with one last season in the majors in 1943, pitching 18 games with the White Sox. Swift was traded to the minors after the 1943 season but never played again.
Swift finished his time in Pittsburgh with 91 wins, which ranks 21st in team history to this day. His 1555 innings ranks him 17th in team history. No pitcher on the Pirates since his outstanding 1932 season, has posted a lower walk rate over a full season than Swift, who walked 1.09 batters per nine innings that year . Bill was a decent hitting pitcher throughout his career, with his best season coming in 1936 when he hit .295 with 15 RBI’s. His first career homer came on June 17,1936 off Max Butcher, who would go on to pitch seven seasons in Pittsburgh. In 1935, Swift went the entire season without committing a fielding error.