The Pittsburgh Pirates came into the 1909 season looking to regain the top spot in the National League that they held from 1901 until 1903. Very few of the players were left from those teams, shortstop Honus Wagner, left fielder/manager Fred Clarke, third baseman/ center fielder Tommy Leach and pitchers Deacon Phillippe and Sam Leever were all that remained. The team was confident going into the season that they could take that top spot but they did not get off to a strong start.
The opening day pitcher that year was Howie Camnitz. The 27 year old righty went 16-9 in 1908, posting a low 1.56 ERA in 236.2 innings. On April 14 the Pirates opened their season in Cincinnati against the Reds and Camnitz got them off on the right foot, throwing a 3-0 shutout. That however was not a sign of things to come for the rest of the series. The Reds were a middle of the pack team back then but they had little trouble taking the last three games of the series. Vic Willis and Nick Maddox combined for 46 wins in 1908, but starting the second and fourth games of the series, they both pitched poorly as the Reds scored a combined 15 runs those games. Pittsburgh had a rookie named Bill Powell start the third game and while the Reds only scored four runs that day, Powell wasn’t around for the finish and he did not make another start all season.
The Pirates went to Chicago to play a series against the Cubs but they got in just one game, although it was a masterful pitching duel. Camnitz making his second start faced the Cubs ace(and future Hall of Famer) Mordecai “Three Fingers” Brown. The game went 12 innings and the Pirates emerged victorious, winning 1-0 as Camnitz had now made two starts without allowing a run.
Four days after that game, the Pirates came home to Pittsburgh to play their home opener and on the mound was Chick Brandom. He pitched well in 17 September innings in 1908 allowing just one earned run in what was his first shot at the big leagues. He took the loss that day, then became a reliever the rest of the season, making just one more start that would come in August. Willis and Maddox would each get their second start and neither could secure a win although the game started by Willis was declared a tie. The series returned to Cincinnati for the final game due to the fact it fell on a Sunday and the Pirates did not play Sunday baseball in Pittsburgh during this era. Making the start that day was Camnitz for the third time and for the third time all season the Pirates won a game.
Up to this point they were 3-5 with a tie but the pitching was not up to full strength at this point. In fact, four quality pitchers had not made their first start yet, Babe Adams, Lefty Leifield, Sam Leever and Deacon Phillippe. The latter two pitchers, who were both getting up there in age, were being used in relief to keep them fresh throughout the season. Each would eventually get starts during the year, 13 for Phillippe and four for Leever. For Leifield he would get his first start in the tenth game of the season and remain in the rotation all year. Adams got 12 starts all year and like Phillippe and Leever, he too would see plenty of relief work.
The Pirates fortunes would change quickly once they got rid of the Reds for awhile. From that 2-5 start prior to the third win from Camnitz, they would win 10 out of the next 11 games. The important part about that streak was the fact that they swept the Cubs in a four game series that was played in Chicago. The three time defending NL champs had won 12 of 22 the previous season against the Pirates, a key season series win for the Cubs with the difference in the final standings between the two teams being just one game. Once again a Pirates starter hooked up with Mordecai Brown in a terrific matchup, this time Babe Adams was on the right side of a 1-0, 11 inning game. Leifield in his second start of the season also shut out the Cubs while Camnitz ran his win streak to four games during this four game sweep.
Although it was very early in the season, the Pirates at 12-6 took an early 1.5 game lead over the Phillies. Their two biggest hurdles towards that NL pennant were in fourth place(Cubs) and at 6-9 the Giants were in seventh place. The Reds may have had the Pirates number but they were just 10-11 overall.
On May 14th against the Phillies, Deacon Phillippe made his first start since 1907. While he ended up taking a 2-0 loss, he pitched well and more importantly, he felt fine after the start. It was a good sign for the Pirates as the 37 year old, former ace of their staff, had pitched just 12 innings in 1908 due to injuries and he did not look good in those games.
The day after Phillippe’s first start, the Pirates traveled from Philadelphia to Brooklyn and there Camnitz would run his streak to six straight winning games to start the season. Two days later the Pirates scored double digit runs for the first time, winning 11-1 and then won their third straight game over the Superbas(they wouldn’t be named the Dodgers until 1932) the next day.
After getting in just one game of a series with the Giants due to weather, the Pirates went on to Boston where they swept a four game series. Phillippe made his second start on five days rest and got the win in game two of that series. The Pirates came home for a game against the Cubs which would be followed by a Sunday doubleheader in Chicago. Taking on Mordecai Brown for a third time, they were to extra innings with him for a third time but this time came up on the wrong end as the Cubs put up five runs in the 11th to win 8-3. That loss would temporarily put the Cubs in first place by a half game but that would all change in a hurry.
The Pirates swept the Sunday doubleheader and regained the lead. They then went home for another doubleheader the next day, this time taking both games from the Cardinals. The Boston Doves came in for three games and they left Pittsburgh without a win. Next came the Phillies for three games and Leifield, Willis and Phillippe sent them out of the Steel City with three losses. The Superbas were the next to try out the Pirates at home and four days later they too left town without attaining a victory. Just 17 days after losing the NL lead to the Cubs for one day, the Pirates ran off a streak of 14 straight wins, the last 12 at home. On June 15th, the Pirates stood in first place by five games over the Cubs.
If there was one person who could stop the Pirates dead in their tracks during this time period, it was Christy Mathewson. He is recognized by many as the best pitcher in NL history so it is of no shame that the Pirates had trouble with him during almost his entire career. He halted the 14 game win streak on June 16th, allowing just two runs in the first of three games that series. Christy proved to be a bump in the road during a 21 game stretch as the Pirates reeled off six straight after facing him to go on a 20-1 run.
Four days after that run ended, the Pirates went through a very big change. When we pick up next week, we will set the stage for an important game on June 30,1909 against those second place Cubs who were now 7.5 games back in the standings.