This Date in Pirates History: July 16

On a slow day for Pittsburgh Pirates birth dates and transactions, we have just one player to talk about and one minor trade. The transaction and the player have a nice tie in to each other though, so it worked out well. In his Jolly Roger Rewind, John Fredland takes a look back at the opener of Three Rivers Stadium.

The Player

Howdy Caton (1894) Shortstop for the Pirates from 1917 until 1920. He played three years in the minor leagues before the Pirates called him up in September of 1917 to make his major league debut. During that 1917 season, Caton played for Birmingham of the Southern Association, where he hit .256 in 148 games as the team’s everyday shortstop. When the season ended, Howdy(real name was James), along with three of his teammates joined the Pirates. On September 17,1917, the Pirates put Caton at shortstop, batting in the leadoff spot for his major league debut. His teammates from the minors, Bill Webb and Red Smith also made their major league debut that day. Caton didn’t do so well that first game, going 0-6 at the plate, while handling all three plays in the field hit his way. It was not an envious position for him to be in at that time, he was trying to fill the hole at shortstop left by Honus Wagner moving to first base during his last season.

Caton played 14 games that first September, hitting .211 with four RBI’s and six runs scored. In 1918, he was the team’s everyday shortstop until the end of July. Caton hit .234 with 12 stolen bases, 17 RBI’s and 37 runs scored in 80 games. The Pirates acquired light-hitting minor league veteran shortstop Roy Ellam in the middle of July and he took over as the regular shortstop to finish the season, which was shortened due to the ongoing war. Howdy started the first four games of the season at shortstop in 1919, before becoming a bench player the rest of the year, seeing limited time, except for a stretch of 13 straight starts at third base in July. He hit .176 with five RBI’s in 39 games that year. In 1920, he was the starting shortstop for most of the year and responded with his best season at the plate. However, at the end of the year, the Pirates tried out a new shortstop named Pie Traynor, who played everyday from mid-September on. It marked the end of the career for Caton, who played all 231 of his major league games in a Pirates uniform, finishing with .226 average with 56 RBI’s and no homeruns.

The Trade

On this date in 1918, the Pirates traded seldom used third baseman Gus Getz to the minor leagues for shortstop Roy Ellam. Getz was a major league veteran of seven seasons and a native of Pittsburgh, who had played just seven games for the Pirates since coming over two months earlier in a waiver claim from the Indians. Ellam was a minor league veteran, having played just ten major league games up to that point, all with the 1909 Reds. At age 32, he had spent the last ten years playing in the Southern Association(seven years with Birmingham, three with Nashville) before moving on to Indianapolis to end the year. The minor league schedule was ended early that season due to the war, so when this deal was made, Getz never actually got a chance to play for Indianapolis. It not only marked the end of his season, it was also the end of his major league career. Ellam took over shortstop in Pittsburgh from Howdy Caton and hit just .130 over 26 games. When the 1919 season started, Ellam was back in the minors, never returning to the big leagues.

Jolly Roger Rewind: July 16, 1970

Lee May’s ninth-inning single off Dock Ellis scored Tony Perez with the winning run, giving the Reds a 3-2 victory over the Pirates in the first game played at Three Rivers Stadium.

With the score tied 2-2 ever since Willie Stargell’s sixth-inning home run off Gary Nolan, Perez, whose two-run fifth-inning homer off Ellis represented the first four-bagger in stadium history, singled with one out in the top of the ninth. The Cincinnati third baseman advanced to second when Johnny Bench walked on a 3-2 pitch and came around to score when May’s grounder skipped across the Tartan Turf into left field, out of the reach of Richie Hebner.* Clay Carroll recorded the last six outs to earn the win in the mid-season showdown of first-place teams.

All mild disappointment over the game’s outcome notwithstanding, rave reviews of the Bucs’ new home seemed to be everyone’s primary focus afterwards. “Three Rivers Stadium . . . was dazzling. Let Forbes Field rest in peace,” opined Pittsburgh Press Sports Editor Roy McHugh. A page later in the Press, Phil Musick echoed McHugh’s sentiments: “Three Rivers was a smash; acknowledged eagerly as a place of beauty, utility, comfort. A joy forever. . . . A contentious, thick-wristed town often more enamored of the right cross than of reason was devoid of criticism.” “I’ll be back for the Series, this place is great,” exclaimed Bucco part-owner Bing Crosby.**

Less well received were the Pirates’ new cotton-nylon knit pullover uniforms. First exposed to the public gaze when the Bucs took the field for the top of the first, the new threads were the first time a major-league team had worn a button-less pullover jersey, the first time a team had worn pants with elastic instead of a belt, and first time a team had opted for stretch-knit fabrics instead of woven flannels. Unimpressed, Musick observed that “the Pirates’ new uniforms looked like the designer had crossed a softball outfit with a pair of Carol Burnett’s old pajamas.” McHugh countered that “[t]he total effect was mid-Nineteenth Century, rather than mod. For reasons hard to identify, the Pirates looked vaguely like the Cincinnati Red Stockings or Brooklyn Superbas.”***

Despite the loss, the Bucs maintained a game and a half lead over the Mets in the National League East Division.****

Box score and play-by-play

The Pittsburgh Press game story

ESPN.com Uni Watch article on Pirates’ 1970 uniform changes

* Afterwards, Hebner suggested that the play may have turned out differently on Forbes Field’s natural surface: “Some of the good plays you make at Forbes, you’re not going to make in this ball park. When the ball stays down here, it’s going to go through most of the time.”

** The Press’s coverage also included laudatory observations from several of the 48,846 fans—the largest crowd to date to see a baseball game in Pittsburgh—who attended the opener. One anonymous usher, however, expressed what would become a common criticism of Three Rivers: “You don’t sit close enough here. It’s like watching on color TV—you see it all but you feel a long way from the scene.”

*** Ellis, however, expressed approval of the new uniforms: “They’re outta sight man, they’re outta sight,” he told the Press. From the visiting clubhouse, Perez conceded that the uniforms were “not too bad,” but indicated that the Pirates “look like sissies in them.”

**** Elsewhere, the Press provided further evidence that the coming years held cause for optimism among Pittsburgh sports fans. In an article bylined from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Pat Livingston noted that the “Steelers unveiled the heralded passing arm of quarterback Terry Bradshaw yesterday and the reaction was spontaneous and unanimous. Wow.”

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About John Dreker

John was born in Kearny, NJ, hometown of the 2B for the Pirates 1909 World Championship team, Dots Miller. In fact they have some of the same relatives in common, so it was only natural for him to become a lifelong Pirates fan. Before joining Pirates Prospects in July 2010, John had written numerous articles on the history of baseball while also releasing his own book and co-authoring another on the history of the game. He writes a weekly article on Pirates history for the site, has already interviewed many of the current minor leaguers with many more on the way and follows the foreign minor league teams very closely for the site. John also provides in person game reports of the West Virginia Power and Altoona Curve.

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