December 21, 2014

Rattled in the Clinches: Manager Pie Traynor and the Epic Collapse of the 1938 Pirates

September 7, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

On the evening of September 29, 1938, inside the funereal visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field, a despondent Pie Traynor leaned back, fired up a cigarette, and prepared to lie through his teeth.

His Pittsburgh Pirates had just lost three crushing games to the Chicago Cubs thanks to Gabby Hartnett’s famous “Homer in the Gloamin’” and bravura pitching performances from decrepit Dizzy Dean and the ace of the National League, Bill Lee.

Four weeks earlier, on September 1, the Bucs had the pennant in the bag. They began selling World Series tickets. President Bill Benswanger sunk $50,000 into a press box addition to accommodate all the writers who would flock to town to see the Pirates take a run at the vaunted New York Yankees. But now Pittsburgh’s seven-game lead had crumbled into a 1 ½ game deficit, and there was almost no time left.

As his team prepared to head to the train station, Traynor sat dazed, still in his uniform pants and ratty sweatshirt. He took a deep drag, glanced over to coach Jewel Ens, and muttered, “You can never give up.”

But he wasn’t fooling Ens or himself. The Bucs were done, and Traynor, a rather insecure man with a long memory, never completely got over it. “I felt as bad as I’ll ever feel, I think, that night we left Chicago.”

When things go wrong, it is perversely comforting to have someone to blame. Some historians have fingered Traynor as the culprit in the Pirates’ downfall. The argument, put forth most eloquently by Bill James in his Guide to Baseball Managers and Jeff Angus in Management by Baseball, is that Traynor rode his regulars much too hard. By the final month, the Pirates were just plain worn out, too weary to hold off Chicago, an inferior team that had no business winning a pennant.

It is true that Traynor wasn’t big on the value of rest. All his starters appeared in at least 143 games except third baseman Lee Handley, who was injured for a while, and catcher Al Todd, who nonetheless got more work than any other backstop in the major leagues. By contrast, no bench player received more than 125 at-bats. Utility man Tommy Thevenow, on the roster all season, played in just 15 games.

But Traynor’s critics might be confusing correlation and causation. It’s hard to see evidence of any massive, team-wide collapse. A couple guys got hot in September while a couple others hit the skids – just like in any other month. Although Handley, Arky Vaughan, and Gus Suhr lost a few points off their batting averages in the season’s final weeks, rookie Johnny Rizzo had a very impressive final 29 games while fragile Lloyd Waner, who battled injury and illness throughout his career, hit a robust .365 during that same stretch. As a team, Pittsburgh’s offensive output dropped sharply, from 5.48 runs per game in June and July to 4.44 runs in August, September, and October. On the other hand, they averaged only 4.00 runs per game in April and May, and they certainly weren’t tired then.

As much as anything, Pittsburgh probably was the victim of a natural regression to the mean. In June and July, the Bucs played at an otherworldly .741 clip. They were a good team, sure, but nowhere nearly that good. Inevitably, they returned to earth. But even so, until the fateful Chicago series, the Pirates’ record in August and September was 28-26 – not exceptional, but hardly indicative of a team in a fatigue-fueled freefall. It’s not that the Pirates went into a death spiral, just that the Cubs, who won 21 of 26 in September, got extremely hot at precisely the right moment.

However, Traynor probably cannot be completely absolved. As manager, he “got rattled in the clinches,” in the damning words of veteran Paul Waner. Even in the best of times, Traynor was a compulsive worrier, but in September 1938, with the Cubs driving relentlessly, he veered completely off the rails. By the end of the season he had lost 20 pounds, was smoking constantly, and generally looked like hell.

A particularly tough defeat would send him moping back to his apartment or hotel room, unable to eat or sleep. On September 14, after a doubleheader loss, reporters found Traynor slumped atop a trunk outside the clubhouse “looking…like a fellow upon whom the whole world had tumbled.”  Benswanger, who sought refuge from the pressure of the race in two different anti-anxiety medications, stopped by to assure Traynor that he would keep his job even if the Pirates lost the pennant – curiously gloomy talk considering Pittsburgh was still 2 ½ games out in front at the time.

It seemed that Traynor and Benswanger almost expected to lose. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beat man Havey Boyle felt a completely different vibe 11 years earlier, when the Pirates had won their last pennant. “In contrast to the pained looks one receives [today] around nervous Pirate headquarters…there was no jittery feeling then, although the desperate boys of ’27 were staggering and tottering right down to the stretch.”

Traynor saw himself and his team as patsies, helpless to stop the Cubs’ march to the title. “Nobody knows what starts a thing like that, and after it starts there’s not a thing in the world you can do about it except just sit and suffer.”

Emotions are contagious. Work for neurotic, pessimistic people and eventually you’ll probably become neurotic and pessimistic, too. It is plausible the Pirates unconsciously fed off Traynor’s anxiety, and thus failed to perform up to par in those critical, tense games against Chicago. Perhaps Traynor was the goat, after all. But his biggest failure was not in how he managed his roster, but in how he managed himself.

James Forr is the 2005 winner of the McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award and co-author of Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography, published in January 2010.

Comments

One Response to “Rattled in the Clinches: Manager Pie Traynor and the Epic Collapse of the 1938 Pirates”
  1. Tom Strother says:

    Good story. Didn’t know much about the collapse of the ’38 Pirates. I would quibble with calling
    Dizzy Dean “decrepit.” He had a bad arm, probably a worn-out arm, but he was only 27.

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