SABR

Val Picinich

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

For most of five seasons, Val Picinich was Walter Johnson’s personal catcher. He saw action during 18 major-league seasons, never playing in more than the 96 games he played for Cincinnati in 1928 – almost certainly his best year – and only playing as many as half his team’s games in six of the seasons. He caught three no-hitters in his big-league career. He was relatively compact – 5-feet-9 and 165 pounds, right-handed, and hit for a lifetime .258 batting average, quite good for catchers of his time, in 1,037 games in the majors. His career on-base percentage was .334. In April 1918, the Washington Evening Star dubbed him “a chunky chap of only average height, but is as strong as an ox and is a willing worker.”1

Picinich’s parents were both born in Trieste and identified as Slovenian, though the 1920 census reported they spoke Magyar (Hungarian). Rudolph and Mary Picinich came to America in1893 with their daughter, Katerina. Not long after they landed, Rudolph Jr. was born and Valentine was born – in New York City – on September 8, 1896. In late 1899, twins Mary and John joined the family. Rudolph Sr. was a cabinet maker, who later became an upholsterer and by 1920 had his own shop. The family – the name is pronounced pah-SIN-ich – lived in Bergen County, New Jersey, in Harrington in 1900, Palisades in 1910, and Leonia in 1920. Katerina became Catherine, a journalist, and Rudolph the younger a teacher. Valentine became a professional ballplayer.

From the age of 16, he’d caught for the New York Athletic Club team at Travers Island. He’d played some semipro ball and apparently put in some time with the Paterson Silk Sox.2 At age 19, with one year at Princeton under his belt, Picinich got his first experience in professional baseball. He was originally signed by the New York Yankees, but was “delivered … to Connie Mack as part of the deal that brought Rube Oldring to New York.”3

Picinich bypassed the minor leagues and went straight to the majors, where he debuted for Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics on July 25, 1916. He just had one at-bat in that game, but got his first start the next day and was 2-for-3 (with a double) with a base on balls. One month later, on August 26, he caught Bullet Joe Bush’s 5-0 no-hitter against Cleveland. The Athletics that year used a lot of catchers; Wally Schang hurt his hand on Opening Day and Billy Meyer filled in. Meyer played more than any other, 50 games, but none after he contracted typhoid fever and stopped playing in mid-July. Picinich more or less picked up after him, and played in 40 games. Ray Haley caught 34 games and Mike Murphy and Doc Carroll caught 14 and 10 respectively.

The team as a whole had a disastrous year, winning only 36 games and losing 117. Picinich was remarkably unsuccessful in run production. In 127 plate appearances, he drove in only five runs. He scored only eight times. He hit for a .195 average and three doubles and one triple were his only extra-base hits. The one home run he hit was in an exhibition game against Newark – a ball that bounced off the head of a Newark outfielder (named Nutter!) and cleared the fence.4

With Schang back, Picinich was placed with the Atlanta Crackers (Southern Association) in 1917. He played in 96 games and hit .263. After Atlanta’s season ended, he joined the Athletics again and appeared in two games. He was named all-league catcher in the Southern Assocation.

Clark Griffith of the Washington Senators had been impressed with what he’d seen of Picinich’s work, and – knowing that catcher Ed Gharrity might have to join the service at any time – arranged with Atlanta at the end of April 1918 to deliver Picinich on demand. On May 26 he was traded to Washington for three players, intended to serve as backup to Eddie Ainsmith. He arrived just in time to get into the final inning of the second game on May 29. In the July 5 game, he picked one of the Yankees off third base and then singled in the winning run in the ninth inning for a 2-1 win.

Picinich played in 47 games for the 1918 Senators, batting .230 with 12 RBIs. The 1918 season ended early because of the World War; on August 1 Picinich reported to the Navy. He’d enlisted in mid-July.5 He was back on the Senators’ bench on August 24, on leave from the Navy, and joined the team for eight remaining games, while on furlough. He caught both games on August 25 – one of them Walter Johnson’s 22nd victory of the season – and figured in scoring three runs.

Yeoman third class Picinich was stationed in New York, and with the end of the war, he was told to expect an early discharge. Griffith believed in Picinich; the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that he regarded Picinich as “one of the coming star maskmen of the game” and might make him Walter Johnson’s battery partner.6 From the time he joined the Washington team for spring training in Augusta – still only 22 years old – Picinich was slated to become first-string catcher (though he faced some competition from Sam Agnew).

For the next four seasons, Picinich caught for the Senators. He enjoyed a very good season in 1919, batting .274, hitting his first three homers, and driving in 22 runs in 80 games. Much was expected of him for 1920, but Gharrity returned and Picinich played in only 48 games, not helping his cause by hitting .203. He did, however, catch the July 1, 1920, game when Walter Johnson no-hit the Boston Red Sox, 1-0. The third no-hitter he caught was for the Red Sox, in 1923.

Senators fans knew Gharrity was the better player on offense so when Gharrity was rested in the second game of a doubleheader and Picinich managed to say something that caused umpire Billy Evans to eject him, the Washington fans cheered.7 Gharrity had an even better year in 1921, hitting .310. Picinich did, too; he caught 43 games, improving at the plate to .277.

By this time, Picinich was seen as a reliable backup catcher to Gharrity and so it was again in 1922, with Picinich sometimes entering later in games. In one instance, on July 26, it worked the other way around – Picinich was ejected from a game in the eighth, and Gharrity came in and hit a home run to win the game on the first pitch he saw in the ninth. Gharrity caught in 96 games and Picinich in 76. He hit .229, with 19 RBIs.

It was said that in his years with the Senators, he caught all but two games pitched by Walter Johnson.8

Washington made a move in early 1923, on February 10, trading to acquire catcher Muddy Ruel and pitcher Allen Russell from the Boston Red Sox. They sent Picinich, outfielder Ed Goebel, and utilityman Howie Shanks to Boston. For Picinich it was moving from a sixth-place team to an eighth-place team. And the Senators climbed rapidly, from sixth to fourth in 1923 and to first place and a World Series win in 1924.

There were hints that Ruel was looking for too much in the way of salary from Red Sox owner Harry Frazee. Picinich was seen as a similar catcher to Ruel.9 The Sox weren’t thrilled with his performance, but Picinich had a few good years, playing in 87, 69, and 90 games in the three years he was with the Red Sox and averaging .268 over the three seasons. In each of the three seasons, he drove in more runs than in any prior year – 31 RBIs in 1923, then 24 and 25. As it happens, Ruel proved by far the better of the two, but one might not have predicted that at the time.

Picinich caught his third career no-hitter on September 7, 1923. Howard Ehmke was the pitcher, victor in a 4-0 game at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park against the Athletics.

Picinich shared duties with Al De Vormer and Roxy Walters in 1923, was second-string to Steve O’Neill in 1924, and shared the duties with three others in 1925, primarily Johnnie Heving and John Bischoff.

On December 28, 1924, he married a divorced dancer, Alice Keough (Mrs. Alice K. Wennestrom, dancing partner of Victor Wennestrom), shortly after Picinich returned from a tour of exhibition baseball in Europe.10 The tour was primarily the White Sox against the New York Giants, supplemented by other players. It was scheduled to visit England, Ireland, Belgium, France, and Italy, but broke up in Paris, a financial failure.11

Picinich was ejected more than once; he was fortunate that no worse punishment followed after he shoved umpire Pants Rowland in a May 23, 1923, game in Philadelphia. Just two months later, on July 27, he got into a fight on the bench with teammate Chick Fewster.

On the third anniversary of his acquisition by the Red Sox, Picinich’s contract was transferred to Cincinnati on waivers – and he put in three solid seasons for the Reds. Though second to Bubbles Hargrave catching in 1926 and 1927, he had almost the same number of at-bats. He drove in 31 runs and hit .263 his first year but, though batting at a .254 average in 1927, was far less productive, just 12 RBIs. In 1928 he drove in a career-high 35 runs and hit .302, receiving the lion’s share of the work over Hargrave. His seven home runs were three more than in any other year throughout his career, and figured in a couple of wins. On June 11 he doubled and hit two home runs, including the ninth-inning game-winner.

On August 4 Picinich did something rarely done since 19th-century baseball – it was so hot that he began playing the game without a chest protector.12

Coming off his best year, Picinich was a holdout in the spring of 1929. The Reds finally gave up and traded him to the Brooklyn Robins for pitcher Rube Ehrhardt and catcher Johnny Gooch. He was Brooklyn’s principal catcher, working 93 games for manager Wilbert Robinson, driving in 31 runs and batting .260.

Picinich had a run-in with National League umpire Cy Pfirman in July and was fined and suspended for three days by the league for “throwing dust” on the umpire.13 Brooklyn finished in sixth place. In 1930 Picinich appeared in only 23 games, and in 1931 just 24. Future Hall of Famer Al Lopez took over the catching duties, hitting over .300 the first year and serving as a more productive run producer, relegating Picinich to the role of backup. He was “a handy man to have around.”14 He drove in three runs in 1930 and four in 1931. Brooklyn finished in fourth place both years.

The Dodgers – Max Carey had become manager – finished in third place in 1932. Clyde Sukeforth was the primary backup catcher but Picinich pinch-hit in 17 games, increasing the number of games in which he appeared to 41. He hit .257 and drove in 11 runs, five of them while pinch-hitting.

Picinich’s last year in the majors was 1933. He started the year with the Dodgers and appeared in six games, with one single to his credit. He was unconditionally released by Brooklyn on May 14, and signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates a little over a month later, on June 23 (Earl Grace had a leg injury). He played in 16 games, 11 of them during doubleheaders to give Grace a rest. After August 28, he didn’t play again and was released on November 1.

Picinich had played in more than 1,000 games – 1,037 in all – and drove in the same number of runs he scored – 298 RBIs and 298 runs scored. He hit 26 home runs in his 18 seasons, and stole 31 bases. He had a .970 career fielding percentage.

In February 1934 Picinich was signed as a coach for Cincinnati and worked the season, though in June there was a need in the Reds’ minor-league system and he caught in 13 games, batting .111. He was sent to Toronto in late May and appeared in 16 games for Toronto and Baltimore, where he signed as a free agent in mid-June.

In 1935 he was the first of two managers for the Tigers’ Charleston Senators farm club in West Virginia. He appeared in 20 Middle Atlantic League games, batting .098.

Picinich was out of baseball in 1936 and most of 1937, then in December of ’37, the New York Giants signed him to manage their Milford, Delaware, farm team in the Eastern Shore League. The team finished third in 1938, but seventh in 1939.

There was an amusing incident in June 1939. Picinich had taken half the team out fishing during the day and fog had rolled in and “by the time they got back they’d missed the night ballgame. Milford had only nine players on hand, four of them pitchers, but they teamed up and won the game from Centerville, 10-8.”15 Earl Smith took over for Picinich as manager, but whether this incident played a role in that is unknown.

In February 1940 Picinich signed to manage Allentown in the Interstate League, but with the team languishing in last place, he suddenly resigned on June 25 and returned to his chicken farm in the small mid-coast Maine town of Nobleboro. When World War II broke out, he got a job in the electrical department of the Bath Iron Works and soon thereafter began working as the personnel service and morale director at the Bath Iron Works. He’d coached the firm’s baseball team earlier in the year and did some scouting for the Giants.

Picinich contracted bronchial influenza and a few days later died of lobar pneumonia in Nobleboro on December 5, 1942. He was only 46 years old. He was survived by his wife, Alice, their daughter, Barbara, and both of his parents.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Picinich’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Notes

1 Washington Evening Star, April 30, 1918.

2 Reading Eagle, May 2, 1940.

3 Philadelphia Inquirer, January 24, 1919.

4 Charleston (South Carolina) News and Courier, September 10, 1916.

5 Washington Post. August 2, 1918.

6 Philadelphia Inquirer, January 24, 1919.

7 Washington Evening Star, February 6, 1921.

8 Washington Post, December 6, 1942.

9 Boston Herald, February 11, 1923.

10 See, among other newspapers, The Oregonian, December 29, 1924.

11 Washington Post, November 16, 1924, and Boston Globe, November 25, 1924.

12 New York Times, August 5, 1928.

13 Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 30, 1929.

14 Tampa Tribune, April 7, 1931.

15 Los Angeles Times, June 11, 1939.

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