This article was written by Stan Bard
Although he was the first-base coach, fans rarely if ever saw Jake Pitler in the coach’s box, as he patrolled the baseline urging on his Brooklyn Dodgers. Few of them knew Pitler had once played in the Major Leagues with men like Honus Wagner or that he had been an outstanding minor-league manager.
Jacob Albert Pitler, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants Frederick and Yetta Pitler, was born in New York City on April 22, 1894, the eldest of seven children. Jake was still a child when the family moved to Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, where Frederick plied his trade as a junk dealer. By 1910 the Pitlers (original spelling was Peitler) were in Pittsburgh, where Frederick was now selling produce. Jake and his two brothers helped the family finances by selling newspapers on Pittsburgh street corners.
Often he sold papers near Forbes Field and became friendly with the Pirates’ players. Jake’s interest in baseball soon resulted in his playing with semipro teams in the Pittsburgh area. (Another newsboy became a lifelong friend—the future owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Art Rooney.) Pitler’s two newsboy-brothers also found a niche in sports: Harry became a lightweight boxer and later managed heavyweight Billy Conn; Dave played quarterback for the University of Pittsburgh football team.
Jake entered professional baseball in 1912, primarily as a way of earning money, according to his son, Larry. Baseball was a way of making a living without having a formal education. Pitler began his professional baseball career in 1912 with Connellsville (Pennsylvania) in the Class D Ohio-Pennsylvania League, but the team disbanded on June 12. The next year, 1913, found him playing second base for the Jackson Convicts of the Class D Southern Michigan Association (there was a state prison in the city). Jake spent 1914 with the team, now designated Class C and renamed the Chiefs, and batted .301. He started the 1915 season with Jackson, but when the league collapsed in July, the Detroit Tigers signed him and sent him to the Chattanooga (Tennessee) Lookouts of the Class A Southern Association.
Pitler spent all of 1916 with the Lookouts, and started the 1917 season there. After forty-two games he was hitting a league leading .364, when, on May 22, the Pirates acquired his contract for utility infielder Bill Gleason and cash. The 1916 Pirates had nine different players at second base that season and were looking for stability at the position. Pitler made his major-league debut on Memorial Day, at Forbes Field against the Cubs. He was 1-for-4 in the first game of the holiday doubleheader and had another hit in the nightcap. The Chicago Daily Tribune said: “Jake Pitler, the new second baseman for the Pirates, displayed a lot of skill, got one hit in each game and handled things like a veteran in the infield.” For the rest of the season, the five-feet-eight, 150-pound second baseman played in the same infield as Honus Wagner. At age forty-three, Wagner was in his last campaign and playing part time, mostly at first base.
William Phelon, writing in the August 1917 issue of “Baseball Magazine”, said, “Jake Pitler, has done good work on the sack, and seems to be an aggressive, hustling young fellow.” On August 22 Jake and the Pirates played a twenty-two-inning game in Brooklyn, losing 6–5. It was the longest National League game ever played to that time. Pitler was 3-for-9 in the contest and set a record for putouts in a game by a second baseman with fifteen. Jake played in 109 games for last-place Pittsburgh and hit just .233. He was much better in the field. His .966 fielding percentage was second to Boston’s Johnny Rawlings among the National League regular second baseman.
The Pirates could not have been entirely satisfied with Pitler’s play. In January 1918 they traded promising young pitcher and Pittsburgh native Al Mamaux, spitballer Burleigh Grimes, and infielder Chuck Ward to obtain veteran second baseman George Cutshaw and right fielder Casey Stengel from the Brooklyn Robins. In seven seasons with Brooklyn, Cutshaw had averaged .260 and his fielding was solid as well. The twenty-three-year-old Pitler’s days as a major-league player were over. Jake got into only two games for the Pirates in 1918, his last, on May 24, as a pinch runner.
Burton and Benita Boxerman, in their book Jews and Baseball, Volume One, wrote that in 1918 the Pirates assigned Pitler to Jersey City, but instead he jumped to outlaw baseball in Pennsylvania and was banned from organized baseball.
Evidently, Pitler was sent to Jersey City, because, on June 14 the Jersey Journal was positively gushing with enthusiasm over the impending arrival of Jake Pitler. The Journal called Pitler “one of the best players in the Pirate crew.” The article continued:
“It was only through the strongest personal appeal that [Pirates owner] Barney Dreyfuss consented to Pitler’s coming here. He is by far the cleverest infielder that has participated in the games on the new International circuit and will prove a wonderful tonic to the team; also the strongest kind of an attraction while the Jerseys are on tour. Pitler will be the highest salaried man in the league.”
The enthusiasm was short-lived however. It is unclear if Pitler ever reported. On June 22 the Jersey Journal was reporting the “desertion” of “Capt. Jake Pitler.” By July 7 the Duluth (Minnesota) News-Tribune reported that Pitler had left the Pirates to join the war effort. Apparently, Jake, who was single with no dependents, went to work for the Aluminum Corporation of America and played on the company team.
After the war ended, the Pirates sold Pitler’s contract to the Vernon (California) Tigers in the Pacific Coast League. Jake did not want to be that far from home and never reported to Vernon. Instead, he stayed home and signed on as the player-manager of the Oil City Independents, a team in the semi-pro Oil Stove League. He had the same role with the Independents the next season and, according to the 1920 US Census, he was employed as a manager in a billiards hall, as well.
Pitler returned to organized baseball in 1928, with the Binghamton (New York) Triplets of the New York-Pennsylvania League. He played 136 games for the Class B Triplets, hitting .285 with twenty-four doubles. He committed thirty-nine errors at second, a total no doubt inflated by the rough minor league infields.
Pitler became a player-manager in 1929 for the Elmira Colonels of the New York-Penn League, guiding the Colonels to a fifth place finish. The Colonels were second in 1930, and then last in 1931. Pitler was fired in midseason, but soon found employment as a player with the Hazleton (Pennsylvania) Moutaineers in the same league.
The thirty-year-old Pitler managed the Mountaineers again in 1932, led the Springfield (Ohio) Chicks of the Class C Middle Atlantic League in 1933, and returned to the New York-Pennsylvania League with the Scranton Miners in 1934. Pitler managed at Portsmouth (Ohio) of the Middle Atlantic League in 1935, his last year as an active player, and Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) of the New York-Penn League in 1936.
Jake then managed the short-lived Jeannette Bisons in the Class D Pennsylvania State Association in 1937 (his son Larry said Pitler owned the team). The Bisons folded on June 10, after playing twenty-four games. In 1938 Pitler took a job as the director of the Atlantic Baseball Schools in Binghamton, New York, a group of amateur teams sponsored by the Atlantic Refinery.
In 1939 the Brooklyn Dodgers placed a team in Olean, New York, in the newly formed Class D PONY League. The league consisted of teams in Pennsylvania, Ontario, and New York. The Dodgers were looking for a field and business manager at an annual salary of $1,500. The business manager of the Elmira team in the Eastern League knew Jake well, and recommended him for the job. Pitler became the manager and led the team to two consecutive league championships, in 1939 and 1940. This not only began his long association with the Brooklyn Dodgers but his personal friendship with Walter O’Malley, one of the Dodgers’ owners.
From 1938 to the end of his career, Pitler’s fate was tied to the Brooklyn organization. Upon arriving in Olean, his fiery nature and entertaining antics on the field became a legend in the area and contributed to the building of a fierce rivalry between Olean and the Jamestown, New York team. An online history of the Olean Oilers recalls Jake as its “likable and crowd pleasing manager from 1939 thru 1943.” The history continues: “Jake is the man that most people remember and is still talked about. He was the fiery pepper pot who guided Olean from 1939 to 1943. Jake was the real drawing card at the gate, one of the few managers who could make that claim.” Larry Pitler recalled that whenever Olean and Jamestown played each other, Jake and the Jamestown manager, Greg Mulleavy, got together before the game to plan “arguments” to pepper the game and enliven the fans.
Pitler’s skill in recognizing and bringing along talent sent to Brooklyn such players as Duke Snider, Clem Labine, and Ralph Branca. Pitler was also credited with pointing out to Branch Rickey, Jr., then head of the Dodgers’ farm system, a young walk-on at an open tryout in Olean named Gil Hodges. Pitler reportedly told Rickey, “Don’t let that kid get away.”
After five years at Olean, the longest such tenure of any of the team’s managers, Pitler was promoted to manage Newport News (Virginia) of the Piedmont League in 1944 and 1945 and then Danville (Illinois) in the Three-I League in 1946.
For the 1947 season, the Dodgers brought Pitler to Brooklyn to be their first-base coach. He soon became recognized by the players as a premier sign stealer, helping batters and runners at first base. When Pitler came to spring training, he befriended Jackie Robinson, and the two remained close friends to the end of their days. Pitler continued as a coach for the Dodgers until they moved to the West Coast after the 1957 season.
Pitler served under four Brooklyn managers: Leo Durocher, Burt Shotton, Charlie Dressen, and Walter Alston. “He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen,” Shotton once said. “He lives baseball and he was a wonderful influence on young players.” Pitler, for his part, never spoke ill of any of the managers for whom he worked, nor was he ever baited into choosing a favorite, no matter how many times the press asked. He also made a statement of principle during his coaching career by never suiting up on the Jewish High Holidays if they fell during the season.
When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, Pitler chose to retire rather than move west. In an interesting coincidence, he was replaced as first-base coach by the same Greg Mulleavy with whom he had conspired in the PONY League years before. Mulleavey had been the Dodgers’ chief scout for the Northeast. When he moved west with the Dodgers, O’Malley asked Pitler to take over Mulleavy’s scouting duties. Jake acquiesced and scouted for the team in New York, Pennsylvania, and Canada, while based in Binghamton, New York.
Pitler came to be beloved by Brooklyn fans. They honored him in 1954 and again on August 25, 1956, with Jake Pitler Night. Jake Pitler died on February 3, 1968, in Binghamton. He was seventy-three years old. He left his wife, Henrietta, and his son, Lawrence.
Much of the information for this biography came from the author’s interviews with Jake Pitler’s son, Larry.
“Jake Pitler Dies Upstate at 73; Ex-Coach of Brooklyn Dodgers,” New York Times, February 4, 1968.