The Pittsburgh Pirates seemed poised to win their first National League pennant since 1909. They had taken took a big step forward in 1921. The emergence of rookie hurlers Whitey Glazner and Johnny Morrison gave Pittsburgh the best pitching staff in the National League by a wide margin.1 Perhaps more importantly, the offseason acquisition of Rabbit Maranville solidified the team’s shortstop position for the first time since 42-year-old Honus Wagner last played there in 1916.
The Pirates had amassed a 7½-game lead over the second-place New York Giants heading into a five-game showdown between the two teams at the Polo Grounds on August 24-27. John McGraw’s squad swept the series in convincing fashion, overpowering Pittsburgh by a cumulative score of 27-6. The Bucs limped out of Manhattan with their cushion suddenly reduced to only 2½ games.
By the time the Pirates hosted the Cincinnati Reds in a Labor Day doubleheader on September 5, their lead over the Giants was down to a single game. Pittsburgh sent Morrison (6-5, 3.28 ERA) to the mound in the morning affair. The 25-year-old curveball specialist had missed the first seven weeks of the season with a bad case of influenza.2 After three successful relief appearances in June, Morrison earned a promotion to the Pirates’ starting rotation.
The Reds countered with their staff ace, Eppa Rixey. The 6-foot-5 southpaw was in his first season in Cincinnati after coming over in an offseason deal with the Phillies.3 He entered the game with a 16-16 record and a 2.78 ERA for the sixth-place Reds.
Cincinnati was playing out the string after falling out of the race with a disastrous first half. The team got off to a terrible start when several players, including stars Edd Roush and Heinie Groh, were contract holdouts.4 When Groh finally returned to action on June 13, the Reds trailed the first-place Pirates by a whopping 15½ games.
The Reds got on the board quickly against Morrison. The first batter of the game, Sam Bohne, singled. Larry Kopf followed with another single, and when right fielder Possum Whitted tried to nail Bohne at third, Kopf advanced to second on the throw. Two batters later, Cincinnati executed a suicide squeeze with cleanup hitter Rube Bressler at the plate.5 His well-placed bunt scored Bohne and put the Reds ahead, 1-0.
Cincinnati would have extended its lead in the top of the third were it not for some solid defense from Pittsburgh left fielder Carson Bigbee. With one out and runners on first and second, Bigbee made a nice running catch on a line drive from Bressler that was headed for the fence.6 The next batter, Jake Daubert, hit a sharp single into left field, but Bigbee easily threw out Kopf at the plate to end the inning.7
Rixey, who had earned a master’s degree in chemistry,8 mixed up a concoction of off-speed pitches that kept the Pirates off balance. The 30-year-old hurler held the Bucs to three hits and a walk through the first seven innings.
In an attempt to kick-start his offense, Pittsburgh manager George Gibson used a pair of pinch-hitters to open the bottom of the eighth; neither man was able to reach base. With two outs and nobody on, Bigbee laid down a perfect bunt that got past Rixey.9 Instead of putting it in his back pocket,10 the second baseman Bohne threw wildly to first, and Bigbee advanced to second on the error.
After Max Carey was hit by a pitch, Rixey faced Maranville with runners on first and second. The slick-fielding shortstop came into the game in a miserable 5-for-47 slump, a batting funk that dated back to his second plate appearance in the Pirates’ disastrous five-game series against the Giants. Maranville doubled down the left-field line to bring home Bigbee with the tying run. The left fielder, 22-year-old rookie Lew Fonseca, sprinted toward the foul line and barehanded the ball,11 forcing Carey – who was fast enough to lead the NL in steals 10 times in 13 seasons from 1913 to 1925 – to hold up at third base. Fonseca’s defensive gem was the turning point of the game. Rixey retired the next hitter, Whitted, to end the Pittsburgh rally and keep the score tied, 1-1.
The two Pittsburgh pinch-hitters forced Gibson to bring in a completely new battery, pitcher Earl Hamilton and third-string catcher Mike Wilson. The Pirates’ regular catcher, Walter Schmidt, had been out of action since August 30 with food poisoning and tonsillitis.12 When the weak-hitting number-two catcher, Tony Brottem, was removed for a pinch-hitter, Pittsburgh turned the backstop duties over to Wilson, a 24-year-old rookie playing in his fifth (and final) major-league game.
Hamilton walked the first man he faced in the top of the ninth before setting down the next 14 batters in a row. The 30-year-old left-hander broke the streak with what initially appeared to be a harmless two-out walk to Bohne in the 13th inning. But Bohne took off for second, and when Wilson’s wild throw went into center field, the Cincinnati second baseman moved up another 90 feet.
Hamilton appeared to get out of the inning unscathed when Kopf hit a groundball to rookie third baseman Pie Traynor,13 playing in only his 22nd major-league game after spending most of 1921 with the Birmingham Barons of the Southern Association. To the chagrin of the fans at Forbes Field, the 22-year-old Traynor threw the ball in the dirt and first baseman Charlie Grimm couldn’t dig it out, which allowed Bohne to cross the plate with the go-ahead run.
Rixey retired the Pirates in order in the bottom of the 13th to nail down a 2-1 Reds victory. He limited Pittsburgh to five singles and three doubles in the contest, earning his 17th win of the season. Despite pitching five innings of hitless relief, Hamilton was saddled with the hard-luck loss.
Rixey’s outstanding performance may have altered the course of the National League pennant race beyond this one contest. Traynor came into the game hitting .417 since his call-up from the minors less than a week earlier. It appeared that the top prospect, who had hit .336 for Birmingham, might be in line for significant playing time down the stretch. At least until Rixey stuck an 0-for-6 collar on him. That, along with Traynor’s costly error in the 13th inning, relegated him to the bench for the remainder of the season.14 He made only two pinch-hit appearances in Pittsburgh’s final 24 games.
The outing was Rixey’s best start in over five years.15 On August 23, 1916, he pitched 15⅔ innings against those same Pirates, only to lose a 2-1 heartbreaker in the bottom of the 16th inning. Rixey was no stranger to lengthy outings − the future Hall of Famer tossed at least 12 innings in a game 14 times in his major-league career. Only two hurlers in the National or American League made more appearances of at least 12 innings between 1901 and 2020: Walter Johnson (21 games) and Pete Alexander (17 games).16
Rixey went on to win 100 games in his first five seasons in Cincinnati, and he remained with the team until he retired at the age of 42 with 266 career victories against 251 losses. Although Rixey’s record for the most career wins by a left-hander in the National or American League was surpassed by Warren Spahn in 1959, he still held the record for the most career losses by a southpaw as of the end of the 2020 season.
The Pirates bounced back to win the afternoon tilt against the Reds and salvage a split in the doubleheader. The victory allowed them to remain one game ahead of the Giants, who split their Labor Day twin bill with the Boston Braves.
After three scheduled offdays, the Pirates returned to action on September 9 against the seventh-place Chicago Cubs. Chicago won, 8-5, knocking the Pirates out of first place for the first time since June 4. Pittsburgh never regained the lead.
The Giants virtually sealed the pennant by reeling off a 10-game winning streak from September 7 to 17, and they finished four games ahead of the second-place Pirates. The team from Smoke City had nobody to blame but themselves, thanks to their dreadful 6-16 record in head-to-head games against New York. Then again, perhaps they could have blamed Giants left-hander Art Nehf. In Nehf’s seven appearances against the Pirates, he threw seven complete games and posted a perfect 7-0 record with a remarkable 1.14 ERA.
But all was not lost for the Pirates. They had increased their win total by 11 games in 1921, giving them four consecutive years of improvement. With their growing collection of young talent – Kiki Cuyler made his major-league debut on September 29, and Traynor secured the starting third-base job for good in 1922 − they were clearly a team on the rise. Pittsburgh went on to win the 1925 World Series and claim another National League pennant two years later.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
1 Both Glazner and Morrison appeared in the major leagues in 1920, but they retained rookie status for the 1921 season. In 1921 Glazner went 14-5 with a 2.77 ERA in 234 innings, while Morrison posted a 9-7 mark and a 2.88 ERA in 144 innings.
3 Rixey had been inconsistent in his eight years in Philadelphia. On November 22, 1920, the Phillies traded him to the Reds in return for pitcher Jimmy Ring and outfielder Greasy Neale. At 6-feet-5, Rixey was the tallest player in the National League in 1921.
4 John Fredland, “April 13, 1921: Reds Surge in Eighth Inning, Beat Pirates on Opening Day,” SABR Games Project, https://sabr.org/gamesproj/game/april-13-1921-reds-surge-in-eighth-inning-beat-pirates-on-opening-day/, accessed June 15, 2021. Edd Roush, Heinie Groh, Larry Kopf, and Ray Fisher were unhappy with the contract offers from Cincinnati owner Garry Herrmann. Roush returned to action on April 30. Kopf played his first regular-season game on May 7; Groh did the same on June 13. Fisher, a 33-year-old pitcher, was placed on the permanently ineligible list by Commissioner Landis in June. Fisher never played in the big leagues again.
5 Edward F. Balinger, “Two Wild Throws Lose First Clash; Cooper Wins Next,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, September 6, 1921: 10.
6 “Pirates Notes,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, September 6, 1921: 10.
7 “Long Battle Ends in Favor of Reds,” Cincinnati Enquirer, September 6, 1921: 8.
9 Balinger, “Two Wild Throws Lose First Clash; Cooper Wins Next.”
10 “Long Battle Ends in Favor of Reds.”
11 Charles J. Doyle, “Pirates and Reds Divide Holiday Games,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 6, 1921: 9.
12 “Pirate Notes,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, September 13, 1921: 8. Schmidt returned to action on September 12. The Pirates went 3-6 during his absence, which dropped them from 1½ games ahead of the Giants to 1½ games behind.
13 Doyle, “Pirates and Reds Divide Holiday Games.”
14 Rookie Clyde Barnhart was immediately reinstated as Pittsburgh’s regular third baseman for the remainder of the year. He hit .220 with an anemic .586 on-base plus slugging average (OPS) between September 5 and October 2. Barnhart was barely above replacement level in 1921; he posted a Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) of only 0.2.
15 Rixey’s registered a Bill James Game Score of 89 in this outing. His August 23, 1916, start for the Phillies resulted in a Game Score of 91. Rixey posted the highest Game Score of his career (101) in the second game of the July 8, 1924, doubleheader against the Phillies.