Sunday, May 22, 2011

Pirates reserves played semi-pros to 5-5 tie

 Uncommon commons. Contemporary accounts of tidbits that as a collector of baseball and football cards I found interesting because they helped bring to life the faces on the cards I collected. I figure that if I found these items of interest, so would other vintage card collectors.

I've mentioned before that my recent review of The Sporting News microfilm from 1953 showed that most major league teams played in several exhibition games during days off in the season. Besides generating ticket revenue, the exhibition games were used to boost interest in minor league affiliates and, often in the early Fifties, to give fans a look at five-figure bonus babies who didn't often see action in official league games.

Sadly, such games are now a thing of the past.

One account of a 1953 exhibition game that I found particularly interesting involved the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was not an inter-league rivalry game, nor a game against one of the Bucs' farm teams. Rather, following the May 2 afternoon game with the Cincinnati Redlegs at Forbes Fields, the Pirates' reserve players (who hadn't played in the afternoon game) piled on a bus with manager Fred Haney and club executives Branch Rickey Sr. and Jr., and motored to suburban South Hills to play a twilight game against Dormant, the 1951 and 1952 champions of the semi-pro Greater Pittsburgh League. Dormant alumni had included in the past such MLB stars as Paul Waner, Lute Boone, Wilbur Cooper and Rip Collins.

For the exhibition, played before an overflow crowd of 3,000, the Pirates fielded a team that included recently signed bonus babies Vic Janowicz and twin infielders Johnny and Eddie O'Brien. Cal Hogue pitched.

The star attraction for Dormant manager Billy Fuchs' team was Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Jim Finks, who played a few innings in the outfield and went 0-for-1 at bat. The semi-pros played the Pirates to a 5-5 tie.

Finks, a college star at the University of Tulsa, had been the Steelers' 12th round pick in the 1949 NFL draft.

Like many pro football players of the era, Finks picked up off-season income playing in the minor leagues. He was light-hitting (.236 average, no power) catcher with the Class C (Eastern Texas League) Tyler Trojans in 1949 and Class B (Big State League) Austin Pioneers in 1950.

He played in the with Pittsburgh in the NFL through 1955, then went to the Canadian Football League as player, coach and general manager of the Calgary Stampeders.

He returned to the NFL with as GM of the Vikings from 1964-73. He moved on to the Bears in 1974-82, then took over as general manager of the Chicago Cubs in 1983-84. He rejoined the NFL with the New Orleans Saints from 1985-92. He proved to be a master of building successful teams and, a year after his death in 1994, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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