“Bill Abstein Denies he is a Bonehead”

20 Feb

Pittsburgh Pirate owner Barney Dreyfuss and manager Fred Clarke felt all they needed to win a World Series was a first baseman.  Since winning the National League Pennant with Kitty Bransfield in 1903, only one Pirate first baseman hit better than .260 (Del Howard .292 in 1905).

In 1908 the Pirates finished second with four different first basemen, Harry Swacina, Alan Storke, Jim Kane and Warren Gill; none played more than 50 games, none hit better than .258 and they combined for 29 errors.

The man who took over in 1909, and was with the Pirates for their World Series victory, might have preferred to have never been given the job.

Bill Abstein had played eight games at second base and in the outfield for the Pirates in 1906, before returning to minors.

-Abstein had put up respectable, but by no means spectacular, numbers with the Shreveport Pirates in the Southern Association and Providence Grays in the Eastern League from 1906 to 1908—but as early as August of 1908 The Pittsburgh Press said he was the answer to the Pirates problem at first base:

“Fred Clarke is very eager to secure Bill Abstein from Providence.  Bill is rated the best first baseman in the Eastern League, and he would no doubt strengthen the Pirates where they are weak.”

When Abstein joined the Pirates before the 1909 season The Press said:

“The acquisition of bill Abstein has rounded our infield nicely.  He’s the best first baseman we have had in years and he certainly fits in nicely.”

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Abstein, Providence 1908

In a letter sent to Dreyfuss with his contract, Abstein told the Pirate owner:

“Fred Clarke will not have to worry about a first baseman after he sees this big German hustling around the bag.”

In keeping with his career performance, Abstein had a respectable season for the pirates.  He hit .260 and drove in 70 runs.  His 27 errors were only a slight improvement over 1908’s first baseman by committee.

The Pirates won 110 games and won the National League Pennant by six and half games over the Chicago Cubs and met the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.  The series would be the beginning of the end of Abstein’s Major League career.

09pirates

1909 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates, Abstein 11th from left.

Abstein struggled at the plate (6 for 29 with nine strikeouts) and in the field (5 errors total, 2 each in games 3 and 4).  The Pirates won the series in seven games, but despite the victory, Abstein quickly became the subject of ridicule in Pittsburgh.

An Associated Press article after the series said:

“During the games with Detroit Abstein appeared to forget all that he knew about base ball.  He ran the bases foolishly, made a number of costly errors, failed to hit and disobeyed orders.  In fact, his playing was worse than that of any other man on either team.  The other Pirates, seeing that Abstein was the ‘goat’ for the combination, kept up the cry against him…Before the series was ended many of the Pirates shunned Abstein and it was reported he would be traded.”

The Pittsburgh Press was less generous:

“Bill Abstein denies he is a bonehead and says baseball is largely a case of ‘if-you-can-get-away-with-it,’ well it’s a cinch that Bill couldn’t in the National League.”

The Pirates were unable to trade Abstein and finally put him on waivers.  He was claimed by his hometown St. Louis Browns.

Even though the Pirates had actually won the Worlds Series and even though Abstein was gone, that didn’t mean the Pirates, and The Pittsburgh Press, wouldn’t continue to pile on.

Barney Dreyfuss told The Associated Press shortly after Abstein was claimed by St. Louis:

“We have discarded the weakest offensive player we had—Abstein—and hope to improve the team by doing so.”

Dreyfuss also claimed:

“Fred (Clarke) told me as early as last June that we should get someone else for Abstein’s place in 1910, as Bill mixed up the team’s plays too frequently.”

The Pittsburgh Leader said:

“(Abstein) had deplorable batting weaknesses which the opposing pitchers were certain to fathom in time.”

The Pittsburgh Press was even less generous:

“Bill Abstein is reported to be making a hit with the Browns by his work in the spring practice.  Just wait about three months friends, before declaring Bonehead Bill a wonder.”

When the Pirates sold pitcher Vic Willis the St. Louis Cardinals in February of 1910, newspapers reported that Willis and Abstein had “engaged in a bitter fight,” during the series.

Abstein quickly wore out his welcome in his own hometown of St. Louis.  Abstein made 11 errors in 23 games at first base and hit .149; he was released on June 2, 1910.  It appears Abstein was no more popular with Browns Manager Jack O’Connor than he was in Pittsburgh.  O’Connor was quoted in The St. Louis Times in May:

“How did Abstein get away with it last year?  How could he make plays like he has been making for me and get away with it all year for Pittsburgh?  I never dreamed that some of the plays made by him were even possible.”

His Major League career over, Abstein returned to the minor leagues for seven seasons.  He had one above average year with the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League in 1914; in 202 games he hit .308, with 234 hits and 40 doubles.

Abstein moved on, Pittsburgh apparently did not.  For years, Pittsburgh newspapers took every opportunity to take a shot at the first baseman.  In 1915 The Pittsburgh Press, in an article about the revolving door the Pirates still had at first base–in the five post-Abstein seasons, the Pirates had four different starting first baseman–(emphasis theirs):

“No one will ever forget the way Bill did NOT play the bag in the Worlds Series.  In fact, Bill did NOT play the bag all the time he was stationed there.”

Pittsburgh finally seemed to move on by the time they won their next world Championship in 1925.  Abstein died in St. Louis in 1940.

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11 Responses to ““Bill Abstein Denies he is a Bonehead””

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