by Jim Riggs
"Wee" Tommy Leach Stood Tall For Pirates
Only three Pittsburgh Pirates have ever led the national League in home runs. The most recent was Willie Stargell in 1971 and 1973, and before that was Ralph Kiner from 1946-52. But do you know who was the first Pirate to lead the NL in home runs?
And did you know he was a Chautauqua County native?
And here's another interesting fact. None of his home runs in that league-leading season left the park!
The answer is Tommy Leach, who was born on November 4, 1877, in French Creek.
We have four county natives who played in the major leagues and have been inducted into the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame. They are Walt Brown, who pitched for the St. Louis Browns; Falconer's Hugh Bedient, who pitched for the Boston Red Sox; Silver Creek native Howard Ehmke, who pitched for Boston, Detroit and the Philadelphia Athletics; and Jamestown's Irv Noren, who played outfield and first base for Washington, the New York Yankees, the Kansas City Athletics, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers. For some reason, Leach has been overlooked, but he has never been overlooked by historians of the Pirates.
Leach was 5-foot-6 and never weighed more than 150 pounds in his playing days. That is why he was often called "Wee" Tommy Leach, but he put his small size to good use with his speed.
When he led the National League in home runs with six in 1902, all six were inside-the-parkers. Those half-dozen are also the lowest total ever for a NL home run leader.
Also in 1902, Leach was second in the league with 22 triples. In 1903, Leach hit seven homers, but was beat out by one for the league title.
I was recently struck with how impressive a player Leach was when reading The Pirates Reader. He was a star player for the Pirates, particularly for the 1909 World Series champions. There was a quote from Babe Adams, who many believe was the best Pirate pitcher ever, from My Greatest Day in Baseball, first published in 1945 and edited by John P. Carmicheal. It was reprinted in The Pirates Reader and Adams was talking about his rookie season of 1909 when he was 12-3 with a 1.11 ERA. But he pointed out there was a "big three" on the pitching staff who were better. And he also noted, "It was enough for me that I was on a team with those stars and Honus Wagner, Tommy Leach and George Gibson."
Then when reading through The Pittsburgh Pirates Encyclopedia, Leach's name is right up there with shortstop Honus Wagner as a star of the great Pittsburgh teams of the early 1900's. During that era, newspapers wrote about Pittsburgh's "Big Three," referring to Wagner, outfielder and manager Fred Clarke and Leach.
Authors Dave Finoli and Bill Ranier thought so much of Leach that they rated him 27th on a list of the Pirates' top 100 players in The Pittsburgh Pirates Encyclopedia. That put him in front of some other familiar names such as Dick Groat (29th), Manny Sanguillen (33rd), and Tony Pena (42nd).
Also, Finoli and Ranier pointed out that baseball historian and author Bill James lists Leach as 20th all-time among third basemen. That list would include hot-corner players such as Ken Boyer, George Brett, Eddie Matthews and Mike Schmidt.
And when looking at the Pirates, only Pie Traynor and Rich Hebner played more games than Leach at third base.
It's interesting that Leach started his pro career for Auburn in the New York State League in 1889. Now Auburn is an opponent for Jamestown in the New York-Penn League.
He eventually reached the major leagues with the Louisville Colonels of the National League in 1898, but when the National League contracted from 12 teams to 8 for the 1900 season, Leach and 12 other players, including Wagner, came to Pittsburgh.
Three seasons later, Leach played in the first-ever World Series against Boston. He also scored the first World Series run when he tripled in the first inning of the opening game and then scored on a single by Wagner.
The Pirates lost that World Series, five games to three. But they made up for it in 1909 when they defeated Detroit, four games to three.
Leach led the NL in runs scored that season with 126 and played centerfield. However, he was switched back to third base after Pittsburgh's regular season third baseman was injured in the first inning of the opening game of the World Series. Leach went on to pick up two hits in Games 3, 5 and 7, won by the Pirates.
Leach was traded to the Cubs in 1912 and played through 1915. Then in 1918, when there was a shortage of players due to World War I, Leach returned to the Pirates at the age of 40. He hit .194 in 30 games.
That was the end of Leach's playing career, but he was a player-manager and then a manager in the minor leagues for a while and later became a scout. But his playing career isn't forgotten when you look at the list of Pirates' all-time leaders. Leach is still ninth in games played (1,548), at bats (5,909), runs (1,007), singles (1,229); sixth in stolen bases (246) and seventh in triples (137).
When he died on September 29, 1969 in Haines City, FL, Leach was the last surviving Pirate from the first World Series in 1903.
It was quite a career for the Chautauqua County native.