“That little so-and-so is a marvel. So little, and all that speed. And I mean speed! He got me out of there on a fastball in the ninth that I’d have needed a telescope to see.” — Joe DiMaggio
One of the mistakes that baseball teams make is pursuing a specific need instead of talent. I suppose it happens in football and other sports too, but I don’t write about those things.
Billy Pierce was a Detroit native, he worked in his father’s drugstore as a clerk, and as a young kid he took a trolley to Briggs Stadium to watch the famous G-Men who starred for the Tigers (Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and Goose Goslin). He was signed by Detroit and spent a few years learning to pitch in their farm system.
A puzzling little left-hander, Pierce showed promise, but he only made five big league starts before the Tigers traded the 21-year old after the 1948 season. The Tigers acquired catcher Aaron Robinson from the White Sox in exchange for the hometown kid. The Tigers even tossed in $10,000 to the White Sox.
Why did the Tigers dump Billy Pierce? The Detroit front office was convinced they needed a left-handed hitting catcher: they wanted a guy who could hit baseballs into the short right field porch. They sacrificed young pitching talent for a 33-year old catcher who was playing for his third team in three years. To be fair: they were also outwitted: the White Sox’ GM was a man named Frank Lane, who was a savant at making lopsided deals. Lane made a lowball offer for Pierce (whom he really wanted) and added the $10,000 request so the Tigers would think he thought little of the left-hander. Detroit general manager, Billy Evans, fell for Lane’s trick.
Robinson hit 12 home runs in Briggs Stadium as a member of the Tigers. He played three years in Detroit wools, and was most famous for a play late in the 1950 season when he failed to apply a tag thinking that the force was still in order. The Tigers lost that game and finished a close second in the pennant race.
Meanwhile, Billy Pierce, the skinny little Detroiter, grew into an ace in Chicago.
What if Billy Pierce Had Pitched His Career for the Tigers?
Pierce was a unique pitcher: short and skinny, a purveyor of off-speed pitches and varying arm angles. He hid the ball well, which made his fastball seem faster than it was. He had a 12-to-6 curveball and a sidearm curve that fluttered in on lefties.
Billy was brutal on left-handed batters. Ted Williams batted .247 against Pierce, calling him the “toughest lefty I ever faced.” Three left-handed-hitting batting champions — Billy Goodman, Pete Runnels, and Mickey Vernon — combined to hit .196 off Billy.
In 1950 when the Tigers finished in second place, Pierce won 12 games for the White Sox. That season, Detroit had a deep rotation, so it’s not certain that Pierce could have made up the four wins the Tigers needed to surpass the Yankees for first place in the American League.
By 1952, when he was 25 years old, Pierce had a 2.57 ERA and completed 14 of his 33 starts for the White Sox. By that time, the Tigers were a mediocre team, and would be for nearly a decade.
The 1950s were mostly a lost decade for the Detroit franchise. On the one hand, skinny outfielder Al Kaline arrived and won a batting title when he was 20 years old. There was Harvey Kuenn, Ray Boone, and George Kell for a while. The heart of the lineup was pretty good, but the pitching and depth was lacking.
Even with little Billy Pierce, the Tigers would have been also-rans in the 1950s. In Chicago, Pierce only pitched once in the postseason, in 1959. But by that time the southpaw was used out of the bullpen in the World Series, a 32-year old veteran long in the tooth.
But Pierce bounced back with a few more solid seasons in the 1960s. Even still, his presence in the Motor City wouldn’t have pushed the Tigers into first place in 1961.
It’s worth noting that Pierce, who won 211 games in his fine career, was just 17-21 in 44 starts against Detroit, with a 3.91 ERA, by far his worst performance against an AL team.
In 13 seasons with the White Sox, Pierce haunted the Tigers, a reminder of what they might have had in their rotation. Pierce won 208 games after being traded in one of the biggest “oops” deals of the post-war years.