One of the most fascinating things about baseball is the depth of its history. While the best routinely have their legacies stoked by their positions on statistical leaderboards or, in some cases, by their bronze-sculpted visages enshrined in Cooperstown, there are thousands of others who have been forgotten in the expansive history of the game.
Some of these players only managed to appear in a single major league game. They are Moonlight Graham, only without Burt Lancaster portraying their likeness. Or, for a more localized reference, they are Jeff Banister.
Banister, a former long-time Pirates bench coach and current manager of the Texas Rangers, struggled through bone marrow cancer and a broken neck to achieve his dream of making it to the big leagues. As a coach, he's suited up many times. But his only appearance as a player came on July 23, 1991 when he swatted a pinch-hit single in what would be his only major league at-bat.
Of course, Graham and Banister are uniquely well-known "one-time wonders." Since 1902, there have been 76 players who had a cup of coffee with the Pirates. These are the Steamboat Strusses, Buckshot Mays, and Tony “The Mosquito” Ordeñanas of the world; almost entirely unknown outside of the most obscure Baseball Reference Play Index searches.
But some of them, after a singular rocky game with Pittsburgh, went on to flourish on other teams. These three players, in particular, went on to have productive major league careers after stumbling out of the blocks in their respective appearance for the Pirates.
Arthur Vance earned the nickname “Dazzy” while playing semi-pro baseball in Nebraska because his powerful fastball was dazzling. But if it weren’t for a strange incident during a poker game, the Hall of Fame right-hander could have been just another minor league washout with a dead arm.
Because of his flame-throwing prowess, Vance pitched many games for several different teams in his early twenties. After throwing four games in six days, his arm started to bother him. “I no longer could throw hard, and it hurt like the dickens every time I threw,” Vance said.
Nevertheless, the Pirates purchased his contract in the spring of 1915 and Vance made his major league debut against the Cincinnati Reds on April 16th of that year.
As with most players who played only a single game for a team, Vance’s appearance did not go well. Ed. F. Ballinger, a sportswriter for The Pittsburgh Press in 1915, recounted Vance’s struggles in no uncertain terms.
“Dazzy Vance held a little walking party in the third inning this afternoon and this streak of philanthropy on the part of the tow-headed Nebraskan, gave the Reds an unearned victory by a score of 4 to 2,” wrote Ballinger.
Ballinger wrote that Vance was “stricken with a spasm of wildness” in the bottom of the third inning when the Pirates righty walked three batters before brushing Red Killefer’s shirt sleeve with a pitch, which “forced a run over the rubber and left the ‘standing room only’ sign still fluttering.”
Vance walked five, allowed three runs, and lasted just 2.2 IP in what would be his only outing with the Pirates. The Dazzler failed to strike out a single batter. Pittsburgh traded Vance to the New York Yankees immediately after the game and, while the Yanks went through great pains to rehabilitate Vance, nothing seemed to work.
Then a stroke of good fortune played a hand in reinvigorating Vance’s once promising career. Dazzy was a 29-year old major league washout, playing ball for a low-level minor league team called the New Orleans Pelicans, when he bumped his elbow on a poker table while raking in a pot.
The pain Vance felt in his elbow was oddly severe and, when he woke up the next morning in discomfort, he saw a doctor. This doctor found something in his elbow that the Yankees’ physicians were unable to discover and performed surgery on Vance. (Bill James noted in his Historical Baseball Abstract that Vance’s issue could have been bone spurs, but the exact procedure is unknown).
Following the surgery, Vance’s career was reborn. The Dazzler won 21 games for the Pelicans in 1921 and, when the Brooklyn Robins attempted to recruit catcher Hank DeBerry from New Orleans in 1922, DeBerry insisted that the Robins bring Vance aboard as well.
Vance, a 31-year old rookie, made his Robins debut on April 22, 1922 and soon became one of the most dominant strikeout artists in baseball history (and DeBerry became most prominently known as his personal catcher). Vance led the league in strikeouts for seven straight season rom 1922-28 and was named the National League MVP in 1924. bonechi
Dazzy ended up pitching until he the age of 44 and finished his career with 2,045 strikeouts in 2,966.2 IP. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.
In Game Three of the 1945 World Series, Claude Passeau threw an impeccable game. Starting for the Chicago Cubs, Passeau twirled a one-hit shutout against the Detroit Tigers. Passeau only faced 28 hitters as the Cubs cruised to a 3-0 victory that gave them a two-to-one series lead (a lead that they would eventually blow, naturally, when the series shifted back to Wrigley Field).
However, if Passeau's natural physical gifts weren't so apparent, he may not have ever become a baseball player at all. As a youth, the Mississippian was more interested in hunting and fishing than organized sports. Despite his lack of enthusiasm for athletics, and the fact that a hunting accident mangled his left hand, the six-foot-three, 200-pound Passeau received multiple scholarship offers from colleges due to his sheer physical prowess.
In 1930, as a 21-year old, Passeau signed with the Fort Smith Twins, a minor league team in Arkansas, but left after nine days due to homesickness. Passeau then returned to the semi-pro circuit, where he kept at least six aliases and hopped from league to league for a month or so at a time.
The big Mississippian signed with the Detroit Tigers in 1932 after he had earned his degree at Millsaps College, but struggled with control in the minor leagues until the Pirates took a flyer on him in 1935.
Passeau made his major league debut in the last game of the 1935 season when he took the mound for the Pirates against the Reds in the second game of a double header at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. The rookie, whose arm was shot after 244 innings of minor league ball, got shelled. The Reds scored four runs off of seven hits and chased Passeau after three innings.
(Interestingly, Passeau’s catcher that day, Aubrey Epps, also appeared in his only game as a Pirates player. Epps, an exciting prospect at the time, had three hits, including a triple, and three RBIs in that game. Unfortunately, an offseason tonsillectomy caused hemorrhaging that resulted in Epps being hospitalized in critical condition with a particularly bad case of pneumonia. Epps eventually recovered, but not before he lost his spot on the Pirates roster the next season. He never played another game in the big leagues.)
When the Pirates traded catcher Earl Grace to the Philadelphia Phillies for their catcher Al Todd in the offseason, Passeau was included as a throw-in. Todd had three pretty good years for the Pirates, but Passeau ended up being the most valuable player in the deal.
Passeau ate plenty of innings for some truly awful Phillies teams from 1936-38 before he was traded to the Chicago Cubs early in June of 1939. Away from the Phillies and their bandbox Baker Bowl, Passeau carved out a nice career, accumulating a 162-150 record and a 3.32 ERA over 12 major league seasons.
By far the most contemporary member of this list, Miguel Batista is a bit of a baseball Renaissance Man. He is a writer who has published both a book of poetry and a novel, a crime thriller titled The Avenger of Blood: A Plot Where Real Facts and Evidences Face Faith (the author summary describes Batista as a "poet on the page, and in life."). He's also a musician, inspired heavily by his favorite artist, Kenny G.
He was also a pretty decent baseball player, but his significance to the Pirates has less to do with what Batista did on the field and more to do with what he represented superstitiously.
Batista was selected out of the Montreal Expos farm system by Pittsburgh in the 1991 Rule 5 Draft and made his lone appearance with the Pirates on April 11th, 1992 against the Phillies in Veterans Stadium. Relieving in the seventh inning of a 5-1 drubbing, Batista allowed a two-run homer to Ruben Amaro to deepen the Pirates' hole. He threw two innings that day and was sent back to the minors with a 9.00 ERA.
Batista toiled around the minors for a while until he finally caught on with Montreal in 1998. The righty had a long, if unspectacular, career bouncing from the starting rotation to the bullpen. He played until he was 43 years old, collected a 102-115 record, and finished his career with an exactly average 100 ERA+.
But for the sake of Pirates lore, Batista is important because he was the last remaining active player from the 1992 team that narrowly missed the World Series. A few months after Batista retired in May 2013, the Pirates earned their first winning season after 20 years of losing. Curse lifted.