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Pittsburgh Pirates

A professional baseball team in the National League

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Three Arrs for the Steel City

  • Nov 29, 2012
  • by
Rating:
+3
It goes without saying that today's Pittsburgh Pirates are bad. Hell, yesterday's Pittsburgh Pirates were bad, and the day before too. As of the 2012 baseball season, the Pirates have now gone through 20 consecutive years with losing records. Think about that: There are thousands of baseball fans throughout the Pittsburgh area, and throughout the state of Pennsylvania, who are in college now and have never seen their beloved Pirates give even a single winning season, let alone a playoff appearance, Pennant, or World Series victory. It's weird to think that a lot of those fans are actually likely jealous of the Philadelphia Phillies, the losingest baseball team in history. The Phillies have historically been terrible, but they've been excellent over the last ten years, capturing two Pennants and one World Series Championship. Meanwhile, the Pirate ship has been slowly sinking. Yeah, there's a definite weirdness to that whole scenario, especially when you consider exactly what the Pittsburgh Pirates once were.

Professional baseball existed in Pittsburgh as far back as 1876. The teams of that era were all independents who barnstormed through the region, although - unusual for barnstormers - one team was an official business organization with salaried players. The team was more associated with the Allegheny region in general than specifically Pittsburgh, and so sportswriters gave them that generic name: The Alleghenys. In 1882, they were the strongest team in the area, and they hopped to the American Association. They looked a lot less strong for the next five years, though, and in 1887 they became the first American Association team to jump into the National League. In the 1890 season, the Pittsburgh Alleghenys were, like a lot of teams during that era - crippled when most of their guys decided they wanted to play for the Pittsburgh Burghers of the newly-created Players' League instead. The result showed in the standings when the Alleghenys played to a 23-113 record for a .169 winning percentage. In the entire history of organized professional baseball, only the 1899 Cleveland Spiders were worse. 

The Alleghenys nearly ruined their owner, Denny McKnight, that year. He was forced to give the team to the league, but once he did that, he became a minority owner of the Burghers. Upon doing that, he repurchased the team he had just let go of, gave it a different name to recharter it, and thus recovered the services of most of the players who had abandoned him. The team was also able to sign a lot of players from the American Association, including a highly sought second baseman from the old Philadelphia Athletics of the AA. The pissed Athletics threw a fit, and in an official statement, said what the Alleghenys did to them was a piratical move. The whole incident accelerated a nasty schism which developed between the American Association and the National League which eventually ended with the American Association going bye-bye. While the Pittsburgh Alleghenys technically didn't do anything wrong, they enjoyed the new paint the "piratical" accusation had given them. So in 1891, they gave themselves a new name, the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

In 1899, the Pirates heisted nearly all the star players from the Louisville Colonels. Their owner, Barney Dreyfuss, was told the Colonels were targeted for wipeout when the National League was contracted from twelve to eight teams, so he secretly bought half an interest in the Pirates, then sent their stars to Pittsburgh after the season. That transaction was structured as a trade since it happened before the Colonels folded, and also because the Pirates sent four unknown players to Louisville. But they did wait until after the season to pull it off. And when the start of the modern era came around in 1901, and the Western League started calling itself the American League and operating as a major league, the move prepped and set the Pirates up for domination. After all, among the Louisville players they lifted were player/manager Fred Clarke, pitcher Deacon Phillippe, and shortstop Honus Wagner. Those four powered the Pirates to the NL Pennant in 1901 and 1902. They also won the Pennant in 1903, a victory which allowed them the privilege of going to a long series of ballgames against the Boston Americans, who had won the AL Pennant; a "World's Series," if you will. They lost to Boston, but the big climactic series was a success, and the brass of both the AL and NL decided to keep on doing it every year. 

The Pirates were a force throughout the centurial decade, and they returned to the World Series in 1909, winning it against the Detroit Tigers. Their brightest stars were in decline by then, though, so the Pirates were nondescript for the next few years, falling to a nasty record of 51-103 in 1917. 

After that, veteran outfielder Max Carey and young players Kiki Cuyler and Pie Traynor and a rebuilt and deep pitching staff brought them back. By 1925, they were back in the World Series, a seven game classic in which the Pirates had to rally from a 3-1 hole in order to return to beat the Washington Senators. Yes, the Senators, who had finally crawled out of their hole to snag some glory of their own for the aging Walter Johnson, and were the defending World Series Champions from 1924. In 1927, the Pirates visited the World Series again with a stellar 94-60 record and future Hall of Famers Cuyler, Traynor, and Lloyd and Paul Waner. Now let us be honest for a hot second: Even with them, raise your hand if you think the Pirates stood a chance at a victory in that year's Series…. No hands? Nah, I didn't think there would be, for their opponents that year were the New York Yankees. Not JUST the Yankees, but the legendary Murderer's Row Yankees with Miller Huggins managing, and a lineup that included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Earle Combs, and an awesome pitching lineup which was anchored by Waite Hoyt and his 22-7 record in the regular season. The Yankees were 110-44, won the Pennant by 19 games, and led the league in homers, runs scored, and runs allowed. Although the Pirates were far from weak, the Yankees swept them right out of the Fall Classic.

The Waner brothers and shortstop Arky Vaughan ensured the Pirates had plenty of talent for years to come, though. Unfortunately, they were never able to fully capitalize on their talents after that merciless beating the Yankees gave them in the 1927 World Series. They were certainly a competitive team, but the closest they came to a Pennant after 1927 was in 1938, in which they made the mistake of getting involved in a race with a great Chicago Cubs team which eventually won the Pennant by two games over the Pirates. 

The Pirates were stagnant again in during World War II. Come to think of it, they were stagnant after World War II. At least their one real star, Ralph Kiner, gave their fans something to watch starting in 1946. That year, the longtime ownership of Barney Dreyfuss also came to an end, at which point the Pirates have the distinction of being bought by a syndicate which included Bing Crosby. That only lasted for a few years; in 1950, real estate tycoon John Galbreath became the new owner. Anyway, Kiner came to lead the league in home runs for seven consecutive years, 1946 through 1952. Too bad the other players on the team sucked. Galbreath brought in general manager and legendary baseball innovator Branch Rickey to rectify the mess. Rickey's name is very significant, because he twice changed baseball. In the 30's, he created the farm system the professional teams use today while he was with the Saint Louis Cardinals. In the 40's, he was with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and they became real contenders when he signed a certain player named Jackie Robinson, who happened to be black. 

Rickey's tenure in Pittsburgh wasn't what fans hoped it would be. Hell, at first he pissed off the fanbase because he purged the roster of its higher-salaried veterans.  Among his casualties was the lone player who was worth paying to see: Ralph Kiner. Then he unleashed a torrent of young players who largely turned out to be duds. Then he retired in 1955 because his health was fading. Yeah, he had managed to upset the fans, and his stint in Pittsburgh would otherwise be a write-off of his otherwise incredible career. The postwar Pirates ultimately finished out of the basement just once, in 1948, when they finished fourth. In 1952, their 42-112 record was one of the worst in MLB history. Their only winning season was that fourth place finish. 

Rickey had the last laugh in Pittsburgh, though. Well, he probably didn't exactly laugh; he wasn't the type of person to gloat. In 1958, Danny Murtaugh was in his first full season as Pittsburgh's manager. Murtaugh was another innovator, and is widely credited with creating the concept of the closing pitcher, something he did when he started playing pitcher Elroy Face in close games. More importantly, a handful of Rickey's young projects began to REALLY develop and fulfill the promise Rickey had signed them for: Pitchers Vern Law and Bob Friend, shortstop Dick Groat, second baseman Bill Mazeroski, and one particular outfielder named Roberto Clemente whose talent was the kind of extraordinary talent which only came along once in a lifetime. In 1960, the Pirates went 95-59, winning the Pennant and the chance to receive a bashing at the hands of the Stengel/Berra/Mantle/Ford Yankees. The Yankees were packing a serious wallop, and the Series looked to have the same kind of given conclusion as the 1927 World Series between the same two teams. The Yankees were favored, and they delivered: The 1960 World Series saw the Yankees dominate the Pirates, outscoring them 55-27, outhitting them 91-60, outbatting them .338 to .256, out-home running them ten to four, shutting them out twice (both the work of Whitey Ford), and just plain out-winning them three games to four…. Wait, what?! Let me check that again…. No, no, all those numbers are accurate. The New York Yankees did manage to lose the 1960 World Series despite beating up on the Pirates. Somehow, Pittsburgh never got dispirited enough to give in, despite the way the Yankees slaughtered them in their victories. Game seven was won with a Bill Mazeroski home run, a ninth-inning game winner. That Series is considered one of the greatest, and the Yankees were so strong that one of their players, Bobby Richardson, was the Series MVP. It was the only time in Series history the MVP was a player from the losing team. 

Despite the magic of 1960, the Pirates struggled for the rest of the decade, and Harry Walker was made manager in 1965. They battled for the Pennant during his first two years, ultimately finishing third each year. In 1962, they made an important signing when they discovered a slugger named Willie Stargell. Murtaugh eventually returned to manage, and in 1971, the Pirates were again swarming with talent. They had a real superstar pitcher with Steve Blass, and they had Clemente, Stargell, and Dock Ellis anchoring what was the first all-black starting lineup. The Pirates won their fourth World Series in 1971, beating the Baltimore Orioles behind two excellent games from Blass and a .414 batting average from Clemente. 

One of the saddest parts of baseball history happened in 1972. It wasn't during the season, but on December 31. The country of Nicaragua had been hit by a recent earthquake. Roberto Clemente, one of MLB's most upstanding humanitarians, went to the country to deliver a shipment of relief supplies, but his plane went down along the way. Clemente was killed. The Baseball Hall of Fame waived its waiting requirement to induct him immediately. In 1973, Steve Blass suffered a weird breakdown as a pitcher, posting an insane ERA of 9.85. Some people believed that there was an emotional shock involved; Blass was friends with Clemente. No matter what can explain it, though, it doesn't change the fact that today, pitchers can't can't throw strikes are said to be suffering from Steve Blass disease. 

Omar Moreno and Dave Parker became the cornerstones of the Pirates once Chuck Tanner took over from Murtaugh in 1977. Becoming known as The Family for their adoption of the popular Sister Sledge song "We are Family," the 1979 Pirates won their fifth - and to date, their latest - World Series title in 1979 over the Baltimore Orioles. 

After that, the Pirates entered a steep decline which culminated in one of baseball's lowest points. By that, I'm not actually talking about their league-worst finish in 1985, although it certainly didn't do very much to help anything. I'm talking about the Pittsburgh Drug Trials, a catalyst for a baseball-related cocaine scandal which resulted in baseball's harshest punishments since the Black Sox Scandal of 1919. Several Pirates players - Dale Berra, Lee Lacy, Lee Mazzilli, John Milner, Dave Parker, and Rod Scurry - were called before a grand jury in Pittsburgh. Other baseball figures showed up too, and all of them were granted immunity in exchange for testimony. Milner talked about getting amphetamines from Stargell and Willie Mays and buying cocaine in the bathroom stalls of Pittsburgh's stadium. Keith Hernandez of the New York Mets said he had been using cocaine for three years, Time Raines of the Montreal Expos said he kept cocaine in his pocket during games and would only slide headfirst so the vial wouldn't break, and Rod Scurry said he once went looking for cocaine during the late innings of a game. Drug dealers were frequent guests in the Pittsburgh clubhouse, and the Pirate Parrot - the mascot - was implicated for introducing players to a dealer. Seven Pittsburgh men were convicted and found guilty of distribution, and eleven ballplayers were suspended, seven for a year. 

It was a good thing the Pirates were able to rebuild with another group of those ubiquitous young players. Guys like Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke, Jay Bell, Sid Bream, Jose Lind, Doug Drabek, and Stan Belinda. With Jim Leyland at the helm, the 1988 Pirates were a team back in business, finishing 85-75. 1989 was a setback, though. Injuries depleted the team so that they finished in fifth place. The season had a devastating lowlight: In one game against the Philadelphia Phillies, the Pirates scored ten runs in the first inning and lost. During the game, Pirates broadcaster Jim Rooker vowed that he would walk home from Philadelphia if the Pirates blew the lead. He went out and did just that too, after the season, and made it into an event to raise money for charity.

In the 90's, the Pirates blossomed. They won the NL East in 1990, 1991, and 1992, but failed to get through the NLCS all three times. In 1990, they lost to the Cincinnati Reds. The next two years, it was the Atlanta Braves. The 1992 series was one of the greats. It went seven games, and Pittsburgh took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth. During the half-inning, the Pirates imploded, giving up two runs. Sid Bream, a former Pirate and a slow runner, scored the winning run when Barry Bonds threw high and wide. After that series, Pittsburgh's window for their sixth World Series title closed. What followed was the departure of Bonds for the San Francisco Giants, and a youth movement. It's pointless to go into any more details from here on out. Names changed. Sometimes the Pirates have teased; other times, they just sucked outright. But what became of the Pirates is still the same: 1992 was the last time they produced so much as a winning season.

The Pirates have won nine Pennants and five World Series titles. Among the Hall of Famers who are strictly theirs are Ralph Kiner, Bill Mazeroski, Willie Stargell, Honus Wagner, and Roberto Clemente. The last two are the big names given to baseball history by the Pirates. Wagner is often given a case for the greatest shortstop in history, and Clemente is considered the same out in right field. Clemente is a very dear name in the hearts of baseball fans because he was a class act and one of the sport's truly great ambassadors. Especially to Pirates fans, Clemente meant a lot, because for their team he was also one of baseball's great hitters and a key component of two World Series teams. The names of manager Billy Meyer, Ralph Kiner, Willie Stargell, Bill Mazeroski, Paul Waner, Pie Traynor, Roberto Clemente, Honus Wagner, and manager Danny Murtaugh have all been retired. One name I can almost guarantee won't be retired is Barry Bonds. The Pirates have the distinction of being the team that originally drafted Bonds, and he played for them from 1986 to 1992.

It's tough to pick out a particular rival that Bucs fans zoom in on these days. They used to play in the same division as the Phillies, their natural in-state rivals, but the rivalry went south after the Pirates were moved to the NL Central in 1994 for some reason. There are a lot of moments that define the Pirates, though. There will always be the quiet dignity of Honus Wagner and the greatness of Roberto Clemente. Those first three National League Pennants of the modern era are never going to go anywhere. They did, after all, play in the first World Series ever in 1903. In 1927, they went down hard in the World Series against maybe the most dominant team MLB has ever seen. Then in 1960, they played a World Series against another Yankees team nearly as good as they one that beat them in 1927, rising up and unexpectedly beating them. Fielding the first starting lineup comprising entirely of blacks was huge, and Barry Bonds, well, was there.

Among their other traits have been some of the more unique uniform designs in the league, and I don't mean that in a good way. They were the team that introduced the pullover jerseys which became a dominant style in the 70's and 80's. They also wore a pillbox hat for years, with yellow and black horizontal stripes. Baseball fans refer to it frequently as the layer cake. The Pirates are currently known for being the third team in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Steelers are currently number one. Every team has its own fan "nation," but there is only one true fan nation, and Steeler Nation is it. The Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL are currently one of the precious few teams in the NHL to have attained visibility beyond hockey fans. The Penguins have the best player in the league with Sidney Crosby, and are the NHL's second-largest television market mostly because they have more nationally televised games than any other team with the possible exception of the Detroit Red Wings. How are the now-hapless Pirates supposed to compete with that? The team colors of yellow and black are the colors of Pittsburgh's city flag, which is why the Steelers and Penguins also wear them.

If you can take being inconspicuous for awhile and being joked about for the time being, there's going to be a tremendous payoff to cheering for the Pittsburgh Pirates once they make their grand return. They have nearly everything you could ever ask in a local blue-collar team, except the sense that anyone right now cares for any of it. And possibly money.

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December 04, 2012
aarrgghhhh!!
 
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About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston ()
Ranked #19
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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