History of the Pittsburgh Pirates
|This article is outdated. (October 2012)|
Professional baseball has been played in the Pittsburgh area since 1876. The teams of the era were "independents", barnstorming throughout the region and not affiliated with any organized league, though they did have salaries and were run as a business organization. In 1882 the strongest team in the area joined the American Association as a founding member. Their various home fields in the 19th century were in a then-separate city called Allegheny City, across the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh. The team was listed as "Allegheny" in the standings, and was sometimes called the "Alleghenys" (not the "Alleghenies") in the same generic way that teams from Boston, New York, and Chicago were sometimes called the "Bostons", the "New Yorks", and the "Chicagos", in the sportswriting style of that era. After five mediocre seasons in the A.A., Pittsburgh became the first A.A. team to switch to the older National League in 1887. At this time, the team renamed itself the Pittsburgh Alleghenys, although Allegheny remained a separate city until it was annexed by Pittsburgh in 1907. At that time, owner-manager Horace B. Phillips sold the team to Denny McKnight; Phillips stayed on as manager.
The Alleghenys were severely crippled during the 1890, when nearly all of their stars jumped to the Pittsburgh Burghers of the Players' League. With a decimated roster, the team experienced what is still the worst season in franchise history, going 23-113. The battle nearly ruined McKnight, and he was forced to return his franchise to the league. However, almost immediately after this, McKnight joined the backers of the Burghers as a minority owner, which then repurchased the Pittsburgh National League franchise and rechartered it under a different corporate name. They were thus able to legally recover the services of most of the players who had jumped to the upstart league a year earlier.
The new owners also signed up several players from American Association teams. One of them was highly regarded second baseman Lou Bierbauer, who had previously played with the A.A.'s Philadelphia Athletics. The Athletics failed to include him on their reserve list, and the Alleghenys picked him up. This led to loud protests by the Athletics, and in an official complaint, an AA official claimed the Alleghenys' actions were "piratical." Similarly, the Philadelphia papers complained that the deal was "an act of piracy on the high seas". This incident (which is discussed at some length in The Beer and Whisky League, by David Nemec, 1994) quickly accelerated into a schism between the leagues that contributed to the demise of the A.A. Although the Alleghenys were never found guilty of wrongdoing, they made sport of being denounced for being "piratical" by renaming themselves "the Pirates" for the 1891 season. The nickname was first acknowledged on the team's uniforms in 1912.
After the 1899, the Pirates made what is arguably the best player transaction in franchise history when they picked up nearly all of the star players from the Louisville Colonels. Louisville owner Barney Dreyfuss had been told that the Colonels were slated for elimination when the N.L. contracted from 12 to 8 teams. He secretly purchased a half-interest in the Pirates, then after the season sent nearly all of the Colonels' stars up the Ohio River to Pittsburgh. Since the transaction occurred before the Colonels officially folded, it was structured as a trade; the Pirates sent four relatively unknown players to Louisville. Despite their nickname, the Pirates at least waited until after the season to pull off this blockbuster trade. This is unlike what happened in 1899 to the Cleveland Spiders and, to a lesser extent, the Baltimore Orioles, who were also part of two-team ownerships. Dreyfuss later bought full control of the team and kept it until his death in 1932.
Bolstered by former Colonels Honus Wagner (who was born and raised in the Pittsburgh area) and player/manager Fred Clarke, the 1901–1903 Pirates completely dominated the National League, in part because they lost few star players to the rival American League. However, owing to injuries to their starting pitchers, they lost the first World Series ever played, in 1903 to Boston. Deacon Phillippe pitched five complete games, winning three of them, but it was not enough. With largely the same star players, the Pirates would continue to be a strong team over the next few years, and got their first World Series title in 1909, defeating the Detroit Tigers in seven games.
The decline of Honus Wagner, considered by many to be the greatest shortstop ever, led to a number of losing seasons, culminating in a disastrous 51-103 record in 1917, However, veteran outfielder Max Carey and young players Pie Traynor and Kiki Cuyler, along with a remarkably deep pitching staff, brought the Pirates back into the spotlight. The Pirates recovered from a 3-1 deficit to win the 1925 World Series over the Washington Senators, and reached the 1927 World Series before losing in a sweep to the New York Yankees, who at that time had built the most dominant team in baseball. The 1927 season was the first for the sharp-hitting combination of brothers Lloyd Waner and Paul Waner, who along with shortstop Arky Vaughan ensured that the Pirates had plenty of Hall of Fame-caliber position players through 1941. However, the Pirates' crushing defeats of 1927 and 1938 (they lost the pennant to the Chicago Cubs in the final days of the 1938 season) were tremendous setbacks.
The post-World War II years were not kind to the Pirates, despite the presence of a genuine star in Ralph Kiner, who led the National League in home runs for seven consecutive seasons (1946 through 1952). But the team around Kiner placed in the first division only one time — in 1948 — and in 1952 compiled one of the worst records in major league history, winning 42 and losing 112 games (.273) and finishing 54½ games out of first place. In 1946, the long era of ownership by the Barney Dreyfuss family came to an end, as a syndicate including entertainer Bing Crosby bought the team. By 1950, Columbus, Ohio-based real estate tycoon John W. Galbreath emerged as majority owner, and his family would run the team for another 35 years and supervise its rise to the top of the NL.
Galbreath's first major move, the hiring of Branch Rickey as general manager after the 1950 campaign, was initially a great disappointment to Pittsburgh fans. Rickey had invented the farm system with the Cardinals and broken the baseball color line with the Dodgers — and built dynasties at each club. But in Pittsburgh, he purged the Bucs' roster of its higher-salaried veterans (including Kiner in 1953) and flooded the team with young players. Many of those young players faltered; however, those who fulfilled Rickey's faith in them — pitchers Vern Law and Bob Friend, shortstop Dick Groat, second baseman Bill Mazeroski and especially outfielder Roberto Clemente, drafted from Brooklyn after his only minor league season — would form the nucleus of the Pirates' 1960 championship club. Moreover, Rickey put into place one of baseball's most successful farm and scouting systems that kept the team competitive into the late 1970s. But all this was not evident when Rickey retired due to ill health in 1955, with the Pirates still struggling to escape the NL basement.
The postwar Pirates would have only one winning season until 1958, Danny Murtaugh's first full season as their manager. Murtaugh is widely credited for inventing the concept of the closer by frequently playing pitcher Elroy Face late in close games. The 1960 team featured eight All-Stars, but was widely predicted to lose the World Series to a powerful New York Yankees team. In one of the most memorable World Series in history, the Pirates were defeated by more than ten runs in three games, won three close games, then recovered from a 7-4 deficit late in Game 7 to eventually win on a walk-off home run by Mazeroski, a second baseman otherwise better known for defensive wizardry. (The 1960 Pirates were the only team between 1945 and 2001 to have not succumbed to the so-called "Ex-Cubs Factor" in the postseason. They were also unique for winning a World Series on a home run, a feat duplicated by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993.)
The 1960s would continue with extremely solid defensive play by Mazeroski and the first Puerto Rican superstar, Roberto Clemente. Clemente was regarded as one of the game's best all-time hitters, and possessed a tremendous arm in right field. Although not the first black-Hispanic baseball player (an honor belonging to Minnie Miñoso), Clemente's charisma and leadership in humanitarian causes made him an icon across the continent. During his playing career, Clemente was vastly overlooked. Looking back, however, many consider Clemente to have been the greatest right fielder in baseball history.
1970–1979 and "The Family"
Slugger Willie Stargell became a fixture in the Pittsburgh lineup in the late 1960s, and the Pirates returned to prominence in 1970. Murtaugh returned as manager and the Pirates' home field, Forbes Field, was demolished in favor of the multi-purpose Three Rivers Stadium. In 1970, the Pirates won their first of five division titles over the next six years. They won their fourth World Series in 1971 over the Baltimore Orioles behind a .414 Series batting average by Clemente. They also thought they had a genuine superstar pitcher (historically rare for the Pirates) in Steve Blass, who pitched two excellent games in the World Series and had excellent seasons in 1968 and 1972. In 1971, the Pirates also became the first Major League Baseball team to field an all-black starting lineup. That lineup, on September 1, was Rennie Stennett, Gene Clines, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Manny Sanguillén, Dave Cash, Al Oliver, Jackie Hernández, and Dock Ellis.
Clemente died in a plane crash on December 31, 1972 while accompanying a shipment of relief supplies to the victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. He had reached the milestone of 3,000 career hits, a standup double, just a few months earlier, on September 30, 1972, in what would prove to be his last regular season hit. The Baseball Hall of Fame waived its usual waiting requirement and inducted Clemente immediately. Pittsburgh would eventually erect a statue and name a bridge and park near the stadium after him. In 1973, Blass suffered a mysterious breakdown in his pitching abilities and posted an outrageous 9.85 ERA. To this day, pitchers who suddenly lose the ability to throw strikes are said to have "Steve Blass disease". Some speculated that the emotional shock of his friend Clemente's death contributed to his breakdown. He retired soon afterwards; he has now been one of the Pirates' radio and TV announcers for almost two decades.
Stargell, speedy Omar Moreno and power-hitting but ostentatious and unpopular Dave Parker became the cornerstones of the Pirates as Murtaugh left and Chuck Tanner took over as manager in 1977. Adopting the popular disco anthem "We Are Family" as their theme song, the Pirates won a fifth World Series, again over Baltimore in seven games, on October 17, 1979.
1980s and 1990s: The Leyland era
Following was a period of decline until the Pirates were regarded as the worst team in baseball during the mid-1980s. Jim Leyland took over as manager, and the Pirates gradually climbed out of the cellar behind young and exciting players such as "outfield of dreams" Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds, and Andy Van Slyke; infielders Jay Bell, Sid Bream, and José Lind; and pitchers Doug Drabek and Stan Belinda.
In 1988, the young team finished 85-75 and seemed ready to compete for a pennant. The Pirates would indeed win the division three straight times in 1990–92, but the 1989 season was a major setback, with injuries depleting the squad and leading to a 5th-place finish. Among the low points of the season was a game on June 8, 1989, where the Pirates became the first team in major-league history to score 10 runs in the first inning and nevertheless lose the game. Pirates broadcaster (and former pitcher) Jim Rooker famously vowed that if the team blew the lead, he would walk home from Philadelphia—a vow he fulfilled after the season while raising money for charity.
The Pirates would win the first three division titles of the 1990s, but failed to advance to the World Series each time, losing in 1990 against the Cincinnati Reds in 6 games and the second two losing closely contested seven-game series to the Atlanta Braves.
Since the heartbreaking loss to the Braves in the 1992 NLCS, the Pirates had not had a winning season until 2013. The closest to a winning team was the 1997 "Freak Show" team, which finished second in the NL Central. This team was eliminated during the season's final week, despite having a losing record and a payroll of only US$9 million.
The failure of the Pirates to compete in recent years has been blamed on "small market syndrome"; teams located in small cities such as Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Kansas City cannot compete with New York City and Boston without a salary cap or similar agreement, as the better players tend to gravitate towards cities where teams generate more revenue, meaning larger salaries.
2000–present: The PNC Park Years
The Pirates opened a new stadium, PNC Park, in 2001. Due to its simple, unpretentious concept and strategic usage of the remarkably beautiful Pittsburgh skyline, it is frequently regarded (as in a recent ESPN article) as currently the best park in baseball. Despite this, the Pirates' performance has translated to subpar attendance figures. Through the end of the 2012 season, the Pirates had failed to compile at least a .500 winning percentage in 20 straight seasons. This streak is the longest in any of the country's four major professional sports leagues.
Their overall lack of success in the last decade have been blamed partly on former general manager Cam Bonifay, who gave large contracts to players such as Derek Bell while failing to identify, develop, and retain numerous young potential star players. Despite poor play in 2001, Bell announced that he would begin "Operation Shutdown", a passive-aggressive ploy in which he would fail to play effectively in response to losing his role as a starter.
Previous general manager Dave Littlefield was installed midway through the 2001 season and began overhauling the team to comply with owner Kevin McClatchy's dictum to drastically reduce the payroll. Enigmatic but talented third baseman Aramis Ramírez was traded to the Chicago Cubs in 2003 for a fairly minimal return under pressure to dump his $6 million salary for 2004, and he proceeded to become a star for the Cubs. Brian Giles was one of the National League's best hitters for several years, but he and his $9 million salary were also traded in 2003 to the San Diego Padres for youngsters Óliver Pérez, Jason Bay, and Cory Stewart. Pirate fans found this trade much more palatable in the short run, as Pérez led the majors in strikeouts per inning and Bay won the Rookie of the Year Award award in 2004, while Giles put up a subpar season by his standards. After the 2004 season, Jason Kendall went to the Oakland Athletics in a cross-exchange of high-salary players. Though this rash of trades has not been popular in Pittsburgh, it is generally accepted that it can mostly be attributed to the aforementioned "small market syndrome."
Illustrating the Pirates' rebuilding efforts, at the close of the 2005 season, the team fielded the youngest roster in baseball, with an average age of 26.6. (The next youngest team was the Kansas City Royals, with an average age of 27.1.) During the course of the season, 14 players were called up from its Triple-A affiliate, the Indianapolis Indians, 12 of whom made their first major league appearance. On September 6, manager Lloyd McClendon was fired after 5 losing seasons as manager. On October 11, Jim Tracy was hired as the new manager.
The 2006 season got off to a slow start with the Pirates losing their first six games. Manager Jim Tracy earned his first win as the new Pirate's skipper on April 9 against the Cincinnati Reds. The Pirates hosted the 2006 All Star Game at PNC Park. The Pirates went into the game with a disastrous and disappointing 30-60 record. During the second half of the season, the Pirates made a successful turn around and finished the second half with a 37-35 record. This is the first time the Pirates have finished the second half of the season with a winning record since 1992. Third baseman Freddy Sanchez won the National League batting title for the 2006 season with an average of .344.
On Oct. 1, 2006, after 51 years, Newsradio 1020 KDKA AM broadcast its final Pirates game. The Pirates won the game over the Reds 1-0. As part of a five-year deal between the Pirates and Clear Channel Communications, the Pirates games will air on WPGB FM Newstalk 104.7.
On Jan. 12, 2007, Robert Nutting replaced McClatchy as majority owner. Nutting is currently the sixth majority owner in Pirates history.
In the 2007–2008 offseason, the Pirates overhauled their managerial staff. Manager Jim Tracy was replaced by John Russell. The general manager and president position were replaced by Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly respectively.
Throughout the 2009 season, the Pirates once again traded a large portion of their major-league roster, mostly for groups of prospects. Beginning with a stunning early-season trade of 2008 all-star center fielder Nate McLouth, the Pirates went on to trade Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Nyjer Morgan, and longest-tenured Pirate Jack Wilson, among others. This led to a disappointing season, in which the team finished last in the National League Central with a 62-99 record, clinching their 17th consecutive losing season.
On April 22, 2010 the Pirates suffered their worst loss in franchise history, losing to the Milwaukee Brewers 20-0. During that series against the Brewers, they were outscored 36-1. On July 21, 2010, Pedro Alvarez became the first Pirate rookie in history to have multi-home run games on consecutive nights. On August 20, 2010, the Pirates clinched their 18th straight losing season in a row, extending the all-time record in the history of major sports. On September 24, 2010, the Pirates fell to the Houston Astros 10-7 to reach the century mark in losses for the first time since 2001. That October, the Pirates fired the team's manager, John Russell. Russell went 186-299 in three seasons, equaling a franchise record set by Fred Haney's teams from 1953-55. The 2010 Pirates picked up the third most losses in franchise history, trailing only the 113-loss teams of 1890 and 1952. They also had the sixth worst winning percentage in team history and their worst since 1954.
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