The Pittsburgh Pirates play in the Central Division of the National League and are based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They last won the World Series in 1979, their fifth victory in the competition.
Their name developed through the early years of the club. Originally based in Allegheny City, they were referred to initially as Allegheny until 1890, when they renamed themselves Pittsburgh. This proved a good move when Allegheny City later became part of Pittsburgh.
The Pirates was added later as part of the aftermath of the conflict when players were distributed among Major League clubs following the folding of the Players’ League. Pittsburgh were awarded Lou Bierbauer, a second batsman, despite claims from the Philadelphia Athletics that they had reserved him. The Athletics accused Pittsburgh of being ‘pirates’ and the name stuck permanently, officially acknowledged on the team’s uniforms in 1912.
The Early Years
Baseball in Pittsburgh can be traced back to 1876 when the independent team played throughout the region. The Pittsburgh team became a founding member of the American Association in 1882, but they became the first team to switch to the National League in 1887 after a few years of average performances. A promising start followed as their first National League game saw them defeat the Chicago White Stockings, the current league champions.
The early days were marked by a series of mergers with folding clubs, including Columbus in Ohio in 1885 and the Players’ Franchise in 1890. In 1900, players from the Louisville Colonels Club also joined the side after the club was dropped from the National League. The players who joined included Fred Clark and Honus Wagner, both who went on to be star players for the club.
The new players were a huge boost to the club and they were way ahead of the rest in the 1901 and 1902 seasons. They swiftly made their way into the first ever World Series in 1903, only to lose out in the race for the title to the Boston Pilgrims.
The Pirates wouldn’t have to wait long for another opportunity though, and I in 1909 they won their first World Series, defeating Detroit. Their World Series year also saw the Pirates move to the new Forbes Field Stadium, situating them officially in Pittsburgh.
Struggling to Compete
As club legends such as Honus Wagner started to decline, the club struggled to compete, enduring a disastrous season in 1917. New talent was added over the following years and this helped the club to regain their status, as players including Pie Traynor and Kiki Cuyler led the team to their second World Series victory in 1925.
Two years later they had the chance for victory again, but the New York Yankees proved too fierce an opponent for the Pirates, having grown in strength over the previous years.
This was a huge disappointment for the club, and one which they would suffer again in 1938 against the Chicago Cubs. On a better note, the twenties also saw the first Major League baseball game broadcast on the radio on KDKA, with the Pirates winning against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Bill Benswenger, the son in law of former president Barney Dreyfuss, took over in 1932 after the Dreyfuss’s death. However the club didn’t stay in the family for much longer when in 1947 John Galbreath headed a group, including Bing Crosby, which bought the club. Several players including Ralph Kiner, the National League leader in home runs, made an impression on the club, but they failed to resurrect past glories.
In 1950 Galbreath appointed Branch Rickey as manager, a decision which proved to be unpopular with fans. Rickey’s approach was to introduce many younger players in the place of older ones, and personnel like Kiner were gone by the early 50s. Not having the positive affect Rickey was after, 1952 was one of the worst seasons the Pirates had, losing an incredible 112 games.
Nevertheless, Rickey can be credited for putting into place a farm and scouting system that he had achieved success with in other clubs. Unfortunately, the positive affects of this were not to be felt immediately, and when he stepped down in 1955, the Pirates were still struggling at the bottom of the league.
The team of 1960
Danny Murtaugh took over as manager in 1958 and things began to turn around as, with players Roberto Clemente and Dick Groat, the team worked their way to the World Series in 1960. They weren’t predicted to do well against the powerful New York Yankees, and they lost the first three games.
Fighting on, they made a memorable comeback, taking the next three games before winning the final, despite having been 7-4 down. Mazeroski took the final game for the Pirates with a walk-off home run, the first time this had happened in the World Series. Quite simply, the contest had it all and proved to be one of the great moments in baseball history.
Despite the presence of baseball legends like Roberto Clemente the club struggled to match their 1960 victory and in 1965 Harry Walker replaced Murtaugh as manager. Walker had some success in helping the club fight back, performing well in 1965 and 1967, although they failed to finish above third in the division, and their performance faltered through the rest of the 60s.
New Stadium and a New Start
In 1970, the Pirates moved to the multi-purpose, newly built Three Rivers Stadium. With a team including players like Willie Stargell and Al Oliver, the Pirates were a competitive team again and they played their way to the 1971 World Series. Victory over Baltimore gave them their fourth World Series win and the confidence they had been lacking. More success was to come, as the following seven years saw them pick up four more division titles.
1971 also proved to be a momentous season for the Pirates and the league as a whole, with the franchise fielding the first all-black starting line-up. This team was composed of Rennie Stennett, Gene Clines, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Manny Sanguillen, Dave Cash, Al Oliver, Jackie Hernandez, and Dock Ellis.
Tragedy sadly followed in 1972, as Clemente was tragically killed in a plane crash and Stargell stepped into the team leader role. Clemente was immediately entered into the Hall of Fame, recognising his great achievements in baseball, including reaching 3,000 hits in his career.
Clemente’s death impacted many players of the team, and has been put forward as a possible reason for the breakdown of Steve Blass, whose pitching ability drastically declined in 1973, leading to his retirement soon after.
Chuck Tanner was the new manager in 1977 as the team grew in strength again, reaching the World Series two years later in 1979. They faced Baltimore in the World Series, and with fans chanting their adopted Sister Sledge theme song ‘We Are Family’, the Pirates sailed through to defeat Baltimore in seven straight games. Testifying to their dominance, the Most Valuable Player awards that year all went to Pirates players.
This high point for the club was not maintained though, and the early 80s saw them finish near the bottom of their division. The Pittsburgh Associates, a private-public coalition, subsequently bought the club from Galbreath as they struggled with low attendance figures.
The Leyland Years
New ownership saw the appointment of Jim Leyland as manager, who was faced with the challenge of rescuing a team perceived at that point as being the worst club in the league. The club started a slow, gradual climb back to stardom, aided by new younger players such as outfielders Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke and Barry Bonds, and pitchers Dough Drabek and Stan Belinda.
By the late 80s, the Pirates had a team that was ready to compete again, but a series of injuries resulted in a setback in 1989 when they finished in fifth place. Not to let this dampen their spirits, the year after they were back in the running and won the Central Division. They failed to advance any further, however, a pattern which was to reoccur the following two years when they lost out in World Series positions to the Atlanta Braves.
After this run of fine performances, the Pirates failed to mount a challenge the following year, starting a run of losses which has continued ever since, as the Pirates have failed to take a title since. 1997 saw them come close, however, they were to settle for second place.
This run of bad luck has been attributed to the difficulty faced by clubs in smaller cities such as Pittsburgh to compete on the same level as the better-known locations. The lack of agreement on capping salaries, as in other professional sports, could also have played a part.
Whether these reasons are convincing is debatable though, as other small market clubs such as Oakland Athletics have managed to stand their ground against the bigger clubs.
David Littlefield took over as general manager in 2001, and under the direction of owner Kevin McClatchy, started making drastic changes to the club to cut the payroll. In 2003, Aramis Ramírez was traded to the Chicago Cubs, a decision that they would later regret as he went on to become a crucial player in the club’s success.
The focus on cutting the payroll also resulted in the trade of hitting legend Brian Giles for Oliver Pérez, Jason Bay, and Cory Stewart, all young players from the San Diego Padres. Fortunately these players lived up to expectations, and rebuffed any criticism that the club was losing important star players.
The introduction of so many young players was evident in 2005 as a roster with an average age of 26.6 made them the youngest team in baseball, with no fewer than twelve making their first appearance in the Major League.
This new blood did little to raise the standard of play, however, and in the same year manager Lloyd McClendon was replaced by Jim Tracey, who it was hoped would rescue the club after five losing seasons.
2006 started badly for Tracey as the first six games were lost. The second half of the season saw a turn around though, and the club finished with their first winning record since 1992 of 37-35. Unfortunately, this would not be enough to save Tracey.
A Change of Ownership
Robert Nutting took over from McClatchy as owner in 2007, inaugurating a series of changes in the management of the Pirates. These changes would see Frank Coonelly as the new president, Neal Huntington as general manager, and John Russell replace Jim Tracey who had been fired.
Whether these changes will have the desired effect and bring the Pirates back from the bottom remains to be seen. Worryingly, if they lose in the next two years, they will break the record held by the Philadelphia Phillies of 16 consecutive losing seasons.
- World Series Titles – 1909, 1925, 1960, 1971, 1979
- National League – Pennant Winners (1901, 1902, 1903, 1909, 1925, 1927, 1960, 1971, 1979)
- East Division – Winners (1970, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1979, 1990, 1991, 1992)