The history of the Pittsburgh Pirates features a few moments of achievement surrounded by several long bouts of losing. One of Major League Baseball’s most manic teams, when the Pirates are good they are very good but when they’re bad they’re usually very bad for a long time.
The Pirates play in the Central Division of the National League and were founded in 1887, although professional baseball had been played in Pittsburgh, in some form or another, since 1876.
In 1903, the Pirates lost to the Boston Red Sox (known then as the Americans) in the first ever World Series. Six years later, the Pirates, one of the league’s most dominate franchises in the century’s first decade, won their first World Series thanks to the leadership of Honus Wagner.
Known as one of the greatest, if not the greatest shortstop of all-time, Wagner finished his amazing career with a .327 batting average, 3,415 hits and 1,732 runs batted in. In 1936 Wager became one of the first five members elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
However, when Wagner started to decline so did the Pirates. In 1917, the Pirates posted a 51-103 record. It was the first of five 100-loss seasons the team would suffer in 20th century—the worst being 112 losses in 1953. As bad as that season was it didn’t compare to their 1890 campaign when they finished 23-113.
Between the awful seasons of 1917 and 1953, the Pirates won the 1925 World Series. They appeared in the 1927 Fall Classic but were swept by one of the greatest teams of all-time, the 1927 New York Yankees.
In 1950, the team hired Branch Rickey as their general manager, and much to the chagrin of Pirate fans, he immediately began to trade away the team’s popular veterans. Eventually, he compiled a team that won the 1960 pennant. That team featured pitcher Vern Law, second baseman Bill Mazeroski and outfielder Roberto Clemente.
The 1960 World Series saw the Pirates lose three games by 10 or more runs and win four games by relatively close margins. This series is known for Mazeroski’s famous Game 7 walk-off home run. It’s still the only time in World Series history that a Game 7 ended with a walk-off home run. Incidentally, Mazeroski was known for his defense not for his hitting.
The Pirates struggled throughout the rest of the 1960’s. They had hitters, Clemente, Manny Mota and Matty Alou, but they lacked pitching. Fortunately, Rickey had stocked their farm system with talent and prepared the franchise to dominate the 1970’s.
In the decade of the ‘70’s, the Pirates won six division titles and two World Series, one in 1971 and the other in 1979. The “Bucs,” as the team is sometimes called, was led during this era by slugger Willie Stargell.
Elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, Stargell played his entire 21-year career with the Pirates. He was a seven time All-Star, a World Series MVP and a National League MVP.
In between winning World Series and pennants, a great tragedy befell the Pirates family. On December 31, 1972 Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash. The plane was supposed to carry supplies to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua but it crashed immediately after takeoff. Clemente was 38.
Clemente was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, the baseball writers waved the customary 5-year waiting period. During his 18-year career Clemente amassed exactly 3,000 hits and 240 home runs. He was a 12-time All-Star, a 12-time Gold Glove winner and both a National League and World Series MVP.
Even with his wealth of baseball achievements, Clemente was still a better human being than ball player. Every year MLB presents the Robert Clemente Award to the player who best exhibits his humanitarian work. Clemente was also the Major Leagues first Latino superstar.
The 1980’s were not kind to the Pirates but with the addition of manager Jim Leyland and an outfield consisting of Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke, the team played in three consecutive National League Champion Series between 1990 and 1992. They lost all three series to the Atlanta Braves.
The Pirates haven’t had a winning season since that ’92 team. That ties the record with the 1933-48 Philadelphia Phillies for the longest streak of losing seasons in the four major North American sports leagues.
Low payroll, for instance in 1997 it was estimated their payroll was $9 million, young players, and bad management has contributed to the franchise’s recent woes. Despite such a long losing streak, the Pirates play in arguably the best ballpark in baseball, PNC Park. It opened in 2001.
The Pirates have also been part of quite a few “firsts.” They played in the first baseball game broadcasted on radio (1921), they were the first franchise to win a World Series on a home run (1960), and they played in the first World Series night game (1971).
In 1971, the Pirates became the first team in Major League history to field a lineup consisting entirely of minorities: Rennie Stennett, Gene Clines, Manny Sanguillen, Dave Cash, Al Oliver, Jackie Hernandez, Dock Ellis, Clemente and Stargell,
In the late 1950’s, Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh, who managed the team for 15 seasons, is credited with inventing the position of the closer. He consistently used pitcher Elroy Face late in games. So baseball fans have Murtaugh to thank for saving the arms of our favorite starters and Murtaugh to blame for all the incessant pitching changes that now occur late in games.
Early in the team’s existence the franchise earned the reputation of acquiring players through shrewd and surreptitious moves. They became so notorious that teams accused them of pirating. The team felt they did nothing wrong, so instead of blasting back at their critics they embraced the name. For the 1891 season the team began to call themselves the Pirates. In 1912, the nickname found itself on their uniforms.