Pittsburgh Pirates: All Time Greatest Team

Pittsburgh Pirates

Also known as the Alleghenys

American Association (1882-1886)

National League (1887-Present)

National League Champions: 1901, 1902, 1903, 1909, 1925, 1927, 1960, 1971, 1979

World Series Champions: 1909, 1925, 1960, 1971, 1979

Pittsburgh did not have a representative during the early days of Major League Baseball. The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players excluded them, as did the National League when they reformed the National Association in 1876 as the National League. Pittsburgh’s first bite at the apple came in 1882 with the creation of the upstart American Association. The Allegheny Base Ball Club of Pittsburgh was a charter member of the Association. For the first four years they could do no better than a 3rd place finish and only once finished with a better than  .500 record, 56-55 in 1885. When they improved to finish a strong 2nd behind the powerhouse St. Louis Browns in 1886 they were invited to join the more stable National League, they were the first of the American Association franchises to jump. This led to the slow disintegration of the American Association, which lost their Brooklyn, Cincinnati and St. Louis Clubs in the years that followed, then collapsed completely following the 1891 season.

Facing a financial crises of its own following the 1899 season, the National League consolidated from twelve teams to eight. Part of the consolidation was the merging of two of the weaker franchises in Pittsburgh and Louisville. Barney Dreyfuss, owner of the Louisville Team, took over the new franchise and moved his operation to Pittsburgh. Bringing his Louisville manager and left fielder, Fred Clarke with him, along with Honus Wagner, Claude Ritchey, Tommy Leach, and Deacon Phillippe the Pirates were now the class of the National League. They would win the National League in 1901, 1902, and 1903 in overwhelming fashion, then, along with the New York Giants and Chicago Cubs, completely take over the National League, culminating in a World Series Title in 1909. When the great Honus Wagner grew old in the 1910s the Pirates fell out of contention, but would then re-group in the mid 1920s to win two pennants in three years and another World Series.

The Pirates would then fall into a long dry spell that saw them fail to win another championship for 33 years. They finally won their next NL Championship in 1960, then shocked the New York Yankees in a seven game World Series, that saw them be out scored 55-27, on Bill Mazeroski’s memorable home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7. The Pirates have been a very up and down franchise since, winning nine division titles and both their World Series appearances since, but also having some of the weakest teams in baseball. It’s now been 40 years since Pittsburgh’s last National League pennant, the longest stretch in franchise history. Can they survive in Pittsburgh? That’s still an open question for one of baseball’s most fragile franchises.

Catcher

For such a storied club, it is a bit surprising that there are no Hall of Fame catchers. The best of the group are George Gibson (1905-1916) and Manny Sanguillen (1967-1980). Gibson didn’t join the Pirates until after their three straight championships in the early 1900s, but he did catch 150 games in their 110 win season in 1909, helping the Bucs to the most wins in franchise history. An above average backstop who hit like a catcher. Sanguillen was not great either. As a receiver he was only average, but he had a few impressive seasons with the bat. We’re not excited about either one, but we have to pick somebody, so we’ll settle on Manny Sanguillen (1967-1980)

First Base

Wilver Stargell (1962-1982) actually played more games in the outfield than first base in his Pirate years, 1293 in left field and only 848 at first base. If we rated him as an outfielder Stargell would be rated second, behind Paul Waner. There’s three reason to list him at first. He was not a good outfielder, He won his MVP in 1979 as a first baseman, and most important, the Pirates have many more quality outfielders than first basemen, so we open up another outfield spot by placing Stargell at first base.

Second Base

Quoting Bill James’ original Historical Baseball Abstract, “Bill Mazeroski (1956-1972) defensive statistics are probably the most impressive of any player at any position.” Most remembered today for his home run that ended the 1960 World Series. Mazeroski was not a good offensive player, he had little power and not many walks. His Hall of Fame selection is primarily based on his stellar defensive ability. The best defensive player of all time, an obvious choice at second base for the Pirates.

Third Base

Pittsburgh’s top third baseman seems an easy choice. Harold “Pie” Traynor 1920-1937) is in the Hall of Fame, the only Pirate third baseman to be so honored. Not only that, in the 1950s and 1960s many knowledgeable writers listed him as the greatest third baseman in history. Traynor hit as high as .366, drove in over 100 runs seven times in his career. But it must be remembered that this was the 1920s and 1930s. Despite his impressive numbers, he only led the league in one offensive category in his time, 19 triples in 1923. This isn’t a compelling argument for Traynor. Thus, this becomes the toughest choice in the article. Tommy Leach (1900-1912) played third base on their best teams. He was the third best player on that team, behind Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke (Trayner was the second best player on the 1920s, 1930s Pirates, behind Paul Waner). Looking at the numbers closely, because Leach played in the dead ball era, his offensive numbers look puny next to Traynor’s, but they are actually very close. Traynor has a slight edge on offense.  Defensively Bill James rates Traynor a B, Leach as an A+. Ultimately we’ll go with the general consensus that Harold “Pie” Traynor (1920-1937) was better, but it’s very close.

Shortstop

Bill James lists Joseph “Arky” Vaughn (1932-1941) as the second greatest shortstop of all time. Conceding the fact that Bill James knows more about baseball than we do, we still think that’s a little high. Vaughn is one of the most unappreciated great players to ever play, but he is not even close to being the number one shortstop in Pirate History. That goes to the greatest shortstop ever, by a wide margin, John “Honus” Wagner (1900-1917). (read more about Wagner in this Stories You Should Know)

Left Field

The Pittsburgh Pirates have two left fielders who are in the Hall of Fame, Fred Clarke (1900-1915) and Ralph Kiner (1946-1953). Both were legitimate selections, but they are not the best left fielder in Pirate history. The much despised  Barry Bonds (1986-1992) is. Beginning in 1990 Bonds was the best player in baseball, reaching a level of performance only equaled by the greatest players in history.

Center Field

There are more Hall of Famers in center field, Max Carey (1910-1926) and Lloyd Waner (1927-1941). Lloyd Waner’s selection was a mistake. Max Carey’s was not. He broke in with Pittsburgh during the waning years of Honus Wagner, and was still there to star on the team that won the 1925 World Series. Traded away during the 1926 season, when implicated in a player rebellion against ex-manager Fred Clarke, he led the league in stolen bases 10 times. Up until 10 years ago he would have been the choice. The pick now is Andrew McCutchen (2009-2017). Despite McCutchen leaving Pittsburgh after his 9th year, the peak he reached for the Pirates in the 2010s was only surpassed by Wagner and Bonds. He won a well deserved MVP in 2013, finishing in the top five three other times. A close call over Carey.

Right Field

Right Field is a choice between three players who all won the NL MVP Award. Between 1975 and 1980 Dave Parker (1973-1983) was among the best players in all of baseball, winning the MVP in 1978 and finishing in the top three two other times. His career was derailed by the drug scandal that rocked the Pirates in the early 1980s. Pittsburgh sent him to Cincinnati in 1984, where he revived his career, ending it just short of Hall of Fame caliber. Paul Waner (1926-1940) is one of the least remembered all time greats. The MVP in 1924, “Big Poison” hit as high as .380, once slugged .549, had as many as 237 hit in a season, scored over 100 runs nine times and drove in as many as 130. A consistent, multifaceted player who as a performer was at the top of his game for 14 years. A great player. That leaves the legendary Roberto Clemente (1955-1972). Clemente won four batting titles in the 1960s, He was highly regarded when active, winning a controversial MVP in 1966, but also finishing in the top ten seven other times. A great defensive outfielder, he won twelve straight Gold Gloves, a streak that only ended because of his untimely death in 1972. Unfortunately, he was overrated as a ballplayer. A free swinger, he rarely walked. He did play in the run scarce 1960s, but he just wasn’t the offensive force in his time that Waner was in his. We could move him to center field, but Clemente’s best years were not as good as McCutchen’s and he only played center field 62 times in his career. Left Field was also an option. It’s very hard  for us to put Barry Bonds ahead of Roberto Clemente, one of our least favorite players vs one of our favorite players, but Barry Bonds was clearly the better baseball player.

Pitchers

For being a Major League franchise for almost 140 years, it is quite shocking how unimpressive their pitchers have been. When naming the Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta franchise’s top pitchers, we were forced to leave three Hall of Fame members off their top four. Any one of those three (Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Albert Spalding) would be listed #1 for Pittsburgh. Vic Willis (1906-1909)  is the only member of the Pirates who made major contributions to the team who is in the Hall of Fame, and that was for just four years. Willis did win 89 games in his four years, but that isn’t enough to crack the top four. Actually the top four sort themselves out quite easily. Wilbur Cooper (1912-1924) is #1. He won 202 games for the Pirates between their 1909 and 1925 World Series triumphs. #2 is 1909 World Series hero, Charles “Babe” Adams (1907-1926). Adams, the only player to participate in both the 1909 and 1925 World Series for Pittsburgh, gained lasting fame by throwing three complete game victories in the 1909 Series win against Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers. He was never the ace of the staff, but he toiled in Pittsburgh long enough to win 194 games in a Pirate uniform. #3 & #4 are a pick-um between teammates Sam Leever (1898-1910) and Charles “Deacon” Phillippe (1900-1911), who anchored the staff in the Pirates glory years between 1901 and 1909.  

Manager

There’s only two contenders. Danny Murtaugh (1957-1964, 1970-1976) who guided the Bucs in two different eras. In the first he took over a Pittsburgh team that hadn’t had a winning record in nine years, finishing last in six of those seasons. In 1957 he replaced Bobby Bragan as manager when the Pirates were in last place at 62-92. The Pirates went 26-25 the rest of the season, still finishing last. In 1958, Murtaugh’s first full season, they surged to second, fell to sixth in 1959, then won the National League Pennant and a memorable World Series in 1959. He kept Pittsburgh competitive through 1962, then following losing seasons in 1963 and 1964, was dismissed as manager. Pittsburgh called him back in 1970, and the Pirates responded with an Eastern Division title, followed by another World Series title in 1971 against the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles. This would be his last championship. As impressive as Murtaugh was, it still doesn’t match the record of Fred Clarke (1900-1915). Clarke was fortunate to have the incomparable Honus Wagner at shortstop, however that takes nothing away from Clarke’s record. He was 421 games over .500 in his career, which is 5th all time. Clarke was an outstanding manager. It comes down to this: In Bill James’ ranking of managers, Danny Murtaugh is tied for 30th, while Fred Clarke is 13th. We’ll go with that.

MVP

The motivation to do these articles on the greatest players for each franchise was in response to an article on the internet titled exactly that. The article’s explanations were rather simple, the author had done very little research, but overall it was an OK, until they got to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The choice there was outrageous, not only for who they chose, but mainly for who they didn’t choose. Their choice was Roberto Clemente. Clemente was a legitimate Hall of Fame selection, and died doing God’s work, but he’s not even in the conversation for greatest Pittsburgh Pirate ever. Barry Bonds was better, as was Paul Waner and Arky Vaughn. We’re not even sure he was one of the three best outfielders. However, the biggest travesty of his selection was that the answer, of who is the greatest Pirate, is so obvious. The greatest Pittsburgh Pirate ever was Honus Wagner. It’s Wagner by such a wide margin that nobody else is in the discussion. No knowledgeable baseball person could make such a mistake.


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