Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Article continues below ...
We continue our off-season project with a look at the Pittsburgh Pirates All-Time 25-Man Roster.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are one of the oldest franchises in baseball. They have a connection with the Alleghenys in the American Association, a team that originally played in Allegheny City, which was a separate city until it was annexed by Pittsburgh in 1907. After five seasons in the AA, the team switched to the National League in 1887.
In 1890, the Alleghenys lost many of their star players to a rival club called the Pittsburgh Burghers of the Players League and had the worst season in franchise history, going 23-113. The owner of the Alleghenys, Dennis McKnight, was forced to return the franchise to the league. Soon after he did so, he joined the backers of the Burghers and re-purchased the National League franchise and re-chartered the team under a different corporate name.
While this was happening, the team signed second baseman Lou Bierbauer of the American Association’s Philadelphia Athletics, which enraged the owners of the Athletics. They had mistakenly failed to include Beirbauer on their reserve list. The Alleghenys refused to release Bierbauer. When the Athletics called them “piratical”, they adopted the nickname Pirates. Around this same time, the United States Board on Geographic Names forced the city of Pittsburgh to change their name to Pittsburg, by dropping the “h”. Because of this, the team was known as the Pittsburg Pirates until Pittsburgh got its “h” back in 1911. Even though they’d been known as the Pirates for many years, the first time the name appeared on the team’s uniforms was in 1912.
The Pirates were very good in the early part of the 20th century. They finished in first place three straight years from 1901 to 1903 and represented the National League in the first ever World Series, which they lost to the Boston Americans, five games to three. Deacon Phillippe started five of those games and won three.
The best team in franchise history was the 1909 team that went 110-42 and beat the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. In that series, shortstop Honus Wagner hit .333/.467/.500, while Detroit’s star, Ty Cobb, hit .231/.310/.346. You can imagine how Cobb felt about that.
The Pirates reached the World Series twice in the 1920s. They beat the Washington Senators in the 1925 series. This team had Pie Traynor at third base and Max Carey in center field. The 1927 Pirates still had Pie Traynor at third base, but young Paul Waner was the best player on the team. Unfortunately, they were blown out in a four-game sweep by the vaunted “Murderer’s Row” New York Yankees team that won 110 games and had Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, who combined to hit 107 home runs that year.
The stretch of seasons from 1946 to 1957 was an ugly period for the Pirates. They finished in last or second-to-last 10 times in 12 years. They bottomed out with a 42-112 season in 1952. One of the few bright spots during this time was outfielder Ralph Kiner, who led the league in home runs seven years in a row.
After a fourth place finish in 1959, the Pirates rode great seasons from Dick Groat, Don Hoak, and Roberto Clemente to the 1960 pennant and their third World Series title. They then had one of their best stretches of play during the 1970s when they won the NL East six times in 10 years and went to the World Series twice, winning both in seven games against the Baltimore Orioles. These were the teams of Willie “Pops” Stargell, and Dave Parker. The 1979 team was known as “The Fam-A-Lee” thanks to the Sister Sledge hit that became their theme song.
The 1980s were mostly bleak for the Pirates. They finished in last place three years in a row, including a record of 57-104 in 1985, which was the first time they lost 100 games in a season since 1954. The team found success again in 1990. They won the NL East three straight years, but lost in the NLCS each year, twice in seven games.
The 1992 NLCS loss was particularly painful for Pirates fans. The team won 96 games during the regular season, but lost three of the first four games in the NLCS. They came back to win Games 5 and 6 and had a 2-0 lead going into the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 with ace Doug Drabek on the mound. The Braves rallied and it came down to Pittsburgh reliever Stan Belinda against little-used pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera with the bases loaded and the Pirates up by one run. On a 2-1 pitch, Cabrera tore the heart out of Pirates fans.
Fittingly, Cabrera’s single to left was fielded by Barry Bonds, whose throw to the plate was just off the plate enough to allow former Pirate Sid Bream to slide in with the winning run for the Braves. Bonds was the best player on those Pirates teams of the early 1990s. After this series loss, he signed as a free agent with the San Francisco Giants and went on to become one of the best, and most controversial, players in history.
The Pirates, meanwhile, fell into a prolonged slump. They finished under .500 every year from 1993 until 2013. That 20-year stretch is the longest streak of losing seasons in professional sports history. It finally ended in 2013 when the Pirates made the playoffs as a wild card team. They beat the Reds in the wild card game, but lost to the Cardinals in the NLDS. In 2014 and 2015, they lost the wild card game, first against the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner and then against the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta.
The Pirates have had some bad stretches of play in their history, but have also won the World Series five times. Only three National League teams have more World Series titles.
The Pirates’ all-time 25-man roster is overloaded in the outfield but light in the infield and bullpen. It also has an interesting quirk in that the team’s four best position players were regulars at two positions. Shortstop features one of the all-time greats at the position in Honus Wagner, along with another shortstop who is among the top 10 in history, Arky Vaughan. Right field has two of the best in history—Roberto Clemente and Paul Waner.
With that, here is the Pittsburgh Pirates all-time 25-man roster.
The catcher position for the Pirates all-time 25-man roster came down to three players: Jason Kendall, Manny Sanguillen, and Tony Pena. Pena is a personal favorite of mine because I was 11 years old when he was an all-star in 1982. I loved the way he caught the ball with one leg out to the side and how eager he was to throw to any base to pick off a runner. He was fun to watch, but his career with the Pirates just wasn’t long enough to beat out Kendall or Sanguillen for a spot on the Pirates all-time roster.
The starting spot has to go to Jason Kendall. It’s easy to forget just how good Kendall was with the Pirates because his hitting fell off a cliff after he left Pittsburgh. With the Pirates, Kendall was an above average hitter with great on-base percentages, solid power, and three seasons with 20 or more steals. With the four other teams he played for in the final six years of his career, he was a well below average hitter, with mediocre on-base percentages and almost no power.
Kendall was a first round pick (23rd overall) in the 1992 amateur draft out of Torrance High School in Torrance, California. After success in the minor leagues, he was ranked the #26 prospect in baseball by Baseball America before the 1996 season. He came up that year with the Pirates and was an all-star and finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting behind Todd Hollandsworth and Edgar Renteria.
From 1997 to 2000, Jason Kendall was 15th in WAR (per FanGraphs) among all National League players, right between Vladimir Guerrero and John Olerud. Among catchers, he was second to only Mike Piazza. Over this four-year stretch, Kendall hit .317/.409/.468 and averaged 22 steals per year (he was also hit by pitch an average of 22 times per year).
If you’re a baseball fan of a certain age, you no doubt remember the single play Jason Kendall is most known for. On July 4, 1999, Kendall tried to beat out a bunt against the Milwaukee Brewers and destroyed his ankle as he crossed first base. It was the type of injury you remember forever, like when quarterback Joe Theismann was sandwiched between Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson on Monday Night Football in 1985. Kendall missed the rest of the 1999 season, but came back to hit .320/.412/.470 in 2000.
Kendall struggled at the plate in 2001 and 2002, hitting a combined .274/.342/.357, but came back with two more strong years in 2003 and 2004 (.322/.399/.403 in 297 games). During his time with the Pirates, Jason Kendall was the heart and soul of the team. He was gritty and tough, a catcher who had over 570 plate appearances seven times in nine years. He had three seasons with double-digit power and three seasons with 20 or more stolen bases. He was terrific at getting on base, both by banging out hits and getting hit by pitches, including a league-leading 31 beanings in 1998.
As good as Kendall was, he played for Pittsburgh during a time when they never had a winning record and regularly finished well out of first place. When his salary increased to a certain point, the Pirates started looking to trade him. They found a willing partner following the 2004 season and traded Kendall to the Oakland Athletics for pitchers Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes, plus cash.
After leaving the Pirates, Kendall never found the same level of success that he had in the ‘Burgh. He played for the A’s, Cubs, Brewers, and Royals over the next six years. He was fortunate enough to make the post-season three times, which he never would have done had he not been traded away. He is remembered fondly for his nine years in black and gold.
The Willie Stargell I most remember is the team captain known as “Pops” on the 1979 “We R Fam-A-Lee” World Champions. He was the gregarious guy who handed out “Stargell Stars” to his teammates when they made big plays and who was the co-MVP of the National League (with Keith Hernandez). He was exclusively a first baseman by this time, but actually played more games in the outfield than at first base in his career. The Pirates all-time 25-man roster has plenty of outfielders, so Stargell gets the starting spot at first base.
Willie Stargell was born in Oklahoma, but grew up in Alameda, California, just across the bay from Oakland. He attended a racially-mixed high school and was teammates with two other players who made the major leagues, Tommy Harper and Curt Motton. He was signed by the Pirates in 1958 and sent to San Antonio, Texas to play in a Class D league. It was his first experience with nasty racism. This was before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. While playing in the south in the minor leagues, Willie Stargell was not allowed to stay in the same hotels or eat at the same restaurants as his white teammates.
Despite this introduction to the dark side of humanity, Stargell maintained a positive, upbeat attitude that he would be known for during his career in baseball. He played four years in the minor leagues before coming up to the big leagues for a 10-game stint at the end of the 1962 season.
Stargell had a breakout season in 1971 when he hit .295/.398/.628, with a league-leading 48 home runs. He was second in the league in RBI, with 125, and finished second in NL MVP voting. The Pirates made the playoffs in 1971 and beat the Giants in the playoffs, but Stargell was terrible in the four game series, going 0 for 14. The Pirates continued to roll in the World Series, which they won in seven games, but Stargell continued to struggle. Hit hit .208 in the series and was overshadowed by teammate Roberto Clemente, who hit .414/.452/.759 and won the MVP Award.
The Pittsburgh Pirates teams during the first 11 years of Willie Stargell’s career were definitely the team of Roberto Clemente. He was the star and the acknowledged leader of the team. When he died tragically after the 1972 season, there was a leadership void and Willie Stargell filled it. He was going into his age 33 season and it would be one of the best of his career.
In 1973, Stargell led the league in doubles, home runs, RBI, and slugging percentage. He was the first player since Hank Greenberg in 1940 to hit 40 doubles and 40 homers in a season. Despite such an impressive season, he finished second in NL MVP voting to Pete Rose.
Willie Stargell was the best home run hitter of the 1970s. He led all of baseball with 296 homers in the decade, four more than Reggie Jackson. He also led all hitters in slugging percentage and wRC+ (154), which is a FanGraphs metric that measures the things a hitter does and puts it on a scale where 100 is average. Stargell’s 154 wRC+ meant he was 54% better than a league average hitter.
Along with the quantity of home runs, Stargell also hit some incredibly long home runs. No player of his era ever hit mammoth shots as often as Stargell. There were 18 balls hit out of Forbes Field in Pittsburgh during its 61 years in existence. Stargell hit seven of them. Only six balls landed in the upper deck at Three Rivers Stadium and four of them were hit by Stargell.
One of his most well-known blasts was a monster home run hit on May 20, 1978 in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. The home run has been estimated at 535 feet. Before there was Olympic Stadium in Montreal, there was Jarry Park. Stargell hit home runs there that landed in the public pool behind the right field scoreboard. He also hit two home runs completely out of Dodger Stadium, which prompted pitcher Don Sutton to say, “I never saw anything like it. He doesn’t just hit pitchers, he takes away their dignity.”
The 1979 season was Stargell’s last great year. He was 39 years old and only played 126 games, but still hit 32 homers and drove in 82 runs. The Pirates won the NL East and faced the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS. They had lost the NLCS against the Reds in 1972 and 1975, but wasted no time in sweeping them this time around. Stargell hit two home runs in the three games and was named the NLCS MVP.
The 1979 World Series was all about Willie Stargell. The Pirates fell behind in the series three games to one, but Stargell led them back with his big bat. After the Pirates won the series in seven games, Stargell was named MVP of the series for his three home runs and .400 batting average.
Stargell played three more years, but they were in a part time role. He retired after the 1982 season. He had a falling out with the Pirates organization in the late 1980s, but a new ownership group reached out to him in 1997 and mended old wounds. His health was failing by this time due to a number of issues. After suffering a massive stroke in April of 2001, he died on the same day that Pittsburgh played their first game in brand new PNC Park. Fans laid flowers at the base of a statue of Stargell that had been unveiled outside the stadium just days before.
Maz played 17 years in the big leagues and was a below average hitter every single year. He had a lifetime on-base percentage under .300 and a lifetime slugging percentage of .367. He spent most of his career batting sixth, seventh, or eighth in the lineup.
Despite his subpar bat, Mazeroski was a seven-time all-star because he was a wizard with the glove. He won six Gold Glove Awards and was particularly known for his ability to turn the double play. He always used a very small glove so he wouldn’t waste any time reaching for the ball when turning two. Mazeroski had teammates who would break in a new glove every year, but Maz would use the same glove for six or seven years.
It’s ironic that a player most know for his impressive abilities on defense had the biggest moment of his career at the plate. It came during the 1960 World Series. The Pirates faced a New York Yankees team that had Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra, among others. This was during a stretch when the Yankees played in the World Series 15 times in 18 years. This 1960 team led all of baseball with 193 home runs, 43 more than the next-closest team in the AL.
The Pirates won three of the first six games of the series by scores of 6-4, 3-2, and 5-2. The Yankees also won three of the first six games, but they were all blowouts: 16-3, 10-0, and 12-0. Heading into Game 7, it seemed ridiculous that the Yankees hadn’t won the series already, considering how much they had outscored the Pirates.
The deciding game was at Forbes Field. The Pirates took a 4-0 lead into the fifth inning, but gave up a run to make it 4-1. The Yankees pushed four runs across the board in the top of the sixth and two more in the top of the eighth to make it 7-4, Yankees. The Pirates battled back with five runs in the bottom of the eighth. The big blow was a three-run home run by backup catcher Hal Smith.
Now the Pirates led 9-7 going into the top of the ninth. The Yankees weren’t dead yet, though. An RBI-single by Mickey Mantle made it 9-8 and an RBI-groundout by Yogi Berra tied the score. That set the stage for the only game-winning home run in Game 7 in World Series history. Cue Bill Mazeroski at the plate leading off the ninth inning against Ralph Terry:
In 2010, a 12-foot tall statue of Mazeroski rounding second base with his batting helmet raised high in his right hand was unveiled near the PNC Park right field grandstands. The statue of Mazeroski is one of four statues honoring former players. The others are Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente, and Willie Stargell. On the day of the unveiling of the Mazeroski statue, Bill Mazeroski said, “How could anyone ever dream of something like this?”
The Pirates have a few positions at which one player stands out so far above the others that it’s not even a question who would start for their all-time roster team. Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski are easy choices at first base and second base, respectively, but there’s no greater slam-dunk than Honus Wagner at shortstop. Wagner is considered by most to be the greatest shortstop who ever played the game.
Based on his appearance, you wouldn’t guess Honus Wagner was one of the greatest players who ever played. He has been described as an awkward-looking man. He was 5’11” and 200 pounds, with a barrel chest. He had large shoulders and muscular arms, with huge hands. He was also incredibly bow-legged. Despite his size and bowed legs, Wagner stole over 700 bases in his career and had 643 doubles and 252 triples. He used a split-handed grip on a bat that weighed over 40 ounces. Most current major league players use bats that weigh between 31 and 35 ounces.
Wagner started his career with the Louisville Colonels. He became a Pittsburgh Pirate through some shenanigans when the National League reduced league membership from 12 teams to eight. Barney Dreyfuss was the owner of the Colonels, which was one of the teams that would be eliminated. He purchased a half-interest in the Pittsburgh Pirates and traded the best of the Colonels’ players to the Pirates before the Colonels were folded. One of those players was Honus Wagner.
The decade from 1900 to 1909 was dominated by Honus Wagner. He led all players in hits, runs, RBI, stolen bases, batting average, and slugging percentage. He led the league in hitting seven times in 10 years and four times led the league in the triple-slash trifecta—batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. The Pirates won more games than any other team during this stretch and went to the World Series twice. They lost to Boston in 1903. In 1909, they won 110 games, which is still their most wins ever in a season. Then they beat the Ty Cobb-led Detroit Tigers. Wagner hit .333/.467/.500 in the series, easily outplaying Cobb. He also stole six bases in the series, a record that would stand until Lou Brock stole seven in 1967.
After that terrific World Series in 1909, Wagner remained one of the top players in the league for another few years. He slowed down in his late 30s and into his 40s. He finally hung up his spikes after playing 74 games in 1917. After hitting over .300 for the first 14 years he was with the Pirates, Wagner failed to reach the .300 mark in his last four years with the team.
Wagner was out of baseball for many years after his playing career ended, but was hired by the Pirates to coach in 1933. As a coach, he helped young Arky Vaughan become one of the best shortstops in baseball. In 1936, he was one of the five charter members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, joining Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson.
It took a few years for Pie Traynor to get established with the Pirates. They purchased his contract from the Portsmouth Truckers of the Class B Virginia League in 1920. He got into 17 games with the team that year, but hit just .212/.268/.308 and made 12 errors. He spent most of the next season with the Birmingham Barons in the Class A Southern Association. He hit well, but his defense was brutal. He played shortstop and made 64 errors. At the end of the year he got into another seven games with the Pirates.
Traynor finally cracked the starting lineup full time in 1922. To his benefit, the Pirates swapped managers during the season, going from George Gibson to Bill McKechnie. McKechnie put Traynor at third base and let him play. He wasn’t great that first year, but would become one of the best third basemen in the league the following year and remain there for more than a decade. According to FanGraphs WAR, Pie Traynor was the best third baseman in baseball for the 11-year period from 1924 to 1934.
In 1925, the Pirates played in their first World Series since 1909. The series went seven games with the Pirates beating the great Walter Johnson in Game 7 to win their second title. Traynor hit .346/.414/.615 in the series. The Pirates made the World Series again two years later, but were destroyed by the New York Yankees in four straight games. Traynor was not so good in this series. He was 3 for 15 with just a single run scored and no RBI.
Traynor remained a productive player into his 30s. In 1934, when he was 35-years-old, he took over the manager’s job during the season and became a player-manager, which he would do until the end of his career. During the 1934 season, he injured his arm on a play at the plate when he overslid and reached back to touch it and the opposing team’s catcher fell on his arm. He had trouble with that arm from that point on and the injury was one reason he only played in 119 games that year.
In 1935, Traynor played in just 57 games and was well below average with the bat and in the field. He made 18 errors in 49 games, many of the errors on throws from his injured arm. He then sat out the entire 1936 season and focused on managing. He likely wouldn’t have played again except that the team was hit with injuries during the 1937 seasons. He stepped in and played five games, going 2 for 12.
With his playing days over, Traynor continued to manage the Pirates through the 1939 season, but never got them to the World Series. Their best finish under him was in 1938, when they finished two games behind the Chicago Cubs.
Traynor was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1948, but a modern assessment of his career suggests that his Hall of Fame credentials are among the weakest of any player enshrined by the BBWAA. His career WAR and peak WAR (per FanGraphs) are the lowest of any player elected by the BBWAA. Despite the likelihood that he’s not an all-time great, he was the best third baseman the Pirates have ever had.
Barry Bonds was the sixth overall pick in the June 1985 Amateur Draft, which makes you wonder who was drafted ahead of him that year. The five players taken before Bonds were B.J. Surhoff (Brewers), Will Clark (Giants), Bobby Witt (Rangers), Barry Larkin (Reds), and Kurt Brown (White Sox). Larkin is in the Hall of Fame, Clark was very good for many years, Surhoff had a solid career and Witt had a few good years. Kurt Brown, taken one pick ahead of Bonds, played seven years in the minor leagues, but never made it to the show. The Pirates got one of the greatest players to ever step on the field with the sixth pick that year.
Bonds moved through the minor leagues quickly. He played 71 games with the Prince William Pirates in the Class-A Carolina League, then started the 1986 season with the Hawaii Islanders in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He made his major league debut as a 21-year-old on May 30, 1986.
In 113 games in his rookie year, Bonds hit just .223/.330/.416, but showed flashes of what was to come with 16 home runs and 36 steals. Bonds played center field exclusively that year. When the Pirates acquired Andy Van Slyke before the 1987 season, Bonds was moved to left field, where he would play for the rest of his career. When he was young, Bonds was a terrific fielder. He never had a great arm, but he played the position well with good instincts and great speed.
The 1987-1989 Barry Bonds was a very good player. He averaged 6.6 WAR (Baseball-Reference) per year thanks to great defense and good hitting. In 1990, he became BARRY BONDS. He made his first all-star game, won a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger, and was the NL MVP. It was also the first year he hit more than 30 home runs and had more than 100 runs scored and more than 100 RBI. He also stole a career-high 52 bases.
The rise of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1990 coincided with Barry Bonds coming into his own as a player. The team had gone through an ugly stretch since their World Series victory in 1979. Willie Stargell retired after the 1982 season. In 1985, the team was hit with the Pittsburgh Drug Trials, which revealed rampant use of cocaine among the players on the Pirates and others around the league. Even the man inside the Pirate Parrot mascot was part of the scandal. The 1985 Pirates team went 57-104 and had an average attendance of 9,199.
The Pirates improved in the late 1980s as a young core of players improved. They arrived in 1990, winning the NL East with a 95-67 record. Unfortunately for Pirates fans, the team lost in the playoffs to the “Nasty Boys” Cincinnati Reds. Bonds was just 3 for 18 in the series.
Bonds was very good again in 1991. He won another Gold Glove Award, another Silver Slugger, and finished second in MVP voting to Terry Pendleton (even though Bonds out-WAR’d him by 1.8 wins). The Pirates made the playoffs once again and once again lost to the NL West winner. This time it was the upstart Atlanta Braves, the team who had gone worst-to-first during the regular season and would go on to play the Minnesota Twins in an epic World Series. Bonds was terrible again in the NLCS, going 4-for-27 without a single RBI in seven games.
The 1992 season brought more of the same. The Pirates won 96 games and won the NL East for the third straight year and faced the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs for the second straight year. Barry Bonds had another MVP season, his second in three seasons. He led the league in runs scored, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage while also hitting 34 homers and stealing 39 bases.
When the playoffs rolled around, Bonds started slowly. The Pirates fell behind three games to one and he just wasn’t hitting. Through the first 17 post-season games of his career, he had a lifetime batting line of .143/.304/.161. He finally came alive in Game 5. He went 2-for-5 with two runs scored and one RBI. His RBI-double in the bottom of the first inning was just the second extra-base hit of his post-season career.
Bonds followed up a productive Game 5 by going 2-for-4 in Game 6. He also hit his first post-season home run. The Pirates won easily, 13-4, setting the stage for an epic (and awful) Game 7.
The finale of the 1992 NLCS featured Doug Drabek against John Smoltz. They were both 15-game winners during the regular season and both pitched well in this one. Doug Drabek went into the ninth inning having thrown 120 pitches and holding a 2-0 lead.
The Braves rallied to make it 2-1 and had the bases loaded with two outs. By this point, Stan Belinda was on in relief. The Braves sent Francisco Cabrera up to pinch-hit. He had come to the plate just 11 times for the Braves during the regular season. On a 2-1 pitch, Cabrera lined a single to left. David Justice scored easily, but Sid Bream was the man on second wearing a brace on his right knee and running like he was carrying a piano on his back. He came rumbling around third and chugged for home as Barry Bonds fielded the ball in left and fired to the plate. Bream slid in just ahead of the tag and the Braves had their come-from-behind victory.
That was the last play of Barry Bonds’ career in Pittsburgh. He signed as a free agent with the San Francisco Giants on a six-year, $43 million contract that made him the highest-paid player in the game. He would go on to win five more NL MVP Awards, including four in a row from 2001 to 2004 when he turned baseball into his own personal video game.
The Pirates purchased Max Carey from a Class-B team in the Central League known as the South Bend Broncos. When he arrived in Pittsburgh at the tail end of the 1910 season, he ran out to play shortstop, his favorite position. The only problem was that Honus Wagner was the Pirates’ shortstop and he had led the league in hitting seven times in the previous 10 years, including the last four years in a row. He was the best player in the National League. Carey was sent out to left field.
Carey played most of his career in center field and he was the stereotypical center fielder. He was great with the glove and speedy on the basepaths. He led the league in steals 10 times and in triples twice. In a time when base stealers were not particularly efficient, Carey was an exception. He’s credited with 51 steals in 53 attempts in 1922 and 51 steals in 59 attempts in 1923.
After winning the 1909 World Series, the Pirates failed to make it back for the next 15 years. It wasn’t until Carey was 35 years old that he got his first chance to play in the World Series. They faced the Washington Nationals and Carey was terrific. He banged out 11 hits in seven games, scored six runs, and stole three bases. He was at his best in Game 7 against “The Big Train” Walter Johnson. Carey had four hits, including three doubles, and stole a base in the victory. Overall, he hit .458/.552/.625 and the Pirates won the series in seven games.
That would prove to be the high point of Max Carey’s career with the Pirates. He dropped off significantly the next season. After hitting .343/.418/.491 in 1925, Carey was hitting .222/.288/.296 when the Pirates released him in August. Cary’s release in August wasn’t solely because of his play on the field. Former Pirates manager Fred Clarke was a stockholder in the club and enjoyed sitting on the bench as an “assistant” to manager Bill McKechnie. The players didn’t like him on the bench second-guessing McKechnie. Carey was the team captain and led an attempt to get Clarke booted from the bench, but owner Barney Dreyfuss took Clarke’s side and suspended, then waived Carey. He was picked up by Brooklyn, where he finished out his career.
Ninety years after he last played for the Pirates, Max Carey is still among the leaders in career statistics for the team. He’s fourth all-time in games played and third in plate appearances. He’s also fourth in hits and runs scored and is the all-time leader in stolen bases for the team.
Roberto Clemente’s baseball statistics, as good as they were, don’t do the man justice. He was so much more than a baseball player, even as he was misunderstood at times early in his career. He could come across as an angry person to the media because of the passion he had for speaking out against injustice. When he got to the big leagues, the game had opened up to Latin ballplayers, but there were still long-held prejudices in place. Clemente was not shy about voicing his displeasure when he thought he or a fellow Latin player had been slighted. He also had injuries during his career that caused him to miss a dozen or so games each year and the writers took to labeling him a hypochondriac.
On the field, Clemente was known for his lashing hits to all fields, his wild scrambles around the bases, and what may have been the best throwing arm in the history of the game. He had thrown the javelin in high school in Puerto Rico, but he credited his mother for the strength of his throwing arm. In a 1964 interview, he said, “My mother has the same kind of an arm, even today at 74. She could throw a ball from second base to home plate with something on it. I got my arm from my mother.”
The legend of how Roberto Clemente came to be a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates has been told many times over the years. As the story goes, Clemente was in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization and the team knew how good he was but wasn’t ready to protect him from being picked in the November Rule 5 draft. Not wanting to lose him, the Dodgers tried to hide him in Montreal by playing him sparingly. According to this article from SABR, this story does not match up with the box scores from Clemente’s time in Montreal. It may be more myth than reality. Whatever the truth, the Pirates did snag Clemente out of the Dodgers organization in November of 1954 and he started his career in Pittsburgh in 1955.
It took a few years for Clemente to come into his own as a hitter. Over the first five years of his career, he hit .282/.311/.395. He had an amazing ability to make hard contact on bad pitches, but his reluctance to take a walk contributed to a low on-base percentage. He also didn’t hit for much power and was thrown out stealing more often than he was successful.
Clemente had his first great season in 1960. He made the all-star team for the first of what would be 12 times. The Pirates made it to the World Series that year and surprisingly beat the vaunted New York Yankees in seven games (see the Bill Mazeroski entry). Clemente went 9-for-29 in the series, leading the Pirates in hits.
The National League had some great outfielders during the 1960s and Roberto Clemente was among the best of them. Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Clemente towered over the rest of the NL outfielders during the decade. Clemente led the league in hitting four times in the seven years from 1961 to 1967, including two seasons with a batting average over .350. He won his first Gold Glove in 1961 and would go on to win a total of 12. He won the NL MVP Award in 1966 and finished third the following year.
After a down year in 1968, Clemente had a bounce back year in 1969. He was back on the all-star team and once again among the league leaders in hitting. He continued to play well in 1970 and was a key player in leading the Pirates to the post-season for the first time since their 1960 World Series victory. Major League Baseball had just split each league into East and West divisions, with the division winners playing each other in a best-of-five series to decide who would advance to the World Series. The Pirates were swept by the Reds in three games in 1970, with Clemente going 3 for 14. He wasn’t the only hitter who struggled. The entire Pirates team combined to hit .225.
The Pirates won the NL East again in 1971. They faced the San Francisco Giants this time and sent them packing with three wins in four games. Clemente hit .333 in the NLCS. That was just a prelude to his MVP performance in the 1971 World Series when he hit .414/.452/.759 and made some tremendous plays in right field. His star never shined brighter than it did during this World Series.
Heading into the 1972 season, Clemente was 118 hits short of 3,000. At 37-years-old, he was no longer in the lineup everyday. In fact, he hadn’t played as many as 140 games in a season since 1967 and played just 102 games in 1972.
The Pirates had a double-digit lead in the NL East as the season wound down, but Clemente still hadn’t reached the 3,000 hit club with a handful of games to play. He finally reached the mark on September 30 against the Mets on a line drive double to left-center field. It was the last regular season hit he would ever get.
The Pirates took the Reds to five games in the NLCS, but blew a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth of Game 5 and their season was over. Clemente hit .235/.350/.471 in the series. That .235 average doesn’t look very good, but it should be noted that the entire team, with Clemente included, hit just .190/.243/.297. Clemente and Manny Sanguillen were the only hitters who did much of anything at the plate.
That off-season a massive earthquake hit Nicaragua. Clemente organized a group to raise money and supplies, such as medicine and food. On New Year’s Eve, he boarded a plane that was bound for Managua to take supplies to the people there. The plane had problems right from the start and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. None of the five people on the plane survived.
It was a devastating blow, not just to baseball fans but to everyone who had heard of the good deeds Clemente had done in his life. Normally a player must wait five years after his career ended to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. This waiting period was waived for Clemente and he was inducted the following summer. He was the first player from Latin America to receive the honor. Major League Baseball also established an award given annually to players who “best exemplify the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.”
When it comes to making contact on pitches out of the strike zone, Manny Sanguillen was the Vladimir Guerrero of catchers. He said, “When I started, nobody told me what a strike was, they gave me a bat and I swung at the ball!” He once started a season without taking a walk until his 75th plate appearances.
Despite his reluctance to take a walk, Sanguillen was still an above average hitter. He came close to hitting .300 in his career and had a slugging percentage close to .400. He was also quite durable for a catcher, regularly playing 135 or more games per year. In 1974, he started 147 games behind the plate.
Sanguillen was at his best in the early 70s, when the Pirates made the playoffs three years in a row from 1970 to 1972. His best year was the 1971 world championship year, when he hit .319/.345/.426 and made the all-star team for the first time. He was also terrific in the World Series that year, getting 11 hits in the seven-game series. If not for the amazing series Roberto Clemente had, Sanguillen may have been the series MVP.
He was an all-star again in 1972 and a third time in 1975, when he suddenly learned how to take a walk. His .391 on-base percentage that year was by far the best of his career. He maintained an above-average on-base percentage in 1976, but was limited to 114 games.
The 1976 season was rough for the Pittsburgh franchise. They failed to make the playoffs after having done so five times in the previous six years. Then, shortly after the season ended, pitcher Bob Moose died in a car accident. About a month later, the very popular Manny Sanguillen was “traded” to the Oakland Athletics for manager Chuck Tanner. In reality, the Pirates had signed Tanner to manage their team and A’s owner Charlie Finley demanded Sanguillen as compensation. About a month after Sanguillen was traded away, longtime manager Danny Murtaugh died of a stroke. Murtaugh had managed the Pirates in 1971 when they were the first team in Major League Baseball history to field an entire starting lineup consisting of nine African-American players.
Sanguillen was only gone for one year. The Pirates acquired him in a trade in April 1978 and he spent the season in a part-time role. He was 34-years-old by this point and no longer the hitter he’d once been. He played two more years with the Pirates, but played less and less often. When the 1979 World Series rolled around, Sanguillen came off the bench for three pinch-hit appearances. He was 1 for 3 with an RBI. After the 1980 season, he was included in a trade that sent Bert Blyleven to Cleveland, but was released during spring training and retired.
One of the heart-wrenching stories about Manny Sanguillen comes from the 1972 death of close friend Roberto Clemente. Sanguillen was supposed to accompany Clemente on the relief mission to Nicaragua, but missed the plane because he couldn’t find his car keys. The news of the plane crashed devastated him. He went to the site where the plane went into the water and dove into shark-infested waters to search for the bodies. Teammate Steve Blass told The Sporting News, “Manny dove from dawn till midnight.
There have been so many good outfielders in Pirates history that the all-time team is loaded at the position. It’s much harder to find good backup infielders. Arky Vaughan is a lock, though. He would be the starting shortstop on many teams. He just happens to be slotted behind Honus Wagner, the greatest shortstop of them all. FanGraphs WAR has Wagner as the #1 shortstop of all-time and Arky Vaughan at #7, just above Derek Jeter. Wagner and Vaughan playing for the same franchise is much like Ted Williams (#3 left fielder) and Carl Yastrzemski (#7 left fielder) both playing for the Red Sox.
For this all-time 25-man roster, Vaughan will have to handle shortstop and second base. When he’s at short, Honus Wagner can shift over to first base to give Willie Stargell a day off.
Vaughan was born in Arkansas, but moved to California when he was a child. When his childhood friend’s learned he had been born in Arkansas, he was given the nickname Arky and was known by that name for the rest of his life. He was a multisport star in high school. In January of 1931, he was signed by Pittsburgh Pirates scout Art Griggs.
Vaughan took over the shortstop position as a 20-year-old in 1932 and was successful right from the start, hitting .318/.375/.412. The legendary Honus Wagner played his last game for the Pirates in 1916. Between the end of Wagner’s career and the beginning of Vaughan’s career, seven players were regular starters, including Rabbit Maranville and George Wright, who both put up some good years, but nothing compared to Wagner and Vaughan.
The 1935 season was Vaughan’s best season. He led the league in the triple-slash categories, hitting .385/.491/.607. He also walked 97 times against just 18 strikeouts. This ability to draw a walk would help Vaughan finish his career with an on-base percentage over .400. He also rarely struck out, averaging one strikeout every 28 plate appearances in his career.
During Vaughan’s 10 years with the club, the Pirates finished in second place three times, but never made the World Series. They came closest in 1938 when they finished just two games behind the Chicago Cubs. The key series for the Cubs was a three-game sweep at Wrigley Field that included a home run by Gabby Hartnett that’s known as the “Homer in the Gloamin’”.
One of Vaughan’s biggest moments on the diamond came during the 1941 All-Star Game at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. Vaughan was 3-for-4 with two home runs, two runs scored, and four RBI. He hit a two-run homer in the top of the seventh to put the National League ahead 3-2. He followed that with a two-run homer in the top of the eight that extended the NL’s lead to 5-2. He likely would have been the MVP of the game if not for a game-winning, three-run homer by Ted Williams with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
The 1941 season was the last in Pittsburgh for Vaughan. The team traded him to the Dodgers for four players. He played two years with the Dodgers, then took three years off. He returned for two seasons as a part-time player in 1947 and 1948. Jackie Robinson credits Vaughan with being one of the players on the Dodgers who welcomed him to the team when he broke the modern color barrier in 1947. He said of Vaughan, “He was one of the fellows who went out of his way to be nice to me when I came in here as a rookie. Believe me, I needed it. He was a fine fellow.”
Leach is probably not well-known to most Pittsburgh Pirates fans of today, but the team needs a backup third baseman and Leach was a good player for the Pirates early in the 20th century who played third base and the outfield. He’s listed at 5’6” and 135 pounds, which was small even by the standards of the time he played. A modern comparison is Jose Altuve, minus 15 pounds.
In 1898, Leach was playing for a team in Auburn of the New York State League. The Auburn team’s owner, John Farrell, gave the New York Giants a chance to sign Leach but the Giants’ owner, Andrew Freedman, took one look at him and said, “Take your boy back before he gets hurt. We don’t take midgets on the Giants.”
Soon after this incident, Leach was acquired by the Louisville Colonels. He was later part of the mass exodus of Louisville players to the Pittsburgh franchise before the 1900 season. He didn’t hit much in his first year with the Pirates as a 22-year-old, but became an above-average hitter the following season. He really broke out in 1902 when he led the league in triples and home runs. That league-leading home run total comes with an asterisk—all of Leach’s home runs that year (and the seven he hit the next year) were inside-the-park home runs. Leach would drive the ball to the gap and use his great speed to motor around the bases. He hit 63 career home runs; 49 of which were inside-the-park.
Leach was a key player on the 1903 Pittsburgh team that went to the first ever World Series against the Boston American (who would later become the Red Sox). Leach hit four triples in the series. This is still a World Series record.
The first decade of the 20th century was a good decade for the Pirates. Based on FanGraphs WAR, they had three of the top seven players in the National League—Honus Wagner (#1), Fred Clarke (#2), and Tommy Leach (#7). Even with this core talent, the Pirates had stiff competition in the NL during this time. The Cubs and Giants were also perennial contenders.
From 1903 to 1909, the Pirates, Cubs, and Giants all finished in the top three in the National League five times in seven years. Over the entire decade, the Pirates were the best team in the NL in 1901, 1902, 1903, and 1909. The Giants were the top team in the NL in 1904 and 1905. The Cubs dominated in 1906, 1907, and 1908. These three teams had a stranglehold on the league for nine straight years.
When the team made it back to the World Series in 1909, Leach was on his game. He had led the league in runs scored, with 126, and would keep it going against the Detroit Tigers in the Fall Classic. He hit .360/.429/.520, with eight runs scored in seven games.
Leach played three more years with the Pirates. After injuries limited him to 108 games in 1911, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs during the 1912 season.
Kiner signed with the Pirates right out of high school. He spent two seasons in the minor leagues, then spent two seasons fighting in World War II. He was slotted right into the Pirates’ lineup when he rejoined the team for the 1946 season as a 23-year-old. In his first year, Kiner split his time between center field and left field, which is surprising because he was never known for his defense. He also led the National League in home runs, with 23, which tied the Pirates’ single-season record at the time.
Those 23 home runs were just a pre-cursor to what Kiner would do over the next seven years. He hit 51 in 1947, again leading the league. He also led the league in slugging percentage and total bases and finished sixth in NL MVP voting despite playing for a team that went 62-92.
Kiner continued to hit home runs at a prolific pace. He led the NL in home runs in each of the first seven years of his career, something no other player has ever done (not even Babe Ruth). During this time, he averaged .281/.405/.571, with 104 runs scored, 42 homers, and 110 RBI per season. He was by far the best home run hitter in baseball. Over this seven-year stretch, Kiner hit almost 100 more home runs than the next-closest player. He also led all of baseball in RBI and was fourth in baseball in runs scored.
Kiner wasn’t just an all-or-nothing slugger, either. He also had a good enough eye to post a .405 on-base percentage during this stretch. His defense wasn’t very good and he didn’t do much on the bases, but his bat was good enough that his overall value placed him fourth in baseball in FanGraphs WAR during the seven years from 1946 to 1952.
Despite having one of the best players in baseball, the Pittsburgh Pirates of the 1940s and 1950s were terrible. They only had one winning season while Kiner was on the team and regularly finished in last or second-to-last. Even though they were regularly out of the pennant race, the Pirates drew big crowds because of Kiner. They drew over one million fans for four straight seasons from 1947 to 1950. Because he was the reason fans came out, Kiner was well-paid during this time.
Branch Rickey became the general manager of the Pirates in 1950. The team finished eighth, seventh, and eighth over the next three years. Kiner continued to do his thing, hitting 47, 42, and 37 home runs during this time, all league-leading totals. When team ownership signed Kiner to a $90,000 contract for 1952, Branch Rickey was not happy.
For all the good that Branch Rickey did in baseball (bringing Jackie Robinson to the big leagues, establishing the farm system set up we have today, building dynasties with the Cardinals and Dodgers), he was also incredibly cheap when it came to player salaries.
In a move he had used before, Branch Rickey set out to harm Kiner’s reputation as a ballplayer so he could persuade management that the right move was to trade him. He told ownership that Kiner was a one-dimensional player who couldn’t throw or run or field and would never be part of a pennant-winning club. He cut Kiner’s contract from $90,000 to $75,000 even though Kiner had just led the league in home runs for the seventh year in a row.
Kiner was not happy, of course. He started the 1953 season in Pittsburgh, but wouldn’t finish it there. Branch Rickey traded him to the Chicago Cubs in June. Pittsburgh fans were outraged and hung Branch Rickey in effigy. Some suggested a boycott of Forbes Field.
After leaving the Pirates, Kiner continued to be an above average player for the remainder of his career, but his career didn’t last much longer. He finished out the 1953 season with the Cubs, then played one more year with them before playing a final season with Cleveland. He retired at the relatively young age of 32.
Clarke came to the Pirates in the “trade” in which the Louisville Colonels sent all their best players to the Pirates before they were eliminated from the National League. When Clarke arrived in Pittsburgh, he was not only a starting outfielder, he was also named the manager. In fact, he was one of the most successful managers in team history, with a career winning percentage of .595 and 14 winning seasons in 16 years.
As a player, Clarke was a speedy outfielder who got on base at a good clip and was a prolific run scorer. He had double-digit triples in a season 14 times, stole 20 or more bases 14 times, scored 100 or more runs five times, and had four seasons with an on-base percentage over .400. According to FanGraphs WAR, only teammate Honus Wagner was worth more wins above replacement than Clarke in the National League from 1900 to 1909.
Clarke didn’t fare well in the 1903 World Series, hitting just .265/.286/.382. He was better in the 1909 series. He scored seven runs in seven games, stole three bases, and had a .400 OBP.
After winning the 1909 World Series, Clarke was ready to retire, but team president Barney Dreyfuss convinced him not to. Clarke played two more seasons with nearly full-time play and continued to be productive. He continued to manage in 1912, but didn’t play at all. From 1913 to 1915, he rarely put himself in the lineup.
Six years after he originally wanted to retire, Clarke finally did retire near the end of the 1915 season. September 23, 1915, was declared Fred Clarke Day in Pittsburgh. He put himself into the lineup one last time and was one-for-two.
The Pittsburgh Pirates franchise has an embarrassment of riches at two positions. Based on FanGraphs WAR, Honus Wagner and Arky Vaughan are two of the top 10 shortstops to ever play the game. The same is true for two Pittsburgh rightfielders—Roberto Clemente and Paul Waner. Clemente is the #7 right fielder in fWAR. Waner is right behind him at #8.
Before he ever made the major leagues as a hard-hitting outfielder, Waner was a pitcher in college. In 1922, he went 23-4 with a 1.70 ERA. His time on the mound was short-lived as a professional, though. The San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League used him for just two innings before a sore arm suggested a switch to the outfield would be a good career move. As a starting outfielder, he hit the cover off the ball. In three seasons with the Seals, he hit .378.
His performance with the Seals caught the attention of major league teams. The Pirates purchased his contract, along with shortstop Hal Rhyne, before the 1926 season. He was a terrific hitter right from the start. In his first major league season, he hit .336/.413/.528 and led the league in triples, with 22.
The 1927 season was the best of Waner’s career. He led the league in games, plate appearances, hits, triples, RBI, and batting average. The Pirates won the National League pennant and Waner was named the NL MVP. In the World Series, Waner and his younger brother Lloyd, known as “Big Poison” and “Little Poison” combined to go 11 for 30 (.367). The rest of the team was 18 for 100 (.180). The Pirates were swept by the New York Yankees in four straight.
Waner continued to play at a very high level for the next decade. He led the league in hitting two more times, with marks of .362 in 1934 and .373 in 1936. That .362 average in 1934 helped earn him a second place finish in NL MVP voting.
According to stories at the time, Waner really liked to party. He once said, “When I walked up there (to the batter’s box) with a half-pint of whiskey fresh in my gut, that ball came in looking like a basketball. But if I hadn’t downed my half-pint of 100 proof, that ball came in like an aspirin tablet.”
After 12 straight years hitting over .300, Waner hit just .280 in 1938. He rebounded the following year to hit .328, but dropped to .290 in 1940, a season in which he played just 89 games. He was 37 years old. The Pirates tendered him an outright release in December. The departure was amicable. Waner wanted to continue his career and the Pirates’ release allowed him to make a deal with another team. He played with three other big league teams over the next five years and retired after the 1945 season. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1952.
McCutchen was drafted out of Fort Meade High School with the 11th pick of the first round in the 2005 June Amateur Draft. He was a Baseball America top 100 prospect right from the start and would be in their top 100 four times over the next four years, peaking at #13 prior to the 2007 season. He was called up to the big leagues in June of 2009 and was 2-for-4 with three runs scored in his first game.
McCutchen was a good player his first two years but took it up a notch in his third year. He was an all-star for the first time and a 20-20 hitter for the first time, with 23 homers and 23 steals. He followed that up with another all-star season and a career-high 31 homers in 2012. He won the first of four straight Silver Slugger Awards and his only Gold Glove.
The 2013 season was a turning point for the Pirates’ franchise. After 20 straight years without a winning record, the team finally got over the hump. They won 94 games and made the playoffs for the first time since the 1992 team had lost a heart-breaker in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the NLCS. Andrew McCutchen was at his best, winning the NL MVP.
Cutch continued to play at a high level in 2014 and 2015, finishing third and fifth in NL MVP voting. The Pirates also continued to play well. They won 88 games in 2014 and 98 games in 2015 and made the wild card game both years. Unfortunately, they lost the wild card game both years. Facing Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta proved too big a hill to climb.
Last year was a bizarre one for Andrew McCutchen. He started off slowly, hitting .226/.339/.441 in April. He was a bit better in May, but really struggled in June and July. It got so bad that he was benched for a series in August to “clear his head.” His overall numbers for the season were well below his usual level of production, but he did hit .289/.374/.495 from August 12 to the end of the season. That’s just about vintage McCutchen.
Despite the end-of-season surge, the Pirates have openly talked about trading McCutchen this off-season. He was my final pick for a spot on the team’s all-time 25-man roster. He still has two years left on his contract with the team. If he finishes out his contract, he’ll solidify his status on the all-time roster. If he gets traded, his position is precarious.
Babe Adams is best known by diehard baseball fans for starting and winning three games against the Detroit Tigers as a rookie in the 1909 World Series. Adams started Games 1, 5, and 7. His Game 7 start came on just two days rest and he pitched a complete game shutout. In his three starts, he held Tigers star Ty Cobb to just one hit in 11 at-bats.
The second thing that Babe Adams is most known for is his incredible control. He walked just 1.3 batters per nine innings in nearly 3,000 innings pitched. There have only been two pitchers active since 1901 who walked fewer hitters per nine innings—Cy Young and Deacon Phillippe (who was a teammate of Adams).
Adams’ control seemed to get better as he aged. In 1919, he pitched 263 1/3 innings and walked just 23 guys. He followed that up with 263 innings and just 18 walks in 1920. He was the Greg Maddux of his time except that he had even better control than Maddux.
After his terrific pitching in the 1909 World Series, Adams won 18 games in 1910 and 22 in 1911 and established himself as one of the best pitchers in the National League. On July 17, 1914, he pitched an epic game against Rube Marquard and the New York Giants. The Pirates scored a run in the bottom of the first. The Giants tied it in the top of the third. Then neither team scored for the next 17 innings and, amazingly, both pitchers remained in the game. The Giants scored two runs in the top of the 21st and won the game 3-1. In the game, Marquard allowed 15 hits and two walks in 21 innings. He faced 79 batters. Adams allowed 12 hits with no walks and faced 75 batters.
Two years later, Adams struggled with a sore shoulder that limited him to 72 1/3 innings. He then spent the entire 1917 season with the St. Joseph Drummers/Hutchison Wheatshockers of the Class A Western League. In 1918, he pitched most of the year with the Double-A Kansas City Blues. He was 36 years old and it seemed as if his major league career was likely coming to an end, but he bounced back at the age of 37 to win 17 games in 1919 and 17 more in 1920. He continued to pitch for six more years before finally hanging up his spikes after the 1926 season, at the age of 44.
Cooper has an argument to be considered the best starting pitcher in Pittsburgh Pirates history. He’s the franchise leader in wins, is second in innings pitched, third in strikeouts, and first in complete games. It’s close enough between Babe Adams and Cooper that I slotted Cooper second to Adams because Adams was the star of the 1909 World Series when he won three of the teams’ four games.
Cooper had the bad timing of joining the Pirates three years after their 1909 World Series championship and leaving the team a year before their 1925 World Series championship. It took him a couple years to get established. He had his first full season in 1914, when he was 16-15 with a 2.13 ERA. The next season was a step backwards. He was 5-16 with a 3.30 ERA. A 3.30 ERA would be quite good in 2016, but it was 18% worse than league average in 1915, a time when run scoring was much lower than it is today.
The 1915 season was the last time Cooper had an ERA worse than league average until his final season in the big leagues, 1926. From 1916 to 1924, he averaged 19 wins per season with a 2.76 ERA. Over this nine-year period, he was the second best pitcher in the National League according to FanGraphs WAR. Only Pete Alexander was better.
Despite his success, Cooper never got much support from the writers for the Hall of Fame. He was highly regarded in Pittsburgh, though. In 1934, he was named as the left-handed pitcher on the Pittsburgh Press All-Time Pirates Team. He was elected to the City of Pittsburgh Sports Hall of Fame in 1959 and voted the greatest pitcher in Pirates history in a 1969 poll.
Phillippe was part of the collection of top players the Pirates “pirated” from the Louisville Colonels prior to the 1900 season. He became the ace of a strong Pittsburgh staff in the first decade of the 20th century. He won 20 or more games in each of his first four seasons with the Pirates, including a terrific 25-9 season in 1903.
The Pirates were the best team in the National League in 1901, 1902, and 1903, but there wasn’t a World Series in those first two years. The first World Series was played in 1903 and featured the Pirates against the Boston Americans. The series would be a best-of-nine. Because of injuries to the Pirates pitching staff, the team leaned heavily on Phillippe in the series. He started and won Games 1 and 3, despite pitching on just one days’ rest. After two days off, he started Game 4 and won that game also.
With Phillippe not on the mound, the Pirates lost Games 5 and 6 and the series was tied at three games apiece. Phillippe took the mound for Game 7 against Cy Young and lost. He got two days off and started Game 8, which he also lost, and that ended the series, with Boston winning five games to three. Phillippe ended up pitching 44 of the team’s 70 innings.
Early in the 1904 season, Phillippe contracted an illness that led to his hospitalization. He was limited to just 19 starts that year. He came back to start 33 games in 1905, but chronic arm injuries started to take their toll in 1906 and beyond. He continued to pitch for the Pirates until 1911, but averaged just 68 innings per year over the last four years.
According to The Sporting News, Phillippe claimed the secret of his pitching success was “keeping batters guessing. I study the batsman in every way: his position in the box, his general attitude, the way he holds the bat, and any other characteristics he may have.” He was also an expert at avoiding the base on balls. He has the best rate of walks per nine innings for any pitcher who started his career after the 1893 change set the distance to the pitcher’s mound at 60’6”.
John Candelaria, the “Candy Man”, was a 6’7” lefty who pitched for the very good Pirates teams in the late 1970s and with the very bad Pirates teams of the early-to-mid 1980s. A few years before signing with the Pirates, Candelaria went to a tryout for the Los Angeles Dodgers when he was 15 years old. His 90-plus miles per hour fastball impressed one veteran Dodger scout, but Candelaria’s t-shirt that featured a marijuana leaf and the caption “try some, you’ll like it” did not impress Dodgers executives. They passed. The Pirates drafted him in the second round of the 1972 Amateur Draft.
The Candy Man made his big league debut as a 21-year-old in 1975 and very quickly became one of the team’s top pitchers. He made one start in the NLCS against the Cincinnati Reds and was very good. He struck out 14 batters in 7 2/3 innings. It was a bittersweet performance, though, because he allowed a two-out, two-run homer to Pete Rose in the eighth inning that turned a 2-1 Pittsburgh lead into a 3-2 deficit. The Pirates lost the game in 10 innings and were swept in the series.
Candelaria tossed a no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1976, but was at his best in 1977, when he went 20-5 with a league-leading 2.34 ERA. He made the all-star team for the only time in his career and finished fifth in NL Cy Young voting. Despite his excellence, the Pirates missed the playoffs for the second year in a row.
They would make it back to the post-season in 1979 as the “We R Fam-A-Lee” team that was known more for their hitting than their pitching. Candelaria led the staff with 14 wins. He started one game in the playoffs against the Reds, going seven innings and allowing two earned runs in a no-decision. He had two starts in the World Series. He was knocked out of the game in the fourth inning of a Game 3 loss, but came back to pitch six scoreless innings in a Game 6 victory.
The 1980 season was a disappointing one for Candelaria. He pitched a career-high 233 1/3 innings, but had an ERA that was worse than league average and a losing record for the first time. He was 11-14. During the strike-shortened 1981 season, Candelaria only had six starts. Over the next few years, he continued to be one of the team’s best starters, going 39-26 with a 2.97 ERA from 1982 to 1984.
By 1985, the Pirates were a shell of the team that had won the World Series in 1979. They hadn’t made the playoffs since that World Series year and were on their way to a 57-104 record. Candelaria had been moved to the bullpen and picked up nine saves, but was no longer happy playing in Pittsburgh. He had been battling with management and wanted out. The Pirates sent him to the Angels in August. After the trade, Pirates General Manager Joe Brown said, “We want people who want to play here. When you can’t change the attitude, you change the uniform.”
Over the next seven years, Candelaria would play for seven different teams, mostly as a relief pitcher. He returned to the Pirates for his final season in 1993, but posted an ERA of 8.24 in 19 2/3 innings and was released in July. His career with the Pirates had its ups-and-downs, but for a stretch in the 1970s he was one of their top starting pitchers.
More than anything, Bob Friend was durable. He never spent a single day on the Disabled List and averaged 232 innings per year during his 15 years with the Pirates. He led the league in wins once, ERA once, starts three times, and innings pitched twice. He is still the team leader in games started, innings pitched, and strikeouts. Of course, he also leads the Pirates in hits allowed, base on balls, and home runs allowed.
Friend has a losing record in his career with the Pirates mainly because he pitched for some very bad teams in the early 1950s. The Pirates finished last or second-to-last in each of his first seven years in the major leagues. They finally started to improve in 1958 when they finished in second place. This was the same year Friend led the NL in wins, with 22. After regressing back to fourth place in 1959, the Pirates won the National League pennant in 1960. It was their first World Series appearance since 1927.
Along with Vern Law, Friend was the co-Ace on the 1960 team during the regular season, but struggled in two World Series starts, losing both. He unwittingly made possible one of the best World Series moments of all-time in Game 7. With the Pirates ahead 9-7 going into the top of the ninth, manager Danny Murtaugh brought in Friend to save the victory. Instead of locking the door, Friend kicked it wide open by allowing back-to-back singles to Bobby Richardson and Dale Long. Harvey Haddix came in and held the door open by allowing both runners to score to tie the game. Bill Mazeroski let Friend and Haddix off the hook when he led off the bottom of the inning with a game-winning, World Series-clinching home run.
Friend continued to be a workhorse over the next five years as he pitched into his mid-30s. He led the league in shutouts in 1962 and had the best ERA of his career in 1963. He continued to be an above-average pitcher through 1965 and his salary followed suit. The Pirates have never been know for their generosity with player contracts, so they traded Friend to the New York Yankees for pitcher Pete Mikkelsen and cash. Friend split that year between the Yankees and Mets, then retired after the season.
Bill Mazeroski is considered the big hero of the Pirates’ 1960 World Series championship, but there wouldn’t have been a Game 7 if not for Vern Law. Law started and won Games 1 and 4. Then, on three days rest, he started Game 7. He couldn’t hold a 4-1 lead, but his overall ERA was 3.44 in the series. The rest of the Pirates’ pitchers had an ERA of 8.38.
Law didn’t just shine in the 1960 World Series, he was also one of the team’s top starting pitchers during the regular season. He made his only all-star team, won the NL Cy Young, and finished sixth in NL MVP voting. It was his only 20-win season. He also led the National League with 18 complete games.
By this point of his career, Law was 30 years old and in his ninth season with the Pirates (he missed two years for military service in 1952 and 1953). After having such a great season in 1960, he struggled with weakness in his pitching arm the following spring. During the World Series, he had injured his ankle but continued to pitch. It turned out he tore muscles in his back when he pitched on the injured ankle. The injury limited his availability and effectiveness for the next three seasons.
Law had a solid season in 1964, then a very good season in 1965, going 17-9 with a 2.15 ERA. Only Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal had better ERAs that year. Law was named the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year. That was his last hurrah. He finished out his career with two seasons with an ERA over 4.00 in 1966 and 1967. When he suffered a groin injury in August of 1967, he decided to retire for good.
Face is most known for his incredible 1959 season when he went 18-1. His .947 winning percentage that year is still the single-season record. He made the all-star team for the first of three straight years and finished seventh in NL Cy Young voting.
Of course, when any pitcher goes 18-1, there has to be some luck involved. Face was a reliever who happened to come into games when the Pirates were tied or behind and “earned” many wins when the offense put some runs on the board at an opportune time. In fact, Face’s 18-1 year was not the best of his career. He had a 2.70 ERA in 93 1/3 innings that year. Three years later, he would have a 1.88 ERA in 91 innings but a win-loss record of just 8-7 (although he did have a career-high 28 saves). That 1962 season was the best of his career.
Relief pitching in the 1950s and 1960s was much different than it is today. Face led the league in saves three times in his career. His save totals those years were 20, 17, and 28. These days, league-leaders in saves routinely have 45-50.
One of the keys to Face’s value was his durability. He regularly appeared in 55-65 games during his career and led the league in games finished four times in five years from 1958 to 1962. He once appeared in nine consecutive games. Despite the heavy use, he was on the Disabled List just one time and that was after having knee surgery.
When the Pirates made the World Series in 1960, Face was one of the keys to their winning the National League pennant. He led the league in games pitched, with 68, while saving 24 games and posting a 2.90 ERA in 114 2/3 innings. In the Pirates’ World Series victory, he saved Games 1, 4, and 5.
Face pitched with the Pirates until late in the 1968 season. He had an ERA better than league average in 13 of the 15 years he pitched for the team and was still pitching well when they sold him to the Detroit Tigers with one month left in the 1968 season. The Tigers only used him twice that year in September and released him after the season. He signed as a free agent with the Montreal Expos and had a 3.94 ERA in 44 games in his final season in the big leagues.
Almost 50 years since he last pitched for the Pirates, Face is still the team leader in games pitched, games finished, and games saved.
Unlike many major league players, Kent Tekulve was not a star athlete who played shortstop and hit cleanup when he was younger. He was primarily a pitcher who batted ninth. He started out with a three-quarters delivery, but started to move to a roundhouse delivery at Marietta College. Despite being very successful in college—he had a 0.94 ERA in his senior year—he went undrafted.
Tekulve went to a tryout for the Pirates at Forbes Field in the summer of 1969. He said the scouts were so unimpressed with his running, they initially didn’t ask him to pitch. After everyone left, a local scout watched him pitch and signed him. He spent his first professional season with the Geneva Pirates of the New York-Penn League.
While pitching with the Sherbrooke Pirates in the Double-A Eastern League in 1972, Tekulve dropped down and began using a submarine delivery. He claimed he watched Ted Abernathy pitching for the Reds while growing up and patterned his delivery after Ted’s.
Tekulve made the big leagues in 1974, but bounced between the majors and minors until establishing himself with the Pirates in 1976. As a setup man for Goose Gossage in 1977, Tekulve was 10-1 with a 3.06 ERA. He took over the closer’s role in 1978 and saved 83 games over the next three seasons. He pitched in 91 games in 1978 and 94 games in 1979. That kind of usage is almost unheard of these days.
The 1979 World Series was a showcase for Tekulve. In the series, the Pirates came back from a three games to one deficit to win the final three games. He pitched in five of the seven games and saved three of them, including Games 6 and 7. Despite being a late-inning reliever, he tied for the team lead in strikeouts, with 10 in 9 1/3 innings.
After his strong World Series performance, Tekulve made his first and only all-star game in 1980, even though he had been much better the previous two seasons. He began to be phased out of the closer’s role in 1981, losing opportunities to Enrique Romo and Rod Scurry. He shared save opportunities with other relievers over the next few years. After the 1984 season, he expressed that he was unhappy not being the main closer. He started the 1985 season with the Pirates but was traded to the Phillies in April.
Tekulve pitched four more years with the Phillies and one with the Reds, ending his career after the 1989 season at the age of 42. He is second to Roy Face in games pitched, games finished, and games saved for the Pirates.
Giusti had pitched in the major leagues for seven years before being traded to the Pirates by the Cardinals before the 1970 season. He had primarily been used as a starter and the Pirates planned to keep him in that role, but he was so bad in spring training that the team moved him to the bullpen. He ended up being the team’s closer and saving 26 games.
The 1971 season was a good one for the Pirates and Giusti. The Pirates won the NL East and Giusti led the league in saves. He then pitched in all four games in the NLCS, saving two of them. In the seven-game World Series, Giusti pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings across three appearances and picked up another save. Overall, he tossed 10 2/3 scoreless innings in the post-season as the Pirates won the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles.
Giusti was terrific during the 1972 regular season. He had a 1.93 ERA and saved 22 games. He didn’t have the same success in the post-season, though. He pitched in three of the five NLCS games and had a 6.75 ERA in 2 2/3 innings. He had one save and one loss.
After pitching well during the regular season in 1973 (9-2, 2.37 ERA, 20 saves) and 1974 (7-5, 3.32 ERA, 12 saves), Giusti had a horrific NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 1974 season. He pitched three times in the four game series and gave up eight earned runs and 18 base runners in 3 1/3 innings. It was brutal. It turned out, he was likely pitching in pain. He had surgery in the off-season.
Giusti continued to have arm pain in 1975, but pitched through it and had another good year. He saved 17 games and had a 2.95 ERA in 91 2/3 innings. He couldn’t continue his good run of pitching in 1976, though. His ERA ballooned to over four runs per game and his save total dropped to six. Shortly before the 1977 season, he was part of a nine-player trade with the Athletics. He split the 1977 season between the A’s and the Cubs and that was it. His 15-year career was done.
Melancon didn’t spend much time with the Pirates, but he made the most of the time he had. The Pirates picked him up in a trade with the Red Sox before the 2013 season. They traded an “established” closer, Joel Hanrahan, who was a two-time all-star and had 76 saves in the previous two seasons. Melancon was one of four players they got back for Hanrahan (and Brock Holt).
Hanrahan ended up pitching just 7 1/3 innings for the Red Sox in 2013 before an injury shut him down (and ended his career). Melancon had a 1.39 ERA and 16 saves in 71 innings. He was an all-star. In 2014, Melancon had another great year, saving 33 games with a 1.90 ERA.
Those first two years were just previews of what was to come. Melancon had a league-leading 51 saves in 2015. That gave him the team’s single-season record for saves.
After that terrific 2015 season, Melancon was on his way to another great season when the Pirates traded him just before the trade deadline last year. In his three-plus seasons with the Pirates, Melancon had a 1.80 ERA and 130 saves, good for fourth in team history.
It may seem surprising to have Melancon on the all-time 25-man roster for the Pirates, but the options among Pittsburgh relievers are sparse. Melancon is third all-time among Pittsburgh relievers in FanGraphs WAR.