Baseball has a long and rich history in the city of Pittsburgh. What is now the Pirates franchise began in 1882, as a part of the American Association. At that time, they were playing opposite the Allegheny river from the city of Pittsburgh, in what was then a separate town – Allegheny City. As was often the practice of the media in those days, the team was generically referred to as the “Alleghenys.” After five so-so seasons in the AA, the team was the first to switch from the AA to the National League, in 1887. They changed their name officially to the “Pittsburgh Alleghenys” for the season, in spite of the fact that Allegheny City remained a separate city until it was annexed in 1907.
After the 1889 season, the new ownership signed several players from American Association teams, including the Philadelphia Athletics’ Lou Bierbauer, who was left off of the A’s reserve list. The Athletics protested, and an AA official referred to the actions of the Alleghenys as “piratical.” Prior to the 1890 season, however, the Alleghenys were decimated when most of their players jumped to the Player’s League – including Bierbauer. They experienced their worst season in franchise history, going 23-113. But, before the 1891 season, the owners were able (through some legal gymnastics) to purchase a minority ownership of the Player’s League team in Pittsburgh, and regain the services of nearly all the players they had lost the previous season. That same year, since they were never found guilty of wrongdoing, the team mockingly adopted the nickname “Pirates,” after the incident with the A’s. And, the name has been with them ever since.
The Pirates franchise has gone through some incredibly successful periods, as well as some incredibly unproductive periods. They participated in the first ever World Series in 1903, though they lost to Boston. But, they would return in 1909, and win in 7 games. In fact, from 1899-1913, they were a perennial pennant contender, finishing with a winning record every year. They accomplished a similar feat from 1918-1930, appearing in two World Series (’25 & ’27), and winning the title in ’25. After a long period of lackluster seasons, they won it all again in 1960, which was soon followed by a string of success, in which they won 6 division titles and 2 World Series titles from ’70-’79. They later won 3 consecutive division titles from ’90-’92, but never reached the World Series. But, after the ’92 season, they began one of the worst stretches of seasons in the history of North American sports. They established the all-time record with 20 consecutive losing seasons from 1993-2012. They finally broke through as a Wild Card team in 2013, only to lose the NLDS in 5 games.
In their history, the Pirates have seen 7 different players win 8 MVP awards. They’ve fielded 2 Cy Young winners, and 1 Rookie of the Year. Eight different players have had their jersey number retired by the Pirates, and there are 12 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame who spent the majority of their careers in Pittsburgh. With so much history, and so much success, choosing the top 5 players of all time came as quite the challenge. Though, it was clearly a lopsided challenge. I believe this is the first team in which none of the top 5 players in the team’s history are pitchers. Which I find amazing, considering just how long the Pirates have been around. But, not one of their HOF members were pitchers, and with just 2 Cy Young winners in 130+ seasons, I guess I can see how this happened.
5. Willie Stargell (’62-’82) – Stargell was a consistently great player who always seemed to be just a notch behind the greatest of his era. He only appeared in 7 All-Star games in 20+ seasons. He led the league in doubles once, HR twice, RBI once, SLG once, and OPS twice. He won an MVP in ’79, in spite of not leading the league in anything (other than perhaps heart). This may have been the writers’ way of making up for the fact that he was absolutely robbed of an MVP in ’73, and certainly should have made it a closer race (if not win it all) in ’71. But, in spite of a lack of recognition, and a lack of league-leading stats, Stargell helped lead the Pirates to two World Series titles in the ’70’s, and he was crowned World Series MVP in ’79. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1988. He ranks 3rd all-time on the Pirates’ career SLG list (.529), 8th in OPS (.889), 7th in hits (2232), 4th in doubles (423), 1st in HR (475), 1st in RBI (1540), 4th in OPS+ (147), and 4th in runs created (1531).
4. Ralph Kiner (’46-’53) – a prolific slugger from the time he stepped onto the field as a rookie, it’s too bad Kiner’s career was cut short due to back injuries. When he came into the league in ’46, he immediately led the NL with 23 home runs. But, he also led the league with 109 K’s. So, the Pirates convinced Hank Greenberg not to retire, and he worked with Kiner extensively over the offseason. The next season, Kiner led the league again with 51 HR’s, and kept his strikeout total below 100 – and, he would never strikeout more than 90 times again the rest of his career. Kiner led the league in HR’s each of the first seven seasons of his career. In 1949, he became the first NL player to have two 50+ HR seasons in his career. Unfortunately, the Pirates teams that Kiner played for weren’t very good, so he never finished higher than 4th in MVP voting (though, he certainly should have). But, he did end up with 4 top-10 finishes, to go along with 6 All-Star games. In addition to his HR prowess, he also led the league in runs once, RBI once, and OPS three times. He was elected to the HOF in 1975. In Pirates history, he ranks 8th in OBP (.405), 2nd in SLG (.567 – including 3 of the top 5 individual seasons), 2nd in OPS (also including 3 of the top 6 seasons), 2nd in HR (301 – including 5 of the top 7 seasons), 7th in RBI (801), 2nd in OPS+ (157), and 9th in runs created (900 – including the best single season in Pirates history – 156 in ’49 – and, everyone ahead of him has at least 1500 more PA’s).
3. Roberto Clemente (’55-’72) – Clemente is often remembered for a couple things that don’t really matter to this particular list (the way his career was cut “short” by a plane crash after the ’72 season, and the fact that he opened the door for Latin American players in the majors). I’m more interested in his play on the field – and for that, I place him here on this list. He won 4 batting titles (’61, ’64, ’65 & ’67), appeared in the All-Star game 12 years, and won an impressive 12 consecutive Gold Gloves in right field. He won the MVP in ’66, though I can’t really figure out why – and, if he was going to win an MVP, his ’67 season would have made more sense. Overall, Clemente was an excellent right fielder, who achieved an impressive hits milestone (3,000). A deserving member of the Hall of Fame. And, on the Pirates’ all-time lists, he ranks 3rd in runs scored (1416), 1st in hits (3,000), 3rd in HR (240), 3rd in RBI (1305), and 3rd in runs created (1558). But, I get the impression from most who sing the praises of Clemente that he’s remembered as much for his off-the-field stuff as his performance on the field, which is why I nearly ranked him a spot even lower than this. But, if Clemente is primarily revered for fielding and hits, then Kiner’s power alone isn’t enough to move him up.
2. Barry Bonds (’86-’92) – seven years. That’s all the time Bonds had in Pittsburgh. But, they were seven amazing, pre-steroid, seasons. And, Bonds didn’t really get it all put together until his 5th season – when he won his first MVP, joined the 30/30 club, appeared in his first All-Star game, and won his first Gold Glove. At the end of his tenure in Pittsburgh, he had won 2 MVP’s – and, let’s be honest, was the victim of one of the most horrendous jobs of MVP voting in history in ’91 when he lost to Terry Pendleton, in spite of leading Pendleton in runs, HR, RBI, SB, OBP, and OPS. So, he should have won the MVP each of his last three seasons with the Pirates. In Pirates history, Bonds ranks 8th in SLG (.503), 10th in OPS (.883), 4th in HR (176), 7th in stolen bases (251), and 4th in OPS+ (147 – including the 2nd best single season in Pirates history, when his OPS+ was 204 in ’92). The numbers alone don’t really even begin to tell the story of how amazing those last three seasons in Pittsburgh were. I guess some would say the same of others on this list, but Bonds brought so much more to the table, it’s a shame he made so many bad decisions later in his career.
1. Honus Wagner (1900-1917) – one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game. The only thing Wagner wasn’t doing on the field was hitting home runs (maxed out with 10 in ’08). His stats page is covered with black ink (leading the league) – winning eight batting titles (second only to Ty Cobb in history), leading the league in runs twice, hits twice, doubles 7 times (ranks 9th in baseball history with 643), triples 3 times (ranks 3rd all-time with 252), RBI 5 times, stolen bases 5 times (10th in history with 723), OBP 4 times, SLG 6 times – in spite of his lack of HR prowess, and OPS 8 times. For a guy who is often remembered more for his baseball card, than his baseball game, Wagner proves to be an oft-forgotten name among the absolute greatest of all time. There’s a reason he was a part of the inaugural Hall of Fame class, and actually received as many votes as Babe Ruth! So, choosing the top Pittsburgh Pirate of all time was actually rather easy. Because Wagner ranks 4th all-time on their batting list (.328), 1st in runs (1521), 2nd in hits (2967), 2nd in doubles (551), 1st in triples (232), 2nd in RBI (1475), 2nd in stolen bases (639), 3rd in OPS+ (154), and 2nd in runs created (1654).