September 16, 2014

The Pittsburgh Pirates by Eras: 1901-2011

July 13, 2011 by · 3 Comments 

Last year Rob Neyer, then of ESPN.com, began a series of columns in which he divided each franchise’s history into eras that are tied to particular players.  As he explained:

  • I’m not talking about identifying each franchise’s best player over a number of years; that’s easy and doesn’t tell us much that we don’t already know. Characterizing an era is less about statistics than about organizational momentum, historical significance, and a half-dozen other things that don’t necessarily show up in The Baseball Encyclopedia.

As far as I know, Neyer only got through four teams and I don’t think he’s revisited the project in a year, so hopefully he won’t get cross if I steal his idea and apply it to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

So when you think of a period in Pirates history, what player comes to mind?  Or, who is the kind of player who typifies the organization’s direction at that time?

1901-1916:  The Honus Wagner Era. The Flying Dutchman began as an outfielder-third baseman; he never played a game at shortstop until he was 27 and had been in the league four years.   Wagner, Fred Clarke, Tommie Leach, and Deacon Phillippe arrived together from Louisville in 1900 and formed a solid core that stuck together for more than a decade, leading the Bucs to four pennants and, in 1909, a World Series title.

Wagner remained productive until 1916, but when your best player is 42 years old, you’re probably in trouble.  As he aged and owner Barney Dreyfuss struggled to procure fresh talent, the Pirates slowly tumbled into the second division.

1917:  The Al Mamaux Era. Mamaux had a little Kerry Wood in him with a dash of Dontrelle Willis and maybe a pinch of Mark Fidrych thrown in to taste.   This was a colorful kid who threw hard and turned a game into an event.   He reached the big leagues at age 19 and dominated almost immediately, piling up 21 wins at age 21 in 1915, then 21 more the next year.

But then Mamaux imploded in 1917.  He sunk to 2-11, while the Pirates, who had been in a steady decline for years, hit bottom with a mark of 51-103.

1918-1920:  The Billy Southworth Era. After the fiasco of 1917, Dreyfuss ordered a radical overhaul of the roster.  One of the newcomers was Southworth, a speedy 25-year-old outfielder.    He was never a great player and those weren’t great teams.  But he was useful, and his presence suggested the organization had begun to open the windows, pull back the curtains, and rid itself of that old musty smell.

1921-1925: The Pie Traynor Era. The Bucs loaded up on gifted young hitters like Traynor, Kiki Cuyler, George Grantham, and Glenn Wright in the early 1920s.  Add to that a handful of key veterans and you have a team that captured two pennants and one World Championship – and one that arguably should have done even more.  With his childlike exuberance, daredevil base running, and defensive wizardry, Traynor became a cult hero in Pittsburgh almost instantly.

1926-1929: The Kiki Cuyler Era. In the wake of their title the Pirates got distracted by a lot of silly infighting, and Cuyler often found himself at the center of the storms.   Manager Donie Bush thought he was a troublemaker and benched him for the entire 1927 World Series.  Dreyfuss traded him to the Cubs for essentially nothing, just to be rid of the guy.  That worked out well for Cuyler, but it marked the beginning of the end of the Pirates’ run as a serious contender.

1930-1935:  The Paul Waner Era. In contrast to the sturm und drang of the previous decade, the early 1930s were a boring time in Pittsburgh.  No controversies, no pennant races, no terrible teams but no particularly good ones either.  Soaring above the mediocrity was the old reliable Okie, Paul Waner, trusty flask never far from reach, banging out hit after hit after hit with the consistency of a metronome.

1936-1939: The Cy Blanton Era. Reporters portrayed the late 1930s Pirates as a group of underachievers, a club good enough to win a pennant if they weren’t so preoccupied with carousing and philandering.  They came within a hair of a pennant in 1938, blowing a seven game lead over the season’s final month, and then dissolving into nothingness in 1939.

Blanton burst on the scene in 1935, winning the National League ERA title as a rookie.  People around the game said he had electric stuff, but he never put it all together in the same way again.  After an elbow injury 1939 his days as an effective pitcher were over.  Blanton quietly drifted out of baseball, and died in a mental institution in 1945.

1940-1945: The Frankie Gustine Era. Pittsburgh ushered in some new blood late in the ’39 season, and swept into 1940 with a promising young lineup.   The 20-year-old Gustine took over at second base and hit .281 with an OPS of .702 – a nice debut.  That was about as good as it got, though.  For years, Gustine was a solid player on a team of solid players, but without a real star the Pirates were always stranded on the periphery of the pennant race.  Team president Bill Benswanger asked in frustration, “Can’t we do better than wind up fourth all the time?”

1946-1951: The Ralph Kiner Era. With new ownership in place, the organization became directionless and these clubs were mostly awful.  Nonetheless, fans came out and stayed late – no one dared leave Forbes Field early lest they miss Kiner sending one deep.  He hit 257 home runs over these six seasons before the Bucs went with another youth movement and Kiner’s back gave out.

1952-1960:  The Dick Groat Era. Groat stepped off the Duke University campus and into the starting shortstop job on one of the worst teams in history.  Eight years later he was the National League MVP and was leading the Pirates to their first title in 35 years.  Groat, an intensely proud man, suffered the jokes about those dismal young Pirate teams of the 1950s and has carried that sting with him ever since.  “It’s very easy to criticize a team that’s finishing dead last,” he said sharply in a 2007 interview.  “[But] when you win a championship, it’s over.  You can’t criticize then.”

1961-1969:  The Roberto Clemente Era. The Pirates’ underappreciated star during a mostly barren stretch, Clemente was the kind of free-swinging, bad-ball hitter that general manager Joe L. Brown grew fond of.  He also was the first prominent minority player for a franchise that became one of baseball’s most racially and ethnically diverse.  Clendenon, Stargell, Veale, Sanguillen, and Ellis followed and all were pioneers in their own ways, but Clemente was at the vanguard.

1970-1976:  The Willie Stargell Era. For the first seven years of his career, people thought of Willie Stargell in the same way many people think of Ryan Howard today – a very good player but one with some obvious shortcomings.  An all-time great?  Not even close.

Stargell began to alter that perception in 1970 when the Pirates moved into Three Rivers Stadium and departed Forbes Field, which neutered so many long drives and turned them into harmless outs.   No one in baseball hit more home runs in the 1970s than Willie Stargell.

1977-1979: The Dave Parker Era. The Cobra was arguably the game’s best all-around player during these three seasons, a near-certain Hall of Famer if only he had stayed in shape and kept his head right.   He was a beloved figure in the clubhouse – bold and loud and colorful and boastful.  His personality and style defined the hard-hitting, hard-living Pirates of the late 1970s.

1980-1984:  The Jason Thompson Era. Thompson became the Pirates’ long-term replacement for Stargell at first base.  He was no Stargell, of course, and he suffered by the comparison.  He just seemed like a big, slow moose who struck out all the time.   In fact, he was a big, slow moose who struck out all the time.  But he also had some power and a genius for drawing walks, which no one cared about in the early 1980s.   Thompson was a quiet person with quiet skills who kept the Pirates quietly respectable in the immediate post-Fam-a-Lee years.

1985:  The George Hendrick Era. This might have been the darkest year in the history of the franchise.  The Bucs lost 104 games and were threatening to leave town.  Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh drug trials exposed the rampant substance abuse that was occurring right under manager Chuck Tanner’s nose.

The lasting image from that season was an old, lethargic Hendrick ambling leisurely toward first base after yet another weak ground ball to the infield.    A man with not a care in the world.

1986-1992: The Barry Bonds Era. Bonds’ rise and maturation – and his failures – mirrored those of his club.   They were a mess when he arrived and became a mess again when he left.   Bonds grew highly unpopular in Pittsburgh following his exodus, and those division-winning teams from 1990-1992 ultimately left fans heartbroken.  But it wasn’t all bad.

1993-1996:  The Midre Cummings Era. As the key members the early 1990s Pirates slowly went their separate ways, like the refugees from a war-torn land, the financially-strapped front office had no clue how to fill the gaps.  Cummings was a top prospect who arrived in Pittsburgh with great fanfare but his career, like everything about those years, proved eminently forgettable.

1997-2001: The Jason Kendall Era. In the late ‘90s, Pittsburgh began to assemble a respectable collection of talent.  At the center of it was Kendall, who emerged as the face of franchise and, for a brief time, one of the best catchers in baseball.  Unfortunately, injuries and front office missteps left the team in shambles again.  A 2001 thumb injury flattened the trajectory of Kendall’s career and transformed him into a below-average hitter.

2002-2007:  The Jeromy Burnitz Era. What frustrated fans during this time wasn’t just the losing, it was also the complete lack of accountability on or off the field.   Ownership stood by filing its nails while bumbling general manager Dave Littlefield eviscerated the organization.

The past-his-prime Burnitz personified all that was wrong.   Littlefield signed the 37-year-old outfielder to a $6 million contract in 2006.  Burnitz re-paid that largess with an empty .230 average in 111 games.

2008-2010:  The Andy LaRoche Era. LaRoche was a product of the atrocious talent evaluation that plagued the early days of general manager Neal Huntington’s tenure.  LaRoche was the centerpiece of the Jason Bay trade, the third baseman of the future, they said.   In three seasons, he batted .226.

2011: The Andrew McCutchen Era. After two decades of empty promises, is the future finally here?  The Pirates are contending at the All-Star break for the first time in 14 years and the 24-year-old McCutchen already is one of the most exciting and productive players in baseball.

James Forr’s book, Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography (co-authored with David Proctor) was a finalist for the 2010 Casey Award.   He also was the 2005 winner of the McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award and recently profiled Willie Stargell for the SABR Bio Project.

Comments

3 Responses to “The Pittsburgh Pirates by Eras: 1901-2011”
  1. Cliff Blau says:

    You forgot 1882-1900, apparently the “I didn’t know they existed then” Era.

  2. Mike Lynch says:

    Considering they went 23-113 in 1890, maybe all Pittsburgh fans have just blocked that era out of their minds.

  3. James Forr says:

    Cliff, 1882-1900 is the “I’ve already written 1,800 words and don’t want to make this article longer than Beowulf” Era :)

    You’re right, I probably should have gone back further rather than just starting with the 20th Century but…oh, well. I’ll save my paean to Pud Galvin for the next time!

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