The Pittsburgh Pirates have had a team in the National League since 1887, and were champions in 1901 and 1902. There was no World Series then; they won their first in 1909, beating Detroit four games to three. Their next appearance was in 1925, when they overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat the Washington Senators. In 1927 they served as fodder for the juggernaut Yankees, considered by many to be the greatest baseball team of all time.
Lean years followed. The Pirates lost 100 games three years in a row in the Fifties, no mean feat when you remember teams only played 154 games a year then. In 1960 they surprised everyone by winning the National League pennant for the first time since 1927, then beat the Yankees four games to three, despite losing by scores of 10-0, 13-1, and 16-3. Bill Mazeroski’s home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 won the game 10-9, and is still the only walk-off home run to end a seventh game. Many consider this the greatest World Series game ever played.
The decade of the 1970s were the Pirates’ glory years. They won six division titles and two World Series (1971 and 1979), both times overcoming 3-1 deficits to beat Baltimore. Baseball’s cocaine scandals hit Pittsburgh hard, and the team suffered for it until General Manager Syd Thrift and Manager Jim Leyland put together a team that won three straight Eastern Division titles 1990-1992.
The Pirates have not won as many games as they lost in any season since.
A perfect cesspool of cheap ownership, inept management, and bad play culminated this week in a seventeenth consecutive losing season. No team in any major North American sports league has such a record for futility, and Year 18 is virtually guaranteed by the young and marginally talented roster. The longest World Series drought—33 years, from 1927-1960—will surely be surpassed. (1979 is the most recent appearance.)
Pittsburgh deserves much better. Aside from its five world championships, many Pirate players’ names are spoken with reverence by baseball cognoscenti. Honus Wagner, one of the first truly great players, still considered by some historians to be the greatest shortstop of all time, and one of the original five players in the Hall of Fame. Mazeroski, considered by many to be the greatest fielding secondbaseman ever. Roberto Clemente had 3,000 hits, won four batting titles, twelve Gold Gloves, and was named to twelve All-Star teams. Willie Stargell hit more home runs over the right field roof of Forbes Field than all other players combined.
Now the Pirates are a glorified minor league team, developing players to be traded to teams serious about winning just before free agency escalates their salaries. It’s a shame. They play in a beautiful ballpark, in a city that supports decent sports teams as well as any. The diehard fan base is still there. The farm system has players with great potential, but how many will be allowed to achieve it in Pittsburgh? Current management swears it has a plan, that it doesn’t just want to build a team that can eke out a winning record, but a champion. Nothing we haven’t heard before.
For someone who grew up watching the Pirates in the Seventies, this is hard to take.