Somewhere in the bowels of Forbes Field and Three Rivers Stadium, the Pittsburgh Pirates built an assembly line that created great hitters as efficiently as the nearby mills produced the sheets of steel that built the city. Since 1900, the Pirates have produced 25 batting champions and a parade of Hall of Famers — 36 in all that have worn the Pirate uniform at one time in their career.
The Pittsburgh Alleghenys joined the National League in 1887, playing and winning their first game 6-2 against the Chicago White Stockings. The nickname Pirates was hung on the club in 1891 after they were accused of hijacking a player under contract to the Philadelphia Athletics.
The Pirates stocked their roster with talent from surrounding Midwestern teams, most notably a somewhat bowl-legged shortstop named John Peter Wagner. Better known as Honus, he would spend the next 17 years in Pittsburgh and would be called by both teammates and opponents the best shortstop, and perhaps the best player, in the history of the National League. He would win eight batting titles; retire with 3,420 hits and a .328 lifetime average. Wagner would be one of the original five inductees into baseball's Hall of Fame.
At the turn of the 20th century, the new American League liberally raided National League teams for talent, but somehow never got around to luring away the better Pirate players. By keeping their roster intact, the Pirates became a preeminent franchise in the National League.
They opened the century by winning three consecutive pennants (1901-03). The 1902 team won 103 games and finished a mind-boggling 27 games ahead of second place Brooklyn. During these three seasons, Wagner hit .353, .330 and .355, while workhorse hurler Deacon Phillippe won 64 games and Hall of Famer Jack Chesbro won 22 and 28 games before leaving for New York in 1903.
The Pirates represented the National League in the first World Series (1903), a best of nine event against Boston. Phillippe defeated Cy Young in the first ever Fall Classic game, 7-3. Phillippe pitched five complete games in the Series and won three, but Boston won the championship in eight games.
In 1909, the Pirates moved into Forbes Field and fielded their first championship team. That unit won 110 games, with Wagner hitting .339 and the pitching staff recording a stellar team ERA of 2.07. They bested the Tigers four games to three in a World Series billed as a showdown between each league's best player - Pittsburgh's Wagner against Detroit's Ty Cobb. Wagner hit .333, Cobb only .231.
The Pirates began a slow decline in 1910, bottoming out in 1917 with a 51-103 record, a sad swan song to Wagner's career. The Pirates put their assembly line into overdrive in the early 1920's and produced an impressive litany of Hall of Fame hitters: Harold "Pie" Traynor (lifetime .320 during 16 years and voted the National League's greatest third baseman in baseball's 1969 Centennial poll); Hazen "Kiki" Cuyler (.321 in 18 seasons); Paul Waner (3,152 hits, .333 average and three batting titles during 20 years), his brother, Lloyd Waner (.316 during 19 years); Arky Vaughn (.318 in 16 seasons and one batting title) and Max Carey (2,665 hits and a .285 average in 17 seasons).
The Pirates played in two World Series in that decade, winning the 1925 pennant and their second world championship by defeating Washington in seven games. They pounded the great Walter Johnson for a 9-7 win in the decisive game. They finished on top two years later, but ran into the buzz saw that was the 1927 Yankees and lost four straight.
From 1928-1945 the franchise was middle of the pack, and a lot worse from 1946-57 when it managed only one winning season (1948) despite Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner slugging home runs at an unmatched pace. He won seven consecutive home run titles (1946-52).
The assembly line geared up again in the mid-1950's, churning out the first Latin superstar, Roberto Clemente (.317 in 18 years, 3,000 hits and four batting titles), shortstop Dick Groat (.286 during 12 years and one batting title) second baseman Bill Mazeroski (.260 during 17 years) and, in 1962, Willie Stargell (.282 and 475 homers and two home run titles during 22 seasons).
The Pirates smashed their way to the 1960 pennant and exacted revenge against the Yankees in one of the strangest Fall Classics ever. The Yanks won three games by a composite score of 38-3, but the Pirates won the other four close games, with Mazeroski's walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth of Game Seven giving the Pirates their third World Championship.
The Pirates abandoned Forbes Field for Three Rivers Stadium in 1970 and two years later the team was dealt a tragic blow when Clemente was killed in a New Year's Eve 1972 plane crash attempting to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
Undeterred, the assembly line was at it again in the early 1970's, surrounding Stargell with a great generation of hitters including Dave Parker (.290 during 19 seasons and two batting titles), Al Oliver (.303 in 18 years), Richie Zisk (.299 in his six years with the Pirates) and Richie Hebner (.277 and 121 home runs in his seven years with Pittsburgh). The Pirates also traded for Bill Madlock, already a two-time batting champion. He won two more titles while a Pirate and hit .297 during his seven year stint with them.
The Pirates dominated the newly formed National League Eastern Division, winning it five of six years (1970-71-72-74-75) and again in 1979. The 1971 and 1979 teams won world titles by defeating Baltimore both times in seven games.
After lean years in the 1980's, the Pirates' assembly line produced one of its most special talents in Barry Bonds, who went on to break Henry Aaron's career home run record as a member of the San Francisco Giants. In seven seasons with the Pirates, Bonds hit .276 and whacked 176 home runs. Also emerging was Bobby Bonilla (.284 during six years with Pittsburgh) and Andy Van Slyke (.284 and 117 home runs), via a trade with the Cardinals.
This edition of the Pirates won three consecutive division titles (1990-92) with Bonds hitting 92 home runs and driving in 333 runs during that span. They failed to advance to the World Series in any of those seasons, and when Bonilla and Bonds left for lucrative free agent contracts the Pirates took a severe nose dive and have yet to recover. In fact, they did not record a winning season from 1992 through 2010.
The Pirates moved into PNC Park in 2001, but somebody forgot to bring the assembly line. Maybe it was disassembled in the same cost-cutting maneuvers that drove away talent (Aramis Ramirez, Jason Kendall, Brian Giles), populated the roster with young and inexperienced players, alienated fans and turned the Pirates into one of the game's most forlorn franchises.
As ownership worked to restore the team's competitiveness and win back fans, it is left to the ghosts of Wagner, Traynor, Waner, Kiner, Clemente and Stargell to remind fans of the proud legacy that was the Pittsburgh Pirates.