The Pittsburgh Pirates have established their legacy in Major League Baseball by housing famous players such as Roberto Clemente, Dave Parker, Andrew McCutchen, for their five World Series Championships, nine national league pennants, and nine National League East division titles. Founded in 1887, the Pirates have been a hallmark for Pittsburgh and an exemplar for the city’s teams to come. As our Penguins blog mentions, the hockey team was initially named the Pirates as a tribute to the baseball team. So, the next logical question is raised: Why are they called the Pirates?
Roberto Clemente (21) vs the New York Mets. 1962/63. Clemente Museum.
To understand the name, it's important to first understand the team's history. Pittsburgh’s baseball club was founded as part of the American Association of Base Ball Clubs (1882-1991). The team was known as Allegheny, which was a nod to the city of Allegheny, where the early baseball clubs played at Union Park. Allegheny played as an independent team for a few years before officially joining the International Association in 1877, which was an alternative to the National League and argued to be the “first” minor league. In 1887, Allegheny moved into the National League and became formally known as the Pittsburgh Alleghenys.
Art Whitney. Pittsburgh Alleghenys. 1887. eBay.
The Alleghenys struggled in their early years, and the 1890 season is remembered as a low point for the team, who finished 23-113. Due to poor performance, the Alleghenys were forced to move back into the American Association. However, there was some competition amongst the leagues, as the newly created Pittsburgh Burghers formed within the Players’ League and recruited many notable players. Luckily for the Alleghenys, the Players’ League and Burghers only lasted one season, and Alleghenys' owner, Danny McKnight, bought them out, officially returning the Alleghenys to the National League.
Recreation Park (formerly Union Park). 1884-1890. Pinterest.
It is within all this player movement and league switching that the Pirates name came to be. As the baseball club sought to reconstruct the roster and reignite the team, Lou Bierbauer became a favorable pick. Second baseman from the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association, Bierbauer was a free agent in the 1891 season, making him available to sign with the Alleghenys. It is reported that then manager, Ned Hanlon, visited Bierbauer at his home in Erie, PA., in the middle of winter to secure the contract. Although nothing illegal ensued and protocols were followed, the Athletics and American Association officials argued that the Alleghenys had “pirated” Bierbauer and that their actions were “piratical”.
1896 Pittsburgh Pirates. Wikimedia Commons.
Perhaps a mocking nod to the accusations about plundering players, the Pittsburgh baseball team officially nicknamed themselves the Pirates for the 1981 season and, in a few decades, became a team that made two World Series appearances in the first decade of the 1900s. In 1912, the Pirates logo officially appeared on the team’s uniforms, cementing the “piratical” team as the celebrated Pittsburgh Pirates.
1909 Pirates poster celebrating their National League pennant.
Baseball Reference. https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/International_Association
Positively Pittsburgh. https://positivelypittsburgh.com/baseballhistory/
Wikipedia. American Association. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Association_(1882–1891)
Wikipedia. Pittsburgh Allegheny. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pittsburgh_Allegheny_(International_Association)