Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Best Ever: Pittsburgh Pirates

I was going to continue my discussion of the Hall of Fame, but a loyal reader asked me to take on the Pittsburgh Pirates, his favorite team. So here we go with my continuing feature on the best ever position players and pitchers for each franchise.


The Contenders: Honus Wagner, Paul Waner, Roberto Clemente (with apologies to Arky Vaughan, Willie Stargell, Barry Bonds)

Though they haven't been any good for over 15 years, this is a franchise that has won nine pennants and five World Series, so the Pirates' all-time team is pretty loaded. In fact, let me present to you my picks for the all-time Pirates positional lineup:

C: Jason Kendall
1B: Stargell
2B: Bill Mazeroski
3B: Pie Traynor
SS: Wagner
OF: Clemente, Waner, Bonds or Ralph Kiner (depending on whether you consider Bonds a Pirate or a Giant)

Bench: Vaughan (he played some 3B and OF, but was mainly a SS and can't beat out Wagner), Brian Giles, Tommy Leach, Fred Clarke, Lloyd Waner, Max Carey, Dave Parker

But who's the greatest? It really is no contest. Honus Wagner is not only the greatest Pirate of all time, he's one of the top five players of all time. Don't know much about Wagner? As a fielder, Wagner was the greatest of his time. As a hitter and baserunner, only Ty Cobb was better. As a positive clubhouse influence, he was unmatched. He was more beloved by fans than anybody until Babe Ruth. He was friendly with rookies and veterans alike, and he maintained his humility despite his fame.

“If I had a choice of all players who have played baseball,” long-time Yankee boss Ed Barrow, who guided Babe Ruth’s career, once said, “the first man I would select would be Honus Wagner.” And legendary manager John McGraw said: “I consider Wagner not only as the number one shortstop, but had he played in any position other than pitcher, he would have been equally great at the other seven positions. He was the nearest thing to a perfect player no matter where his manager chose to play him.”

The selection of Wagner in no way denigrates the achievements of Paul Waner and Roberto Clemente, both among the greatest right fielders of their time. Waner, for those unfamiliar, was a hitting machine in the 1920s and 1930s. He didn't have much home run pop, but only because Forbes Field during his era was positively unfriendly to home runs. Not only was Waner a terror at the plate and in the outfield, he could also attack the bottle. There is a famous story that he quit drinking one year at the request of his manager. By midseason, however, he was batting just .240, so the skipper brought him some liquor, and Waner’s batting stroke returned.

Clemente, you probably already know about. He also was a hitting machine, and his fielding skills and throwing arm are legendary. Most long-time fans can tell stories about the amazing things Clemente could do in the outfield, like throw out a runner at home from the warning track on one bounce, or gun a runner at third on the fly from the right-field corner. He was that good and that memorable.

The Winner: Wagner

Note: In terms of talent, Barry Bonds might surpass both Waner and Clemente, but he played only six years with Pittsburgh and for these purposes, I consider him a Giant.


The Contenders: Deacon Phillippe, Wilbur Cooper, Bob Friend

This is a much more difficult selection to make, which probably explains why the Pirates haven't won more pennants during their history. None of the three contenders is in the Hall of Fame. Cooper is Pittsburgh's all-time leader in wins with 202, while Friend has 191 and Phillippe has 168.

Phillippe was one of the pitching aces of the Honus Wagner-era great teams during the first decade of the 1900s, winning four pennants.

Cooper never played with a winner, joining the Pirates three years after their 1909 pennant and being traded the year before they won the 1925 World Series.

Friend, meanwhile, joined the club in 1951 during the club's absolute nadir and led the club's resurgence in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He won 20 games only once, but he was consistently better than the league average for over a decade.

The Winner: I'm going to go with Bob Friend. On the surface, Cooper's stats are better, but I think that, when you adjust for the playing conditions (4-man rotation, air travel, etc.) and the quality of competition (the NL in the 1950s was a much tougher place to pitch than the NL of the 1910s and 1920s), Friend comes out on top.

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