The Pirates’ 10 Greatest Hitters
Honus Wagner (1900-17)
No player dominated a decade more than the gangly, imposingly gruff Wagner did over the National League during the 1900s when he ruled as the star of stars on a strong Pirates team.
Discovered by future New York Yankee general manager Ed Barrow in 1895, Wagner developed into a top player for the NL’s Louisville Colonels and became a member of the Pirates when the Colonels became victims of a four-team contraction after 1899, reducing NL membership from 12 teams to eight.
In his first year with the Pirates in 1900, Wagner set an unquestionable tone for the decade to follow. He set career highs with a .381 batting average, 201 hits, 45 doubles, 22 triples and 107 runs scored. Throughout the 1900s, he would continue to reign at the top of the stat sheets; when the decade ended, he had won seven batting titles, led the NL seven times in doubles, three times in triples, four times in runs batted in and five times in stolen bases. The only question was where to play him; over his first five years he was a vagabond with the glove, playing everywhere but the catcher spot. In 1903, he was finally given a permanent job at shortstop, where his fielding skills continually improved through to the sunset of his career.
Though his Pirates teams were constant contenders during his heyday, Wagner only made the World Series twice. Once he was a bust; in the very first World Series in 1903, he hit .222 and committed six errors in an eight-game loss to Boston. Six years later, he was the hero—hitting .333 with six steals, the latter number a series record that held for 58 years, in the Bucs’ seven-game triumph over the Detroit Tigers.
In 1911, Wagner won his eighth and last batting title, a NL record that would be equaled nearly a century later by Tony Gwynn. His qualities downgraded in the years to follow but he remained better than most players, hitting .300 up to the age of 39; in 1916, at age 42, he became the oldest player ever to hit an inside-the-park home run. After playing his last game in 1917, Wagner totaled 3,420 hits to currently rank him seventh on the all-time list; his 723 steals put him at 10th. He would become one of the five charter members of the Hall of Fame.
Wagner rejoined the Bucs in 1933 for a 19-year tenure as coach after becoming financially crippled from the Great Depression, and was responsible for helping to elevate protégé Arky Vaughan’s game during the 1930s. Four years after leaving the bench, Wagner died at age 77.
In modern times, Wagner is best recalled for being the face of the holy grail of sports cards, the 1910 American Tobacco Company baseball card. Very few of the cards had printed when Wagner told the company to stop, because he didn’t want his name associated with a tobacco company on a card given to kids. The most expensive of the few Wagner cards known to exist was bought in 2016 for a record $3.12 million.
Paul Waner (1926-40)
A scrappy, lightweight but fierce competitor who lashed out one line drive after another, Waner was an instant success at Pittsburgh in 1926 and became the pillar of the team’s strength over the next 10 years. When his sizzling drives were pummeling the New York Giants early in his career, Giant manager John McGraw told one of his scouts who had rebuffed Waner because of his diminutive size: “I’m glad you didn’t scout Christy Mathewson.”
Scooped up by the Pirates along with a lesser player for $100,000 after hitting .401 for the San Francisco Seals in 1925, the left-handed-hitting Waner batted .336 for the Pirates as a rookie and added a career-high 22 triples. A year later, he would win his first batting title while pacing the NL with 237 hits, 18 triples and 131 RBIs; he would win two more batting titles (in 1934 and 1936) while collecting 200-plus hits eight times for a franchise record. What Waner lacked in home run power—he never hit more than 15 in one season—he made up for in extra-base hits, ranking high in both doubles and triples on an annual basis; his 62 doubles in 1932 is the second highest ever recorded by a National Leaguer. And he almost never struck out, with only 367 in nearly 10,000 career at-bats.
In 1927, Waner was joined by his younger and even smaller (135 pounds) brother Lloyd—a solid contact hitter in his own right who would hit .316 with 2,459 career hits over an 18-year career—and together they lifted the Pirates to the World Series, hitting a combined .367 (as opposed to a .180 figure by the rest of the team), but they were overwhelmed in four games by the famed 1927 Yankees. Both Waners received their most memorable nicknames while in New York when a fan referred to Paul as “Big Person” and Lloyd as “Little Person”—but because of his thick Brooklyn accent, it came off the lips as “Big Poison” and “Little Poison.” To the layman’s ears, the latter description made more sense.
Reportedly a heavy drinker, Waner started the 1934 season dry and found his average tanking; at the problematic advice of player-manager Pie Traynor, he went back to the bottle—and the slump instantly came to an end, finishing the year with a league-leading .362 mark.
Waner was released by the Pirates after the 1940 season and played five more years past the age of 40 with dwindling results; ironically, his 3,000th career hit came against the Bucs as a member of the Boston Braves. That he didn’t get his number 11 retired by the Pirates until 2007 was an outrageous oversight; it took surviving family members to get it done, and only after they had directly contacted the Pirates’ front office and gave its executives a history lesson.
Arky Vaughan (1932-41)
Like Waner, Vaughan was not blessed with tremendous power and rarely reached for the fences but made up for it with a ferocious appetite for hits, great patience at the plate and very few strikeouts that made him one of the toughest outs in the game.
After a promising rookie season, Vaughan was given the gift of ultimate guidance when the Pirates brought in Wagner as coach in 1933. Vaughan was made a special pet project of Wagner, who taught him the finer points of hitting and fielding at shortstop. The polished protégé responded; he won a batting crown in 1935 with a terrific .385 average and a .491 on-base mark that would be the NL’s highest until Barry Bonds’ steroid-fueled run in the 2000s. Vaughan also finished the year with career highs in home runs (19) and RBIs (99). Defensively, Vaughan offset more than the average share of errors with tremendous range.
Vaughan took advantage of Forbes Field’s spacious outfield distances as a three-time NL leader in triples, topping out at 19 in 1933; though he hit only 96 career homers, he’s remembered as the first player to hit two in an All-Star Game (1941).
Prematurely traded to Brooklyn just after turning 30, Vaughan quit after two years with the Dodgers as a tempestuous relationship with tough-guy manager Leo Durocher became too much for him; he only returned after a three-year hiatus in 1947 because Durocher had been banned for the year by the commissioner’s office, and became one of the few Southerners to give Jackie Robinson southern comfort of a more sober and peaceful kind. Just four years after his last game, Vaughan drowned in a boating accident at age 40 in his native California.
Ralph Kiner (1946-53)
Postwar baseball’s first home run king, Kiner became the first NL rookie to lead the circuit in homers and led or co-led the NL in each of his seven full seasons at Pittsburgh—where he became a popular matinee idol with fans who had little else to cheer for during a downtrodden time for the franchise.
After powering 23 homers as a 1946 rookie, Kiner became the fortuitous benefactor of veteran star slugger Hank Greenberg’s arrival and ensuing tutorage in Pittsburgh. Greenberg donned a Pirates uniform on the condition that the team shorten the voluminous distances to Forbes’ left field wall; the Pirates did, and Kiner’s home runs totals at Forbes jumped from eight to 28 as he smacked a total of 51 for the year. When Greenberg left after one year, they renamed Forbes’ left field section from “Greenberg’s Gardens” to “Kiner’s Korner.”
The prime of Kiner’s career was full of tremendous feats. Five times he hit over 40 homers, and set a two-year mark (since broken) of 101 in 1949-50. He became the first National Leaguer to hit 50 homers twice in a career. In 1947, Kiner twice cleared the fence three times in a game, and in a four-game stretch over three days slammed eight over the fence. He went deep in three straight All-Star Games. Kiner’s batting averages may have fluctuated between good (.310 in 1949) and bad (.244 in 1952), but the fans weren’t coming to Forbes to see him hit .300. As a teammate once remarked: “Home run hitters drive Cadillacs. Singles hitters drive Fords.”
All of this became too much for Pirates president Branch Rickey, the old, sagacious baseball manipulator who perfected farm systems and busted up baseball’s segregation policy. In Rickey’s eyes, Kiner was one-dimensional and not the ideal ballplayer—and early in 1953, Rickey shipped him along with three teammates to the Chicago Cubs for six players and $150,000. In explaining the move, Rickey echoed something he once told Kiner during a salary dispute: “We’ve finished last with you, and we’ll finish last without you.”
Kiner had one more solid year in Chicago, but back problems became more persistent and he quickly devolved from there—proving one of Rickey’s better-known adages that it’s better to trade a player one year too early rather than a year too late. Kiner was done with the game just two years after his exit from Pittsburgh, with 369 career homers in 1,472 games.
In 1962, Kiner began a broadcasting career with the New York Mets that remained active until his death in 2014—despite a trail of embarrassing on-air sayings such as in 1989 when he said of closer Steve Bedrosian, “All his saves have come during relief appearances.”
Willie Stargell (1962-82)
Perhaps the most popular Pirate ever, the burly, immensely positive Stargell boomed, steered and parented his way through a 21-year career at Pittsburgh, becoming the central figure in the franchise’s most popular moments this side of Bill Mazeroski.
With his trademark windmill batting motion, Stargell did his best to remind his teammates that baseball was “play ball,” not “work ball.” He convinced others of his mantra by example, especially as teammates watched in awe at his ability to crush the ball; of the 18 balls hit completely out of Forbes Field over its 61 years in use, seven were hit by Stargell. When the Bucs moved to enclosed, multi-purpose Three Rivers Stadium, seats high up the third deck were repainted a different color to show where Stargell’s tape-measure shots had landed. And not only did he become the first player to hit a ball entirely out of Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium, he also became the second to do it.
It took nearly 10 years, but Stargell finally hit his prime in the early 1970s when he constantly hit at or near .300 and twice led the NL in homers—launching a career-high 48 in 1971, a season in which he had two three-homer games just 11 days apart. Bad knees began to impact his numbers in the late 1970s and he was switched to first base from the outfield as he began to pack on weight. But in 1979, Stargell continued on a second wind he had caught late the year before and had a renaissance campaign, hitting .281 with 32 homers and 82 RBIs in 126 games; but it was his father-figure guidance and upbeat leadership upon the team’s younger, talented players that proved valuable in forging a postseason spot. From there, the 39-year-old Stargell truly took over—hitting .415 with six doubles, five homers and 13 RBIs in 10 postseason games as the “We Are Family” Pirates came back to win a seven-game World Series against Baltimore. Stargell finished the year as NLCS MVP, World Series MVP, and co-NL MVP (with St. Louis’ Keith Hernandez), making him the oldest recipient of the honor until Barry Bonds grabbed one at 40. It was a fitting end to a decade in which Stargell led the majors with 296 homers.
Stargell finished his career in 1982 as the all-time Pirates leader with 475 home runs, 1,540 RBIs and 937 walks. Sadly, on the day PNC Park opened in 2001, the man fondly remembered as “Pops” passed away from kidney failure; just two days earlier, he could not attend an unveiling of a sculpture showing his likeness in front of the new ballpark.
Max Carey (1910-26)
A 17-year veteran who experienced the thick and thin of fortune at Pittsburgh, Carey may not have been the fastest baserunner during his time—but he was the best.
Born Max Carnarius, the switch-hitting Carey switched his last name to conceal his amateur status before the Pirates grabbed him; he kept the stage name intact once he became better known by it. Not a great hitter to begin his career, Carey sweetened his game by what he did once he reached base; he led the league in steals for the first time in 1913 with 61, and over the next 12 years would pace the circuit an additional nine times—giving him a NL-record 10 theft titles that would remain the major league standard until Rickey Henderson came along. But it wasn’t the quantity of steals that impressed people about Carey; it was his efficiency. While most major leaguers struggled with 50% success rates in stealing bases during his time, Carey scientifically studied opposing pitchers’ moves and averaged close to 80%. Carey’s basestealing abilities nearly reached perfection in 1922 when he stole 51 bases in 53 attempts, just one positive aspect of a career year in which he hit .329 with personal bests in hits (207), runs (140), home runs (ten), RBIs (70) and walks (80).
A 35-year-old Carey last thrived in the Pirates’ championship season of 1925, hitting a career-high .343 and pacing the league in thefts for the last time with 46. In the first and only World Series he would ever participate in, Carey hit .458 with three steals—and became one of the Game Seven heroes with four hits, including three doubles in sending the Washington Senators to defeat.
Carey’s tenure in Pittsburgh came to a messy conclusion the following year when he led a player uprising against former manager and current coach Fred Clarke, claiming that Clarke was stoking tensions and undermining manager Bill McKechnie in the dugout. Titled the “ABC Affair” because the plaintiffs included an “A” (pitching vet Babe Adams), “B” (Carson Bigbee) and “C” (Carey), the scandal led to the immediate ouster of all three players. Carey tried his hand at managing with Brooklyn in the early 1930s but lasted just two seasons, hounded for a series of bad player moves that would hurt the Dodgers for nearly a decade.
Fred Clarke (1900-15)
The fiery Clarke presided over the Pirates’ most sustained period of winning as the team’s manager and outfielder, repeatedly proving he was good at both.
Clarke debuted in the majors for Louisville in 1894 with a five-hit game and within three years was managing the Colonels at age 24. When the bulk of the team was absorbed into the Pirates after folding in 1899, Clarke was handed the managerial keys from Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfuss, who wasn’t thrilled with Clarke’s hard-fighting disposition—but as long as he won, it was tolerated. And so it would be over the next 14 years, all winning campaigns for the Pirates with four NL flags and one world title, in 1909 over Detroit.
Never a star player—the marquee was usually reserved for Honus Wagner, anyway—Clarke nevertheless was a solid component who did a little bit of everything to lead by example. He hit .351 with a NL-best 32 doubles in the 1903 campaign that sent the Pirates to the first World Series; six years later, as his numbers and playing time began to fade, Clarke surged anew and smacked the Pirates’ only two homers in the victorious Fall Classic against Detroit. After his average revived to a sparkling .324 in 1911, Clarke suddenly retired from playing, focusing on full-time managing duties for the next four years before stepping down entirely.
Clarke made a controversial return to the team in 1925 as bench coach for manager Bill McKechnie, but numerous players—including Carey and pitcher Babe Adams, who had begun their careers for Clarke many years earlier—claimed he was causing nothing but grief and havoc in the dugout and petitioned to have him fired. Ultimately, there were no winners in the situation, with mutinous players released, McKechnie fired for not controlling the situation, and (lastly) Clarke forced to resign.
Barry Bonds (1986-92)
A budding superstar who was already one in his mind when he showed up in Pittsburgh, Bonds was a raw and unrefined talent who needed five years of growth, seasoning—and much humility—to earn respect as a MVP-caliber player.
Throughout the late 1980s, a young, lanky Bonds was a work in progress as he tried to live up to the expectations of his father (ex-major league star Bobby Bonds) and of his own potential, which was given five-tool status. It wasn’t easy on the field—where he showed moments of greatness amid a general inconsistency in his game—and off the field, where he wore a chip on his shoulder handed down from his father, who came to distrust the media. The son followed suit and was often difficult, not just with reporters but with teammates, management and even manager Jim Leyland, who finally lost his patience with Bonds in 1991 by profanely chewing him out at spring training in full view of rolling cameras.
The hard-working Bonds put it all together in 1990, winning his first of two MVPs for the Pirates (and first of seven he would win throughout his illustrious yet controversial career), hitting .301 with 33 homers, 114 RBIs, 93 walks and 52 steals. In his next—and last—two years with the Bucs, Bonds maintained that level of excellence and at times exceeded it, showing hints that he was morphing into something quite special in baseball. But as outstanding as he was during the regular season in helping the Pirates to three straight NL East titles, he was just as awful in three straight NLCS losses that followed—hitting .191 with a single home run and just three RBIs in 20 games. The lasting impression of Bonds in a Pirates uniform was his failure to throw out Atlanta’s lead-footed Sid Bream at home on the play that ended the seventh game of the 1992 NLCS in the Braves’ favor; it was Bonds’ last action as a Pirate.
A free agent after 1992 and intent on putting Pittsburgh in his rear-view mirror, Bonds was plucked away with a lucrative deal from the San Francisco Giants, whom he would remain with for his final 15 seasons, reaching one home run milestone after another under suspicion of steroid use. In his absence, the Pirates immediately embarked on a record-setting run of a different kind: Twenty years without a winning record.
Andrew McCutchen (2009-17)
A model superstar, McCutchen lacked ego but little else, showing off a complete skill set and justifying the Pirates’ choosing of him as savior for a woebegone team stuck in a record run of consecutive losing seasons.
The Florida native was drafted 11th overall in the 2005 amateur draft and signed right out of high school, where he also excelled as a sprinter and as a wide receiver in football. Easily ascending through the minor league ranks, McCutchen first appeared on the major league scene early in 2009 and immediately made fans with the Pirates when he banged out three homers in a game (a first for a Pittsburgh rookie) and tripled in three straight games. Smooth and compact at 5’11” and 180 pounds, McCutchen showed that he had plenty of muscle, discipline and dreadlocks (at least until 2015, when he lopped them off) and constantly showed off his ability as a complete ballplayer offensively—always good for an average near .300 with 20ish homers, 90ish RBIs, 80ish walks and 20ish steals. The small-market Pirates at this time were loath to dish out big contracts, but they knew they were onto something with McCutchen and, in 2012, broke habit and gave him a six-year, $51 million contract with a team option for a seventh year. It was the second highest player pact in team history—and quite possibly the franchise’s best investment yet.
McCutchen proved his newfound value by becoming a top-three finalist for the NL MVP over the next three seasons, winning the award in 2013 after leading the Bucs to their first winning campaign (and playoff appearance) in 21 years. He didn’t knock in a run in eight postseason games for the Bucs, despite a .321 average.
A five-time All-Star, the congenial and highly respected McCutchen was the recipient of the 2015 Roberto Clemente Award, given to the major leaguer who best exemplifies sportsmanship and community awareness.
Roberto Clemente (1955-72)
Quiet if not aloof yet highly dedicated and inspirational, Clemente was a complicated study of a player who had a mild start to his career, then blossomed like fine wine as he grew better with each passing year as he approached 40—and then, he was gone, brutally taken away after reaching a memorable milestone.
Clemente was originally drafted out of his native Puerto Rico by the Brooklyn Dodgers, but because of the bonus baby rules of the time, he was eligible to be redrafted as the Dodgers didn’t keep him on the parent roster. Despite their best attempts to “hide” Clemente in Montreal from other scouts, the Pirates knew well of him already and swooped him up.
Over his first five years as a Pirate, Clemente put up statistics worthy of a common player with little power and patience and wayward batting discipline. But in the Bucs’ 1960 championship season, he began to click, hitting .314 with 16 homers and 94 RBIs; a year later, his average surged to .351, resulting in the first of four batting titles over the next seven years. Throughout the 1960s, Clemente would continue to star, adding rare power by mid-decade with a career-high 29 home runs and 119 RBIs in 1966 (which helped him win his only MVP award)—and becoming an annual, deserving default choice for Gold Glove representation in right field, where he was second to none with his range and an incredible throwing arm that was capable of throwing out runners at home on the fly. (He would amass 266 career assists from the outfield in 18 years.)
As Clemente entered his late 30s, he only seemed to get better—hitting over .340 from 1969-71. He capped this period by taking the 1971 World Series MVP, hitting .414 with a pair of homers in the Pirates’ seven-game conquest of Baltimore in 1971 for his second ring; like his first Fall Classic appearance in 1960, he hit safely in all seven games.
In 1972, a midseason injury cut the 38-year-old Clemente’s activity to a career-low 102 games, but he still hit .312; in his last at-bat of the year, he became the first Pirate ever to reach 3,000 hits—and three days later, by appearing as a defensive replacement on the season’s final day, he tied Honus Wagner for the most games played in Pirates history at 2,433.
Clemente would never get the chance to surpass the mark. On New Year’s Eve following the season, he boarded a flight from Puerto Rico to Nicaragua carrying relief supplies for earthquake victims in Managua. The plane crashed shortly after takeoff; there were no survivors. In the wake of Clemente’s passing, Cooperstown waived the mandatory five-year waiting period and he was immediately voted in as the first Latino Hall of Famer. The recently established Commissioner’s Award, given annually to major leaguers praised for their commitment to community, was renamed in his honor.
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