How did the Pittsburgh Pirates get started?

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Answered by: Jayson, An Expert in the Learn Major League History Category
When the National League was founded in 1876, amateur baseball clubs popped up in and out of many big cities in the East, and Pittsburgh was no exception. However, none of the city’s teams got to play in the majors until the American Association was formed in 1882. With less strict behavioral standards than the seemingly puritanical NL, the AA was a huge attractor for so-called “river cities” like Pittsburgh.

Oddly enough, the team selected for the AA wasn’t even in Pittsburgh, but in Allegheny, a neighboring city right across the Allegheny River. (The city was annexed by Pittsburgh in 1907.) The franchise was officially known as the Allegheny Baseball Club of Pittsburgh and began play in Exposition Park, a field which also hosted events such as horse racing and circuses. However, constant flooding in the region forced the team to relocate to Recreation Park in 1884.

Following the sportswriters’ tradition at the time of naming teams after their home cities, the team became simply known as the “Alleghenys.” And yes, that’s how it was spelled. The founding owner of the ballclub was Denny McKnight, who also served as president of the AA. Unfortunately, he had to step down from the position in 1886 due to his involvement in a controversial deal surrounding St. Louis Browns second baseman Sam Barkley. Allegheny President William Nimick, presumably thinking, “If McKnight goes, we all go,” ended up pulling his team from the AA. He brought the franchise to the National League in 1887, officially renaming it the “Pittsburgh Alleghenys.”

Switching leagues would become prevalent in this team’s early years, for better or worse. In 1890, New York Giants great John Montgomery Ward founded the star-studded Player’s League, a direct result of forming the first professional sports labor union. The PL contained a franchise situated in Pittsburgh, known as the Pittsburgh Burghers, which successfully lured many star players away from the Alleghenys. With their lineup depleted, the Alleghenys finished the season 23-113, which, even when taking into account recent history, is still a franchise worst.

The PL teams, meanwhile, had decent attendance numbers, but due to the league’s profit sharing system, the franchises weren’t taking in as much money as projected. So the teams folded after only one season, and many players, including those from the Alleghenys, returned to their previous franchises. However, the Alleghenys also signed players that originally came from other teams, most notably second baseman Lou Bierbauer, who played for the AA’s Philadelphia Athletics. After the PL folded, the Athletics forgot to include Bierbauer on their reserve list, making him ineligible to return to Philadelphia. So the Alleghenys quickly took advantage of the oversight and signed him. Needless to say, the Athletics protested the move, and an official for the AA referred to the act as “piratical.”

Even though the Alleghenys held their ground that Bierbauer was a free agent, making them innocent of any wrongdoing, they decided to make sport out of the allegation. One could argue that the purpose was to take a jab at Philadelphia, as Pittsburgh fans are wont to do, or that such rascally shenanigans would lead to stronger PR among the working-class “river city” fans. Whatever the reason, the team became known to players and fans alike as the “Pirates.” It’s also worth noting that right after the PL folded, the team left Recreation Park and moved into the Burghers’ location-- a rebuilt Exposition Park, where it remained until 1909.

Technically, though, they were not yet known as the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1890, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names decreed that the final “h” should be dropped from all towns whose names end in “-burgh,” in an effort to create a more consistent naming system. So for a while, the city’s name was spelled “Pittsburg,” and the team was officially called the “Pittsburg Pirates.” The “h” was returned in 1911 after citizens protested that the name had historical significance and deserved to be an exception to the rule. The Pittsburgh Pirates name has gone unchanged since then.

Fun fact: The most valuable baseball card on the market today is believed to be a 1909 Honus Wagner card which depicts him as a member of “Pittsburg.” Reportedly, a near-mint card sold in 2008 for $2.8 million. Clearly, respect for the history of this ballclub is still alive and well. As Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker work toward bringing this franchise back into the public eye, who knows what other secrets can be uncovered.

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