One has a tendency to think of steel when one thinks of Pittsburgh. The city is known worldwide as Steel City. And Pittsburgh steel has built such memorable landmarks as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building. So, when it comes to sports team names, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the pinnacle of logic. What is not at that lofty peak is the name of Steel City’s baseball team, peculiarly dubbed the Pirates. Why are the Pittsburgh Pirates named after people who rob ships at sea when the closest ocean is roughly 350 miles away?
Pittsburgh Pirates: A Tale of Piracy on the Not So High Seas
In 1887 the Pittsburgh Alleghenys joined the National League after previously playing in the International Association and the American Association. They were named after Allegheny City, which was right across the Allegheny River from downtown Pittsburgh. Then in 1890, the Players League was formed. The Alleghenys watched as many of their best players left and joined the Pittsburgh Burghers in the Players League. This included three future Hall of Famers, Pud Galvin, Ned Hanlon, and Jake Beckley.
The Alleghenys had struggled their first few seasons in the NL and now with the mass exodus of players to the Players League, they gave a whole new meaning to struggle. They finished the 1890 season with a 23-113 record. To the Alleghenys delight, and the rest of the NL, the Players League folded after just one season. As a result, players from the now-defunct Players League were expected to return to their previous teams.
One of these players was Louis Bierbauer. Although a curious thing had happened. His previous team, the American Association’s Philadelphia Athletics, had absentmindedly left him off of their roster. So in a sense, he was a free agent. Bierbauer was a well-rounded second baseman, a star in his time, and would have been an asset to any club. One such club was the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. They saw their opportunity to fill a spot at second and pounced, signing Bierbauer to what would become a six-year stay in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh was glad. Bierbauer was content. Little did they know that his old club wasn’t too happy about losing their star second baseman. Philadelphia and the American Association objected to the signing and called Pittsburgh’s actions “piratical”. The Alleghenys and Athletics brought the matter before an arbitrator who found in favor of Pittsburgh. Bierbauer was staying in Steel City.
And while Bierbauer didn’t stick around in Philadelphia, the piratical accusation did in Pittsburgh. Pirates loot on the high seas and, apparently, the Pittsburgh Alleghenys plunder players from other teams. This led to players and the public calling the Alleghenys the Pirates. Pittsburgh adopted the nickname for the 1891 season and 120 years later the Pittsburgh Pirates are still atoning for their sins.
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