Talented 1909 Pirates started new era of baseball

A couple of signature characteristics help define the '09 Pirates -- the best ballpark in the land, plenty of fireworks and the Dead Ball Era.

These traits aren't about this year's team, however. They apply to the 1909 Pirates, who christened Forbes Field, established franchise standards for excellence and celebrated the city's first championship with dazzling displays of pyrotechnics.

The last time the Pirates won more games than they lost may seem like ancient history. And their most recent World Series title, in 1979, seems as distant as the Third Punic War.

But reaching back to antiquity serves a higher purpose than waxing nostalgic. It calls attention to a time when baseball started to move into upscale ballparks of concrete and steel while leaving behind the rickety wooden firetraps of the 19th century.

"It has been overlooked, but 1909 is a very pivotal year in baseball history," said David Cicotello, who put together a book on Forbes Field in 2007.

"It was like the passing of the horse-and-buggy era and the emergence of the age of the automobile. The World Series was elevated to superstar status when the word hadn't even been coined yet."

All the stars aligned for owner Barney Dreyfuss and the Pirates that year.

The team won 110 games, a total that still stands as a franchise record. Its winning percentage of .724 still ranks fourth best in major-league history. The 110 wins are the same number posted by the 1927 Yankees, considered by many to be the greatest team ever.

The Cubs were two-time defending world champions and won 104 games in 1909, but they still finished second to the Pirates in the National League. That total is the highest ever by a runner-up.

"It is one of those seasons that gets lost for some reason," said John McMurray of Arlington, Va., chairman of the Dead Ball Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research.

With a population of 550,000, Pittsburgh was an industrial dynamo known as the Smoky City, and there was no H in the city's name then. Its first water filtration plant had just opened, but, suffice it to say, there were no national fishing tournaments on the three rivers.

Shortstop Honus Wagner was the highest paid player in baseball at $10,000 a season when the average industrial worker in America made $594 a year and worked a 52-hour week. A Model T Ford cost $850, and a cross-country trip by car took 56 days. Life expectancy was 53.8 years for a woman, about three years longer than for a man, but women did not have the right to vote. Also in 1909, the University of Pittsburgh moved to Oakland and adopted the panther as its mascot. And baseball umpires wore masks for the first time.

Starting the season at Exposition Park on the North Side, the Pirates got off to a sluggish 5-6 start in April.

Then they caught fire. After sweeping four games from the Cubs in Chicago in the midst of the seven-game winning streak, the Pirates took over first place for good on May 5.

Later that month, President William Howard Taft was in town and elected to see a game, sitting in the grandstand like a common fan. He stayed to the final out as the Pirates -- known familiarly as the Buccaneers -- lost, 8-3, to the Cubs in 11 innings. It cost the chief executive a cigar as part of a wager with his brother Charles, who owned the Cubs.

Then came a winning streak of 14 straight, and the New York Journal said of the Pirates: "They have everything, and they are using all of it every day. Everybody is batting, and they are fielding like 15 men instead of nine."

Back in the day, Exposition Park was flooded so many times that when water pooled in the outfield, local reporters referred to the puddle as Lake Dreyfuss.

But the Pirates' owner had already found a new location for the Pirates. With the help of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, he had purchased seven acres of the Mary Schenley estate in Oakland. Using $1 million of his own money, he built Forbes Field and moved the Pirates there at the end of June.

"Merely to sit in this wonderful stand, and rest the eye on the splendid expanse of emerald field, level as a billiard table, and covered with velvety turf, is a positive pleasure," wrote the Pittsburg Press. "Never in history has a private or corporate enterprise attracted such lively popular interest."

The new ballpark had unheard of modern conveniences -- ramps instead of stairs, public telephones, elevators, parking spaces for cars. The sod came from Crestline, Ohio, and ticket prices ranged from 25 cents in the temporary bleachers to $2 for a box seat.

A throng of 30,388 -- the largest crowd ever to watch a baseball game to date -- watched the Pirates lose to the Cubs, 3-2. Still, it was only their third loss in 22 games in June.

"It was a monster outpouring of representative people, which taxed the world's greatest amusement palace to its utmost capacity," The Press reported.

A Fourth of July celebration was held in Forbes Field as part of the opening weekend celebration. It included, of course, the oohs and aahs of a colorful fireworks display.

The Pirates kept winning, setting a franchise record with 16 straight victories at one point. They clinched the pennant on Sept. 28 and prepared to meet Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.

"I can assure the fans that we will do our best to uphold the honor of the Smoky City," player/manager Fred Clarke said.

Fans donated $607.16 as a bonus, and the manager accepted the money in a ceremony at home plate. A wreath of evergreen was placed on his brow, and dozens of rosebuds were showered over him.

At 35, Honus Wagner won the seventh of his eight batting titles with a .339 average while being the only hitter in the league to knock in 100 runs. He also led the NL in doubles, extra base hits, total bases, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

The barrel-chested shortstop, whose legs were severely bowed, was a legendary fielder, too. So adept was he that the local citizenry said you could roll a beer barrel between his legs but not a ground ball.

Teammate Tommy Leach led the league in runs with 126. Pitcher Howie Camnitz was 25-6 with a 1.62 ERA and 20 complete games. Vic Willis went 22-11 and Lefty Leifield was 19-8.

For the decade, the Pirates won 938 games -- the franchise's best mark over a 10-year period. The team of the 1970s, which won two world titles and four other division crowns, won 916 games.

In leading the Tigers to their third straight American League pennant, Ty Cobb won the triple crown and was confident of beating the Pirates in the series.

"I will have to be convinced that they have it on the Tigers in any department. The Tigers will win it, and mind what I say," he said.

It was the first time that the batting champions in each league met in a World Series, and the spotlight shone on the Cobb-Wagner matchup, with the Pirates' shortstop having the better series.

But the surprise for the Pirates was a rookie pitcher, Charles "Babe" Adams. He started and won three games in the series, all of them complete games, while posting an ERA of 1.33.

He was the winner in the decisive Game 7, which the Pirates won, 8-0, at Bennett Park in Detroit.

Having no other way to follow the game, a Saturday afternoon crowd gathered outside the Press offices as a man with a megaphone shouted out the play-by-play as it came in by wire.

"This is the happiest night of my life," the Babe said.

When he returned to a hero's welcome, the rookie pitcher was presented a cash gift of $1,243 from the fans in addition to the winning share of $1,825 per player. He was so popular that, according to the Press, 436 women gathered outside his apartment for a chance to kiss him. Knowing that his wife might be uncomfortable with such a public display of affection, he checked into a hotel to avoid the crowds.

The city went wild over the exploits of the baseball team. Mayor William A. Magee started a tradition by organizing a parade that snaked from Downtown out to Forbes Field.

At Forbes Field, 20,000 people had gathered to cheer their champions and witness the presentation of the World Series checks. National League president John Heydler said, "There is nothing in the annals of baseball to compare with it."

Two personalities from the 1909 team remain part of the fabric of Pirates baseball to this day -- Honus Wagner and Barney Dreyfuss. Both spent time at Exposition Park. Both transferred the flag to Forbes Field. And monuments to each man were moved to Three Rivers Stadium and then to PNC Park.

The shortstop was a charter member of the Hall of Fame. His statue, first erected outside of Forbes Field, stands behind the home plate entrance off Mazeroski Way.

"He is still the benchmark of shortstops among baseball historians," said Dennis DeValeria, a biographer of Wagner's.

Last summer, decades after his death, Mr. Dreyfuss was inducted into the Hall of Fame. A monument to him was originally placed near an exit gate at Forbes Field and now sits inside PNC Park.

By quirk of schedule, the Cubs -- still looking for their first world title since 1908 -- are in town for a game on June 30, 100 years to the day that they helped open Forbes Field. A fireworks night promotion will be held three days earlier.

Librarian Angelika Kane contributed to this article. Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com . The copy of the the National League pennant is owned by Lyman Hardeman, of Austin, Texas, editor of the magazine Old Cardboard and Web site oldcardboard.com . First Published April 5, 2009 4:00 AM


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