Retired numbers: Pittsburgh Pirates

Pitchers apparently need not apply for this club’s ultimate honor

I launched my club-by-club review of retired numbers last September 11, vowing to visit a new team every second Friday. My initial subject was the Los Angeles Angels, who occupy the leadoff slot in baseball’s alphabetical lineup of nicknames.

The unrelenting schedule has continued ever since, bringing us today to the two-thirds milepost, the 20th of 30 stops. (The final installment, should you care, will focus on the New York Yankees. It’s slated for October 22, just in time for the World Series.)

The Pittsburgh Pirates have retired nine jerseys, putting them slightly below the norm for clubs in operation for more than a century. The 16 franchises that are 100-plus years old have honored an average of 10.4 players and managers. (The Pirates trace their roots to 1882.)

Will Pittsburgh catch up to the pack? The team has several plausible candidates to ponder, as you’ll see below. But it must be admitted that none is so compelling as to guarantee quick action.

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Pirates’ numbers already retired

The nine honored Pirates include seven players (all inducted into the Hall of Fame) and two managers (neither enshrined in Cooperstown). Here they are by the numbers:

No. 1 Billy Meyer must have been a great guy. How else to explain the retirement of his jersey? Meyer managed the Pirates for five seasons (1948-1952), four of which ended with sub-.500 records. He resigned after going 42-112 and finishing 54.5 games off the pace in 1952.

No. 4 Ralph Kiner (1946-1953) led the National League in home runs in each of his first seven seasons with the Pirates, peaking with 54 in 1949 and 51 in 1947. The left fielder ranks second on Pittsburgh’s all-time list for homers (301), fifth for walks (795), and seventh for runs batted in (801).

No Pirate has launched more home runs than the 475 by No. 8 Willie Stargell (1962-1982). The left fielder and first baseman also remains the club’s overall leader for walks (937), extra-base hits (953), and RBIs (1,540). Stargell shared the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award with the Cardinals’ Keith Hernandez in 1979.

The career of No. 9 Bill Mazeroski (1956-1972) was defined by his Game Seven home run that clinched the 1960 World Series for the Pirates, but the long ball was not his forté. Mazeroski never hit more than 19 homers in a season. The second baseman was famed for his skill in the field, winning eight Gold Gloves.

No. 11 Paul Waner patrolled right field for the Pirates for 15 seasons (1926-1940), winning three National League batting titles and an MVP trophy along the way. He ranks first in franchise history for doubles (558), second for runs (1,493) and triples (187), and third for hits (2,868).

Many experts consider No. 20 Pie Traynor (1920-1935, 1937) to be one of the best third basemen of the pre-expansion era. He never won a batting title, though he did hit .320 or better in seven seasons. Traynor holds a prominent place on several of the club’s all-time lists, including fourth for hits (2,416) and RBIs (1,273) and sixth for runs (1,183).

An offseason plane crash brought a tragic end to the life of No. 21 Roberto Clemente (1955-1972), who was only 38 years old. He rapped precisely 3,000 hits in his career, one of only 32 players to reach that threshold. The right fielder was the NL’s MVP in 1966, and he won batting championships in four other seasons.

If you consider wins above replacement to be the decisive measure, then No. 33 Honus Wagner (1900-1917) ranks as the greatest Pirate ever. Wagner’s 120.1 WAR puts him more than 25 points ahead of runner-up Clemente, while his 2,967 hits in a Pittsburgh uniform rank second in franchise history. The shortstop won eight NL batting titles in all.

No. 40 Danny Murtaugh managed the Pirates for 15 seasons in four stints (1957-1964, 1967, 1970-1971, 1973-1976). He was considerably more successful than Billy Meyer. Murtaugh led Pittsburgh to a pair of World Series championships (1960 and 1971) and won a total of 1,115 games.

Pirates’ candidates for retired numbers

If the Pirates are looking for suggestions for future honors, I have eight to offer. The first six candidates are listed in numerical order, followed by two who never wore numbers.

The Pirates haven’t won the World Series in 42 years, ever since No. 7 Chuck Tanner managed the 1979 squad to a comeback title. The Pirates fell behind the Baltimore Orioles, three games to one, only to sweep the final three contests. Tanner won 711 games in nine years at the helm in Pittsburgh (1977-1985).

Pittsburgh has never retired a pitcher’s number. The best candidate to break that shutout is No. 19 Bob Friend (1951-1965), who led the National League with a 2.83 earned run average in 1955 and 22 victories in 1958. Friend is still the club’s overall leader in starts (477), innings (3,480), and strikeouts (1,682).

Hall of Famer Arky Vaughan (1932-1941) has not been given a retirement ceremony, though his number is no longer in circulation. Why? Because Vaughan wore No. 21, which was later given to Clemente. The shortstop won the 1935 batting title with a .385 average, and he hit a solid .324 during his decade in Pittsburgh.

No. 22 Andrew McCutchen (2009-2017) was named the National League’s MVP in 2013 and finished among the top five votegetters for the award three other times. He also won the 2012 Gold Glove for center fielders. McCutchen is fourth in the club’s overall rankings for homers (203) and seventh for extra-base hits (539).

Barry Bonds is associated in most minds with the San Francisco Giants, but don’t forget that he wore No. 24 for the Pirates during the first seven years of his career (1986-1992). The left fielder won a pair of Most Valuable Player Awards in Pittsburgh (1990 and 1992), and he ranks fifth in franchise history for homers (176) and seventh for steals (251).

No. 39 Dave Parker (1973-1983) won an MVP trophy (1978), a pair of National League batting titles (1977 and 1978), and three Gold Gloves while playing right field for the Pirates. He ranks sixth in franchise history for homers (166), seventh for doubles (296), and 10th for runs batted in (758).

Max Carey (1910-1926) played for the Pirates before they affixed numerals to uniforms. The speedy Hall of Fame outfielder led the league in stolen bases 10 times. He ranks fourth in franchise history in games (2,178), trailing only Clemente, Wagner, and Stargell. He’s also fourth in runs (1,414) and hits (2,416). And, of course, he is No. 1 in steals (688).

Another Hall of Famer, Fred Clarke, served as Pittsburgh’s left fielder for 15 seasons (1900-1911, 1913-1915), doubling as the club’s manager for that entire span. He directed the Pirates to four NL pennants and the 1909 world title. His 1,638 hits are 10th on the Pirates’ all-time list, while his 1,422 wins are the most for any Pittsburgh manager.

The outlook

If the Pirates applied the Billy Meyer yardstick to my candidates, all eight would immediately have their numbers retired. (That includes Carey and Clarke, who could be assigned arbitrary numerals or be honored with numberless jerseys.)

But that’s clearly not going to happen. The Pirates move slowly in such matters. They haven’t held a retirement ceremony since 2007, when Waner was added to the elite group, and that was the first one since 1987.

Carey and Clarke are both Hall of Famers and been eligible for more than 90 years. They’ve been ignored all that time, and there’s no reason to expect a sudden upswing in interest. Let’s strike both from the list.

Vaughan is another member of the Hall of Fame who is unlikely to be chosen. He departed Pittsburgh a few months before Pearl Harbor, a full 80 years ago. His cause is also hampered by the fact that a true superstar, Clemente, later wore the same number.

Nor are the odds particularly good for Friend or Bonds. The former was a decent pitcher, though no superstar. The latter clearly achieved greatness during his Pittsburgh years, as even his critics admit, but he left town acrimoniously as a free agent. Subsequent accusations of steroid abuse have sullied his reputation.

The 1971 world champions are already represented by Clemente, Stargell, Mazeroski, and their manager, Murtaugh. But the 1979 titlists have not been given their due, since only Stargell has had his jersey retired. Ceremonies for Parker and manager Tanner could redress the balance.

As for McCutchen? He’s still active with the Phillies, so it’s too soon to answer. But there’s no doubt that he served as the symbol of the briefly resurgent Pirates during the previous decade, a period that still warms the hearts of Pittsburgh’s long-suffering fans.

It’s worth noting that Parker’s No. 39 is in service today, but no Pirate has worn Tanner’s No. 7 since 2013 or McCutchen’s No. 22 since he left in 2017.

Perhaps the ever-cautious Pirates are contemplating another ceremony in the years ahead.

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