The following is part of a new feature to the site from Pirates Prospects contributor John Dreker. The feature focuses on the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and every Sunday, John will take a look at a different piece of that history. Last week, John looked at the first game ever played in Pittsburgh. This week follows up on that first game by looking at the first professional team in Pittsburgh, and their years in the American Association.
In 1882 the American Association was formed when two independent team owners attempted to meet up with National League owners in Pittsburgh with hopes of joining the league, which was looking to expand. When the two owners showed up to the supposed meeting they found themselves to be the only ones there and from that snub the current Pirates franchise was born. The owners were brought to the attention of H. Denny McKnight, a president of two local independent teams in the area, and from that impromptu meeting the American Association was formed with McKnight as the owner of the new Pittsburgh franchise while also serving as the league president.
The Pittsburg Alleghenys, as they were known back then, were one of six charter members of the league and were led by Al Pratt. He was a former player turned bartender and the guy who brought the two snubbed owners to McKnight, who in turn thanked Pratt by naming him manager. He was a poor pitcher in the National Association (the first major league) in the early 1870’s and in his rookie year he actually led the league in losses, homeruns allowed, wild pitches and somehow, strikeouts. As a manager he had a much better rookie campaign, leading the team to a .500 record but like his playing career, he lasted just two seasons. His firing in mid-1883 led to the team going through six different managers in the next season and a half including the owner McKnight and two of the players. The team had just a 61-145 record combined during those two seasons.
The Alleghenys played their home games in 1882 in Exposition Park, the first of three parks they played in with that same name, and all were basically built in the same area. Though they lasted just five years in the league they had three different home parks. The first park lasted just one year due partly to the constant flooding from the nearby Allegheny River but it also dried out once long enough to catch on fire. Despite the flooding problems, for some reason the second Exposition Park was built slightly closer to the river and it of course endured the same problems as the first. After just two seasons in that park the team moved to Recreation Park, formerly known as Union Park, which was located on the Northside of Pittsburgh and was in a much better (drier) area for baseball.
The team may have fared poor in the standings in 1883-84 but they had 1B/OF Ed Swartwood who would lead the league in batting in 1883 hitting .357 in a year only seven other players topped the .300 mark. Swartwood had finished 3rd in the league in batting the previous season, while leading the league in both runs and doubles and he also finished 3rd in OBP, slugging and OPS. In 1884 Ed batted just .288 but it was a full 57 points higher than the next best among the team’s top 10 leaders in at-bats. The 1884 team was low-lighted by the fact four of the regulars, plus the two main pitchers all batted under .200 and the team had just two home runs on the entire season.
The 1884 season may have been the team’s worst, but it was the start of what would be the team that eventually joined the NL in 1887 adding manager Horace Phillips that year, along with starting catcher Doggie Miller and infielder Art Whitney. The following season the team added six more key pieces, HOF James “Pud” Galvin who started the year with Buffalo in the NL and Ed “Cannonball” Morris who would win 80 games over the next two years. They also added regular position players, Tom Brown, Fred Carroll, Bill Kuehne and Pop Smith. All but Galvin played for the Columbus Buckeyes, a team that finished 69-39 in 1884 but folded due to league finances. Pittsburgh was able to buy most of the Columbus roster for just $6,000. The Alleghenys survived the league cut despite the fact they finished 11th out of 12 teams and had also lost money.
In 1885 the Alleghenys had their first winning season, going 56-55 but they played most of the season without Galvin, who combined with Morris, would go on to win 70 games in 1886. The team finished 2nd their last season in the AA but due to a quarrel with the league over the rights of 1B Sam Barkley, McKnight ended up getting fired as league president which led him to sell his team to William Nimick. The new team owner, angry over the way the league treated McKnight saw a chance to jump to the NL which was looking to drop the western-most team in Kansas City in order to save on other team’s travel expenses. In 1887 the Alleghenys joined the National League, and they’re one of five teams to continuously play in the NL since that year along with the Phillies, Cubs, Braves and Giants.