Baseball in Pittsburgh Before the Pirates

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.  For the first installment, there is no better place to start than with the first professional baseball game played in Pittsburgh.

Most Pirates fans have seen at some point “since 1887” associated with the team and they may know that’s the first season they played in the National League. Others may know that the current franchise actually started in the American Association, which was considered by many as an equal to the National League, in 1882 and that team moved to the NL in 1887 when the league had an opening for a new team. Very few people know that the town of Pittsburgh actually hosted an official National League game in 1878, making it the first major league baseball game in the town. The town had a minor league team in 1877-78, the first season of minor league ball.

In 1878 the National League was in it’s third season and a new team joined the league from Indianapolis named the Blues. They were an independent pro team the prior season but one of the better teams of the day not in the NL. They didn’t fare too well in what would be their only season and late in the year with home crowds dwindling the further back they got in the standings the team decided to move their three game series versus the Providence Greys to Union Park in Pittsburg (no H back then) which had held 2,500 fans at capacity. The location of Union Park was approximately the same spot Three Rivers Stadium was built at almost 100 years later, and it was used for amateur teams since 1876. Hard to believe nowadays but the move was made to increase the attendance, and it actually worked, although it wasn’t enough to keep the team in business. In another ironic twist to their season, the Blues played another three of their home games at Grand Ave Park in St Louis, which hosted an NL team the two years before but dropped out to start the 1878 season.

John Montgomery Ward started the first game played in Pittsburgh.

The first ever game in Pittsburgh took place on August 22, 1878, and the starting pitcher for the visiting Greys was Hall of Fame shortstop John Montgomery “Monte” Ward who had already beat the Blues six times that season. The opposing pitcher was Thomas Healey who was a member of the Greys pitching staff earlier in the year. The team went through five different guys in the first 25 games of the year before settling on Monte Ward, who went on to pitch 37 straight games for the team to finish the season, all complete games. Ward did make the Hall of Fame as a shortstop, but before he hurt his arm he accumulated a 158-102 record on the mound and his career ERA ranks 7th all-time. Healey on the other hand got cut from one team earlier just three games into his pro career and won only six games total in what would be his only season. So of course the first game in Pittsburgh was won by Healey and the Blues by a 5-1 score.

The teams concluded their three game series the next two days and both were won by the much stronger Providence team who were led by Paul Hines, the first Triple Crown winner in MLB history that season. One of the Indianapolis players who didn’t appear in the series was 265 game winner Jim McCormick, a rookie pitcher for the team, who ten seasons later finished his career with the 1887 Pittsburgh team. Those three games would be the only major league games played at Union Park.  The 1882 Pittsburgh Alleghenys played their home games at Exposition Park which was the first of seven stadiums the Pirates franchise played in during their 129 year history. So while the Pirates record books say the first NL game in Pittsburgh was played by the Alleghenys on April 30, 1887 versus the current day Cubs franchise, you know now that people in Pittsburgh actually got a taste of the major leagues nine years earlier.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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