The following is from Pirates Prospects contributor John Dreker, as part of his ongoing Pirates History feature. 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. This week John looks at Louis Bierbauer’s career, including how the Pirates got their team name from signing him.
Some people may have heard or seen the name Louis Bierbauer already around the ballpark or at least recognize the last name from the food stand at PNC park. Very few people actually know the man behind the story of how the 1890 Alleghenys (also know as the Innocents for a time that season) became the 1891 Pirates.
When the Player’s League was formed prior to the 1890 season many of the best players jumped ship to the new league. They were tired of the low pay, the reserve clause that binded them to teams and wanted to show the owners they could run their own league and keep the money of the people paying to see them play. Among those players was a 2B named Louis Bierbauer who was a member of the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association.
Louis started his major league career in 1886 as the opening day 2B for the Athletics. Just 20 years old at the time, the Erie, PA native had hit just .195 in the minors the prior year so it was quite a jump for the young infielder and he did well under the circumstances. He played in all but two of the team’s 137 games that year and hit .226 for the 63-72 for the 6th place Athletics. He also finished third in the league in fielding percentage and putouts, the main reason he was able to stay in the lineup everyday despite the low offensive output.
By the end of the 1887 season though, Bierbauer was gaining a reputation as one of the better all around 2B in baseball. He improved his average to a .272 mark while driving in 80 runs, stealing 40 bases and remaining steady with the glove. It was just two years later that he became a true superstar, one that would change the face of baseball just a year later. That year he drove in 105 runs, fourth most in the American Association. He also hit a then career high .304 and his defense continued to improve. He had the most putouts, best range among second basemen that year and posted a .941 fielding percentage, an amazing number for the day.
In 1890 Louis was obviously well sought after for the new league and he ended up on the Brooklyn Ward’s Wonders playing alongside John Montgomery Ward, his double play partner and leader of the Player’s Union formation. The team would finish in second place with Bierbauer scoring 128 runs, driving in another 99 and topping his previous season’s average by two points. He also led all 2B in assists that year and was again amongst the most sure-handed fielders.
When the Player’s League decided to fold most players returned to their old teams due to the reserve clause in place at the time. The Philadelphia Athletics though had failed to reserve Bierbauer for the following season and noticing this he and another player also left off the list (Harry Stovey) were free agents and they decided to shop themselves around. The Alleghenys jumped at the chance to sign him and the Athletics immediately took objection to this signing.
The case was brought before an arbitration panel with the American Association describing what the Alleghenys were doing as “piratical”, basically they were stealing a player from them by ignoring the reserve clause that all teams agreed to abide by in order to keep the players salaries down. The panel ruled in favor of Bierbauer and Stovey and the Pittsburgh franchise had a new name, one that has remained unchanged for longer than every other franchise except the Philadelphia Phillies and even they had an unofficial team name change during the 1940’s to the BlueJays. The ruling was a big blow to the American Association, two of their best players at a time they were already in financial trouble and nearing their own extinction which would take place just months later following the 1891 season.
Bierbauer’s career with the Pirates got off to a disappointing start, the star 2B hit just .206 his first season and despite playing 152 in 1892, the first year since 1881 that the NL was the only major league, he hit just .236 although his play at second base remained among the best in the league. It should be noted that while he was playing 2B, there was another guy playing the same position named Bid McPhee who is on the short list of greatest fielders ever, so anything that Bierbauer was able to lead the league in defensively should be considered quite an accomplishment.
By 1893 Louis had began to hit like previous levels but that era was one of the best ever for hitters due to the fact baseball changed the pitchers distance to home plate, giving an advantage to the batters in hope for more offense which is what owners figured would help sagging attendance. Just to show how much this improved offense, in 1894 Bierbauer hit .303 and drove in 109 runs. Jake Beckley had 122 runs batted in that season to lead the Pirates and he finished 10th in the league. As far as the .303 average, Louis actually brought down the team’s overall average that year as they batted a combined .312, a mark four other teams actually topped that year.
Bierbauer would finish out his Pirates career in 1896 with a .260 average over 709 games. He drove in 405 runs and scored 399 during his six seasons in Pittsburgh. By age 30 he was basically playing out the string, he played sparingly the next two seasons for the St Louis Browns(modern day Cardinals team), a team that went a combined 68-213 between 1897-98. Despite his major league career being over by age 32 Louis actually hung around in the minors for awhile finishing his professional playing career in 1914 in Canada batting .329 at age 48 in 112 games!
John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.
When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.