The Past and The Present: Comparing The 1909 Pirates To Today

Brian WolffCorrespondent IJune 15, 2009

Admittedly, the game of baseball today is very different on many ways than the game of a century ago, or even of 50 years ago. That said, there are core elements of the game that have remained the same, dictated at least by the basic pitcher-batter conflict. Building a solid starting rotation, a capable bullpen, a set of reliable hitters and a smothering defense is the key to a winning team.

Watching the Pirates don the uniforms of the 1909 World Series champions was satisfying and inspires a raw comparison of the two teams.

The Pirates of today do not compare favorably to the team of 1909.

However, maybe given one or two leap years in there, the 2011 Pirates might truly begin to measure up.

Someone once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

It only stands to reason then that those that remember it will likely learn from it.



The Pirates from a century ago were first and foremost, a pitching team. The team that won 110 games that year did it on the backs of it’s starting pitching. The team did lead the league with what today would be a modest .260 batting average, and also led several offensive categories, but the pitchers were the core. Minus Honus Wagner, the Pirates were probably a middle range offensive team.

The Pirates won their games that year was with a combinaton of hitting, fielding and pitching, but their pitching staff arguably led the way.

The Pirates had a team ERA of 2.07—second only to the Chicago Cubs who had a 1.74 ERA. Now, these numbers have not been adjusted for inflation, but the National League had a combined 2.59 ERA that year.

The '09 Pirates had a couple of 20-plus game winners that year in Howie Camitz (25-6) and Vic Willis (22-11), with Lefty Leifiled getting close going 19-8. Rounding out the starting rotation for the Pirates in the series that year were Nick Maddox (13-8) and Babe Adams (12-3)—the could-have-been, three-game winning MVP of the ’09 series. There was no such award in back in the day.

Vastly improved over last season, the Pirates starting five have done well enough this year. They have had their bad outings, there is no doubt, but the Pirates are probably two pitchers away from a solid five. Paul Maholm and Zach Duke are two solid pieces in the Pirates starting rotation.

With a little more run support, one of Maholm and Duke could potnetially be a 20-game winner, and the other would not be that far behind.

The third spoke in the rotation is a toss up between Paul Ohlendorf and Ian Snell.  My money is on Ohlendorf. Jeff Karstens looks to be on his way down, as the Pirates want to take advantage of their recent trade for Charlie Morton.

If Morton can pitch to the caliber of Maholm and Duke, then the Pirates can probably count five extra wins by season’s end over what Karstens would likely produce. Another unknow is Phil Dumatrait.  If he can come back from his injury and pitch the way he was at the start of last year, the Pirates could be looking at a solid four starters with good options for number five.  

However, the pitching also needs some help in the bullpen.

Some weeks it seems the Pirates are in need of a solid middle reliever. Other weeks it seems the team is in need a of reliable closer. It is the rare week that the starting pitchers, the middle relievers, and the closers are all in sync.

The 1909 pitching staff averaged somewhere around seven innings a game for it’s starters during the season. The Pirates had some solid veterans and actually relied on a rookie with for three wins during the World Series.


The most famous Pirate that year, Wagner lead the team offensively and on the bases. Wagner hit .339. He played 18 years with the Pirates and finished his career in 1917 with his numbers dipping to the mid-to-high .200s. Wagner finished with a career average of .327. Not a power hitter, he hit only 10 homers twice in 21 major league seasons and he had less than five homers more often than he got more than five.

While this is true, apparently during this time in history the long ball was not yet fully discovered. Red Murray of the New York Giants lead the National League that year with seven home runs.

It was in June of that year that the cork-centered baseball was first patented and went into production. The next year league wide homers increased from 150 in 2009 to 214 in 2010 and 386 in 2011.

If there is someone on the Pirates team of today that looks like a Honus Wagner, it might be Freddy Sanchez. If he can become consistent, Sanchez could begin to fill that role. He lacks a lot of power but regularly hits over .300, is tied for the league lead in doubles, steals bases and is great defensively.

Truth be told, Wagner led many offensive categories in 1909 and the Pirates do not have someone right now that could truthfully fill those shoes. Despite all the moaning about the McLouth trade, being able to hit 20 plus homers a season is vastly diminished if you are only batting .265.

An all around athlete, Wagner also stole 35 bases that year. Nyjer Morgan is on track to get that this year, and Andrew McCutchen could get close. In the World Series, the Pirates stole 18 bases against a Detroit Tigers team that had problems at catcher.



The Pirates of ’09 were also known for their solid defense both in the infield and the outfield. They gave up few stolen bases and, like today’s team, limited the other team’s hitting by taking away hits with solid defense. This is probably the one area where the Pirates of today best match up with the ’09 team.

Morgan and McCutchen have the kind of speed that can regularly take away hits in the outfield. Jack Wilson and Sanchez are especially adept at keeping the ball in the infield and turning the double play. The LaRoche brothers are in sync with the throw from first to third, and Adam LaRoche has really stepped up with his glove at third.

So, how do they match up? Like I said, the Pirates of today are perhaps two years away from having a solid winner. They still don’t have a true offensive leader in the batting order, but they have many of the other pieces.


  • Today’s Pirate pitchers are moving closer and closer to having the four of five solid starters of 1909, and the bullpen seems to be getting stronger with recent additions. Getting Ryan Doumit back at catcher will help to settle the pitching staff as well.
  • Today’s Pirate hitters are an active bunch but they are streaky and they lack a true offensive leader, such as Wagner of the 1909 team. They are probably 75 percent of the way there. On the bases, they are fast especially with the recent addition of McCutchen.
  • Today’s Pirates defense is solid and is probably one of the best in baseball. If Wilson ends up getting traded, or even Sanchez, this could put a dent in their defense, which today is on par with the 1909 Pirates.


Statistics and other data for this story were culled from the following sources.



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