What I Learned From The Pirates

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Two months after the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series of 1909, my mother presented them with one of their most faithful fans—me. It took them another sixteen years to come up with their next triumph; and there were to be no more world championships after that until I was fifty. Sticking with a team like that just because you happen to have spent your early boyhood in western Pennsylvania is the sort of thing that gives you a reputation for being long-suffering, doggishly loyal, and probably no more eccentric than, say, Don Quixote.

I may as well admit that I was a Pirate fan before I knew they played baseball; I became one out of a provincial pride acquired in infancy. An older brother helped me spell the word Pittsburgh in the National League standings when I was six or so and the team was in first place. If the tabulation had happened to be of freight loadings instead of baseball, I might have grown up to be an enthusiastic fan of pig iron.

From the standings I moved over in the fullness of time to the box scores. Together they were to teach me much of what I know about arithmetic. More important, my conversation around the house began to feature strange gods, totally unknown to the rest of the family. With my siblings I could still discuss works like The Motor Boys, Sink or Swim, and Andy Grant’s Pluck, but these had already taken on for me a quality of squareness, or its pre-World War I equivalent. The nation’s real heroes, I knew perfectly well, were Max Carey, Babe Adams, George Gibson, and other Pirates. I was aware, but not too aware, of Fred Clarke and other giants who had walked the earth in the dim past, five or six years before. And I was sure that the new manager, a fellow named Hugo Bezdek, would soon revive the glories of 1909, which I took for a heritage the way an English boy might take Trafalgar or a Texan boy the Alamo.

Bezdek turned out to be a fourth-place sort of manager, and the Pirates a fourth-rate sort of club, through those early years, but my allegiance was held in place by my environment. My friends, after all, were fellow sufferers, and we no oftener talked of abandoning the team than we did of abandoning our families, which is to say, only occasionally. The question might come up toward the end of a twelve-game losing streak, but for the rest of the time we lived on hope and collected picture cards of the great Pirates of our time—Lefty Grimm, Rabbit Maranville, Wilbur Cooper, and one of baseball’s few concessions then to racial minorities, a Pawnee pitcher by the name of Moses J. Yellowhorse. The Chief—all Indian players were called Chief—won few games, but he was good copy for the town’s sportswriters, who rang all possible changes on his ancestry.

 

One of the great traumas of my childhood occurred in 1921, when the Pirates showed how easily they could throw away a pennant if they really put their minds to it. In late August, within sight of glory for the first time in twelve years, they traveled to New York with a seven-and-a-half-game lead for a series with John McGraw’s Giants. Unbelievably, they lost five straight games and never recovered either their momentum or their morale. The Giants went on to win the pennant, leaving thousands of eleven-year-olds in the Pittsburgh area with cases of cynicism, tics, and intermittent nausea, all of which were to linger for several days before giving way to great expectations for the next season.

That was the fine thing about baseball: no matter how depressing the let-downs, they were always supplanted—from inning to inning, from week to week, from year to year—by visions of splendor soon to come. Some hero would surely hit a homer with the bases loaded in the ninth. Fresh rookies would be coming aboard next spring, each one a potential star of the first magnitude—a dazzling second baseman, say, who would be a joy to watch in the double plays, or an outfielder capable both of great leaping catches to spoil enemy home runs and of knocking the ball out of the park the next time he came to bat. Or perhaps the team would acquire a pitcher who combined the grace of Christy Mathewson with the speed of Walter Johnson. At the very least the hated Giants might fold up and decay over the winter, giving the Pirates a clear track in the spring.

 
 

Given the laws of chance in a pastime that ran to 150 games or so a season—with an endless span of seasons ahead for an adolescent fanatic—how could such hopes fail in the long run? In the short run one could take the bumps and feed on anticipation. Dreamy as it all was, no one could say it was a harmful introduction to a life in which those same elements of vision, failure, and renewed hope would forever appear, disappear, and recur.