When Andrew McCutchen was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 2013, he became the sixth man in the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates to be so honored. There have been seven MVPs in Buccos history, but Barry Bonds won it twice in 1990 and again in his final year playing with Pittsburgh in 1992.
Odds are there won’t be a Most Valuable Player in the National League this year who plays for the Bucs, but since the award was first presented in 1931, six Pittsburgh Pirates have been named by the Baseball Writer’s Association of America.
The official name of the Most Valuable Player award for each league is the “Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award” in honor of the late and once great commissioner of the sport. The award took on that name in 1944. Landis ruled the professional baseball world from 1920 until he passed away while still holding office in 1944.
The inaugural winners were Lefty Grove in the American League and Frankie Frisch in the National League. Grove played for the Philadelphia Athletics while Frisch was a star with the St. Louis Cardinals. The first time a Pittsburgh Pirate won the award came in the same year the Buccos upset the heavily favored New York Yankees in the World Series, 1960. That was the series won in the bottom of the ninth inning on Bill Mazeroski‘s famous game-winning round tripper.
Dick Groat was named MVP that season after hitting for an average of .325 to lead the National League on 186 hits. Not known as a home run hitter, Groat put just two balls out of the park in 1960. But he scored 85 times and added 26 doubles. Six years later, the great Roberto Clemente was the next Most Valuable Player for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York in 1973, Clemente was a teammate of Dick Groat in 1960 but in 1966, Clemente despite not being the league’s leader in average, still hit 317 with 119 RBIs; smacked 29 home runs; 11 triples; 31 doubles; while getting 202 hits from the plate.
In his home at right field, defensively, Clemente made 311 putouts to go with 17 assists. Despite making 12 errors, the great outfielder (who was known for throwing behind a runner at first base after a single in an effort to throw out the runner after his turn at first) was responsible for three double plays from the outfield in 1966.
“When Clemente was tragically killed in 1972, there was a great sense of loss in Pittsburgh the following season. It was common thought that there would never be another great right fielder like “the great one” as Clemente was often referred to as. But along came a big, athletic right fielder (6’5″, 230) who went on to become known as The Cobra.
Dave Parker was a beast at the plate, on the base paths, and had a monster arm in right field. In 1978, he would have a spectacular year that saw him lead the National League with a .334 average to go with 30 homers. 117 RBIs did Parker register as well as 32 doubles; 12 triples; 20 stolen bases; 194 hits; and led the league in slugging average with a mark of .585.
His 340 total bases were also a N.L. high. Dave Parker would end up playing with several more teams when he left the Pirates but in 11 seasons with Pittsburgh, he batted .305 with 166 home runs and 758 RBIs. He also stole 123 bases. Former Pirates Manager, the late Chuck Tanner who was the field general from 1977-1985 and handled the Pirates’ lineups that included Dave Parker, once said about the man: “You can go through life and not find another Dave Parker.”
In an earlier article I once wrote, the year 1979 was a feature story. That’s the year both the Pirates and Steelers won their respective league championships. But for the Pittsburgh Pirates, it was not just about winning the World Series, rather a storyline headlined by the late, lovable, Willie Dornel Stargell.
Manning first base, Stargell was the front-runner of a team that adopted the theme “We are Family” based on the famous song by Sister Sledge. The song became the anthem for the Bucs that year all the way until the seventh and deciding game against the Baltimore Orioles that also saw Stargell become the hero of the game. It was a dream-like season for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Stargell became the co-winner of the National League Most Valuable Player sharing the honor with the Cardinals’ Keith Hernandez.
Not only did Willie Stargell who wore #8 hand out stars to his teammates in 1979 whenever they were deemed a star in a game, the Baseball Hall of Famer who finished his career with 475 home runs, hit 32 in 1979. With a .281 batting average, 82 runs batted in, 19 doubles, Stargell won the award with Hernandez despite playing in only 126 games and going to the plate just 424 times.
Stargell was clearly at the end of his career which would end in 1982 but perhaps it was his phenomenal leadership that helped writers make him a co-winner. For the record, in 1979 Keith Hernandez led the National League with a .344 batting average and in doubles with 48. His St. Louis Cardinals team however finished in third place behind Pittsburgh in the East Division 12 games behind the Pirates.
Major League Baseball’s all-time home run king is also a former Pittsburgh Pirate. Barry Bonds was a first round pick in the 1985 amateur draft, the sixth pick overall. He made his debut on May 30, 1986 and that year finished his rookie campaign with 16 home runs, 48 RBIs, but batted just .223. As it is well-known, he would improve to the point of winning the National League Most Valuable Player Award not once but twice taking the honor in 1990 and in 1992. His legacy of battling accusations of steroid use is well-known but Pirates fans may remember Bonds more for his failures at the plate in the three consecutive playoff seasons from 1990-1992 when the Pirates failed to make the World Series after losing to the Cincinnati Reds, and then the Atlanta Braves in successive seasons.
In 1990 when Bonds was named Most Valuable Player, against the Cincinnati Reds in the post-season, the slugger hit just .167 in 18 at bats during the six game series. He failed to hit a home run and knocked in just one run. Blame was also put on Bobby Bonilla, another Pirate with a heavy bat who hit just .190 in the series. That year, Bonds had smashed 33 home runs; hit .301; knocked in 114 runs; stole 52 bases; scored 104 times; accounted for 32 doubles and three triples; but in the playoff series against the Reds, his bat disappeared.
Two years later, Bonds had another fantastic season at the plate, again being named the N.L.’s MVP by writers. This time, he led the league in runs scored with 109 and improved his average to .311. Another 34 round trippers went onto his career totals, and 1992 saw him knock in 103 runs. 39 stolen bases later, Bonds also finished with 36 doubles and five triples. But facing the Atlanta Braves in a rematch of the National League’s championship series which Atlanta had won four games to three in 1991, Bonds again went ghost.
In the series that will be remembered most for ex-Pirate Sid Bream crossing the plate with the winning run on a Francisco Cabrera base hit as the Braves won in the bottom of the ninth 4-3, Bonds hit nowhere near his season average. With a mark of .261, the son of ex-major leaguer Bobby Bonds did manage one four-bagger, but with just six hits, many believed had he produced on the level of the regular season, perhaps the Pirates would have advanced to the World Series to face the Toronto Blue Jays and not Atlanta.
Finally there is The now ex-Pirate, Andrew McCutchen. Like Bonds before him, 20 years after Bonds was drafted in the first round by Pittsburgh, the Bucs drafted another star in the making also in the first round with the 11th overall pick, one Andrew McCutchen. Unlike Bonds, it would take “Cutch” four years to make it to the bigs, and the date was June 4, 2009.
In four at bats against the New York Mets, Cutch delivered two base hits, an RBI, and a stolen base. At the end of his rookie season his numbers reflected a .285 batting average; 12 home runs; 22 stolen bases; nine triples; 26 doubles; and 54 RBIs. Andrew McCutchen was well on his way to stardom.
Also unlike Barry Bonds, Andrew McCutchen has had a much better relationship with the media and the fans. Bonds was often seen as a more private, brooding player while Cutch is beloved by Pirates fans everywhere. So in 2013 when the Buccos finally broke the string of 20 years without a winning record, McCutchen provided his team with his best effort for his career to that time. With a final season average of .317; 38 doubles; five triples; 84 RBIs; 27 stolen bases; and 21 home runs, Cutch won the MVP award for the National League.
There might not be an MVP from the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2018, but in the Steel City, it’s not about awards or statistics for any of the professional teams, it’s about winning. Right now the Pirates are after a hot start have cooled their jets and are stuck in fourth place. Fans don’t care about Most Valuable Players, Cy Young Award winners, or Manager of the Year honors if in the end, it’s 1979 all over again and Pittsburgh is holding another World Series trophy. Will that day ever come again? Perhaps if one man can rise up and lead the team as the league’s M.V.P.