There was excitement in the air as Pittsburgh started their 23rd National League season. Owner Barney Dreyfuss was in the process of putting together a $1 million state of the art facility in the Oakland section of town that would be named after General Forbes, the man who captured Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne in the French and Indian War. The name of baseball’s newest mausoleum would be Forbes Field. The difference between the opening of this facility and the magnificent one the Steel City pulled the curtain up on in 2001 (other than the obvious ones IE: several hundred restaurants) was the fact that the team Dreyfuss was going to put into the stadium was fresh off a second place finish, one game away from a pennant and could be counted on to contend this season.
And put a competitive team in the new park Dreyfuss certainly did. The Pirates won a franchise record 110 games, which is the fifth highest total in major league history. More importantly their .724 winning percentage was the third best total in the annuls of the sport. As impressive as that last figure was, it is not the club best as the 1902 squad had a .741 mark.
They had a 1.65 average run differential per game, which in senior circuit history is the 9th best mark. Like the 1902 club, they led the league in almost every major offensive category. Runs, Hits, doubles, triples, average, slugging and on base percentage.
Sam Leever and Deacon Phillippe were both 37 years old and both had been with the team throughout the entire decade. They were at the end of their careers but fashioned respectable 8-1-2.83 and 8-3-2.32 seasons respectively. Howie Camnitz was again the horse of the staff with a 25-6 mark, second in the league in wins and a NL 4th best 1.62 ERA. Vic Willis would also be a factor at 22-11-2.24; a season that also included a one hitter against Brooklyn on September 18th the closest to a no-hitter any one would ever have at Forbes Field. The surprise though was a 27-year-old player in his first full season in the majors who had just won 22 games in the minors the year before in Louisville by the name of Babe Adams who was 12-3 with a remarkable 1.11 ERA.
The season began without fanfare as the Pirates won only five of their first eleven games and were in fifth place at the end of April.
Honus Wagner, the man whom soon to be president William Benswanger, Dreyfuss’ son-in-law, referred to Forbes Field as the “House Wagner Built” claiming he was as pivotal to the franchise as Ruth was when they built Yankee Stadium, would get the team jump started on May 2nd as he stole 2nd, 3rd and home, the third time he did it in his career, to lead the Bucs to a sweep over the Cubs and started a seven game win streak that would vault them into first. Wagner won his fifth straight batting title in 1909 with a .339 mark and again is first in RBI’s with 100. He also topped the circuit in slugging, .489, doubles, 39 and total bases, 242.
Newly elected president William Howard Taft visited Exposition Park on May 29th as 14,000 fans jammed the facility. Taft turned out to be a bad luck charm as the Pirates lost to the Cubs 8-3. Pittsburgh would go on to win 14 games in a row and the loss to the Cubs would be their only defeat in 19 games.
With the end of June, came the end of Exposition Park as the Bucs defeated the Cubs 8-1 in front of 5,545 fans to give the old park a good send off. They opened the new stadium the next day on June 30th as 30,338 came to dedicate Forbes Field and in what has become the Pirate tradition when opening new stadiums, they lost 3-2 to Chicago.
After the loss the Pirates would go on a 34-14 run to take control of the race. Everything was going smoothly in 1909; except for the fact that they felt they were still weak at third base. Jap Barbeau, the 140 lb man who was hitting only .220 and had committed 29 errors was dealt with Al Storke to the Cards for Bobby Byrne. Barbeau surprised critics early in the season with solid play at the corner, but eventually the good fortune Byrne would be an improvement hitting .256 with only 2 errors in 46 games ion a Pirate uniform.
Led by Wagner and Fred Clarke, the team went on a 16 game winning streak in mid to late September to run their record to 106-36 and for all intents and purpose put away the pennant against a game Chicago team that would 104 games themselves falling 6.5 games short of Pittsburgh.
The new park would prove to be good to them as they finished the season with a 56-21 record at home, 36-16 at Forbes Field (and a remarkable 20-5 mark in old Exposition Park). With the opening came a significant increase in attendance from 382,444 in 1908 to 534, 950, 3rd best in the senior circuit.
Of course the Pirates would cap their greatest decade ever with a 7 game victory over the Tigers for their first World Series title (which will be gone into further length in the post-season chapter). It was a wonderful decade; unfortunately 1909 would mark the end of the championships for 16 years, as the 1910’s would not be as kind to the franchise.By Pirates Encyclopedia
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- Alan Storke, Babe Adams, Barney Dreyfuss, Bobby Byrne, Deacon Phillippe, Exposition Park, Forbes Field, Fred Clarke, Honus Wagner, Howie Camnitz, Jap Barbeau, Sam Leever, Vic Willis