Cubs: Pirates' Biggest Rivals?

By William E. McMahon

This article was published in the 2018 The National Pastime.

Ernie BanksLet me propose a hypothesis: The Cubs and Pirates are each other’s biggest rival. A few years ago I mentioned the idea to Cubs expert Art Ahrens (we were both in our cups), and he looked at me as if I were crazy. But I was researching the Cubs and the Pirates—my two favorite teams—and as I accumulated data, the conclusion became more and more convincing. In this paper I will recount the process which lead to this conclusion.

Presumably, everyone knows what rivals and rivalry are, but let me take a moment to define terms: Freedictionary.com gives the following definition of rival:

  1. One who attempts to equal or surpass another, or who pursues the same object as another; a competitor.
  2. One who equals or almost equals another in a particular respect.

The key conceptual features of rivalry are competes with and on a (relatively) equal basis.

The common belief is that the Cardinals and Cubs are each other's biggest rivals. As for the Pirates, who? The Phillies? For much of the history of baseball those two teams weren’t competitive, and now that they aren’t even in the same division, how can one call them rivals?

But let me step back for a minute and consider all 15 present National League teams  and evaluate them against the definition. We can eliminate the twentieth-century expansion  teams, including the nearby Milwaukee Brewers, who have only been in the league a few years. We are looking at a period of at least 120 years, and teams that have entered the league since 1962 just don’t count.

That leaves the traditional eight teams, or six potential rivals for Pittsburgh besides the Cubs. The West Coast teams, the Dodgers and Giants, have been in another division since 1969, so they are out. Likewise the Braves.1 The Phillies have been in another division since 1994 and, as noted above, for much of baseball history they were well below the Cubs and Pirates and therefore unable to “rival” them. The Reds were in a different division from 1969 to 1993, so the Cubs were not really battling the Big Red Machine. So that leaves the Pirates and Cardinals as the major historical rivals of the Cubs. Let me begin, then, going era-by-era evaluating the matchups of Cubs vs. Bucs and Cubs vs. Cardinals.

1887-1919

Before 1920, it isn’t even close. The Cubs and Pirates were serious rivals, while the Cardinals were in another dimension. In 1887 the Pittsburgh team jumped from the American Association to the National League. Chicago had been in the league since 1876 and was its premier team. The St. Louis Browns, née Brown Stockings, were still in the Association. Up through 1891, the NL was either a six- or an eight-team league . From 1887 to '91, Chicago tallied the most wins, even though the club didn’t win any pennants. Pittsburgh had the most losses,  due to a dismal 1890, when they lost all their players to the Players League. Still, despite being a much weaker team, Pittsburgh gave Chicago a tough battle on the field. The Cardinals were not in the picture yet. Still known as the Browns, they entered the National League with the merger of the NL and AA in 1892.

The next era, then, is the 12-team league of 1892–99. It was not a good period for either Pittsburgh or Chicago, but they were essentially equal in mediocrity. In the standings, the Pirates were actually a shade better, eighth, while the Cubs were one place behind in ninth.2 St. Louis? A solid 11th. After four seasons for which their average record was 37-99, the Browns' owner, Frank Robison, moved players from his other team, the Cleveland Spiders, so as to give St. Louis a respectable season in 1899.

The twentieth century begins the era when the American League became a competitor of the National. In the Deadball Era, 1901–19, Chicago and Pittsburgh were fierce competitors, while the Cardinals, as they were now called, still tail-enders. That’s 25 percent of baseball history, and St. Louis isn’t even in the picture.

1920–46

Gabby HartnettAll three teams were pretty respectable in this era. Under Branch Rickey, the Cardinals began to improve in the '20s and won their first National League pennant and twentieth century World Series in 1926. Their greatest era was 1926–46, with nine pennants and six world championships. The Pirates won two pennants, one world championship. The Cubs had five pennants, winning every three years from 1929 to 1938 and then in 1945. However, when the Cardinals were good, the Cubs often were not, and vice versa.

The Cubs and Pirates finished first and second in the standings on three occasions, as did the Cubs and Cardinals. In overall standings, the Cubs finished closer to Pittsburgh 12 times, closer to St. Louis nine times, and five times they were equidistant. For the period of Cardinals dominance, 1926–46, the Cubs were closer to the Bucs 12 times, to the Cards six. Regarding the FAT (finished adjacent to) figure, it was Pirates 14, Cardinals eight. In head-to-head competition, the Cubs played Pittsburgh more evenly (.490) than they did St. Louis (.471). So even in this period, the strongest in Cardinals history, where all three teams were respectable, the Cubs were a bit more comparable to the Pirates.

1946–68

For me, the next baseball era goes from the end of World War II to the second expansion of the twentieth century and the beginning of divisional play. The '40s and '50s were the days of my youthful association with Cubdom. I can’t recall anything being made of a rivalry with St. Louis much before 1970, and certainly not before 1960. That's because the Cards were contenders, while the Cubs were ... doormats. And what other team was comparable in doormatness? Why, Pittsburgh, of course. Who can forget those epic battles for seventh place in an eight-team league? The Cubs won in 1950, '53, '54, ’57, and, after the expansion to 10 teams, in 1963. The Bucs won in 1951 and '56, and, post-expansion, tied for sixth/seventh with LA in 1964 while the Cubs were eighth. They tied for seventh in 1957. Over the period the Pirates' average finish was seventh, the Cubs eighth, using the method to assign points to places in the standings, i.e., in an 8-team league, 8 for first, 7 for second and so on. The Cardinals were tied for third with the Braves.

The period covered so far is almost exactly two-thirds of the history of the competition among these three teams: 1887 to 1968. And the data show the Pirates to be much more significant rivals for the Cubs than the Cardinals were. To amplify this point, let us take a closer look at the data. With respect to the Cubs, the stats for the Pirates and Cardinals are:

 

Finished 1–2

Pirates

Cardinals

1887–1900

0

0

1901–19

3

0

1920–45

3

3

1946–68

0

0

Total

6

3


Finished 2–3

Pirates

Cardinals

1887–1900

0

0

1901–19

3

0

1920–45

2

1

1946–68

0

0

Total

5

1


Finished Adjacent To

Pirates

Cardinals

1887–1900

5

2

1901–19

10

2

1920–45

14

8

1946–68

11

5

Total

40

17


Finished Closer To

Pirates

Cardinals

Equidistant

1887–1900

6

2

1

1901–19

15

4

0

1920–45

12

9

5

1946–68

11

10

2

Total

44

25

8

 

In one other index, head-to-head competition, in all four periods, the Cubs and Pirates were closer than the Cubs and Cardinals. The overall winning average of the Cubs vs. the Pirates (.497) is closer to .500 than that of the Cubs vs. the Cards (.521). The reason for this is the Cubs' dominance over the Cardinals in 1901–19, when Chicago won 271 and lost 131. However, there is one oddity concerning the series for each season. Against the Pirates, the Cubs won the season series 33 times, Pittsburgh 34 times, and there were 15 ties. The Cubs beat the Cardinals 34 times, lost 33 times, and there were 10 ties. That would appear fairly even, except in years when one team dominated.

Again, 2/3 of baseball history—and the Cubs and Pirates are unquestionably each other's biggest rivals. So what is this business about the Cubs and Cardinals? To understand that, we have to consider the last third of the history, the era of division play since 1969.

 


Ernie Banks vs. Roberto Clemente, Head to Head

  AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BA
Through 1960              
E.Banks 612 203 28 11 40 121 .332
R.Clemente 389 113 13 5 7 44 .290
               
After 1960              
E.Banks 597 141 23 1 17 66 .236
R.Clemente 777 261 35 14 34 142 .336

 

1969–93

This is the period when all three teams competed in the Eastern Division. It is also the heyday for the Pirates, who won nine division titles, while the Cardinals won four and the Cubs only two. For the period, the Pirates were the best team overall in the division, while the Cards were second (they were third and fourth in the National League). Then there are the Cubs. They were clearly last in the Eastern Division, even behind the expansion Montreal Expos. Fortunately, they weren’t quite last in the league, as Atlanta and San Diego in the Western Division both had worse records. The legend of a Cubs-Cardinals rivalry appears around the beginning of this era. Actually, the Cubs aren’t rivals of either team except in one interesting respect: head to head. The other data:

 

 

Pittsburgh

St. Louis

Finished 1–2

2

0

Finished 2–3

2

1

Finished Adjacent To

8

8

Finished Closer To*

10

14

* 1 equidistant

 

But perhaps perceiving the Cards as arch-enemies spurred the Cubbies to greater effort against them. Whereas their winning average against Pittsburgh was a feeble .406, the Cubs actually came out ahead of St. Louis, winning 220 games while losing 215. In season series, the Cubs were 2–20–3 against the Pirates, 12–9–4 against the Cardinals. So the head-to-head battles were very competitive, and the Cubs played their best against the Cardinals. Hence the Cards could be regarded as main rival for this period.

1994–2017

The Central Division was created in 1994 and expanded from five teams to six in '98. Again, since the Cubs, Pirates, and Cardinals have been in the same division, same league since 1892, they are inherent rivals. But what happened after 1993 was the collapse of the Pirates, coupled with a very strong showing by the Cards. The latter have 10 division titles, the Cubs five, and Pittsburgh none. The Cubs have not really been rivals of either the Cards or Pirates. Overall, St. Louis has been the top team in the division, Chicago fourth, and Pittsburgh sixth.3 The other data:

 

 

Pittsburgh

St. Louis

Finished 1–2

0

2

Finished 2–3

1

1

Finished Adjacent To

8

5

Finished Closer To*

11

11

* 2 equidistant

 

Head-to-head in this era, the Cubs and Cardinals have been competitive, with Chicago winning 184 and losing 195, a winning average of .485. The Cubs have a 202–172 record against the Pirates, a fairly dominant .540. The Pirates have fared even worse against the Cards, who have beaten them to the tune of 216–157 (.579).

So there isn’t a strong rivalry between the Cubs and either team; the Cubs have sometimes been competitive, in which case they challenge the Cardinals. But they are also prone to bad years, when they are in a class with the Pirates. Future tendencies are unclear. The Cubs’ resurgence in 2016 gave rise to talk of a dynasty, but 2017 showed that may not happen. After 20 losing seasons, the Pirates appeared to be on the rise from 2013 to 2015, but they have regressed, and the future doesn’t look promising.

Nevertheless, these three teams have been rivals since the nineteenth century, and the Cubs and Pirates have at least had a bit more of an even competition than that between the Cubs and Cardinals. The point of this paper is thus to correct a somewhat mistaken perception of the Cubs’ rivalries over the years.

And finally, one may note that the psychological dimension of all this has been ignored. What do the fans think? And the media? Do the fans think what the media want them to think? For now, I’ll dodge those questions and leave you to ponder the facts as they are.

APPENDIX

The author has compiled a stats comparison of significant players of the two teams which can be found online at SABR.org/node/50354.

WILLIAM E. McMAHON is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Akron. Born in Chicago in 1937, he is a lifelong Cubs fan. In the early 1960s (the era of Bob Prince and Rege Cordic), he lived in the Pittsburgh area and became interested in the Pirates. He has been a SABR member for about 30 years, active in the Jack Graney Chapter, and he has contributed several articles to SABR publications.

 


HIGHLIGHTS OF THE CUBS-PIRATES RIVALRY

  • 1886: A portent of things to come? In an exhibition game on September 24 the mediocre Alleghenies from the Association defeat the NL champion White Stockings, 10-3.
  • 1887: Sixth place Pittsburg takes the season series from third place Chicago, 12 games to 5. Jim Galvin, one of two significant (1000 IP for the team) Pirates pitchers in the Hall of Fame, wins 6 games. John Clarkson loses 7.
  • 1888: On June 21, George Van Haltren pitches a six-inning no-hitter against Pittsburgh.
  • 1900: Clark Griffith pitches a 14-inning shutout on June 19 to beat Rube Waddell and the Pirates. Waddell strikes out 12.
  • 1902: On June 22, a pitching duel between Jack Taylor of the Orphans and Deacon Phillippe of the Pirates goes 19 innings, with Chicago finally winning, 3-2. The Pirates win their second straight pennant.
  • 1908: The Cubs win their third pennant in a row, but only by beating the Pirates on October 4, 5–2. Although the Bucs take the season series 12–10, this loss drops them to third in the league by a half-game. The Cubs are tied with New York and have to replay a game necessitated by the Merkle boner. The Cubs win and go on to win the World Series again.
  • 1909: This time the Pirates take the pennant with 110 wins, topping 104 by the Cubs. On June 30, the teams play the first game ever at Forbes Field. The Cubs win 3–2.
  • 1925: The Pirates win the pennant and the World Series, over the Washington Nationals. The Cubs finish eighth but take the season series, 12–10. On Opening Day at Wrigley Field on April 14, Quin Ryan broadcasts the first Cubs regular season game on WGN. Grover Alexander beats the Pirates, lacking only a triple to hit for the cycle.
  • 1927: The Pirates win the pennant again but are demolished by the powerful New York Yankees in the World Series. On May 30, Jimmy Cooney makes an unassisted triple play, catching Paul Waner’s liner, stepping on second to double off Lloyd Waner and then tagging Clyde Barnhart coming from first. The Cubs win to stop an 11-game Pirates winning streak. On November 28, the Cubs trade Sparky Adams and Pete Scott for Kiki Cuyler.
  • 1938: After two years of the Cubs finishing second and the Pirates fourth and third, Chicago and Pittsburgh are in a pennant race that comes down to a three-game series in Chicago in late September. On the 27th, the Cubs win, 2–1. The game of the 28th is decided by Gabby Hartnett’s famous Homer in the Gloaming. The score is tied 5–5 in the bottom of the ninth with two out and the game about to be ended by darkness. Hartnett homers off Mace Brown to win. This appears to demoralize the Bucs. They drop out of first, and the next day the Cubs earn the sweep, 10–1, behind Bill Lee. The Cubs win the pennant.
  • 1953: Branch Rickey, believing the Pirates could lose without him as well as with him, trades Ralph Kiner to the Cubs, who also get Howie Pollet, Joe Garagiola, and George Metkovich and send Toby Atwell, Preston Ward, Bob Addis, George Freese, Gene Hermanski, and Bob Schultz to the Pirates.
  • 1955: Sam Jones pitches a no-hitter against the Pirates on May 12. Roberto Clemente breaks into the majors but bats only .194 against Chicago.
  • 1956: On May 19, Dale Long begins a streak of homering in eight consecutive games with a blast against the Cubs.
  • 1958: Circumstances force Long, traded to Chicago in 1957, to become the fifth left-handed catcher in Cubs history in the first game of a doubleheader vs. the Pirates.
  • 1959: Although the Cubs win the game on June 5, Dick Stuart hits the longest home run in Forbes Field history off Glen Hobbie. The ball sails over the 457-foot sign in center field. Earlier, Banks had hit one over the 436-foot sign in left-center.
  • 1960: The Pirates win the pennant, beating the seventh-place Cubs 15 times. They go on to shock the Yankees in the World Series. On May 4, announcer Lou Boudreau swaps positions with Manager Charlie Grimm as the Cubs beat the Pirates, 5–1. On June 26, Ron Santo breaks in with the Cubs, leading them to a doubleheader sweep of the Pirates, going 3-for-7 with five RBIs.
  • 1970: On June 28, in the final games at Forbes Field, the Pirates sweep a doubleheader 3–2 and 4–1 before 40,918 fans.
  • 1975: Rennie Stennett goes 7-for-7 in a 22–0 Pirates victory on September 16, with two doubles and a triple.
  • 1978: The Pirates blow an 10–2 lead on September 19 but score in the 11th to win 12–11. The winning hit is a home run by Dave Parker, who hits .478 against the Cubs, with five homers.
  • 1980: The longest game in Cubs history by hours is a 20-inning, five-hour, 31-minute marathon at Three Rivers on July 6. It ends when Omar Moreno drives in Ed Ott. The Cubs get 13 scoreless relief innings, five by Bill Caudill.
  • 1981: On May 25, losing 8–0 in the fourth inning, the Cubs come back to win 10–9 in 11.
  • 1990–92: The Pirates have the best overall record in the league and win three division titles. Their record against the second-division Cubs is 35–19. But they fail in the playoffs, to the Reds and then the Braves twice. The Pirates wouldn't have another winning season until 2013.
  • 1998: On December 14, Chicago gets Jon Lieber from Pittsburgh for Brant Brown. Lieber wins 20 in 2001, as well as going 7–1 against the Pirates over the next four years.
  • 2003: On July 23, the Pirates trade Aramis Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, and cash to the Cubs for Jose Hernandez, Bobby Hill, and Matt Brubeck. The additions help the Cubs to win the division.
  • 2015: The Cardinals (100 wins), Pirates (98), and Cubs (97) finish 1-2-3 in the division. In the wild-card game, the Cubs beat the Bucs 4–0 on a shutout by Jake Arrieta, who had gone 3-1 with an 0.75 ERA against Pittsburgh in the regular season. They go on to beat the Cards 3–1 in the Division Series but are swept by the Mets in the NLCS.4

 

Notes

1 For a brief period, essentially the '50s, the Milwaukee Braves were regarded as a rival of the Cubs because of proximity. Not only was that short-lived, but as the Braves were strong and the Cubs were weak, they weren’t even competitive.

2 For the benefit of Cleveland fans it may be noted that the Spiders were third. And if you take away the horrible 1899 season, they jump past Baltimore to second.

3 The fifth place team, Milwaukee, entered the division in 1998. The Houston Astros were second when they were in the division, through 2012.

4 The compilation of these data was aided considerably by two books: Art Ahrens and Eddie Gold, Day by Day in Chicago Cubs History (West Point, NY: Human Kinetics, 1982); Morris Eckhouse and Carl Mastrocola, This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History (New York: Stein and Day, 1980).