Originally, the Pirates were known as the "Alleghenies" -- just like the mountain chain, except perhaps not as fleet-footed. Started as a minor-league team in 1876 when the new National League rejected it, the team quickly proved itself unable to compete in the big leagues. It disbanded in 1878 after posting a 3-23 record, but reconstituted itself in 1882 when a new major league, the American Association, was created.
John McCollister's book The Bucs: The Story of the Pittsburgh Pirates, reports some of the highlights of those early seasons: One manager was so depressed by his team's performance that he ended up in a sanitarium, and the high point of the 1887 season was the burial of a player's pet monkey beneath home plate in a moving pre-game ceremony.
It was no surprise that, when yet another league was formed in 1890 by a group of disgruntled players, Pittsburgh fans left the team in droves. Pittsburghers flocked to see the new Players League team, the "Burghers," and attendance at Alleghenies games dropped significantly. In one game, the team drew merely 17 people -- or just half of the current team's average attendance in April.
But if the Players League almost ruined the Alleghenies, it eventually provided its salvation -- and its new name.
The Players League went out of business after a single season, and the athletes who'd joined it were allowed to return to their own clubs.
Missing from the official list of players eligible to return, however, was second baseman Louis Bierbauer, who'd been a standout for the Philadelphia Athletics before jumping to the Player's League team. The Alleghenies shrewdly noticed the oversight and acted quickly. In a 1910 book excerpt quoted from The Pirates Reader, writer Alfred Spink recounts that Pittsburgh manager Ned Scanlon visited Bierbauer on Presque Isle in the dead of winter. "Scanlon had to cross the ice on the harbor in a bitter storm," Spink writes, "but he finally reached Bierbauer's shack and & secured his signature to a contract."
When Scanlon returned, Philadelphia objected, saying that Bierbauer should return to the team that employed him before his defection, and an official of the American Association objected that signing Bierbauer had been "piratical."
Of course, if it weren't for underhanded deals, nothing would get done in Pittsburgh at all. Most locals shrugged at the allegations and Alleghenies President J. Palmer O'Neil contended that because the league "did not reserve Bierbauer, he was a free agent" -- a phrase that would come back to haunt generations of Pittsburgh fans to come. An arbitrator agreed, and soon fans were calling the team the "Pirates."
No doubt they did so partly just to stick it to Philadelphia, which is always good local sport. Also at work may have been sheer Pittsburgh perversity -- that part of us that delights in saying the worst about ourselves and each other that we possibly can. (We're lucky the team isn't known today as the "Pittsburgh Overpaid Jagoffs.") In any case, the team's shenanigans gave the team the kind of PR that comes from rascally behavior & not unlike the press coverage Randall Simon gave this year's team by whumping an upholstered sausage in Milwaukee.
And Bierbauer was a good player. Spink called him the "one-time king of second basemen," a great "all-around player" who dominated both the National League and the American Association. Bierbauer played for Pittsburgh six years before moving on to St. Louis, Columbus, Buffalo and Hartford, Connecticut. But in a 1955 story also reprinted in The Pirates Reader, a friend of Bierbauer's told the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph that "Louie loved the Pirates and rooted for them until the day of his death in 1926." Pittsburgh never entirely returned the adoration: Bierbauer was later buried in an unmarked grave in his hometown of Erie -- apparently with less ceremony than the old Alleghenies "rally monkey" had been given decades before.
So when Pittsburgh loses its players to free agency today, think of it as the work of Bierbauer's ghost visiting the city that lost sight of his accomplishments so quickly, lingering over the team like a pirate's last curse.