Best Pirates Players Of All Time: Top 5 Legendary Pittsburgh Athletes, According To Experts

Pittsburgh is a hard-working, blue-collar city known for its steel factories and professional sports teams. The Steelers, the Penguins, and the Pirates have all called the ‘Steel City’ home for generations. The Pittsburgh Pirates are, in fact, one of the oldest teams in Major League Baseball (MLB) and have brought home five World Series championships during their time in professional baseball. Undoubtedly, the Pirates have had some talented ball players come through their organization. With so much talent, it can be hard to narrow down the best Pirates players of all time, but we’re giving it our best shot. 

Speaking of all-time franchise greats, a recent study suggests that sports fans prefer championship teams with rosters comprised of homegrown players. Researchers at the University of Kansas surveyed 1,500 Americans about their sports team preferences. The team found that sports fans across the board prefer cheering for teams constructed of homegrown, drafted players as opposed to expensive free agents. Fans want to cheer for teams built from the ground up over championship teams that feel ‘bought.’ 

The Pirates have always been pretty good at spotting talent, and Pittsburgh fans have seen some great players come through the city in their day. But, even if the team isn’t playing that well, a new study suggests that going out to watch your favorite sports team play in person can be beneficial to your overall mental health and well-being. Scientists at Anglia Ruskin University say that watching live sporting events can improve well-being and help reduce feelings of loneliness. Researchers surveyed more than 7,000 sports fans to discover that those fans who attended live games scored better in terms of life satisfaction than those who did not attend games in person. That sounds like a great reason to head over to PNC Park in Pittsburgh to catch a Pirates game this summer. 

So, which players deserve to be called the greatest in Pirates history? StudyFinds did the research, consulting 10 sports and baseball-oriented websites in an effort to deliver the best Pirates players of all time. Our list comprises the five most frequently listed athletes from across these sites. Think we may have missed one? Feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comments section below! 

PNC Park
PNC Park (Photo by Joshua Peacock on Unsplash)

The List: Best Pirates Players of All Time, According to Fans

1. Roberto Clemente (1955-1972)

The first name on the list of the best Pirates players of all time is none other than Roberto Clemente. The legendary right fielder of the Pittsburgh Pirates is fondly remembered for being a great player and an amazing person. Roberto Clemente is not only one of the best right fielders to ever play in MLB, but he’s also one of the best humanitarians the game has ever had. 

“Clemente was one of the greatest men in MLB history, and we’re giving him the honor of the best player to ever suit up for the Pirates. An all-time great right fielder, Clemente was a 12-time Gold Glove Award winner, the most in the history of the position. Clemente won four batting titles (1961, 1964, 1965 & 1967), and is unsurprisingly the Pirates’ all-time leader in hits with exactly 3,000. A 15-time All-Star, Clemente was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973, the same year that his No. 21 was retired by the Pirates. Every season, one player in baseball wins the Roberto Clemente Award,” explains Audacy

Clemente was an amazing baseball player, and he had a great swing. Still, Clemente is remembered more for the type of giving, caring person he was than the way he played baseball. 

“[Clemente} was the 1966 NL MVP, represented the Pirates in an amazing 15 all-star games, took home 12 Gold Glove awards, and earned four batting titles. Most importantly, Clemente helped lead the Bucs to World Series championships in both 1960 and 1971–and was even named the MVP of the Fall Classic in the second one. Sadly, Clemente died in a small plane crash while on a humanitarian mission to help bring supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua on New Year’s Eve in 1972. He was rightfully ushered into Cooperstown in a special election a few months later, and the Pirates took his number 21 out of circulation forever at the same time,” explains Yardbarker

Clemente’s untimely death shook the nation and hit Pirates fans hard. But, let’s not forget Clemente’s amazing achievements on the baseball field. Clemente was a perennial all-star and Gold Glove winner, and he’s remembered for being one of the best defensive right fielders in history. 

“Clemente was a .317 career hitter and the only man to collect 3,000 hits in a Pirates uniform. He was a four-time NL batting champion, 1966 NL MVP, and 12-time Gold Glove winner who ‘could field the ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania,’ as the legendary Vin Scully once said. A lot of great players are on this list, but there is no doubt in my mind Clemente is the best and one of the handfuls of players that could lay claim to being the best,” furthers The Grueling Truth

2. Honus Wagner (1900-1917)

The second spot on the list of the best Pirates players of all time belongs to the iconic Honus Wagner. Wagner is easily one of the best shortstops to ever play professional baseball and he’s considered by many to be one of the top two Pirates players in history – along with Clemente. Of course, Wagner played in a much different era than some of the other names on this list, but his impact on the game of baseball cannot be overstated. 

“Wagner was a freak, one of those athletes who seemed genetically a generation ahead of his time. Like Wilt Chamberlain and Jim Brown, Joe Louis and Gordie Howe, and of course Babe Ruth a decade or so later, Wagner was just better than everyone else. He could throw harder, run faster, hit the ball farther than anyone else. The game came easy to him, and he could outthink the other players on the diamond too. John McGraw said that no shortstop he ever saw could go as deep in the hole to get the ball like Honus. In comparison to his league, Wagner’s statistics are more impressive than anyone other than the Bambino,” raves Baseball Egg

Honus Wagner was head and shoulders above the competition in the early 1900s, coming to the Pirates organization after playing for a few years in Louisville, but he was already in prime form. 

“Shortstop Honus Wagner joined the Pirates in 1900 after playing the first three seasons of his career with the Louisville Colonels, and in Pittsburgh he quickly blossomed into one of the biggest stars in the game. Wagner played for the Pirates for 18 years, slashing .328/.394/.468 with 865 extra-base hits, 1,474 RBI, and 639 stolen bases. He is the franchise’s all-time leader in both triples and runs, and his complete resume makes him arguably the best overall player of his era. Wagner won an incredible eight batting titles, led the league in doubles seven times, RBI four times, hits twice, triples three times, and steals five,” explains Yardbarker

Honus Wagner was already in his mid-20s when he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team. Over the course of his illustrious career, Wagner compiled a staggering eight batting titles to go along with his franchise-leading 1,521 runs scored. 

“Wagner joined the Pirates in 1900, his age-26 season. All he would do as a Pirate was win eight National League batting titles, while also leading the NL in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, doubles, RBIs and stolen bases in at least three seasons. Among all players in Pirates history, Wagner is the all-time leader in fWAR (127.2), offensive WAR (113.1) and runs scored (1,521). Wagner was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1936, and you can certainly make a case that he is deserving of the top spot on this list,” furthers Audacy

3. Willie Stargell (1962-1982)

Hammering his way into the third spot on the list of the best Pirates players of all time is the legendary Willie Stargell. Willie Stargell is widely regarded as one of the best power hitters in the history of the Pirates franchise, and he spent his entire career in a Pirates uniform. 

“Stargell spent all 21 seasons of his career in Pittsburgh, leading the National League in home runs in both 1971 and 1973. Stargell — one of the most gifted power hitters in MLB history — is the franchise’s all-time leader in home runs (475), RBIs (1,540) and walks (937). “Pops” won the NL MVP in 1979, his age-39 season. That same year, the ‘We Are Family’ Pirates won the World Series, with Stargell being named MVP of the Fall Classic. Stargell was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1988, six years after the Pirates retired his No. 8,” explains Audacy

Willie Stargell’s accomplishments in a Pirates uniform are overlooked at times, thanks to Honus Wagner and Roberto Clemente. But, Stargell was the face of the Pirates franchise for nearly two decades, and he’s considered the best first basemen in Pittsburgh history.   

“Left-handed swinging first baseman Willie Stargell was the face of the Pirates organization for two decades, and is on the short list of guys who can say they played for one team for over 20 years. Only Honus Wagner and Roberto Clemente played [more] games in a Pittsburgh uniform than Stargell did, and in nearly all of the 2,360 times he took the field for the Pirates he did something to help them win,” furthers Yardbarker

Stargell retired in Wilmington, NC, and eventually passed in the early 2000s. Stargell’s legacy lives on, though, as he helped power the Pirates to two World Series championships and he’s the franchise leader in home runs. But, those stats are nothing compared to his performance in the 1979 World Series. 

“But it is his last hurrah in 1979 that most are remember by Pirates fans when at the age of 39, he led the Pirates to their fifth and most recent world championship. Led? More like carried. He went 12 for 30 with 3 HRs, 7 runs scored, and 7 RBIs, an MVP performance that included a go-ahead two-run homer in the sixth inning of Game 7 against the Baltimore Orioles that wrote him from mere great and into franchise legend,” notes The Grueling Truth

4. Arky Vaughan (1932-1941)

Sliding into the fourth spot on the list of the best Pirates players of all time is the one and only Arky Vaughan. The Pittsburgh Pirates have had some all-time great players at shortstop and Arky Vaughan is right up there next to Honus Wagner for the best shortstops in Pirates history

“Arguably one of the five greatest shortstops in MLB history, Vaughan spent the first decade of his Hall of Fame career with the Pirates. During that time, Vaughn won the 1935 National League batting title, while also leading the NL in runs scored, triples, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS and OPS+ on at least one occasion. Vaughan made nine All-Star Game appearances during his 14-year career, eight of which came during his time with the Pirates,” writes Audacy

Although Arky Vaughan didn’t play his entire career in a Pirates uniform, he’s widely regarded as one of the best players in franchise history. Arky Vaughan was so good that he’s often compared to some of the game’s all-time greats

“Like Alex Rodriguez, Robin Yount and Alan Trammell, Vaughan was a regular at the age of 20. But Vaughan was the least polished as a fielder, he averaged 40 errors per year in his first nine seasons. The Pirates enlisted Honus Wagner to tutor him, and the two even roomed together for a while. He settled in at shortstop and was passable, but it was a shift to third base that helped calm him down the last half of his career,” notes Baseball Egg

There have been a lot players who made the switch from one infield position to another, namely shortstop to third base. Arky Vaughan worked hard to become a better defensive player, and that’s something the experts give him credit for. However, Vaughan was a staple in the starting lineups for eight straight All-Star Games.  

“In 1,411 games with the Pirates, Vaughan slashed .324/.415/.472 with 84 homers, 764 RBI, 291 doubles, 116 triples, and 86 stolen bases. He represented Pittsburgh in eight straight all-star games from ’34-’41, won the batting title with a remarkable .385 clip in 1935, and led the National League in OBP three years in a row from ’34-’36. Pittsburgh traded Vaughan to the Brooklyn Dodgers in exchange for four players in December of 1941. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1985,” furthers Yardbarker

5. Barry Bonds (1986-1992)

Rounding out the list of the best Pirates players of all time is the living legend, Barry Bonds, who is one of the best MLB players of all time. The only thing keeping him from being considered the best Pirates player in history is that he played the majority of his career in a San Francisco Giants uniform. Regardless, Bonds started his career with Pittsburgh and before heading to Frisco, Bonds had established himself as one of the best players in MLB. 

“Barry Bonds is obviously remembered much more for the incredible exploits he controversially achieved in a San Francisco Giants uniform, but people tend to forget that he began his career in Pittsburgh and was already one of the best players in baseball before he even headed out west. In seven seasons with the Pirates Bonds won two NL MVP awards, three Gold Gloves, and three Silver Sluggers… The left-handed slugger is not in the Hall of Fame right now solely because of the legitimacy of the records he set in San Francisco, but I think it’s important to remember just how dominant he was long before the steroid era,” explains Yardbarker

Barry Bonds was an amazing player during his time in Pittsburgh. As the experts explain, Bonds didn’t need help by (allegedly) turning to performance-enhancing substances, and the Pirates outfielder was already well on his way to having one of the best careers in franchise history. 

“It’s often said that Bonds had a resume worthy of Cooperstown before he’s suspected of beginning to use performance-enhancing drugs, and that’s true. A bulk of that Hall of Fame-caliber production came during the seven seasons that Bonds spent in Pittsburgh to being his career. Before Bonds ever played a game with the San Francisco Giants, he was a two-time National League MVP, along with having earned three Silver Sluggers and three Gold Glove Awards. If Bonds had remained in Pittsburgh for a few more seasons, he would probably be No. 1 on this list,” raves Audacy

In his first eight seasons in the league, Barry Bonds won two MVPs as a Pittsburgh Pirate. Bonds possessed the perfect combination of speed and power – as evidenced by his home run totals and his number of stolen bases. And as much as Pirates fans would have loved to see him back in a Pittsburgh uniform, Barry Bonds left the Pirates for the Giants after a heartbreaking game 7 loss to the Atlanta Braves. 

“After a decade of falling out of contention, the Bucs were back in the playoffs in 1990. By 1992, Bonds was swatting 42 HRs and swiping 29 bases in the same season while putting up a staggering (and league-leading) OPS of 1.080 and capturing his second NL MVP Award. After the Atlanta Braves walked off the Pirates in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, Bonds jumped ship to the San Francisco Giants for a mammoth six-year, $43.75 million contract,” explains Betway

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