when the Pittsburgh Pirates played in the World Series 36 years ago, they had the misfortune of running into what many consider the "greatest team in baseball." The New York Yankees had won 110 games and finished a full 19 games ahead of the second-place team, seemingly without raising a sweat. Paced by Babe Ruth's record 60 home runs and Lou Gehrig's record 175 runs batted in, the Yanks had hit more homers and scored more runs than any other team in modern history.
The day before the 1927 World Series started, the Yankee Murderers' Row did some more home run hitting, this time in batting practice. The effect of so many balls sailing into the distant stands at Forbes Field is supposed to have won the Series for the Yankees before an inning had been played.
And when Pittsburgh became the first National League team to lose a World Series in four straight games, the legend of the Pirates choking up in the face of invincible Yankee power became established. While it is true that the Pirates did not play good baseball during the 1927 World Series, the Yankees, contrary to the legend, did not crush Pittsburgh to death with slugging. They had only two home runs, both of course by Babe Ruth. The rest of the time New York scored runs in un-Yankeelike fashion: three came in on two walks and two errors to win the first game 5-4. A wild pitch and a hit batsman brought in two runs in the second game. And when the Yankees won the last game in the ninth inning 4-3, they scored the winning run with a walk, a bunt single, a wild pitch, an intentional walk and another wild pitch.
The mighty Yankees, in fact, were lucky to win the Series at all, much less sweep it. For the 1927 Pittsburgh Pirates, though not so explosive, were just as good a hitting club as the Yankees. "They were one of the strongest teams the National League ever fielded," says Garry Schumacher, the knowledgeable publicity man of the San Francisco Giants. With Paul Waner (.380) leading the league, closely followed by his brother Lloyd (.355) and Pie Traynor (.342), the Pirates had seven hitters over .300. The team as a whole batted a rousing .305.
How, then, could a club as strong as the Pirates be overcome so easily? At the time Barney Dreyfuss, the Pirate owner, said bitterly, "No team that is good enough to win the championship of a major league should lose four straight games to the pennant winner of the rival league."
The answer perhaps lies in the mysterious benching of one of the Pirate stars several weeks before the end of the season and in the implacable feud of two bullheaded men. Although the Pirates were involved in a tense three-team pennant race that was not settled until the next-to-last day of the season, Manager Donie Bush (above) stopped playing his .309 hitting outfielder, Kiki Cuyler, on August 9. Cuyler had just been fined $50 for not sliding into second base on a double-play ball, and Bush ostensibly kept him out of the next game as a disciplinary move. But the rest of the month Cuyler appeared only a few times, and then as a pinch hitter or a late game replacement.
Finally he played a full game on September 5, but the next day was back on the bench. As pressure for Cuyler's return increased, Bush said: "There is nothing personal in my attitude toward Cuyler. He has not been playing up to the quality of the Waner brothers and his replacements, and therefore I feel it necessary to keep him out of the game." With the Pirates fighting hard to win the pennant, Bush continued to ignore Cuyler and used rookies recently recalled from the minors in his place. Cuyler never appeared in another game that season.
When the first World Series game began in Pittsburgh, Cuyler was still on the bench. In the ninth inning, with the Pirates behind 5-4 and the pitcher scheduled to bat, Bush chose Fred Brickell, a reserve outfielder who had had only 21 at-bats during the regular season, to pinch-hit.
"The fans lost their good humor long enough to yell 'We want Cuyler,' when Brickell was sent up to bat," said The New York Times reporter. "Cuyler, a star outfielder, has been kept on the bench by Manager Bush, and Pittsburgh fandom is much exercised over the fact." Brickell tapped weakly to the pitcher, and the Pirates lost the first game.
The reaction was so intense in Pittsburgh that Dreyfuss issued a statement denying he had ordered Bush not to play Cuyler. "It is solely an issue between Bush and Cuyler," he said. "If Bush wants to play Cuyler at any time he is free to do so."