Pirates’ Top 5 first basemen: Berry's Take

March 31st, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll.

Here is Adam Berry’s ranking of the top 5 first basemen in Pirates history. Next week: Second basemen.

1. , 1962-82
Key fact: Hall of Famer, 1979 National League MVP and two-time World Series champion remains the franchise’s all-time leader in home runs, RBIs and walks

Yes, he spent the majority of his 21-year tenure with the Pirates in the outfield. Yes, he’s listed as a primary left fielder in the Hall of Fame. But for the purposes of this exercise -- and for putting together the best possible all-time Pirates lineup -- we’re classifying Stargell as a first baseman. And doing so immediately ends any sort of debate about who belongs in the top spot.

“Pops” moved to first base full time in 1975, and at 39 years old, he won a World Series, World Series MVP honors and the NL MVP Award while playing there in 1979. That’s good enough for us, and Stargell is inarguably the best to ever play first base for Pittsburgh -- a club loaded with iconic outfielders but surprisingly light on first-class first basemen.

Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988, his first year of eligibility, Stargell’s credentials speak for themselves. He hit 475 homers and drove in 1,540 runs. He slashed .282/.360/.529 for his career. He won two World Series and totaled 57.5 Wins Above Replacement, the fifth-highest total in franchise history. His tape-measure homers are still the stuff of legend. As former Reds and Tigers manager Sparky Anderson once observed, “He’s got power enough to hit home runs in any park, including Yellowstone.”

He was remembered just as well for his character off the field. The spiritual leader of those “We Are Family” world champions in ’79, Stargell handed out “Stargell Stars” to his teammates. His No. 8 jersey is retired in Pittsburgh, and there’s a larger-than-life statue of him outside of PNC Park. In 1974, he received the Roberto Clemente Award named after his former teammate.

"When I played, there were 600 baseball players, and 599 of them loved Willie Stargell,” Joe Morgan once said on ESPN. “He's the only guy I could have said that about. He never made anybody look bad and he never said anything bad about anybody."

2. Jake Beckley, 1888-96
Key fact: Elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1971, 53 years after his death

Beckley spent 20 years in the Majors, nine of them with Pittsburgh. He began his career with the Alleghenys, jumped to the Pittsburgh Burghers of the Players League in 1890 then returned to the NL’s Pirates in 1891. (According to the Society for American Baseball Research, Beckley joined the Players League because they offered him a higher salary and said, "I'm only in this game for the money anyway." You simply have to respect his honesty.)

Beckley was a bastion of durability during his playing days. He held the career record for games played at first base until Eddie Murray surpassed him in 1994. The mustachioed left-handed hitter still ranks fourth on the Majors’ all-time triples list (with 244) behind only Sam Crawford, Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner.

For his career, Beckley -- nicknamed “Eagle Eye” -- totaled 2,938 hits, 473 doubles, 87 homers and 1,581 RBIs while batting .308 with a .797 OPS and recording an all-time Major League-record 23,709 putouts at first. According to Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, he ranks second behind Stargell in career WAR among Pirates first basemen.

3. George Grantham, 1925-31
Key fact: Batted .315 with a .901 OPS, 74 homers, 191 doubles and 508 RBIs in seven seasons for Pittsburgh

Here’s a forgotten man who did nothing but hit for the Pirates. Grantham played a lot of second base and a little outfield for the Pirates, but he was exclusively a first baseman during his first two seasons for the Pirates -- including their 1925 World Series championship campaign.

Take a look at the Pirates’ all-time OPS leaders and you might be surprised to see Grantham listed fourth, just ahead of Paul Waner, Jason Bay and Stargell, among many others more prominently memorialized in franchise history.

Nicknamed “Boots,” Grantham hit .305 or better in each of his seven seasons with the Pirates. He batted .364 (4-for-11) in the 1927 World Series, when the Bucs were swept by the legendary ’27 Yankees.

4. Elbie Fletcher, 1939-47
Key fact: 1943 All-Star posted a .403 on-base percentage in seven years with Pittsburgh

Fletcher is hardly a household name, but he was a consistently strong offensive player for the Pirates after being traded by his hometown Boston club in 1939. In his first full season with the Bucs, Fletcher batted .273 with an NL-best .418 on-base percentage, a Major League-leading 119 walks, 16 homers and 104 RBIs.

More than half a century before the “Moneyball” era brought light to the statistic’s importance, the lefty-hitting first baseman led the NL in on-base percentage each season from 1940-42. He earned an All-Star nod in ’43, when he slashed .283/.395/.395 with 70 RBIs in 154 games. He spent the following two years in the United States Navy during World War II then returned for two more seasons with Pittsburgh.

5. Gus Suhr, 1930-39
Key fact: 1936 All-Star held NL record for consecutive games played until 1957

Suhr played in 822 straight games during his stint with the Pirates, a streak that ended in 1937 so he could attend his mother’s funeral. That NL record held up until Stan Musial broke it, and it’s now held by Steve Garvey, who played in 1,207 straight games from 1975-83.

During his games-played streak, Suhr enjoyed the best season of his career in 1936. That year, the lefty-hitting first baseman batted .312 with an .877 OPS, 11 homers and 118 RBIs in 156 games for Pittsburgh. The rest of his Pirates career was more solid than spectacular, but there’s no doubt Suhr’s best ability was his dependability.

Honorable mentions

Donn Clendenon (1961-68) finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year Award voting in 1962 but actually peaked in 1965-66, when he combined to bat .300 with 42 homers, 54 doubles, 24 triples and 194 RBIs in 317 games. … Bob Robertson (1967-76) was a contributor as the Bucs won five division titles in six years from 1970-75; he hit four homers in the 1971 NL Championship Series (three of them coming in Game 2) and two more in that year’s World Series triumph over the Orioles. … Jason Thompson (1981-85) was an All-Star in ’82, when he hit 31 homers and drove in 101 runs while recording a .902 OPS. … Orlando Merced (1990-96) finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year Award voting in 1991, amid the Pirates’ run of three straight division titles, but his best individual seasons were in ’93 (.313 average, 3.5 WAR) and ’95 (.300 average, 3.6 WAR). … Kevin Young (1992-95, ’97-03) ranks second among Pirates first basemen with 136 homers, and he enjoyed an incredible ’99 season hitting .298/.387/.522 with 26 homers and 106 RBIs.