When the Pittsburgh Pirates last played in the World Series, 33 years ago, they had the misfortune of running into what many consider the "greatest team in baseball." The New York Yankees that season 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 I 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 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."
With Cuyler still in the dugout, the Pirates lost the second game 6-2. During a Pirate rally in the eighth inning, in which they scored one run, Bush again bypassed Cuyler. "The nerves of the crowd gave way," said the Times, "and the fans staged one of the most remarkable demonstrations seen in any World Series. The core of the trouble was the famous case of Kiki Cuyler, which has shaken Pittsburgh fandom to its foundations. Two years ago Cuyler was the hero of the World Series. Last year he was still a star, but this season he sat on the bench while kids from the minors drifted along and stepped in ahead of the great outfielder. Why this should be, nobody knows, least of all the fans of this smoky city. And they have been demanding to know the why and wherefore.
"In the eighth inning, when a pinch hitter was needed, the fans rose by the thousands and set up a deafening clamor for Cuyler. But Donie Bush was obdurate and called on Earl Smith, and the storm of boos and jeers and catcalls would have done credit to St. Louis.
"Bush stood out in the coaching line and took it all without flinching while staid citizens jumped up and waved their fists in his direction," continued the Times man. "When Smith grounded weakly to Gehrig another chorus of derisive jeers and laughter greeted the failure of Cuyler's substitute."
Bush used pinch hitters three more times in the next two games, and none were effective. Cuyler never got another chance to play for Pittsburgh. In November he was traded to the Chicago Cubs. He played 11 more seasons in the majors and batted as high as .360 in 1929. That year he did play in the World Series, for the Cubs, and hit .300.
Cuyler died suddenly in 1950 without ever fully explaining what happened in 1927. Bush, too, refused for years to say what caused him to keep one of his stars out of the lineup that season. But recently he told his side of the story to Fred Russell, sports editor of the Nashville Banner.
"Cuyler had played center field and batted third in 1926," said Bush. "He wanted to do the same thing in 1927. I started the season with him in center and had him hitting third. Later I decided he should play left and hit second. My reason for making the change was that Lloyd Waner had joined the club and I regarded him a better center fielder than Cuyler. Lloyd was faster and had a better arm.
"Cuyler had a great arm too. But he was inclined to throw the ball in from the outfield so high that our infielders couldn't cut off the throw and prevent runners from advancing from first or second base. I had spoken to him about it several times.
"One day late in the season, in a close game, the opposing club had runners on first and third, with one out," Bush continued. "The batter flied to Cuyler. He threw toward the plate, too high for a cutoff, and the runner on first advanced to second. From there he scored on a single. That run beat us.
"When Cuyler came in to the bench I said to him, 'Won't you ever learn to throw the ball low?'
"He said, 'If you don't like the way I play get somebody else.'
"I said, I will.'
"I put Clyde Barnhart in left field. It had to be that way. I had to maintain discipline. One time I did fine Cuyler $50 for not sliding to try to break up a double play. But the real reason I benched him was for what he said to me after the high throw.
"I had great respect for Cuyler as a player. His only trouble was his temperament, his bullheadedness. If he had apologized to me I would have put him back in the lineup. But he never did."
Perhaps if Cuyler had been less bullheaded the Pirates would have got some badly needed runs in the 1927 Series. And perhaps if Manager Bush had been less bullheaded they would have won it.