Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Heroes of the Greatest Game Ever

Today is the 50th anniversary of what some experts call the best baseball game ever (and not all of them are from Pittsburgh)--the seventh game of the 1960 World Series, won by the Pittsburgh Pirates over the New York Yankees with what is still the only home run in the bottom of the ninth to decide a Series in the 7th game, hit by the Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski. That photo of Maz floating from second to third is the basis of the statue of him that will be unveiled outside the new Pirates ballpark.

It was a vastly different baseball world. It was the last year there were just eight teams in each of the National and American leagues, as there had been for most of the previous history of major league baseball. Though baseball was the biggest sport in America, most Major League players didn't even earn a living from baseball--many if not most had other jobs in the offseason, and went back to work full time when they retired. Though there were fewer games in a season (154 instead of 162), they were worked harder. The Pirates two top starting pitchers each had 16 complete games in 1960. Today a complete game is a rarity.

The game was played at Forbes Field, in the neighborhood of Oakland. It was a storied ball park even before this Series. Babe Ruth hit his last two home runs there. The old baseball movie, Angels in the Outfield, was shot there. It was torn down as the University of Pittsburgh expanded, and the Pirates went to play at the larger Three Rivers Stadium on the North Side, where the Steelers and other local teams played. Now Three Rivers is gone, and the new Pirates park goes a long way to recreating the experience of seeing a game at Forbes Field--where I saw my first games, including this 1960 team--but it doesn't quite get it all.

I was very fortunate to be a boy so into baseball when the Pirates were putting together this team, from 1958 to 1960. The names are legend, and though I've forgotten some, I can still recite the starting lineup from memory--Billy Virdon, Dick Groat (or Ducky Schofield), Bob Skinner, Dick Stuart (or Rocky Nelson), Roberto Clemente, Smoky Burgess (or Hal Smith), Don Hoak, Bill Mazeroski. The great starting pitchers Vernon Law, Bob Friend and Harvey Haddix, and the first true closer who defined relief pitching, Roy Face.

Many of them figured in this great back and forth game besides Mazeroski. Vern Law started, Friend and Face pitched in relief, Harvey Haddix got the win in relief. Clemente got a crucial hit, Virdon drove in two, and Rocky Nelson and especially Hal Smith hit key homers.

I met some of these players then, including Roberto Clemente and Bill Virdon (as I recounted here), and others later. Oddly, even though Bill Mazeroski became a member of my childhood church and to this day lives in my hometown of Greensburg, I never met him. (He was also the Pirate whose name was closest to mine, so that was what my next-door neighbor called me--hey! it's Billy Mazeroski!--even though Maz was a right-handed second baseman and I was a lefthanded pitcher, and my model was Harvey Haddix.)

The mighty New York Yankees were a team of heroes--Mickey Mantle, Rodger Maris, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford--the list goes on. Bobby Richardson actually won the MVP for the series. I saw one of the games at Forbes Field--unfortunately, the 6th, when the Pirates got creamed--but that also means I saw all those great players, too. It was also Casey Stengel's last World Series managing the Yankees. (The Pirates manager, Danny Murtaugh, would actually come back nearly a decade later to manage another Pirates team in the World Series.)

That 7th game was full of odd events and improbable heroes, none more than Mazeroski and his home run. Maz is considered among the best fielding second basemen ever--if not the best-- but he wasn't among the Pirates best hitters or power hitters. No one expected him to hit a home run, especially since he'd already hit one in the Series (in the first game.) Fans just wanted him to get on base, and that's what he was trying to do. Power hitter Dick Stuart was on deck, pinch-hitting. Maz took the first pitch for a ball, so maybe he could work a walk. Instead he hit the next pitch into deep left field and over or near the highest place, the scoreboard clock.

Pittsburgh hadn't had a sports champion since 1925, the last time the Pirates won the Series. But in that one moment, the already magical 1960 season became one that people will be talking about today, and Pittsburgh will celebrate again.

And a wonderful bonus for this 50th year--there was no complete video recording of this game known to exist, until earlier this year when a pristine kinescope recording was discovered in the video vault of Bing Crosby, who in 1960 was an owner of the Pirates.

There's more here on Pittsburgh's and my own experience of this game.

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