Pirates fans, we're gonna need another statue
In the fall of 1951, I sat in the dark at the Arcade, the ritziest of four movie houses on Pittsburgh's South Side, and watched the Pirates win the National League pennant.
It happened in "Angels in the Outfield," Ralph Kiner's favorite movie (Ike also liked it) and the forerunner of the Academy Award-nominated "Field of Dreams."
In the spring of 1951, an MGM film crew had arrived in Pittsburgh to shoot scenes at Forbes Field for a new baseball movie. MGM needed a team that couldn't win games without the help of angelic spirits, and the Pirates were perfect for the part. The team had finished in last place in 1950 and would barely escape the cellar in 1951. In 1952, the Pirates would set a modern franchise record by losing 112 games.
In "Angels in the Outfield," an angelic voice representing St Gabriel confronts Pirates manager Guffy McGovern, played by veteran actor Paul Douglas, after another Pirates loss. The voice tells the foul-mouthed, brawling Guffy that someone has been praying night and day for him. The angels are willing to help the Pirates, but only if Guffy stops his swearing and fighting.
After the usual Hollywood plot twists involving a little girl in an orphanage (she's the one praying to Gabriel) and a curvaceous "household hints" columnist, played by Janet Leigh, the Pirates, even when forced to play without the help of angels on the last day of the season, win the pennant, thanks to a dying pitcher who will be hurling next season for the Heavenly Choir Nine.
No matter how hard I prayed for the real Pirates, they weren't going to win the pennant in 1951, but seeing it happen in the movies was pretty exciting for a 12-year-old Little Leaguer and die-hard Knot Hole fan. I had fun playing for the South Side Bucs and going out to games at Forbes Field, but watching Hollywood turn my Pirates into a pennant winner was the stuff of dreams.
Sixty years later, Pittsburgh became the site of another baseball miracle, but this time it wasn't in a movie. After 18 straight losing seasons, including 105 losses in 2010, the Pirates started playing winning baseball. After 100 games, the 2011 team was actually in a battle for first place.
When the team finally went into a tailspin, most fans wanted to blame an umpire's bum call, but having grown up in the 1950s, I knew what had happened to our Buccos. All those clutch plays, all those close wins, I'd seen it before -- clearly there were angels helping the Pirates. But for some inexplicable reason, the angels departed after 100 games.
What drove them away? Did Clint Hurdle start swearing and brawling in the clubhouse? Did ESPN curse the Pirates by dubbing them "the new America's team?" Was it a vast Steelers conspiracy to get Pittsburgh fans back to worshipping football? Was someone in Milwaukee praying harder?
I didn't have the answer until I heard an angelic voice in the middle of a sleepless night telling me, "If they build it, we'll come back."
The Pirates already have a great ballpark, so it took me a few more Pirates losses and sleepless nights to figure out the message.
There are four statues honoring Pirates World Series heroes at PNC Park, but the Pirates have five World Series titles. There are statues of Honus Wagner (1909), Bill Mazeroski (1960), Roberto Clemente (1971) and Willie Stargell (1979), but the Pirates have yet to build a statue honoring a hero of the 1925 World Series.
There were three future Hall of Fame Pirates on the 1925 team that defeated the Washington Senators and the great Walter Johnson in a dramatic rain-soaked deciding game at Forbes Field. Max Carey had the most hits in the World Series, Kiki Cuyler drove home the winning runs in the final game, but the greatest Pirate at muddy Forbes Field that day was Pie Traynor.
In 1948, Traynor became the first third baseman elected to the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. In 1969, the year of baseball's centennial, he was selected as the greatest third baseman in baseball history.
Traynor was my father's favorite player, and by the time I became a Pirates fan Traynor had become, thanks largely to his radio sportscasts, his numerous public appearances and his "Studio Wrestling" commercials ("Who Can? American!"), arguably the most popular figure walking the streets of Pittsburgh (he didn't drive a car).
Pie Traynor was outside Forbes Field at the beginning of the 1955 season for the unveiling of the Honus Wagner statue, just months before Wagner's death. Just months before his own death, Traynor was at Three Rivers Stadium to throw out the first ball for the home opener of the 1971 World Series.
Those who remember Pie Traynor's greatness but have doubts about the existence of angels will find testimony to the contrary by a priest, a minister and a rabbi (no joke intended) in "Angels in the Outfield." Even Pirates co-owner and avid golfer Bing Crosby appears in the movie to say, "Lots of times people think angels are watching over them." Crosby then sinks a long putt, looks up to the heavens and says, "Thanks."
As for Pie Traynor's own angelic connection, he's listed as a technical adviser for Angels in the Outfield and makes a cameo appearance as a Pirates coach (he pops up in the dugout near the end of the movie). Ralph Kiner also appears in the movie's action scenes and, with the help of angels, hits a home run. When the angels weren't looking, he also hit an off-screen home run with Janet Leigh.
The Pirates have a replica of Kiner's home run grip inside PNC Park, but they're missing one statue outside the ballpark. Once they build the statue and the angels come back, winning another World Series should be as easy as Pie.
First Published September 11, 2011 12:00 am