Pirates' 1960 champs 'a team of destiny'
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Fifty years ago on Easter, the Pirates had a baseball awakening.
Trailing the Cincinnati Reds by five runs in the second game of a doubleheader and down to their last two outs, the Pirates rallied for a 6-5 win. The biggest blows were a three-run home run by Hal Smith and a two-run blast by Bob Skinner, who said his game-winning trip around the bases was like "walking on air."
A victory in the first week of a protracted season might not qualify as pivotal, but it did establish a palpitating pattern of comebacks. On 22 ensuing occasions, the 1960 Pirates won in their final at-bat, which helps explain why that season continues to enchant and enthrall.
"That game was when we really believed we could win," said team captain Dick Groat. "Then, we did it so many times it became contagious. It got to the point where we thought we weren't supposed to lose. We were like a team of destiny."
Nothing is older than yesterday's news, especially in this age of Twitter and the blogosphere. But even if baseball lends itself to nostalgia, 1960 stands out as a season worth remembering. It has been called the last pure season because it was the last one before expansion. And in these parts, nothing could be as pure as the Oct. 13 home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series that beat the Yankees.
But a lot of baseball had to be played to get to that point, and the entire season is worth remembering.
In 1960, when a presidential campaign passed the torch to a new generation, Pittsburgh was remaking itself from a gritty, grimy past. The Steelers were a dozen years away from winning their first playoff game. The Penguins were seven years away from being born. Although baseball was truly the national pastime, the Pirates hadn't won a pennant in 33 years or a World Series in 35 years, and a wretched run of nine consecutive losing seasons was fresh in the collective memory.
Nowadays, the citizenry revels in invoking the title city of champions. Back in the day, however, the region wore an inferiority complex as if it were sackcloth. Because of the 1960 Pirates, a new identity emerged -- that of winners.
Manager Danny Murtaugh knew he had the makings of something special -- an airtight defense, a reliable starting-pitcher rotation supported by the best relief pitcher in the business, a decent bench and ballplayers who were fundamentally sound.
"We don't have the power of some of the others," he said during spring training, "but when everyone in the lineup is playing up to his normal capabilities, we are the only team in the league without a major weakness."
Actually, a lot of them were extraordinary. The Pirates were under .500 only twice all season, and never after the third game of the season. From May 30 until the end of the season, they owned first place except for one day, July 24, when they trailed by mere percentage points.
Not a single batter hit 25 home runs, scored 100 runs or drove in 100 runs. But as a team, the Pirates led the National League in runs, hits, RBIs and batting average.
Mr. Groat, for example, won the NL batting title and was the league's most valuable player. Firebrand Don Hoak was the most valuable player runner-up, and the Pirates had five players in the top 12 in the voting. Even when Mr. Groat was sidelined with a fractured wrist on Sept. 6, Dick Schofield stepped in and hit over .400 in his absence.
Vernon Law, who finished ahead of Roberto Clemente in the MVP voting, won the Cy Young Award with a 20-9 record when there was only one such award for both major leagues. Twice during the season, the Pirates lost four games in a row, and Mr. Law stopped both streaks. He had 18 complete games.
"We had a team that really scrapped," said Mr. Law, 80, an ordained priest in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon). "You have to have that unseen thing -- belief. You just got the feeling we were going to win this thing. You knew that something good was waiting at the end of the season."
The stars aligned in myriad ways. Two All-Star games were held that year, and eight players represented the Pirates. Bill Mazeroski and Bob Skinner were starters, with Mr. Groat, Mr. Clemente and Smoky Burgess as reserves. Three pitchers made the team -- Mr. Law, Bob Friend and ElRoy Face.
Mr. Friend, who had 16 complete games during the season, pitched the first three innings and was the winning pitcher of the All-Star game in Kansas City. Mr. Face held the lead in middle relief and Mr. Law got the save. Two days later in Yankee Stadium, Mr. Law started against Whitey Ford and got credit for the win.
"It was a magical season," said Mr. Friend, 79.
The Pirates did require one major addition in the pennant chase. In a multiplayer deal, veteran left-handed pitcher Wilmer "Vinegar Bend" Mizell was acquired May 27 from the St. Louis Cardinals for infielder Julian Javier. Mr. Mizell went 13-5.
"I don't think we would have won without him. He stabilized our pitching staff," said Joe Brown, 92, the general manager, who lives in Newport Beach, Calif. "But it wasn't one guy. Everybody on the team contributed. From my vantage point in the GM's box, there were years when I'd look at the left field bleachers and people would leave if we were down by two or three runs. Nobody left in the middle of games in 1960."
As winning became contagious, so did an infectious enthusiasm that was diagnosed as pennant fever. Fans experienced an outbreak of palpitations, sweaty palms, throbbing and trembling hearts, churning stomachs, communal anxiety and other symptoms. No cure was available, and none was sought.
Even a beer jingle became a hit record. It was that kind of year.
Ketchum, McLeod & Grove handled the account for Pirates sponsor Iron City Beer, which was looking for a catchy tune to boost sales of its hearty, tart lager. Jazz musician Joe Negri, who was working at KDKA at the time, was approached to write the music, and Sy Bloom of the ad agency penned the lyrics. The result was "Beat 'em, Bucs," which was recorded as a hit single by Benny Benack and the Iron City Six.
"It was a simple little thing, but something in the melody was Pittsburghesque," said Mr. Negri, 83. "The more the Pirates won, the hotter the tune got. It took off like wildfire. There was a real love affair between the city and that team."
Up and down the AM radio dial, stations played "Beat 'em, Bucs" at all hours of the day and night. Everybody loved the song except Mr. Clemente, who went into a slump when he heard it and thought the song was a jinx.
Fans turned out in record numbers at Forbes Field.
"People thought they were part of it," Mr. Law said. "They had been waiting so many years. The Pirates had gone so long without giving the fans anything to holler about. They finally had something to cheer."
After years of not being able to do anything right, the Pirates did all the right things. They advanced runners. They threw to the correct base. Mr. Clemente threw out 19 base runners. If they needed a big hit late in a game, Gino Cimoli or Dick Stuart or Gene Baker or somebody would deliver.
"What nobody talks about is the psychological strength of the players. The mental side and spiritual side are 99 percent of the game. Only one percent is physical," said Joe Christopher, 74, who contributed as one of the role players.
Fourteen of the 25 players on the World Series roster are still alive. Most of them, along with some players who were active during the 1960 season, will have a reunion at an autograph signing show May 21-23 at the Robert Morris University Sewall Center in Moon. The event, at which fans pay to get in and pay for autographs, is the longest-running show in the country at the same venue with the same promoter. But this time, some Yankees are scheduled to appear, including pitchers Bobby Shantz, Bob Turley and Art Ditmar.
"We've never had a joint venture before," said Jeff Stogner of J. Paul Sports Promotions of Holmes, N.Y. Details are available at http://www.jpaulsports.com.
He is not surprised that the 1960 Pirates still generate interest.
"The Pirates hadn't won in so long that nobody could remember what it was like. It was a different time. It was an honest game. And I don't know of a better group of individuals than those guys," Mr. Stogner said.
The Pirates are also planning some events this summer to honor the team that finished 95-59 before taking the Yankees in seven games. The signature event is the dedication of the Mazeroski statue on Sept. 5, the day the Hall of Fame second baseman celebrates his 74th birthday.
The bronze statue, which will be displayed in the cul-de-sac of Mazeroski Way, immortalizes his jubilant home run trot. Yet somehow, it incorporates the memories of Arriba, Tiger, Dog, Quail, Deacon, Kitten, Baron, Ducky, Smoky, Rocky, Possum, The Gunner and everyone who was part of 1960.
"Once I hit second, I know I didn't touch the ground again," Mr. Mazeroski said.
Indeed. After all this time, a season that started and ended with Pirates walking on air continues to uplift.
First Published April 4, 2010 12:00 am