A lot of people know that I’m an avid Steelers fan, but on occasion someone will ask me if I also cheer for the baseball team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. There’s always an awkward pause before I answer that question.
Yes, I do like the Pirates. Yes, I try to follow them a bit from afar. But, in fact, there hasn’t been much to cheer about in the last twenty years. It’s sort of embarrassing to admit that I’m a Pirates fan. And after all, I’m living in Red Sox territory.
To say that the Pirates have fallen on hard times is like saying that the Titanic had a rough night at sea. The Pirates haven’t won anything for twenty years. In fact, their nineteen year losing streak is the longest in the history of professional sports I think. There’s an entire generation of Pirates fans in Western Pennsylvania who have never known the Pirates as a winning team. That’s pretty risky business in a sports-crazed city that enshrines winners but discards losers like empty Iron City Beer cans. And it’s also pretty disheartening for someone like me who grew up living and breathing the Pirates, even more than the Steelers.
Yes, it’s been many years since the Pirates had a winning team, but once-upon-a-time it was very different.
I remember, with special affection, the 1960 Pirates. The Pirate Yearbook that spring had this comment from the manager: “Danny [Murtaugh] is confident that he has a contending club. ‘When all our ball players are playing up to their potential, we do not have an outstanding weakness in our line-up.’” Murtaugh’s assessment was right on. This was the young team that beat the fabled and highly-favored Yankees in a thrilling seven-game World Series. The Yankees’ roster had names like Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. But, it was Bill Mazeroski’s ninth inning home run, on October 13th, 1960, that concluded an unbelievable, heart-pounding, nail-biting game and gave the Pirates their championship.
Maz’s homerun ranks one of the great moments in sports history, even better for Pittsburgh fans, I’d say, than the “Immaculate Reception” of Franco Harris that launched Steelers greatness. To this day Pirate fans still gather on October 13th at the spot where the ball cleared the left field wall of old Forbes Field to remember and celebrate.
I grew up following players like Smoky Burgess, El Roy Face, Bob Friend, Dick Groat, Harvey Haddix, Dick Stuart, Bob Skinner, Bill Virdon and, of course, the incomparable Roberto Clemente. The 1960 team also included Woonsocket’s own Clem Labine, who came to the Pirates late in the championship season.
My friends and I knew all about the players and their statistics. As we played whiffle ball in the side yard we imitated their batting stances and pitching motions; we tried to run like them and catch like them. And how I wish I still had the large collection of baseball cards I had then!
In those years I listened to Pirate games on the radio next to my bed at night, and during the day on my brand new, pocket-sized Silvertone transistor radio while delivering newspapers around the neighborhood. For awhile I scored just about every game, keeping track with my own homemade, personally designed scoring system.
Who among Pirate fans of the 1950s and 60s can forget Bob Prince, the always colorful and controversial play-by-play announcer? It was said that one disgruntled fan, wanting to write to the “Gunner,” addressed an envelope with the words, “Ocean Mouth” and nothing else written on the envelope, and the mail found its way to his office. He had quite the reputation; one of the best play-by-play guys ever.
The Pirates’ epic journey of 1960 was accompanied by the King of Dixieland (in Pittsburgh?) Bennie Benack who, with his jazz band, led the fight song, “Oh the Bucs are going all the way, all the way, all the way . . . this year.” The lyrics were basic, but singable. Quirky old Forbes Field became the scene of consistently great baseball, thrilling comebacks, and a thousand memories for a 12-year-old kid in the summer of 1960.
The Pirates have won just two World Series since that landmark season – in 1971, beating the Baltimore Orioles, Roberto Clemente’s last season, and 1979, beating the Orioles once again, the year of Willie Stargell and the “We are family” anthem.
So, its been a very long drought for the Pirates, but there seems to be legitimate reason to hope. The owners are finally shelling out a little money, and the team has assembled a core of talented young players who might actually be around for awhile.
And the fans are ready, that’s for sure. A recent article in the hometown Post-Gazette records the somewhat guarded optimism of the faithful. One fan said, “You never know; I think the team will be better this year.” His twelve-year old son was candid about the new Pirates team. “They’re not that great,” he said, “but they’ll be better this year.” And a third fan had equally modest expectations. “I’m not sure they have enough talent yet. Still, I like the ballpark.”
But, why not be optimistic? Why not have hope? After all it’s springtime, a season of new life, and new beginnings. The baseball season’s only a few games old, and if you can’t be optimistic in April, you’ve missed the spirit of Opening Day.
So, let’s all look forward to reading the headline this fall: “Pirates Win 2012 World Series.” How sweet would that be, and even sweeter if they beat the Red Sox to do it!