Before the season began the Pittsburgh Pirates were tabbed as a team destined to go nowhere Very far from the cellar in the National League pennant race. Spirited bursts of fine play could be expected every now and then as "previews of pennant-winning teams to come," to give a nod to Pittsburgh General Manager Branch Rickey and his long-range building program; but the general prognosis was one of gloom, which the Pirates promptly confirmed by losing their first eight games and landing flatly in last place.
You may not have noticed this dismal spell at the time, for it was not a particularly surprising thing, and it was more or less obscured by the Brooklyn Dodgers' spectacular season-opening 10-game winning streak. Those who did take notice of it remarked only that the Pirates were finding their proper level rather quickly this year.
Last week you still may not have been looking Pittsburgh's way, what with that tremendous glow of victory continuing to rise over Brooklyn, but if you had, you might have noted small signs and portents: the youthful Pirates' first preview of future greatness. It included six straight victories, 10 wins in 15 games, and a rush from dead last into fifth place.
Ten out of 15 is not an extraordinary achievement, six straight victories is a rather modest winning streak and fifth place is really not very high in the standings. But coming after that depressing opening week, the resurgent play of the Pirates was remarkable, particularly during the six games they won consecutively. Throughout those six games the Pirates were as exciting and as satisfying a club as any in baseball, and those few desperately loyal Pittsburgh fans who did not let four last-place finishes in five years destroy an affection built on memories of Fred Clarke, Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor and the Waners were richly rewarded.
May 15, 1955
IN THE BEGINNING
Ronnie Kline started the streak by shutting out the powerful St. Louis Cardinals 7-0 for his first major league victory. Bob Purkey followed suit the next day by stopping the Cardinals 5—1, the lone St. Louis run scoring on an error. Then Dick Littlefield shut out the Milwaukee Braves 4-0. In three games Pirate pitchers, who last year allowed 4.92 earned runs per game, worst in the league, had permitted only one run, and that one unearned.
The fourth straight victory was most significant one of the streak—a hard, tough game against the Braves that the Pirates won because they outplayed and outfought a better team. In the fifth inning George Freese, the older (28) member of the Freese brothers' infield act, led off with a single. Brother Gene, just 21 in January, followed him to bat. This is the tense, emotional young fellow whom Rickey called the best player in the minor leagues last year. Now, intentionally or unintentionally, he stepped out of the batter's box just as Milwaukee's truculent Lew Burdette was about to pitch. Burdette seethed with irritation. Freese stepped back in, Burdette threw and Freese hit the ball over the scoreboard for his first major league home run. Burdette steamed with fury. Pirate Pitcher Max Surkont came to bat. Burdette, violating the ethical—and practical—dictum never to throw at a fellow pitcher, sent Surkont into the dust with a high, tight fast ball. Surkont got to his feet, livid with rage, and the Pirate bench howled at Burdette. The count on angry Max went to three and two, and then Burdette walked him. Out came Manager Charley Grimm from the Braves dugout, out went Burdette from the game and on went the Pirates to five runs and a 5-3 lead they held into the ninth.
Then a Milwaukee rally brought the score to 5-4, with the tying and winning runs on base and two men out. George Crowe hit a long drive to deep right that seemed sure to go off the screen for extra bases. But 20-year-old Roberto Clemente, a brilliant young player, raced back and made a leaping one-handed catch for the final out.
The next day it was easy. The Pirates ran up an 8-2 lead over the Braves, as First Baseman Dale Long hit three doubles and drove in six runs. In the seventh the Braves rallied, scored twice to bring the score to 8-4, had two men on base with no one out and slugger Eddie Mathews at bat. Mathews leaned into one and clouted it on a sizzling line toward right field. If it had gone through it would almost certainly have been for extra bases and two Milwaukee runs. Instead, Long ("What a day he had!" Pirate Manager Fred Haney said later) plucked the ball out of the air and started a stunning triple play (see drawing opposite page) that crushed the rally and the Braves and extended the Pirate streak to five straight.
ON TO NEW YORK
Then the Pirates flew into New York, knocked Johnny Antonelli of the Giants out of the box in the seventh and led 3-1 going into the Giants' last time at bat. Mueller singled to start the inning. On successive pitches Irvin singled and Mays doubled to bring the score to 3-2, with the tying run on third, the winning run on second and none out. The Pirates thought of the game they had dropped two weeks before to the Phils during their losing streak, when they carried a 4-0 lead into the last of the ninth only to lose it 5-4. This time it was different. Relief Pitcher Ben Wade walked Dark intentionally to load the bases. Lock-man hit a grounder to Gene Freese at second base. Freese clutched the ball eagerly, hobbled it for a second, but maintained his poise and with the confidence and sure touch of a Red Schoendienst rifled the ball to Catcher Jack . Shepard just in time to force Irvin at the plate. It didn't look spectacular, but it was a great play; because of it the Giants failed to score and the Pirates saved their victory. The next Giant struck out and the next flied to center. Gene Freese leaped up in glee as the ball was caught for the final out, then leaped on Ben Wade. It seemed like a very big game for this team of proud young ballplayers to win.
They lost to the Giants the next day and split a double-header with them the day after that, and it did not seem likely that they would stay in fifth place very long. But their preview of the shape of things to come—brilliant pitching, timely hitting, sure fielding—was a smash hit. These Pirates might indeed be the team to beat in 1957.
"I don't want to say this is a good team," Haney said carefully the night the Pirates won their sixth straight.
"It isn't a good team. But it can be. It has potential."
It certainly has.
SHORTSTOP GROAT FIRES BALL BACK TO LONG AT FIRST IN TIMES TO TRIPLE-UP JOHNNY LOGAN 3
LONG WHIPS BALL TO GROAT AT SECOND TO DOUBLE UP BRUTON OFF BASE 2
MATHEWS LINES OUT TO FIRST BASEMAN DALE LONG 1