Some baseball teams become famous for collecting great pitchers, like the Cleveland Indians. Others seem to develop home run hitters in clusters; the Cincinnati Redlegs, for instance. Some come up with hordes of daring, dashing base runners, as the St. Louis Cardinals did a decade or two back.
The Pittsburgh Pirates collect one-syllable names.
There has probably never been a team in the history of baseball with a more impressive assemblage of single-syllable players than the current Pirates. Ruth could have made this team, or Foxx, or Cobb, but Boots Poffenberger would never have had a chance. The Pittsburgh roster, read with the proper sonority and rhythm, sounds like a half-forgotten fragment of Anglo-Saxon poetry, something to befuddle future generations of unlettered freshmen. Just imagine a dedicated professor of early English literature soulfully intoning:
Foiles, Friend and Freese:
King, Kline and Law.
Long, Rand, Walls, Smith.
May 5, 1957
Or Branch Rickey. He'd do wonders with it. You can almost hear Rickey, eyebrows high, his voice strong and full and rolling, each unintelligible monosyllable suddenly fraught with significance for the future: Pirate skills, Pirate victories, Pirate pennants.
Bobby Bragan, who is Mr. Rickey's agent (which is to say, he manages the Pirates, the team Mr. Rickey created), doesn't recite poetry. For him "Churn, Face; King, Kline and Law" are arms and bats, and they don't sing. Bobby does sing, however (and pretty well, too, for an ex-catcher), and he plays a mean parlor piano. But when he sings he has a smile on his face and a tear in his heart, because the Pirates, for all their Chaucerian promise, are a long way from being a good baseball team. Their pitching is thin, their fielding ordinary and their hitting—well, the Pirate batting order most days is a weak imitation of a major league lineup.
The Pirates would probably be a lot worse off if Manager Bragan weren't around. This swarthy, black-haired, black-eyed, chunky little man doesn't have much to work with—just five players of unquestioned major league ability: Pitchers Bob Friend and Ron Kline, Third Baseman Frank Thomas, Outfielders Bill Virdon and Roberto Clemente. But he uses what he has to full advantage. He wastes no opportunities. If Bragan were a salesman and a door were opened an inch to him, his foot would be in, shortly followed by his mouth, and subsequently by a sale. So far as the Pirates are concerned, Bobby is a con man; and he sells them pride.
This may help to explain Bragan's much-publicized feud with New York Giant Manager Bill Rigney. Bragan doesn't have too much admiration for Rigney to begin with, but the basic reason for his down-grading the Giants (he calls them a last-place club, which angers Rigney) is to up-grade the Pirates. Pittsburgh got its foot in the door last year when it finished seventh after four straight years in eighth place. Bragan means to exploit that, and he has already, to the extent that his players are convinced that they are, at worst, a fifth-place team.
This reasoning can apply to Bragan's custom of fining his players picayune amounts for minor infractions of the rules ($5 for reporting late to the park, $10 for failing to throw a pitchout when it was called for, $20 for failing to slide into second base in a crucial moment). The fines aren't much, but they sting a man's pride. And they help spread Bragan's basic idea that this club is too good to condone carelessness; carelessness is for eighth-place clubs.
This theory would work much better if Bragan had some hitters to back up his pitchers. Last spring when Dale Long flared like a nova and hit homers and drove in runs like Mickey Mantle, the Pirates flared with him, and before you knew it they were soaring along on top of the league. Then, like a nova, Long burned out, and the Pirates died with him, subsiding steadily into seventh place. Over the last two-thirds of the season they had the worst record in the league (worse than the Cubs, worse than the Giants). But Bragan, the con man, kept everyone, including the Pirates, from realizing it, with the result that on the last weekend of the season the puerile Pittsburghers nearly upset Brooklyn's pennant cart with their fierce, almost frenzied efforts to win.
This year their efforts, while possibly still frenzied, are unhappily not very fierce. For example, Bob Friend, Bragan's best pitcher and very possibly the best pitcher in the National League, one day allowed the Brooklyn Dodgers only four hits and two runs in Ebbets Field, the pitchers' graveyard, and yet he was soundly beaten.
The Pirates picked up six hits off Johnny Podres, had two walks, stole two bases...and failed to score. The Dodgers had only four hits, no walks, stole no bases...and scored twice on two sudden home runs, one after the other, in the fourth inning. Aside from the homers, only two Dodgers reached base all day. But the Dodgers won, and it seemed easy.
After the game a man voiced praise for the superb game Friend had pitched.
"What about Podres?" a Brooklyn friend demanded. "He won."
"Friend pitched the better game," the other said calmly.
"He lost! Podres won!" the second man argued. "Podres pitched a shutout, for Pete's sake."
He was withered by a look.
"Anybody can shut out Pittsburgh," he was told. "They're singles hitters. What a bunch of bums."
The word "bum" was used, of course, to describe the hitting ability of the Pirates and not their personal behavior. As people, the Pittsburgh players are first-class: most of them are young, clean-cut, hard-working, trustworthy, reverent, loyal and brave.
But abundant virtue is not a guarantee of success in baseball. There is a story told in Pittsburgh about this. In midseason last year the Pirates elevated a 19-year-old second baseman named Bill Mazeroski (who has as many syllables all by himself as the rest of the Pittsburgh infield) from the minors. Mazeroski proved to be a highly skilled fielder and gave signs of developing into a fair major league hitter. Signs, however, were (and, thus far, continue to be) all. He batted only .243 and in 81 games drove in just 14 runs.
Now, Mazeroski's home town is not far from Pittsburgh and one day late in the season a group of neighbors and friends dropped into Forbes Field with gifts and speeches. They made it clear that they weren't trying to puff Bill up into a great ballplayer, or anything like that. It was simply that they wanted to express publicly their admiration for what they knew him to be already: a young man of fine character, well-liked and respected by everyone who knew him, decent, reliable, the sort of boy a town would be proud of if he'd never so much as played a game of baseball in his life.
"This is all very well," said a sour sportswriter in the Forbes Field press box. "But what the Pirates need is a juvenile delinquent who can hit."
This pressing need (for hitting, that is; the Pirates will have no truck with juvenile delinquency) was demonstrated once again three days after Friend's betrayal, when Ronnie Kline stopped the Giants with one run...and lost. This time the pitcher who shut out the Pirates was a rookie named Pete Burnside, a left-hander who won five games and lost nine in the minors last year. As far as the Pirates. were concerned he was Lefty Grove. They managed to eke out three hits. One man actually got as far as second base.
This inept hitting was particularly distressing to the Pirates' special batting coach, a man named George Sisler whose qualifications for the job include a batting average of .420 in 1922, not to mention .407 in 1920, and a pitching son who has already beat the mighty Yankees twice this year for the Boston Red Sox.
George Sisler is 64 now, and his once marvelously coordinated physique has been ravaged by time and illness. He walks slowly now, eats carefully and tries not to let himself get overly excited. He sits quietly in the Pirate clubhouse before the game and answers questions put to him by the Pirate players. Young Johnny O'Brien, his baby face trying to look rough and tough behind a two-day growth of beard and a stub of a cigar, comes over and asks, "Mr. Sisler, how did you hit the change?" Sisler, sitting in a chair, grabs an imaginary bat, unconsciously sets his feet in a semblance of a batting stance, and explains about waiting until the last minute, and pushing the ball or pulling it. O'Brien puffs on the cigar and nods, asks another question, nods again. "You have to wait," Sisler says, "and...." He flicks the imaginary bat, and for the briefest part of a second it is Sportsman's Park in 1922.
But then it was the Polo Grounds in 1957, and George Sisler was sitting in the stands watching, an expression of mild pain on his face as Pirate after Pirate failed at the plate.
"We'll hit this fellow," Sisler said in the first inning.
"We're bound to hit him," he said in the third. "We're bound to."
"He hasn't a bad fast ball," he said in the fifth. "It has a nice tail to it. But he's a little wild. He'd be nice to hit."
With a man on first base a Pirate batter swung at a two-and-two pitch and popped up. Sisler shook his head.
"Hit a bad pitch. High. If he'd let it go, it would be three-and-two and that fellow on first would be moving. Might have made a difference."
The next Pirate batter swung at an inside fast ball and missed, making the count two-and-two. Sisler made a little annoyed sound.
"Another bad pitch. Would have been three-and-one and he'd have had to come in with it. You can't tell what would happen, but he should make the pitcher work. It's just a little thing, but it's those little things that win games."
Another futile inning passed.
"I don't know how they miss them," Sisler mused, mostly to himself. "He's wild with that fast ball. He'd get himself into a jam if they'd let him."
Dale Long finally worked a walk, but Dick Groat, up next, swung at the first pitch and flied out.
"George," he was asked, "are they swinging at bad pitches?"
"Oh, sure," Sisler said. "They have been all day."
"This kid doesn't have much, does he?" he was asked.
"He's pitching a good game," Sisler granted. "But we've certainly helped to make it easy for him."
In the ninth with one out and the Pirates behind 1-0, Frank Thomas singled to left and took second when the outfielder fumbled the ball. Sisler sat up. Dale Long was at bat.
Long popped up to the infield.
"Oh, gee," Sisler said in a little voice.
Dick Groat worked the count to three and one.
"Does he hit, George? Or take?"
"Hit," Sisler said decisively.
Groat swung and hit a ground ball to shortstop. The game was over. Sisler sat back.
"Oh, gee," he said again. "Gosh darn it."
Bobby Bragan, in the dugout, might have expressed himself more forcibly, but he felt much the same way. So did Long and Freese and Friend and Kline and Groat and Smith and Hall. And likewise the polysyllabic Mr. Mazeroski. Such a nice bunch of boys. Such a shame they can't put the monosyllabic wood to the monosyllabic ball for some crucial monosyllabic hits.
The season was still young, but in its second week it produced an inning that might well hold up as the zaniest of the 11,088 scheduled to be played in 1957. The Senators were losing to the Yankees, as usual, but by a reasonably respectable 4-0 score as the sixth inning began. Yankee batters reached first and third base with one out, then Whitey Ford bounced an easy double-play ball back to Pitcher Chuck Stobbs. Inexplicably, Stobbs tried to catch the runner off third instead, and the play ended in an unsuccessful rundown. "I had it in my mind to throw to second on a hard ground ball but when it came, I didn't do it," Stobbs commented later.
Exit Stobbs with the bases loaded and enter 24-year-old newlywed Dick Brodowski to pitch for the first time this season. Brodowski, once a bright prospect with Boston but now just another name on the worst pitching staff in the majors, threw three pitches to Hank Bauer; the last was hit for a grand slam home run.
Three more pitches later, Brodowski "tried to push Billy Martin back but he didn't get back far enough." The ball hit Martin on the wrist. Mantle walked on four pitches, and Berra forced him at second. Bill Skowron walked and again the bases were loaded.
Gil McDougald stood at the plate for the second time that inning. Brodowski checked Martin feinting off third. "The catcher signaled for a curve, but I shook the sign off and didn't check back at third. I wanted to throw a fast ball." Martin stole home. "He had it stolen before I wound up. I knew that. But you have to go so far with your motion before throwing to the plate. By the time I threw, Martin was almost across." The other Yankee runners moved up a base to complete the triple steal.
Brodowski, a bit shaken by then, pitched a second time to McDougald and threw the ball past his catcher. Another run scored. On the fifth pitch to him, McDougald singled and the seventh and last run of the inning came across the plate. "He hit a sidearm curve that stayed inside and a sidearm curve that stays inside isn't any good."
A different Washington pitcher started the next inning. For Brodowski, it was an experience he'd rather forget: "Why all the interest in this one inning anyway?"—L.W.