Amid all themuscle-flexing and fungo-hitting which mean that baseball has returned to theland once more, a strange and persistent conviction daily grows strongerthroughout Florida that a team called the Pittsburgh Pirates might very wellrise up in 1959, bounce the Milwaukee Braves right on their bratwurst and walkoff with the National League pennant. If they do, it will be because of a groupof young men who wouldn't be recognized by most baseball fans if they shouldwalk into Toots Shor's at high noon wearing catcher's masks.
The reason forthis cloak of anonymity which shields the Pittsburgh athletes is simply thatthe world finally got so tired of hearing how the Pirates were going to rise inall their youthful wrath some day that it quit watching them. So, when theuprising finally happened, no one outside the corporate limits of Pittsburghwas looking. "My goodness," people said, when informed later that thePirates had been right in the middle of the pennant race, "what a sneakything for them to do."
Actually, thePirates were not at all sneaky. They just got lost in the shuffle. Most of theexcitement during the first two-thirds of the 1958 season was generated by theGiants—and, when the Giants finally ran out of pitching, the Braves ran offwith the pennant. Or so it seemed. As a matter of fact, however, the Piratesmade quite a run themselves. Starting from a tie for last place on July 22,they went pelting along until they had climbed over everyone but Milwaukee, andthey gave even the Braves a slight start.
Perhaps the mostunusual thing about this 1958 Pittsburgh team was that on the surface it bore amarked resemblance to the 1957 one and the 1955 one—and even to the 1952 one, aclump of very young ballplayers with great potential, a word which, inPittsburgh, had come to mean so we won't win this year, either.
March 16, 1959
There was,however, one basic difference. Where all those other Pittsburgh teams, foreight long years, finished either seventh or eighth, the 1958 Pirates finishedsecond. They really did. And a good second, at that. The potential was finallyrealized. Without a Willie Mays or a Stan Musial or a Warren Spahn—or a LeoDurocher—all the youngsters got together under a soft-spoken, tobacco-chewingIrishman named Danny Murtaugh (who understood and appreciated them), pulled allat once in the same direction and left the rest of the National Leaguequivering. Now here they are again, better than before.
Without the powerof the Braves and Giants, with only Bob Friend yet qualified to rank among thegame's really big stars, the Pirates expect to go a long way on superb defense,consistent hitting and a pitching staff which shapes up as second only to thatof the champion Braves. The big February deal with the Reds, in which FrankThomas was used as barter for Harvey Haddix, Smoky Burgess and Don Hoak, filledin the gaps which most needed filling—a catcher who could hit and a left-handstarting pitcher—and now the lineup is virtually set. There are no greatexperiments for Murtaugh to conduct in the camp down at Fort Myers this spring,no glaring deficiencies which must be patched. Right now the Pirates are readyto play ball. Perhaps most important of all, the time has finally arrived whenthey know what that means.
Typical of thebrand of youthful experience which could make Pittsburgh so tough in the yearsto come is Richard Morrow Groat, a pleasant young man of 28, with a nice wife,two fine children, a $25,000-a-year job and a balding head. With his neatclothes, an occasional good cigar and a Chrysler automobile, Groat looks forall the world like some promising young executive in a successful corporation,which, in a manner of speaking, he is. Groat is field captain and shortstop ofthe Pirates.
Rushed into amajor league lineup straight off the Duke University campus in 1952, in all thehelter-skelter of Branch Rickey's big rebuilding plan, he had to learn as heearned. For a while there, quite likely, Dick Groat was overpaid. Now, however,things are different; he is a veteran of five National League seasons and hasfinally figured out what big league baseball is all about.
So have others.Bill Mazeroski is only 22, yet he is heading into his fourth major leagueseason and, with Red Schoendienst gone, Mazeroski stands alone as the league'sbest second baseman. Roberto Clemente was brought up to the Pirates in 1955 atthe age of 19, with only one year of Triple-A ball behind him, and was given aregular job. Now, at 24, he is a genuine veteran, too. Ronnie Kline joined thePirates two years after he signed his first baseball contract in 1950, and hehas been around for a long time. The same thing is true, more or less, ofVernon Law and Bob Skinner and Roman Mejias and others. And it seems hard tobelieve that Friend, a major-league pitcher—and a good one—for eight years, isonly 28 himself.
It was not asystem which produced very sensational results when it began. Now things seemto be working out all right.
"Around theleague," says Groat, "there used to be a saying that if you could stayclose to the Pirates in any game, eventually they would make a mistake and beatthemselves. And of course that is exactly what would happen. We would throw theball away or run at the wrong time or miss a signal. We had the talent; wesimply lacked experience.
"But littleby little the experience came along, and last year it came fast. That was thebest thing that ever happened to this ball club. We were in a pennant race,battling to win those close games, playing every day under pressure. As aresult, I learned twice as much as I ever knew before, and the rest of thefellows did, too.
"Now we'vebeen down the line," says Groat, "and we know we're good enough towin."
"That'strue," says Friend. "The difference between the 1958 club and the onesbefore it was confidence. Some of the younger fellows used to feel that therewere only two or three big leaguers on the entire squad. Now they realize thatwe have a whole team of big league ballplayers. It's bound to make adifference."
The man who mademost of the difference was Manager Murtaugh.
Quietly andpatiently, he soothed the troubled waters left in the wake of the volatileBobby Bragan. With Danny, if a young player made a mistake, it was not the endof the world, it was just a mistake; go out and do better next time. If aplayer did well, he was told so. If he needed work on some deficiency, he wasencouraged to work and given the opportunity.
"I suddenlyfelt," says Mazeroski, who was 20 years old at the time, "as if anelephant had just climbed down off my shoulders."
Murtaugh gave hispitchers the chance to pitch until they proved to themselves whether they hadit that day or not; he established a lineup and stuck with it. He gave thePirates a feeling of security.
"He has beenvery close to the players," says Groat. "He can be tough if he has to,but you know he's right when he bears down. Danny's greatest contribution tothis ball club has been his stabilizing influence. He knows how to handlemen."
The men whomMurtaugh will handle this year are not yet a gang of superstars—and most ofthem never will be. But they are good ballplayers, remarkably good, as a matterof fact, when compared to the general level of excellence around the league.And Groat, in many ways, is typical of the Pirates here, too.
He is not thebest defensive shortstop in the league, for his range is a bit limited, and hedoes not have a really great arm, but he plays the hitters well, is very steadyand on occasion can be brilliant—and anyway, when it is a matter which concernsfielding skill, why waste time comparing anyone with Roy McMillan? Neither isGroat the best-hitting shortstop, although he has been over .300 the last twoseasons and is almost certainly the second-best. And here again, is it fair totalk about comparisons so long as Ernie Banks can swing a bat? Dick Groat is agood shortstop who can hit and field; he can think and he likes to win; he is,when you get down to it, better than most. A lot of his teammates are, too.
Bill Virdon incenter field and Clemente in right are not Willie Mays and Henry Aaron. Yeteach has batted .300, and each is an excellent defensive man with speed and avery good arm. Bob Skinner, once considered a butcher in the outfield, haslistened to those who know and has spent long hours working on his weaknesses,and no longer is he in any danger out there. At the plate, on the other hand,he is about as dangerous as a batter can get. Last year Skinner had a .321average, and now they are saying that here is the coming left-hand hitter ofthe National League. Right now he is probably No. 2; with Stan Musial around,it is rather difficult to go any higher. Behind Skinner and Virdon andClemente, Mejias is perhaps the best reserve outfielder in either league.
Around theinfield there is Hoak, a hustling, scrappy guy who can run like the dickens,make all the plays at third and hurt you with his bat, too; Groat, of course;and this youngster Mazeroski, a genuine, 100%, confirmed genius. At least thatis what they tell you in the National League—and, for that matter, in theAmerican League, too, where they took time out during the All-Star Game inBaltimore last summer to watch the chunky kid with the magician's hands takeinfield practice.
"You can seehim and read about him," says Groat, "but there is really only one wayto fully appreciate Maz. That's to play 154 games next to him around secondbase."
This somewhatrestricts the audience, but it is nice to hear Groat testify just the same."He does things easily," says the Pirate shortstop, "that otherinfielders only dream about."
Mazeroski hit.275 last year, which is not so good as Johnny Temple hit for the Reds, but hehit 19 home runs—playing half his games in vast Forbes Field—and Temple can'tbegin to match that. Mazeroski is also a growing boy who is going to hit more.At Pittsburgh they don't really know where all this is going to stop, and 'theydon't care.
The two positionson the ball club which Murtaugh does not consider sewed up are at first baseand home plate, and at both it is not a matter of insufficient material butrather a matter of choice. The No. 1 candidate at first this spring is DickStuart, the controversial kid with the large bat and mouth, who once hit 66home runs down at Lincoln while striking out 171 times. Stuart, who hastempered slightly his admiration for Dick Stuart, is learning a bit aboutplaying first base—and he still has that bat. Good pitching still fools himsometimes—and so does any kind of pitching—but his strength and power dredge upa daily gleam in Murtaugh's eye. It is easy to remember that in less than halfa season with Pittsburgh last year Stuart hit 16 home runs. This year, if heplays regularly, the figure could well be 30, and it is Stuart that the Piratesneed to take up some of the slack caused by the departure of Frank Thomas.
Behind Stuart areTed Kluszewski, who has lost four inches off his waist and is now down to asvelte 240, and Rocky Nelson, the Babe Ruth of the Bushes back for anothercrack at the big time. Klu has been swinging the bat better this spring thanany time since 1956. Nelson is the best glove man of the three and, as everyonewill tell you, including Rocky himself, he is just bound, by golly, to hit inthe big leagues. It should be an entertaining year around first base inPittsburgh, whoever wins the job.
The catching willbe divided between Hank Foiles and Burgess. Foiles, always a highly regardedreceiver and handler of pitchers, hit the ball very well in 1957 but not at allin 1958, when he was in and out of the lineup with injuries most of the year.Burgess—the pinch hitter supreme who baseball men say could get out of bed onChristmas Eve and get a base hit—may or may not be able to handle the Piratepitching staff in pennant-winning style. There is quite a divergence of opinionon this matter and, since Smoky hasn't had a chance to catch regularly forthree years, no one really knows.
Roy Campanella,for example, says no, that the Pittsburgh pitchers, particularly the youngerones, will be less effective with Burgess behind the plate. Coach Jimmy Dykes,on the other hand, who was with Burgess at Cincinnati before both came to thePirates, says Smoky will do all right. His arm, says Dykes, isn't as weak asall that, and he hasn't been around up here all this time without learningsomething about the league's batters. Friend, one of those Burgess must catch,isn't worried a bit. "Smoky is a good catcher," Bob says. "I'm gladhe's on our side."
The residue fromthis first base and catching quandary helps make up an impressive bench.Kluszewski, Nelson and Burgess, assuming that is the way things work out, areleft-hand power hitters untroubled by left-hand pitching; Mejias, aright-hander, hit three home runs in one game last year. This is the kind ofpinch-hitting that a team nosing around after a pennant needs: big, strong guyswho can go up there and jerk the ball out of the park. It is something thatPittsburgh has never had before in such abundance.
However, whenPittsburghers bubble optimistically about the Pirates' chances this year,seldom do they start with the infield or the outfield or the bench. It is thepitching staff which gladdens the Pittsburgh eye. Bob Friend won 22 games lastyear, and he is good enough to do it again; there is a theory, in fact, that hewould have done it much sooner with a decent supporting cast. Law and Kline areboth experienced pitchers, and Haddix is the left-hand starter Murtaugh hasbeen looking for. The Pirates wave aside the fact that Harvey won only eightgames for Cincinnati last year. "Pitching in Crosley Field is onething," says Friend, "and pitching in Forbes Field is something else.Haddix is a good pitcher—we've always thought so—and now he has some help. Lastyear, when he got into trouble, there was no one to bail him out. Now all hehas to do is look over his shoulder at the bullpen, and there is El Roy Face.That's a pretty comforting sight."
Face, the figuresshow, was the most effective relief pitcher in either league last year. And theveteran Bob Porterfield contributed too.
There is also ayoung phenom named George (Red) Witt, who won nine and lost only two afterbeing recalled from Columbus, with a stunning earned run average of 1.61."Was that a fluke?" says Murtaugh. "It better not be. We'recounting on that boy." Another boy Danny is counting on is Bennie Daniels,who has about as much stuff as any pitcher in sight but who had to spend anextra year in the International League learning to get the ball over the plate.Now the Pirates believe that his control problem is virtually licked and thathe is ready. Certainly he has been impressive this spring.
So there you are.The Pirates of 1959 have pitching in depth, superb defense, a good bench andthe type of sustained line-drive attack which is built to function best in thevast reaches of Forbes Field. There is speed in the persons of Clemente,Virdon, Skinner and Hoak, and Murtaugh plans to use it.
"We're goingto take a few chances," he says. "I don't want these boys to grow up tobe the type of old men who use both a belt and suspenders to hold up theirpants."
Of course, it isstill a bit of a long shot that the Pirates will win the pennant. Milwaukee isthe defending champion; the Braves have been down the road for three straightyears, and twice they made it to the end. They are still the team to beat. Theyhave all that pitching, and they have some guys who can leave you for dead atthe plate. But no longer do they have Red Schoendienst, the catalyst in bothpennant-winning seasons; and, what makes the situation even more critical, noadequate replacement for their great second baseman is in sight. The Bravescould also use some outfield assistance (there are a lot of weak knees outthere), the defense is not impressive and maybe this is the year Warren Spahnslows down. Don't bet on that, of course.
But should theBraves play at anything below their best, there is now a ball club all primedto knock them dead. The Pittsburgh Pirates. Believe it or not.