Since Opening Day of the 1959 season no team in baseball has changed less, on the surface, than the Pittsburgh Pirates. Dick Stuart (below left) remains on first base, Bill Mazeroski on second, Don Hoak at third and Dick Groat at shortstop. Bob Skinner (top left) is still in left field, Bill Virdon in center, Roberto Clemente in right. Once again Catcher Smoky Burgess is handling a pitching staff built around Bob Friend, Vernon Law, Harvey Haddix and the remarkable little relief star, Roy Face.
Such fealty to the status quo would hardly be remarkable had the Pirates won the National League championship last year, but this is a ball club which failed to finish even second or third. Why, then, have the Pirates refused to change?
•A HELL OF A RUN
"For two reasons," says the manager, Danny Murtaugh. "We couldn't get the power hitter we needed—it seems they're hard to come by—and we don't expect guys like Friend, Skinner, Mazeroski and Groat to have two bad years in a row. What a lot of people forget is that with all our injuries and off years, we made a hell of a run at the leaders there in late August."
Murtaugh is right, of course. Friend, who last year reported to spring camp badly overweight after winning 22 games in 1958, could win only eight in 1959 and led the league in losses with 19. Skinner, who hit .321 in 1958 with his beautiful, level swing, ran into a fence, hard, in Milwaukee the second week of the season and never completely recovered; his final average was .280. Groat, a .300 hitter for two straight years, dropped off to .275. Mazeroski, the brilliant young second baseman, reported overweight, pulled a thigh muscle so badly that he missed 20 games and never regained his range in the field; at the plate he fell off 34 points to .241 and hit 12 fewer home runs. Clemente, who played his usual exciting baseball when well, missed a third of the season with an injured arm. Yet the Pirates advanced from nine games out in mid-August to within 3½ games of the league-leading Giants on August 31, before running out of steam.
•JUST FINE, THANKS
This spring Stuart was blasting baseballs just as far as ever. Hoak was doing his good job at third and at bat. Haddix, Law and Face were pitching effectively. Burgess, as always, was hitting. Clemente was healthy again, and the Pirates were not really concerned about Groat, who apparently had one of those off years ballplayers have now and then. It was the change in Friend, Mazeroski and Skinner that had the Pirates talking about the pennant again. Friend, 15 pounds lighter than in 1959 and working as if he wanted his pay cut restored before the season even began, was virtually untouchable. Mazeroski, 10 pounds lighter, was gobbling up every ground ball in sight, making the double play with his old magical style, hitting line drives. Nobody was able to get Skinner out. Things looked good.
•GLOVES AND LINE DRIVES
The Pirates are an unusually sound defensive team, with adequate speed and sharp, line-drive hitting. "We don't have the power of some of the others," Murtaugh said this spring, "but when everyone in this lineup is playing up to his normal capabilities, we are the only team in the league without a major weakness."
Behind the starters, the Pirates are definitely improved. Gene Baker, out all last year with an injured knee, is in good shape and along with Dick Schofield gives the team two good reserve infielders. Gino Cimoli and Roman Mejias are more than adequate fourth and fifth outfielders. Behind Burgess, whose catching skills are sometimes listed among the team's liabilities, there are Hal Smith, formerly of Kansas City, and Bob Oldis, a veteran minor-leaguer. Smith, who hit .303, .273 and .288 his last three years in the American League, can also fill in at third base. Rocky Nelson, the onetime Babe Ruth of the minors, proved last year that he could hit major league pitching, too (.291). His pinch-hitting value is augmented by his ability to do a superb defensive job at first base in late-inning relief of the tangle-footed Stuart.
There is one more thing going for the Pirates. They are an extremely tough club to beat in a close game. Last year they won 36 out of 55 one-run games and had an almost unbelievable 19-2 record in extra-inning games. They seldom scare an opposing pitcher to death but they give hardly anything away; they hang in there and eventually they beat you. They are, in many ways, the White Sox of the National League.
Which means that Pittsburgh's chance of running high in the race this year depends mainly on the pitching. Friend, Law and Haddix (the starters) and Face (the reliever) are all strong. But the Pirates traded away their fourth starter, Ron Kline, to the Cardinals for Cimoli. To win a pennant, they must therefore produce new starters, at least two of them. The Pirates believe they have three: Bennie Daniels, Joe Gibbon and Jim Umbricht.
Daniels, a man with outstanding ability but shaky control, pitched brilliantly at times last year (he won seven, lost nine). This spring his control has been good, his stuff as lethal as ever. Gibbon, up from Columbus, is a left-hander. ("Haddix," says Murtaugh, "is the only lefty we had last year, and there are a lot of short right-field fences in this league.") The big (6 feet 4 inches, 210 pounds) youngster (24) from Hickory, Miss. has a crackling fast ball which led the International League in strikeouts, yet he walked only 65 batters in 210 innings, had a 16-9 record and a 2.60 earned run average. He was very impressive this spring. Even more impressive, however, was Umbricht (rhymes with gunsight), who is five years older than Gibbon, even bigger (6 feet 4, 215 pounds), and who seems to know a lot about pitching. Late in arriving in the big leagues after four years of college (B.S., University of Georgia, '53) and two years in service, Umbricht is better late than never as far as the Pirates are concerned. At Salt Lake City he pitched mostly in relief, yet completed—and won—four of the five games he started. His record was 14-8, his ERA 2.78. Most baseball men considered him the best pitcher in the Pacific Coast League. Even if he fails to win the fourth starting job, Umbricht appears to be the relief pitcher the Pirates need to back up the hardworking Face.
The Pirates have no question marks except for the rookie pitchers. The team can run and hit and field and throw, and it plays smart, gutty baseball. But the Pirates of 1960, like the Pirates of 1959, lack the big punch that is needed to win consistently. They are probably too good to be passed by the Reds, Cubs, Cardinals or Phils. But though they may improve enough to pass one of the three leaders, should the Dodgers or Braves or Giants slip, it is hard to see them passing all three.
1959 TEAM PERFORMANCE
RUNS BATTED IN