It was reported in local papers that the two best teams in the National League were to be at each other's throats in a three-game series, yet the sign outside Forbes Field clearly said: "Baseball today: Pirates vs. Giants." Both couldn't be right. To citizens who have been less concerned recently with baseball standings than checking the horizon for strange-looking rockets, the whole setup sounded fishy.
The Giants, sure, with all their muscles and speed and the best pitching staff in either league. But the Pirates—what were they doing up there? So the curious went inside, by the thousands, to find out. Twelve innings and three and a half hours later, they knew.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are a team that can wear you out just watching them. To play against them is torture. They protect the plate, they slice doubles into the opposite field, they bounce singles over your head off the hardest-packed infield in all baseball; they bunt, they walk, they hit and run. Almost never do they strike out. They are always standing in front of your line drives, they turn base hits into outs, they cut you down trying to stretch a single. Almost never do they make an error, at least not when it counts. Their pitchers keep the ball over the plate, low, and you break your back trying to hit it out of the park. You would be eligible for your pension before they'd give you a walk. And then along about the 27th inning they score a run somehow, and the ball game is over. So you go home and sleep a couple of hours and get up and have to face it all over again. It is very frustrating.
The Giants were frustrated last Friday. They tied up the game at 3-3 on Willie McCovey's home run with one out in the ninth and thought they had won it by scoring a run in the top of the 12th. This, however, only set off some kind of signal which the Pirates have in their dugout—a signal that lets them know it is past the ninth inning and time to play ball.
"Let's go," said Dick Groat. "We need only two runs to win."
IT WAS EASY
For the Pirates, who won 19 of 21 extra-inning games last year, two runs in the 12th inning is a breeze. Gino Cimoli grounded out, but Don Hoak singled to center. Groat, who is something of an uncrowned genius at this sort of thing, first fouled off four pitches, then doubled between two of the Willies, Mays and Kirk-land, to score Hoak. Bob Skinner was walked, intentionally. Dick Stuart hit a fly ball so far into left field that Orlando Cepeda ran into the scoreboard and knocked Washington clean out of the American League.
But he also caught the ball, and there were two out. The next batter was Roberto Clemente, and this season the fans in Pittsburgh wouldn't trade Clemente even up for Ty Cobb. Clemente hit the first pitch on a screaming line into right field and Groat romped home. The Pirates were one and a half games head of the fabled Giants, five games ahead of the once-deadly Braves, nine games ahead of the World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers. They had just won their ninth game in 10 starts, and they had had an earlier nine-game winning streak. In the course of the evening Clemente (.378) had passed Mays (.365) for the batting lead and McCovey (31-29) for the runs-batted-in lead. And the Pirates' management was celebrating the third-largest crowd (39,439 paid) in Forbes Field history.
On Saturday the Giants proved that might does sometimes triumph by edging Pittsburgh 3-1, but on Sunday the Pirates were at it again. Behind 4-0, they scrambled back into a tie, took the lead, fell behind 7-5, tied up the game in the ninth on Skinner's two-run homer and—there goes the signal—won it in the 11th. Somehow, it seemed inevitable.
The thing that fools everyone about the Pirates is that they don't really look like much of a ball club, although by now the National League should realize that this actually is a clever disguise. This is much the same team which came close in 1958, threatening the Braves toward the end of the season after a stumbling start, and which came much closer in 1959 than it should have, considering that Bob Friend was fat and unable to win more than eight games, Bill Mazeroski was fat and unable to play second base, Clemente was out half the season with an injured elbow, and Bob Skinner, the best hitter in the lineup, tried to knock down a fence in Milwaukee early in the year and never completely recovered. Now Friend and Mazeroski are lean and mean again, performing admirably; Skinner, batting almost .350 and driving in runs, is perhaps the best left-hand hitter in the league, and Clemente—well, Clemente is unbelievable.
Roberto is playing his sixth big league season at the age of 25, and although he has had good years before (he hit .311 in 1956) this spring he has been a cross between Aaron and Mays. A handsome kid out of Puerto Rico, with the trim, tapering body of an Olympic diver, he runs like the wind, makes impossible catches and throws out base runners with one of the best arms in baseball. He hits with power to all fields, and this year no one has been able to get him out. Clemente is what ballplayers call a hot dog, but no Pirate objects so long as he continues to be a hot hot dog with that bat.
All the Pirates seem to be swinging hot bats.: Clemente and Skinner, Smoky Burgess, Gino Cimoli, Dick Groat. Dick Stuart, who has been pressing too hard in an attempt to hit a few of his beloved home runs, struck out 35 times in the first 30 games, a pace which puts him well ahead of Vince DiMaggio's treasured record (134 strikeouts in 1938), but the Pirates are not worried about Stuart. They are certain he will hit. What worries them is pitching.
The bullpen is not in bad shape, with Fred Green and Jim Umbricht lending a hand to Roy Face, and Friend, of course, seems likely to win 20 games again. Maybe young Joe Gibbon, who is improving, will give Danny Murtaugh the fourth starter he has been looking for. But Harvey Haddix has been unable to go nine innings without tiring, and Bennie Daniels still cannot find the plate. It is very fortunate then—if the Pirates really intend to win the National League pennant—that they have Vernon Law. He has become about as indispensable to this ball club as one man can get.
Deacon Law is a tall (6-foot 3-inch), 30-year-old farmer out of Idaho, with blue eyes, curly blond hair, a western drawl and a pleasant smile. He is an elder in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a lay preacher who talks to Mormon groups on Sunday mornings in cities all around the league, then goes out and beats their ball clubs in the afternoon in a very un-Christian way. Last year, having finally absolved himself of all the shoulder and arm trouble which plagued his early Pirate years, Law won 18 games, lost only nine and turned in a very fine 2.98 ERA. This season he has been even better, the first pitcher in the league to win six games, and, along with Friend, he seems to be the only one on the staff capable of finishing what he starts.
"He's got a good fast ball," says Burgess, who rooms with Law on the road, "and a good slider. He throws them both at different speeds. He's got great control and he's smart. He's just a good pitcher. He may be the best pitcher in the league."
Vernon Law's wife is named VaNita, and the four boys are named Veldon, Veryl, Vance and Vaughan. "We kinda hoped the last one would be a girl," Vern says. "We were going to call her Victory and quit."
If the Pirates can keep hitting and all the other pitchers help out Law and Friend, Vern may get his Victory after all, one way or another.