There was ElRoy Face, wearing the gray felt buccaneer's hat, complete with skull and crossbones, and flashing a toothless smile. There was Willie Stargell, demonstrating the proper use of an airplane oxygen mask. There was Steve Blass, distributing black crosses to the 12 charter members of the Black Maxers and telling Herr Field Marshal von Pesky that his red cross, distinguishing the F√ºhrer from the rank and file, would arrive soon. And there was Trainer Danny Whelan, Herr von Nasal Spray, stuffing cotton in his ears so he would not have to listen to the roar.
These are the Pittsburgh Pirates and, says Catcher Jim Pagliaroni, "we haven't got a sane guy on the club." He is absolutely right. The Pirates are the flakiest team in baseball. They know it and their manager, Harry Walker, also knows it. Pitcher Pete Mikkelsen was walking around town one day when he spotted a man wearing a buccaneer's hat, and it did not take too long for Mikkelsen to persuade the man that only a Pirate should be wearing such a hat. Then a group of Pirates went to see the movie, The Blue Max, a World War I dogfight-in-the-sky story, and from the film came the idea for the Black Maxers or, as Pagliaroni calls them, the Dirty Dozen. The members already have contributed to a slush fund for rainy days, and they are planning to hold a postseason breakup banquet in, naturally, a rath-skeller.
Even Walker himself seems to be infected. The manager almost did handstands when the bus taking the club to the airport in Chicago happened to stop for a moment in front of an elderly apartment house at 1946 West Addison Street. "There it is," Walker shouted as he pointed to the building. "There it is—that house right there! Number 1946. That's what I've wanted all year. That tells me we're going to win the pennant. The last time I was in the Series was 1946, and that number says I'll be there again in 1966. Yes, sir. We'll see you in the Series."
Walker and his Pirates may be in the World Series in October, but they were not quite in first place, as they had expected to be, at the All-Star recess. They were still one game behind the league-leading San Francisco Giants. This situation was particularly frustrating because the Pirates had just played 13 straight games against the low-rent New York Mets and Chicago Cubs and had won nine of them, but they had been able to gain only two games on the Giants. It seemed that every time the Pirates won a game the Giants, playing a couple of hours later on the West Coast, would rally in the late innings to win theirs.
July 17, 1966
Still, there was a pennant race in the National League, and it was Leo Durocher of the Chicago Cubs, who last year managed two pennant winners from a television booth but this year is managing a last-place team on the field, who had the "first guess" about the team you'd better keep an eye on during the last half of the season.
"The Pirates are the club I'd like to have," said Durocher, speaking much too wishfully. "They have all that great hitting. They've got Mazeroski. They've got that kid Alley at shortstop, and he's the most improved player in this league. They've got that Veale to throw the ball past you. And they've got that tobacco picker who looks like he should be pushing a plow."
Woody Fryman was picking tobacco and pushing a plow on his family's farm in Ewing, Ky. on July 5, 1965. Exactly one year later he pitched a three-hit shutout to beat Durocher and his Cubs. The pitching record that Fryman, a 23-year-old left-hander with only 12 games of minor league experience, has compiled this season is really incredible. He has completed eight of his 11 starts, has won eight games while losing only three, and he pitched three successive shutouts before he was scored on as he beat the New York Mets 6-3 last weekend. Rookie left-handers traditionally have control problems, but Fryman has walked only two batters in his last 50‚Öî innings.
"I suppose people'll think I learned control by throwing at a spot on the side of the barn," says Fryman, "but I didn't, because I never had the time. We weren't real early risers at home, but we were up by 6 every day and by the time we milked the cows in the morning, worked in the tobacco fields and then milked the cows again, it might be 7 or 8 o'clock at night."
On Sundays, though, Woody pitched for the Flemingsburg Aces, a local semi-pro team, and it was not unusual for him to pitch both games of a double-header. "As a matter of fact, just before I signed last year I went nine to win one game and came back to go seven and win the second," Fryman says. "I guess I won close to 100 games in the six years I pitched there."
Fryman always wanted to pitch professionally, but professional clubs always refused to give him any kind of bonus. "The Reds offered me $300 a month a couple of times, but I told them it was ridiculous," he says. "I was making that on the farm. Then they'd tell me how I could make the people of Ewing proud of me if I became a big star and all that, but I just told them that if the people weren't proud of me already then they'd never be."
Woody eventually signed with the Pirates last year after the government cut the family farm's tobacco acreage by 15%. "My dad and I talked it over and figured that this was the time to try it," Fryman says. The time was perfect for the Pirates, too. "Do you have any idea where we might be without him?" says Harry Walker, scratching his head. "He not only wins, he pitches those complete games that save the bullpen guys for the next day. We sort of thought he'd be a sleeper this year, but we didn't think he'd be this good."
Despite the surprising emergence of Fryman as a dependable starting pitcher and the solid strength of Bob Veale, the Pirates still have serious pitching problems. Vernon Law has lost his good fast ball and has to get by with off-speed pitches. Steve Blass, another impressive youngster, pitched a complete game in his first start back in April but has not completed nine innings since. The bullpen, with Mikkelsen and Face—and now Billy O'Dell, who came from the Atlanta Braves in the middle of June—as the key men, has been inconsistent, probably because of overwork.
However, the liveliest offense in the National League and the best double-play combination anywhere enable the Pirates to give their pitchers ample protection. The top four hitters in the league—Mota, Alou, Stargell and Clemente—play in the Pirate outfield and, with Alley and Mazeroski covering the middle, the Pirates have already executed 108 double plays this year. Walker recently began to use Jose Pagan at third base, and now Pagan has won the position from Bob Bailey. Matty Alou and Manny Mota, who were signed by the same scout, Horacio Martinez, for the Giants years ago, alternate in center field, and both are hitting over .335. Three-time batting champion Roberto Clemente is in right. But, with all this, the most vicious of the Pirates' impressive hitters is Willie Stargell.
With the numerals 40-120-300—for home runs, runs batted in and batting average—marked inside his helmet to remind him of his season's goals, Stargell already has hit 22 homers, has knocked in 63 runs and is batting .337. Last year at the All-Star break he had 21 home runs and then hit only seven the rest of the year. Stargell explains that that was because he put on a little weight and was trying to kill the ball all the time. He still tries to kill the ball, but now it is only against left-handers—which is one reason why Walker usually drops him from cleanup to seventh or eighth when a lefty pitches.
But weight, too, is a laughing matter. "Do you know what Gospel bird is?" Stargell asks. "Well, that's fried chicken. Do you know what jungle plum is? Well, that's watermelon." Then Willie just shakes his head.
Jungle plums, Gospel birds, tobacco farmers, magic numbers, Black Maxers—you name it, the Pirates have it. And if that pitching gets a little better, one of these days they just might get the Giants, too.