THE VOICE OF THE PIRATES

Loquacious Manager Harry Walker exhausts his Pittsburgh players with continuing lectures on how to play the game, but his ear-weary team could win the pennant
September 04, 1966

When an imperfect Pittsburgh Pirate stands before the desk of Manager Harry Walker (see cover), listening to a filibuster of constructive criticism, he has a choice of three objects on which to fix his gaze. He can look into those brown, Doberman pinscher eyes that seem to beseech reason, earnestly and a little sadly, as the lips persuade and persuade and persuade: "If I punch this wall three or four times and it don't move for me, don't you figure I ought to open the door? You got to see what's happening to you, and study, and adjust. Like I said to Musial...."

Or, like a man in a dentist's office reading magazines he wouldn't have at home, the player can scrutinize the group picture of the Tiffin team of the Ohio State League in '37 ("I hit .370 but they released me"). More likely, his eye will focus on the large manila poster lettered in Walker's fine Alabaman hand. Propounded by the executive-hunters of U.S. Steel, "a pretty good outfit," the poster is headed: The Personal Qualities of Successful People, and it lists a dozen attributes that separate the chiefs from the Indians. Attitude is on top, Knowledge on the bottom. Some of the Pirates call the compendium "that goddam thing," but others call it "Harry's 12 commandments." The irreverence is apt, for these are the tablets a disillusioned Harry will have to shatter if his word-weary team does not win the National League pennant.

A perceptive player might note that Adaptability ranks eighth, one notch ahead of Leadership, a quality of which Harry the Hat is intensely, almost outrageously, proud. The extrasensory osmosis by which he feels he transmits the fervor of Garibaldi to his troops simply does not work, and he probably wouldn't be reelected in a closed ballot. But he has given his men purpose, discipline and, most important, that least important quality, knowledge. Walker does not in any Churchillian sense lead the Pirates and, in fact, his attempts to do so bore them. But because he is fundamentally a teacher, he has made half of them better baseball players than they were, and that may be good enough. If he does not lead the Pirates he does direct them—which is all any but the very best of managers can do—because he believes his handwriting on the wall, and he has adapted.

Walker's first significant adaptation took place in 1938, the day he discarded what might have been his 1,002nd theory on baseball, if it had worked. As a 20-year-old rookie outfielder with Montgomery in the Southeastern League, he was on first base when a lock-cinch double-play ball went to the second baseman. "I didn't have a chance to take the shortstop out with a slide," Harry recalls, "but I figured he couldn't throw if I went in standing up. His name was Chosen, and he had a few words for me: 'Get the—out of the way.' "

The throw hit Walker in the Adam's apple, and he couldn't talk for three months. He has been making up for it ever since. It is said of some men that if you ask them what time it is they will tell you how to make a watch. Ask Harry and you may get Einstein's space-time-continuum theory, with diagrams. On ships or shoes or sealing wax he can expound for a nonstop hour, but it is the subject of hitting a baseball that really turns him on. Let a middle-aged baseball writer idly pick up a bat and hold it without the knuckles precisely lined up and the lecture is on.

"Now, where are my hands? And where is the fat part of the bat going to be? Ain't no way you can hit that pitch. But now, suppose I'm here, you see? If it's a slider and it moves in on me, I can give it this, because my hands are here and I'm waiting on the pitch. But the slider to a right-handed batter is something else. You know why a slider has to be low to a right-hander? Here, let me see that bat a minute. This towel here is home plate...."

On and on. Matty Alou, .260 lifetime, strokes along at .341, leading the league, using a heavier bat and certain "little things" Walker taught him about hitting to left field, little things too occult for Matty to reveal. "He is one of the best," says José Pagan, a .242 hitter hitting .269. "I see what he do for Mateo, and I try it." So do others: Gene Alley, the nonpareil shortstop, up from .238 to .287: Manny Mota, .267 to .349. Jesse Gonder, the "bad" catcher nobody wanted, making seven hits in two days and drawing unanimous praise from a pitching staff that knows it needs all the help it can get. Willie Stargell, with a .322 average and 28 home runs, benched against left-handed pitching and accepting it with equanimity because "you can't knock success—we're winning." Alvin O'Neal McBean, the Fireman of the Year in 1964, taking supporting roles in relief and being happy, in a sad sort of way, "because the other guys in the bullpen are going good—and we're winning."

It is not really, for all their levity, a happy ship the Buccaneers sail. The captain stalks the deck of the dugout like a corn-pone Queeg, his klaxon voice pointing out each violation of Thoroughness (quality No. 3), Concentration (No. 4) or Decision (No. 7). Harry Walker is a big, homely sheep dog of a man, pawing desperately in his dedicated effort to be helpful on the field and friendly off it, and often making himself a pain in the neck in his overdone attempts at both. But even in his inadvertent abrasiveness there is a value that may yet raise the flag in Pittsburgh.

"We conducted a little experiment in the spring," said First Baseman Donn Clendenon. "He tried to get me to shorten my stroke. I can't hit that way. I look silly that way. It takes away my value. He wants everybody to hit like him."

Harry Walker was a left-handed Punch and Judy hitter who made 786 hits in big-league games, only 173 of them for extra bases. The zenith of his career was the double (to left center, of course) that spurred Enos Slaughter home with the winning run in the 1946 World Series. He managed the rather remarkable feat of batting in only 41 runs while leading the NL with a .363 average in 1947. So he couldn't be much help to a big swinger like Clendenon.

"I wouldn't say no help," Clendenon said. "I have a habit of turning my head, and when I turn my head I have a tendency to strike out. Every time I do it I hear it from him. Every time. So I guess he keeps me aware of it. But, you know, sometimes when you've made a mistake you know it, and you don't need to be told. When I missed that ball in Chicago he told me I should have gone down on both knees for it. He could have waited until later if he wanted to give me a fielding lesson. The other guys on the bench knew I'd made an error."

It is a point of pride to baseball players that such criticisms not be made in front of the other players. Dick Schofield of the Yankees is still steaming from an incident last year when Walker chewed him out on the bench and saved the compensatory fanny pat for a private session. "He said, 'I'm just trying to make you a better player, kid,' " Schofield says. "But in front of the other players he had said, 'The next s.o.b. who doesn't charge a ground ball, it's going to cost him money.' "

"Why not?" says Philadelphia Phillie First Baseman Bill White. "If I make a mistake in my second at bat, I want to hear about it. I'm going up there two more times. What's the sense of wasting two-at-bats?" White says Walker, as a coach with the Cardinals in 1959, corrected his batting style and saved him from shipment to the minors. "I was walking around lost," White says. "He may be the reason I'm still in the big league. I don't think those guys realize what he's done for them."

"I try to restrain myself from talking too much on the bench," Walker says, "but sometimes a hitting fault can be corrected in one swing. If you tell a guy right away what he's done wrong, he can remember it. You wait till later, he'll try to tell you you didn't see what you saw.

"Look, I don't want to hurt a guy's feelings, but I got to be the boss. I'm not running in any popularity contest. If I play Stargell against left-handers, he'll strike out two or three times out of five. I didn't like taking McBean out after he walked that one man in Chicago, but he wasn't throwing worth a damn. I got to play the guys who can win [quality No. 10: Organizing Ability], and I got to have discipline. It's like that thing in Houston. You let one guy get away with something like that and the next time it's something worse."

That thing in Houston was an argument on the mound between Walker and Gonder after Vernon Law had served a home run to Jimmy Wynn. While waiting for the new pitcher, the manager second-guessed Gonder's choice of pitches, and Gonder told him what he could do.

"Harry took Jesse out of the game," says Catcher Jim Pagliaroni, the team's player representative, "and during the game he made a call to Joe Brown [the general manager]. He said he wanted to send Gonder out. We were ready to have a meeting with him after the game and tell him that wasn't fair. Guys get hot in a pennant race, and things like that happen. But he talked to Jesse, and when Jesse came out of Harry's office he said everything was straightened out. That's all there was to it."

"It was the same as when I told Gonder about his hitting," Walker says. "He was trying to pull everything and turning his head and striking out. Guys get in a slump because they're doing something wrong, and they can't see themselves, so I got to tell them. I got to have command."

Walker's first clue about command came from Burt Shotton, the manager of the Columbus Red Birds in 1941. Harry had hit .306 the previous season and in the process found the muscle to hit 17 home runs (of his lifetime total of 61 in 22 years of organized baseball). So in '41 he came up short of quality No. 4, Concentration, and that diluted his Attitude (No. I). "He chewed me up and down," Walker recalls. "He held a meeting and told the guys there was going to be a new man in center field. I thought he was sending me out, but he wrote my name on the card, and I knew what he meant. I was a new man. I won the Little World Series for him with a home run."

Walker never was truly convinced of his command presence until World War II, when he went to Europe with the 65th Infantry Division. "I was in one of them recon outfits," he says. "You seen Combat on television? It was like that. Thirty men. We shouldn't have seen any action, but they broke through at The Bulge and we got plenty. Once I got three of them, from here to there [the distance from the third seat to the front of the bus], the third one with a pistol, right here [between the eyes]. I guess I killed 14, 15. It was hard to tell because once I had a .50-caliber machine gun.

"I didn't like doing that stuff, but you had to survive. And, in a way, I think it was the best thing that happened to me, because it made me realize I had a quality of Leadership [No. 9]. I mean, when I did something, guys would follow me. We had this officer, a real good man, but he was a little slow making a Decision [No. 7]. I was only a Pfc all the way, but sometimes I'd have to tell him: 'We can't stay here; we got to get the hell out.' I'm glad I was an athlete, because I think it helped me to get out of a lot of spots. We were mechanized, but you had to move quick sometimes."

Harry never had doubts about his leadership until May 1965, his first year as manager of the Pirates. His only big-league managing experience had been in 1955 when he inherited the shambles Eddie Stanky left in St. Louis, but he had won two pennants in the International League and one in the Texas League, and the Pirates weren't a bad team. Yet they lost 24 of their first 33 games, were in last place and strange things were happening.

"We didn't understand what he was talking about," Pagliaroni says. "He never shut up, and he was on us all the time about mistakes, but we didn't know what he wanted us to do. There was one time when Mazeroski made an error, and he hollered: 'There, see? He didn't get down on that ball.' Bill Virdon said, 'Harry, he's the best second baseman in baseball.' Later we understood what he meant: that even though Maz was the best, he could still make that kind of mistake, and he wanted us to learn from it.

"We were in Wrigley Field when Bob Friend called the meeting. He said we ought to get together and try to understand the guy, because we had to play for him. Bob said he might not be going about it the right way, but he was really trying to help us."

When the players hold a clubhouse meeting from which the manager is excluded, he has to realize they're trying to tell him something. So that day Harry Walker managed his team from the bullpen, a respectable distance away, so that he wouldn't bother anybody too much, and during the next two rotations of the earth he endured his worst period of self-doubt.

When the Pirates got to Cincinnati, another meeting was held, and Walker was included. "We talked everything over," Pagliaroni says, "and that was when we began to understand each other. And that was when we went on the 12-game winning streak."

From then on, the Pirates played .627 baseball, 28 points better than the percentage with which the Dodgers won the pennant. That, of course, proved little, because the Pirates were like a late-running horse that gets rolling after the race has been won. This season the Pirates got out of the gate along with everybody else, and the valid race was on. Walker had proven personnel, few of whom liked him, some of whom admired him, many of whom respected him and all of whom understood him.

In addition, his Expression (quality No. 11) was, finally, effective; the Pirates began to believe him when he said they were better than people thought. The all-for-one bullpen, applauding one another as they marched into the fray, was picking up a ragged starting staff, confident that the hitters would wait on the pitch and make everything all right.

In the nearest thing to a crisis the Pirates had known all year—two defeats by the Mets followed by an 11-inning tail-twister by the Cubs—Walker neither winced nor cried aloud. No, he wouldn't have a meeting the next day. "It's not time to jack them up yet," he said.

How, Walker was asked, would he jack them up? He delivered a lengthy oration on the subject, only one section of which is memorable. "Sometimes you have to get them mad at you," he said, "so they forget about them."

PHOTOOne alert finger on his "12 commandments" and the other directed toward a listener, Walker explains a point in suffocating detail. PHOTOWalker greets home-run hitting Roberto Clemente, an antagonist early last season.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)