This is a big mistake, I think to myself at a recent reunion of the 1971 World Series champion Pirates. Dave Giusti is about to take a swing at me.
This is an article from the July 4, 2011 issue
And the evening started with such promise. I introduced myself to the gracious and humble Steve Blass, who pitched Pittsburgh to two critical wins in that Series and is now the color commentator on Pirates TV and radio broadcasts.
There are many reasons to admire Blass and one reason to resent him. Playing in a Pirates alumni golf outing two years ago, he had two holes in one in the same round at the Greensburg (Pa.) Country Club. "They made me an honorary member," he recalls. "They tell me the odds of doing that are 67 million to one."
The odds were stacked, though not quite so steeply, against the Bucs going into the 1971 Fall Classic. Vegas had installed the Orioles as 7-to-5 favorites over the National League champions, and why not? True, Pittsburgh's lineup bristled with big bats—Al Oliver, Bob Robertson, Manny Sanguillen, Willie Stargell and the magisterial Roberto Clemente. But in addition to bringing a murderers' row of their own—Boog Powell, Frank Robinson, Merv Rettenmund—the O's boasted a pitching rotation for the ages. Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally, Pat Dobson and future underwear model Jim Palmer had each won at least 20 games, a feat no major league team has duplicated since.
And yet it was Blass who ended up bounding into the waiting arms of Robertson, his burly first baseman, in the moments after Pittsburgh's Game 7 victory in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. Clemente was voted the outstanding player, having batted .414 and electrified onlookers with his jaw-dropping throws from rightfield. But Blass's ungainly leap became the iconic image of that Series.
So it is slightly surreal to find myself facing a 69-year-old Blass in a ballroom at the Holiday Inn in Moon Township, Pa., on May 21, while over his shoulder, on a large screen, the 29-year-old version reprises that jump for joy. Blass pays no attention to the video; he is busy introducing me to the intense Dave Giusti, who pitched 10 2/3 scoreless innings of relief in the '71 postseason. But Blass doesn't want to talk about that. He wants to explain why it's Giusti's fault that his driveway is asphalt, rather than concrete.
During the 1972 season Blass had gotten some estimates on a concrete driveway—"A nice design, maybe some engraving. But then," he says, inclining his head toward Giusti, "he threw that pitch to Bench." Reds catcher Johnny Bench hit the game-tying home run off Giusti in the ninth inning of the fifth and deciding game of the '72 NLCS, which Pittsburgh would lose shortly thereafter. "So," Blass concludes, "we had to go back to just having the driveway repaved."
"You know what?" says Giusti. "You should've finished the damn game."
I confess to Giusti that it's a bit of a trip to see him laughing and smiling. "I'm accustomed to thinking of you on the mound, looking in toward the hitter like an assassin."
"An assassin?" he bellows. Then, louder: "An ASSASSIN?" Heads turn. The reunion is 20 minutes old, and I've managed to outrage one of the guests of honor.
Except Giusti isn't outraged; that's just how he makes conversation. "He's very assertive," says Blass. Giusti approaches dialogue the way he approached hitters: with aggression. Once you get past the breakers, as it were, the sailing is smoother. I mention to Giusti that for a long time I had an 8-by-12 glossy print of him—part of a set put out by the oil company ARCO in the early '70s. "Sure, I remember those," he says.
I spare him the details, that my seven siblings and I got our glossies from Wateska's ARCO at the bottom of Kittanning Pike in Sharpsburg, Pa.—a service station whose lavatory one of my younger brothers was once accused of setting on fire. (The charge was never proved.) My father worked for U.S. Steel; we moved 10 times while I was growing up. In 1969 we came from Denver to a pleasant cul-de-sac in O'Hara Township, a suburb about eight miles northeast of Pittsburgh. Our neighbors were kind enough not to openly celebrate when we moved to Louisville five years later.
My mother, the saintly Patricia Reeves Murphy, had seven children in eight years. (Amy, clearly an accident, arrived four years later.) Pat did her best, but we had numbers on her. Unsupervised, prone to petty vandalism and shoplifting, we roamed the township like some lost tribe of bespectacled Visigoths. (Five of us required corrective lenses. We were equipped, brother and sister alike, with the same durable, dark plastic frames later made famous by the Hanson brothers.)
When a half dozen of us asked to attend a Pirates game, Pat was only too pleased to hand us each bus fare, plus the two dollars it would take to get us into the cheap seats at gleaming new Three Rivers Stadium. We went to at least 15 Pirates home games during the 1971 season. If I wasn't at the ballpark, I tuned my tiny transistor radio to KDKA and drank in the inimitable call of Bob (the Gunner) Prince and his straight man, Nellie King.
After spending the first few innings in the yellow seats above rightfield, watching Clemente prowl his turf, we'd work our way down to the loge level, cadging ticket stubs from businessmen leaving early. We'd then pass those stubs through a fence to other siblings. By the seventh-inning stretch we were usually ensconced in primo seats along one of the baselines.
This was our team, in a way that no team has been since. We rejoiced with Blass in '71; cried a year later, when, after Bench took Giusti deep, Bob Moose threw the wild pitch that allowed the Reds to score the pennant-winning run.
And like many others, we were gutted the following New Year's Day when news broke that Clemente had been killed in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico while ferrying relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. I was 11 and latched onto the fact that they never found his body, holding out hope that perhaps he swam to safety.
Also at the reunion: the cherubic, white-haired Bill Mazeroski. Best remembered for his walk-off home run in Game 7 of the 1960 Fall Classic, Maz was an elder statesman on the '71 club, graciously sharing the nuances of second base with 23-year-old Dave Cash, who was there to ease him out the door. Bookended between Mazeroski's heroics of '60 and the Stargell- and Dave Parker--led "We Are Family" Bucs who won the '79 World Series, the feats of the '71 Pirates have been overshadowed. Or it always seemed that way to me. And so I talked my editors into letting me fly to Pittsburgh and write this story.
In my 28 years in this racket I've interviewed one future, one current and two former U.S. presidents. Yet I've seldom been more nervous than the moment I parked the rental car and walked toward the hotel where a bunch of my childhood heroes had gathered. It's a risky business, looping back to your old idols. Most athletes don't ask to be put on pedestals for the very good reason that they often don't belong on them. I knew that going in. After registering at a desk in the foyer, I affixed my nametag to my blazer and strode into the ballroom, into the distant past, reminding myself: Don't get your hopes up.
What I found—after finding the bar—was a marked absence of misanthropy or ego; an atmosphere of affection and mutual respect. As is often the way among athletes, that affection takes the form of well-intentioned verbal abuse. When he is finished blaming Giusti for his driveway, Blass turns his attention to Richie Hebner, the third baseman who'd supplemented his income in the off-season by digging graves. Hebner's moved up in the world, Blass informs me: "Now he's driving the buggy."
Hebner confirms that after digging graves for 35 years ("I been around stiffs my whole life"), he's now putting on a dress shirt and tie and driving the hearse for a funeral home.
At my table, former pinch hitter Vic Davalillo catches good-natured grief for having fallen off a barstool one night in Chicago.
"Maybe it was the wind," suggests shortstop Jackie Hernàndez.
"It is the windy city," notes pitcher Bob Johnson.
A few tables over, former fireballer Bob Veale is needled for his resemblance to Osama Bin Laden. When the cowboy-hatted Robertson is introduced by the master of ceremonies, someone yells, "Take your hat off—you're bald just like the rest of us!" He does, and he is.
What they're doing is picking up where they left off in '71. "You went in that clubhouse, you expected to get your balls busted," says Hebner, who has coached in the Orioles' organization. "I've been in big league spring training camps the last few years and some of these clubhouses remind me of the funeral home." With the Pirates, he says, "there was never a dull moment."
In a room full of characters, none was more outrageous, or outspoken, than Dock Ellis, a supremely talented pitcher who marched to the beat of his own psychedelic drummer. It was Ellis who no-hit the Padres in 1970 while, as he later said, he was on acid; Ellis who sometimes arrived at the ballpark with curlers in his hair. As the NL's starting pitcher in the '71 All-Star Game, Ellis used that stage to complain to reporters about the lack of endorsements for black players.
"Dock liked to stir things up," recalls Hebner of his old teammate, who died of a liver ailment in 2008. "He was a good guy, though. He just wanted to be different."
The Pirates were different—looked different—from most other teams, thanks to the courage and vision of general manager Joe L. Brown. Even as an 11-year-old it was obvious to me that the team's roster was markedly more diverse than, say, the membership at the Fox Chapel Golf Club, where I later caddied. But I had no idea Brown was a pioneer, one of the first executives in major league history to draft, sign and develop players based on ability alone.
Two decades after Jackie Robinson had integrated the big leagues in 1947, baseball had yet to embrace equal opportunity employment. "Back then," says Luis Mayoral, a baseball historian, "the mentality was: Latinos are equipped to play defense—predominantly the infield. Latinos cannot be catchers or pitchers because they're not smart enough. Teams didn't come out in the open with it, but they had their quotas."
Before these Bucs, Bruce Markusen points out in his book The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, no major league club "had ever fielded a team assembled purely on available talent with no consideration of skin color."
The Pirates, Markusen wrote, "worked on the presumption that players would be chosen regardless of ethnic group and would get along on the field and in the clubhouse."
And get along they did—famously, although not in a way in which that other Pittsburgh institution, Mister Rogers, might have approved. "Nothing was sacred," says Blass. A stranger who wandered into that clubhouse by mistake would have assumed "these were the most racist, insensitive people in the world," he adds, "but it was just a very open atmosphere. And what it created was a room full of friends. You could say anything to anybody. And when we went out on the ball field, we were brothers."
Oliver, now a motivational speaker, believes "most of our games were won in the clubhouse." How so? "We were already talented," he says. "And now"—after yucking it up in the room—"we were loose."
On Sept. 1, 1971, early in a weeknight game against the mediocre Phillies, Oliver, playing first that day, remarked to Cash, "You know what? We got all brothers out here."
For the first time in major league history a manager had filled out a lineup card consisting solely of black and Latino players. While manager Danny Murtaugh claimed after that game that he was simply putting the best nine guys on the field, it's unlikely he didn't know he was making history. Still, as Markusen writes, that lineup was "not merely a symbolic event.... The Pirates were in the midst of a still-undecided divisional pennant race."
They beat the Phillies 10--7 that night and clinched the division three weeks later. After losing Game 1 of the NLCS to the Giants, the Bucs took three straight from the NL West champs. The man most responsible for turning the tide was Robertson, the ginger-haired first baseman who clubbed three home runs in Game 2.
And it was Robertson, along with Blass, who shifted the momentum of what had begun as a disastrous World Series for the Bucs. "We went down to Baltimore," says Hebner, "and got our asses kicked." After scratching out just three hits against McNally in a 5--3 loss, the Pirates were routed 11--3. Giusti recalls one Baltimore newspaper writing, "It may be Baltimore in three!" Murtaugh made sure to post the clipping in the clubhouse.
Despite coming off a 15-win season, Blass had been rocked in the NLCS. But he was masterly in Game 3, pitching a three-hit complete game. Going into the bottom of the seventh, however, the Bucs held only a slender 2--1 lead. With Clemente on second and Stargell on first and no outs, Robertson remembers thinking, "We're down two games, going against a 20-game winner"—the lefty Cuellar. "I gotta hit this ball as hard as I can 'cause we gotta get something going."
Murtaugh felt differently, calling instead for a sacrifice bunt, a decision that vexes Robertson to this day. "I'd never bunted. I'd hit 26 home runs that season, and now they want me to square around? I don't even know how to hold the f---ing bat! So I looked down at [the third base coach], and I didn't see [the bunt sign.] You figure it out." Robertson promptly launched a Cuellar screwball over the fence in right center. The Pirates won 5--1. They were back in the Series.
Scoring two tickets to Game 4 was hotshot U.S. Steel salesman Austin Murphy, who chose to take his wife to the first night game in World Series history, a decision that mystified and disgruntled many of their children. Let's face it: Great woman though she was, Pat didn't know Gene Alley from Gene Kelly. Not that I still begrudge her that ticket after four decades....
That night's unlikely hero was Bruce Kison, the baby-faced sidewinder who spoke at my Little League banquet the following summer, and of whom Murtaugh once said, "I looked older than he does the day I was born." Coming on in relief of Luke Walker, who'd given up three runs in just two thirds of an inning, the 21-year-old rookie Kison shut Baltimore out over the next six innings, allowing just one hit. The Pirates clawed back to win 4--3.
With Ellis nursing a tender elbow, Murtaugh started Nelson Briles in Game 5. I liked Briles, who threw so hard that he often fell chestfirst onto the ground on his follow-through. He pitched for 14 seasons in the majors but was never better than on that night, facing just 29 batters in a two-hit, complete game shutout. No Oriole reached second base on Briles, who also drove in a run in the 4--0 win. With the Bucs now up 3--2, the series went back to Baltimore.
Baseball purists still rave about Game 6, an extra-innings classic in which tension built to an unbearable level. Personally, it made me want to puke. Clemente tripled and homered in his first two at bats; the Pirates took an early 2--0 lead. After tying the game in the seventh, Baltimore won it in the 10th. Frank Robinson tagged up on Brooks Robinson's short fly to center; Davalillo's throw took a high bounce off the grass in front of the plate, forcing Sanguillen to jump for the ball, allowing Robinson to slide under the tag. Game over. We had our chance, I worried, and we blew it.
Blass had a visitor on the mound in the first inning of Game 7. Obstreperous Earl Weaver, Baltimore's manager, charged out of the dugout, complaining that the Bucs' ace wasn't lining up properly on the mound, "which was a lot of bulls---, to be quite honest," says Blass. But home plate umpire Nestor Chylak agreed with Weaver: Blass would have to adjust his position on the pitching rubber. In trying to climb inside Blass's head, however, Weaver succeeded only in clearing it. Before the contretemps, "I was throwing the ball all over the place." That break in the action "gave me a chance to focus and collect myself," says Blass, who struck out Powell, then got Frank Robinson to fly to right to end the inning.
"Anytime I get a chance to say hello to Earl," says Blass, "I thank him for helping me in that seventh game."
Clemente continued to feast on Orioles pitching, taking Cuellar deep in the fourth with the bases empty. The Pirates scratched out another run in the eighth, with Stargell scoring on a double by third baseman Jose Pagan. But "Blass was in his own world again," writes David Maraniss in Clemente, his splendid biography of number 21, "at once a bundle of nerves and utterly unstoppable." Baltimore pushed a run across in the eighth inning, making the score 2--1. But Blass put them down in order in the ninth, setting off celebrations on the field at Memorial Stadium and in the living room with the alarming, rust-hued shag carpet at 116 Douglas Drive, O'Hara Township, Pennsylvania.
Forty years later there is Blass, reminiscing with Sanguillen, who now runs a barbecue concession at PNC Park, about how they pitched Powell.
"Sangy would come out to the mound and say, 'Oh, you throw the little Flip Wilson now.' That was his name for the slow curve. Powell would hit it 500 feet but 300 feet foul."
"Seven hundred feet!" interjects Sanguillen.
"Bottom line, Powell was 0 for 8 in Games 3 and 7."
"Oh for ocho!"
A nice lady in a Clemente jersey approaches Blass, recalling how she and her girlfriends used to run into him and other Pirates at a bar at the top of the Monongahela Incline.
"The Shiloh Inn!" he says.
"You guys were great—you were always so nice, and perfect gentlemen."
Replies Blass, "Well, that's how it's supposed to be, right?"
The objects of our admiration shrink, sometimes, the closer we get to them. And sometimes they grow in stature before our very eyes. Sometimes it's a really good idea to attend the reunion.