Thursday, October 14, 2010

In Pittsburgh, 1960 is Now

How important is the seventh game of the 1960 World Series in Pittsburgh, fifty years later? When Forbes Field was torn down, two elements of it remained--home plate was set in cement and marked, but a portion of the left field wall was simply left there--because it's where Bill Mazeroski's home run left the park.

Still, time passes, the Pirates won two more championships at Three Rivers Stadium across the river and miles away. But in 1985, on the October 13 anniversary of the home run, a fan came all alone and sat down at the wall, and played a recording of the 7th game.

Eventually media reported it and others came to join him, and soon there were hundreds gathered there every October 13. Until this year, when there were thousands, sitting in the sunshine on a day very much like Oct. 13, 1960, listening to a recording of the play by play of that game, 50 years before.

A plaque commemorating that game was finally installed and dedicated this year. That's Bill Mazeroski taking a look at it. But he wasn't there alone--ten of his teammates also attended the dedication, and they stuck around to listen to the broadcast of the game they played in, 50 years ago, with the fans--some of whom were there or remembered it from their childhoods, and some who had only heard about it.

For the record, the 1960 Pirates who were there were second baseman Bill Mazeroski, shortstop Dick Groat (winner of the 1960 batting crown and National League MVP), center fielder Bill Virdon, ace right hand pitcher Bob Friend, ace left hand pitcher Vernon Law (winner of the 1960 Cy Young Award), catcher Hal Smith (whose home run in the 8th turned a defeat into a possible victory), ace relief pitcher (who still holds the record for best winning percentage with his 18-1 season in 1959), ElRoy Face, as well as Joe Christopher, George Witt, Joe Gibbon, and Bob Oldis. But perhaps the greatest tribute was the attendance of Vera Clemente, Roberto Clemente's widow, and their son Luis.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Best Game Ever

Today is the 50th anniversary of what some experts call the best baseball game ever (and not all of them are from Pittsburgh)--the seventh game of the 1960 World Series, won by the Pittsburgh Pirates over the New York Yankees with what is still the only home run in the bottom of the ninth to decide a Series in the 7th game, hit by the Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski. That's the sequence in the above pictures--the middle photo of Maz floating from second to third is the basis of the statue of him that will be unveiled outside the new Pirates ballpark.

It was a vastly different baseball world. It was the last year there were just eight teams in each of the National and American leagues, as there had been for most of the previous history of major league baseball. Though baseball was the biggest sport in America, most Major League players didn't even earn a living from baseball--many if not most had other jobs in the offseason, and went back to work full time when they retired. Though there were fewer games in a season (154 instead of 162), they were worked harder. The Pirates two top starting pitchers each had 16 complete games in 1960. Today a complete game is a rarity.

The game was played at Forbes Field, in the neighborhood of Oakland. It was a storied ball park even before this Series. Babe Ruth hit his last two home runs there. The old baseball movie, Angels in the Outfield, was shot there. It was torn down as the University of Pittsburgh expanded, and the Pirates went to play at the larger Three Rivers Stadium on the North Side, where the Steelers and other local teams played. Now Three Rivers is gone, and the new Pirates park goes a long way to recreating the experience of seeing a game at Forbes Field--where I saw my first games, including this 1960 team--but it doesn't quite get it all.

I was very fortunate to be a boy so into baseball when the Pirates were putting together this team, from 1958 to 1960. I met some of them then, including Roberto Clemente and Bill Virdon, and others later. Oddly, even though Bill Mazeroski became a member of my childhood church and to this day lives in my hometown of Greensburg, I never met him. (He was also the Pirate whose name was closest to mine, so that was what my next-door neighbor called me--hey! it's Billy Mazeroski!--even though Maz was a right-handed second baseman and I was a lefthanded pitcher, and my model was Harvey Haddix.)

That 7th game was full of odd events and improbable heroes, none more than Mazeroski and his home run. Maz is considered among the best fielding second basemen ever--if not the best-- but he wasn't among the Pirates best hitters or power hitters. No one expected him to hit a home run, especially since he'd already hit one in the Series (in the first game.) Fans just wanted him to get on base, and that's what he was trying to do. He took the first pitch for a ball, so maybe he could work a walk. Instead he hit the next pitch into deep left field and over or near the highest place, the scoreboard clock.

Pittsburgh hadn't had a sports champion since 1925, the last time the Pirates won the Series. But in that one moment, the already magical 1960 season became one that people will be talking about today, and Pittsburgh will celebrate again.

Photos above: from high atop the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning, two classic photos that capture the moment of Maz's homer--and the beginning of the most pervasive and joyful celebrations in western Pennsylvania history.

It's been called the greatest baseball game ever played, and it was one of the few games the Pirates played in 1960 that I didn't see or hear. All summer I went to games at Forbes Field, watched the away games broadcast on TV and especially listened to them on radio, with play-by-play and commentary by Bob Prince and Jim Woods, providing a wealth of memories so specific to that time and place. A bloop and a blast, Arriba Arriba!, Benny Benack & the Iron City Six, beat 'em Bucs, alabaster blast, you can kiss it goodbye, how sweet it is! We had 'em all the way! The words may mean nothing unless you were there. And they were widely shared--most weekend afternoons you could follow the game just walking around the neighborhood from the radios playing on back porches and through open garage doors.

But now it was October, the World Series was played in the daytime then, and I was a freshman at Greensburg Central Catholic High School. Apart from the two games over the weekend (the Yankees walloped the Bucs again on Saturday, but the Pirates tied the series on Sunday), I did see the 6th game. In person, at Forbes Field. It was the luck of the draw. So many people wanted tickets that the Pirates set up a lottery: you sent in your money and if your request was picked, you got two tickets, and if not, you got your money back. My request was picked--good luck.

But the Pirates picked the game you got tickets to, which looked like great luck at first, because the Pirates were ahead 3 games to 2 and they could have won the series by winning that game. But they sure didn't. The Yankees won 12-0, and it was slow torture--they scored in 5 separate innings without a single home run. It got so bad that out in the left field bleachers where I sat with my father feeling like I was in a dark tunnel, the Pirates left fielder that day, Gino Cimoli, was chatting with fans. In later years I comforted myself with the thought that I had seen my favorite non-Pirates pitcher, Whitey Ford (a lefthander like me), as well as the fabled Yankees Mickey Mantle, Rodger Maris, Yogi Berra... But it was nothing but pain that day.

So I was back in school for the seventh game. The prevailing ethic apparently was that you could play hooky if you had tickets to the game--one of our companions on the special bus that took us directly to Forbes Field was a priest who taught at my school. But you couldn't stay home just to watch it on TV. In school that afternoon, some teachers allowed their class to listen to the game on radio, but others didn't. They were nuns mostly, and apart from their usual motivations, I suppose some of them were from elsewhere, and didn't quite get what all the fuss was about.

But I was never far from the game--the score, which went back and forth radically--was passed along in the halls between classes. The entire school was a radio. Especially in the crucial eighth inning, as our school day was winding down, virtual play-by-play was passed across the aisles of desks, starting from the kids nearest the open windows, straining to hear the radio broadcast drifting down from the classroom on the floor above. I remember getting the word on Roberto Clemente's crucial infield single as we stood for final prayers.

By the time we were dismissed, the game was tied. My classmates streamed to their buses, but I was one of the few students to walk my short distance home. But as I was leaving someone told me that there was a television set up in one of the large classrooms on the third floor, where the football team was watching before practice. I had just found a seat near the back when It Happened--I saw the Mazeroski homer on TV, pretty much the only part of the game I saw.

The room erupted, western Pennsylvania erupted. People driving home from work in Pittsburgh had pulled over on the side of the Parkway before going into the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, where they would lose radio reception. When they pulled back into traffic after the homer, it was to join the blaring horns echoing through the tunnel. I've imagined that scene many times. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has posted stories from the next day's paper about what happened in the city, and it was something that playwright August Wilson and I talked about--he recalled the people running into the streets, all up and down Forbes Avenue and Fifth Avenue. And of course, I heard later about the pandemonium among my classmates on the school buses.

Since then I've seen the highlights of the game many times, and I have a video narrated by Bob Prince that has a lot of footage from the Series. Since you had to use your imagination even to see the games you heard on radio, the fact that I hadn't ever actually seen that game didn't occur to me--until several weeks ago, when I read this story.

The story said something I didn't know--that for 49 years and change, no complete copy of the TV broadcast of that 7th game of the 1960 World Series was known to exist. The Best Game Ever! And then it said something that nobody knew--there was such a recording, a pristine kinescope (the pre-video tape form) that hadn't been watched in nearly a half century. It was found in a wine cellar. Belonging to...Bing Crosby.

Singer Bing Crosby was a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he was in Paris when that game was played. The story said that he went to Paris intentionally so he couldn't watch it, he was so nervous. But he hired a company to record the game--something not everyone could afford to do--so he could watch it at home...if the Pirates won. He kept it with mounds of other film and tape reels. A researcher pawing through it all to prepare a DVD on Crosby's career found it this year.

So it's only a matter of time before that game is on DVD or online, and more than 50 years later I may actually see it. Even if it is Mel Allen doing the play by play in the late innings. But I can hear Bob Prince saying it anyway---How sweet it is! We had 'em all the way!