The Best Football Practice Ever

Mid October in western Pennsylvania brings those days that can be stifling hot in the afternoon but perhaps blessedly cool at night. Football weather. Ben Franklin Junior High School was holding practice after school as usual and there I was, perspiring and waiting for the coaches to call for the wind sprints that would mean it was just about time to head for the showers. Football games could be fun but practice was drudgery and I wanted the shower and, more than that, I wanted to remove that tight fucking helmet that gave me headaches every day. Suddenly we could hear yelling that was coming from somewhere other than the coaches. What was it? Word passed quickly. The Pirates won! Really? Yeah, really!

Bill Mazeroski had led off the bottom of the ninth inning in the seventh game of the 1960 World Series and Pittsburgh beat the New York Yankees, 10-9, and were the new World Champions!

I was in Catholic school the year before and one of the teaching nuns had told us that the Blessed Virgin Mary had appeared before a young girl and told her that, in 1960, something was going to happen to change the world for the better. No one knew what that would be and some speculated that it would mean that there would be world peace and Russia would become a Christian nation once again, but, no, here it was, plain as could be: the Pirates won!

There was extra bounce in my steps as I walked home from practice. I couldn’t wait to see my friend Bob McWilliams. Bob was an all right guy, smart, great athlete, industrious , a good student. But he had three flaws: a very hot temper, boastfulness, and, worst of all, he was a Yankees fan. He had loudly and forcefully bragged about how the Yanks were going to make mincemeat out of their National League rivals. I would not be so bold as to taunt him, but I sure did want to see the look on his face. Neither of us could be objective about it then, but in reality that Pittsburgh team had an edge on the Yankees because they went through that season with few injuries, had very good starting pitchers, and, except for Dr. Strangeglove (Dick Stuart at first base), they were very strong on defense with Don Hoak at third base, Bill Virdon in center field, Mazeroski at second base and, of course, a guy named Roberto Clemente in right field. They also had a tough as nails relief pitcher named Elroy Face. He threw a fork ball, which I could neither describe nor throw.

My brother Paul jumped into his Pontiac and headed for Pittsburgh right after he got off work to join in the big party and I can only imagine how much fun that was. It was a big deal. The last time the Pirates had been in the World Series was 1927. That gave them the privilege to get smoked by the Yankees in four straight games. Then came a long period of relative mediocrity prior to the late 1940s when the franchise really hit the skids. The low water mark was 1952, when the Buccos won 42 and lost 112. Ralph Kiner was the big draw in those days, lofting home runs over Kiner’s Korner and leading the league in homers year after year while the Bucs lost and lost and lost. Murray Dickson somehow won 14 games (and lost 21) for that 1952 team but on that roster were young guys like Dick Groat, Bob Friend, and Vern Law.

They started to get serious about it in the mid fifties. Kiner’s Korner was dismantled and defense became part of their game as Virdon, Clemente, and Mazeroski helped Friend and Law trim their earned run averages and the team slowly but surely emerged as contenders. In 1958, the Pirates finished second, eight games behind Milwaukee. In 1960, they finished seven games ahead of Milwaukee. Those Braves had Joe Adcock, Henry Aaron, and Eddie Mathews, but Pittsburgh outscored them 734-724. Those Braves had Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, and Bob Buhl but the Pirates outpitched them.

Casey Stengel saved lefty Whitey Ford for the third game since it would be played at Yankee Stadium after the first two in Pittsburgh. So the Pirates jumped on right handed starter Art Ditmar in the first game for three first inning runs and held on to win behind Vern Law, 6-4. Then New York started making Bob McWilliams a prophet by routing Bob Friend, Clem Labine and others 16-3 in the second game. On to New York, where Ford shut out the Bucs ,10-0, on four hits. Game four was huge. If the Yanks won, the prospect of not returning home was real. Bill Skowron homered off Law in the fourth inning to make it 1-0. Then Law took over. He had two hits, including an RBI double in a 3 run fifth inning. Virdon’s single drove in Law and Smoky Burgess and the Pirates went on to win,3-2. Roy Face relieved Law in the 7th after a Johnny Blanchard pinch hit single and retired all eight batters he faced. The fifth game put Pittsburgh in the driver’s seat as they won 5-2.Pirates manager  Danny Murtaugh wasn’t fooling around. After Bob Cerv singled and took second on Hoak’s error, he intentionally walked Mickey Mantle–in the first inning!

Back to the Iron City for game six. Bob Friend was clobbered again and Whitey Ford pitched another shutout. 12-0 Yankees. Bob Turley startedthe seventh game for New York. Rocky Nelson started at first base against the righty. Nelson, a journeyman first sacker who was around for spot starts and late inning defense in relief of the slugging Stuart, smacked a two run homer in the first. In the second, Stengel lost patience with Turley after Burgess led off with a single and brought on Bill Stafford. Hoak walked and Mazeroski beat out a bunt to load the bases. Law hit into a pitcher to catcher to first base double play and Stengel looked smart as ever. But Virdon hit a two run single to right to make it 4-0.

In the fifth inning, Bill Skowron, whose autographed picture I went and got at a Loblaw’s supermarket even though he was a Yankee, homered off Law to make it 4-1. In the sixth, the seemingly inexhaustible Law surrendered a single to Bobby Richardson and a walk to Tony Kubek. Once again, Murtaugh turned to Face, who also was not inexhaustible. Mickey Mantle’s single scored Richardson, and then Yogi Berra cracked a three run homer to put the Yankees ahead, 5-4.

A significant thing happened in the seventh although it did not involve a run scoring. Burgess singled, and Joe Christopher ran for him.

In the top of the eighth, with two out, Berra walked.Then Skowron singled. Blanchard singled to score Berra with Skowron taking third. Clete Boyer, that fine fielding third baseman who seldom got hits but often hit it far when he did, doubled and Skowron scored. So Stengel let his reliable reliever Bobby Shantz bat with a 7-4 lead and Shantz lined out to Clemente for the third out. In the bottom of that inning, Gino Cimoli pinch hit for Face and singled. Cimoli had been a good addition to the team because Virdon wasn’t hitting left handers well and Cimoli ran well and could handle any outfield position. Then Virdon hit what looked like a double play grounder to Kubek at short but the ball took a bad hop and hit Kubek in the neck. Put the ball in play, boys, because you never know. Joe DeMaestri replaced the injured Kubek. Dick Groat singled to score Cimoli and it was 7-5. Jim Coates replaced Shantz and Bob Skinner‘s sacrifice bunt moved runners to third and second. Clemente’s infield single scored Virdon to make it 7-6. Then Hal Smith, the catcher who replaced Burgess when he had been run for, cracked a home run and the Pirates took a 9-7 lead. Ralph Terry replaced Coates.

Murtaugh brought in Bob Friend, so successful during the regular season but so ineffective in two World Series starts, to finish off the Yankees. He didn’t. Richardson singled. Dale Long, a former Pirate who had struck home runs in eight consecutive games for them back in ’56, was now another in a long line of lefty slugging aging hitters that the Yankees like to pad their roster with, singled to right as a pinch hitter for DeMaestri. Harvey Haddix replaced Friend as Yankees fans licked their lips. Roger Maris fouled out to the catcher Smith. Mantle singled to score Richardson with Long going to third. Gil McDougald ran for Long and scored when Skowron grounded out to short. So it was 9-9, but just for a while.

The world had been wicked for a long time, but now it had corrected itself. And Casey never managed another game for the Yankees, but he did a great job in 1960. Except perhaps for that Ditmar thing.

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