Only the Pirates

“If the Pirates decided to trade me, I would quit. I would not play for another team, only the Pirates.” Roberto Clemente as told by Vera Clemente to the crowd at the Byham Theater watching Game 7 of the 1960 World Series. 

It’s hard to know where to start with the broadcast of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series. There are so many interesting and unique aspects to watching a previously lost piece of baseball history that I think I could watch the entire three-hour broadcast two more times and find something new to write about every time. 

The game itself is a time capsule. Some of the players look like high school football coaches in 2010. They’re burly but not ripped like today’s players and they look pretty ridiculous in their saggy flannel uniforms. Some of the other players are skinny little beanpoles. The few guys that don’t fit either mold — the lithe Roberto Clemente (who in 1960 was built an awful lot like Andrew McCutchen is built in 2010) or Maris and Mantle (who are both built more like modern players) — really stand out. The other thing that stands out is the quickness of the player’s hands, which I think is because they’re every bit as quick as modern players’ hands even though the players themselves don’t look nearly as athletic. Don Hoak fielding a groundball and whipping a throw to Bill Mazerosi at second and Maz just catching it is a thing of beauty. 

The players in the game are the stuff of baseball legend. I mean, the Yankees bat Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra back to back to back. Roberto Clemente is young and cocksure and just hitting the stride of his career. Previously, most of the footage I’ve seen of Clemente is from later in his career; I’ve seen highlights from when Three Rivers opened, I’ve seen all of Game 7 of the 1971 World Series, and everyone’s seen his 3,000th hit. 1960 Roberto is different. In this game, he casually whips laser throws back to the infield after routine pop-ups, he makes ridiculous and unnecessary basket catches, and it’s his hustle to first base on a slow bouncer to no man’s land between the pitcher and first sets the table for Hal Smith’s dramatic home run. The early 70s Clemente I’m more familiar with was a great athlete, but one who’s body had slowly betrayed him. He rantenderly, he moved tenderly, and even though he could still swing a bat like few others, you can tell that he just wasn’t 100%.  In 1960, he was a guy that was just realizing he could do absolutely anything he wanted to on a baseball field. If there were just one game in a vault somewhere of him playing between 1961 and about 1967, after he really started to figure things out but before injuries started taking their toll, I think I’d give just about anything to watch it after seeing this game. He doesn’t do much of anything exciting in this game and he’s still breathtaking to watch. 

Everyone knows about Maz’s homer. Most Pirate fans probably know about Hal Smith’s homer, which was the single biggest hit in the game. A few people know about Dick Groat’s groundball off of Tony Kubek’s throat that starts the Pirate rally that inning. That still doesn’t start to capture the frantic pace of the game’s last four innings. The Pirates take a comfortable 4-1 lead into the sixth, when Vern Law’s bad ankle starts to give out and Elroy Face comes in and promptly serves up a three-run homer to Yogi Berra. What if the Pirates don’t come back? That Berra home run might be a signature moment for him; a clutch hit to cap off a legendary career. The Yankees keep building their lead in the eighth and it’s 7-4 before the Pirates come up to bat in that inning. It’s one thing to see that in a line score, but another entirely in the context of a game. That’s a hard lead to overcome on a Tuesday in July against the Nationals, much less in October against the 1960 Yankees. But the Pirates get their improbable rally with Virdon’s grounder off of Kubek’s throat and Clemente’s infield hit and Smith’s giant home run that Mel Allen says will be remembered forever but was promptly wiped from everyone’s memory before the hour was even over. After Smith’s home run, they cut to the Byham audience giving the 80-year old Smith a standing ovation and Smith is grinning like he’d just hit the home run in again 2010. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it. 

And somehow, after all that, it’s not even close to over. The Yankees, down 9-7, lead off the ninth with Series MVP Bobby Richardson (who was the only Yankee in the Byham crowd and who whispers to Dick Groat at one point, “This really is a great game” with tears in his eyes and you can tell that even though Richardson played on three World Series winners and three other World Series losers with the Yankees, this game is the one he wants another chance at) and then after a pinch-hitter have Maris, Mantle, and Berra due up. How could a two-run lead be safe against that? The game tying play is a sharp groundball hit to Rocky Nelson with Mantle on first. Nelson smoothly nabs the ball and steps on first but Mantle freezes, thinking Nelson caught the ball in the air. If he ran to second and got in a rundown, the tying run would’ve scored easily. Instead, he pauses, head-fakes Nelson, and dives back into first, just beating the tag. I don’t know how anyone but Mickey Mantle makes that play. 

All of the great things leading up to Maz’s homer make the home run one of baseball’s iconic moments. It’s the one part of the game that everyone knows everything about, and in this context it’s kind of anticlimactic. It’s like opening a wondeful surprise Christmas gift, then opening something you really want, but that picked out yourself and watched someone buy for you. The game is about the home run, but the best part of it all is seeing everything about that isn’t the home run. 

And I’m rambling on and on now and I still haven’t gotten to my favorite part of the MLB Network’s broadcast. I was skeptical when I heard they’d be including clips from the Byham and interviews with players and Bob Costas, but early in the game they pause between innings and go to the theater and Costas mentions that Vera Clemente, Roberto’s widow, is in the crowd. And he says that while some players are remembered and other players are loved, that Roberto Clemente is revered in Pittsburgh. That every time he appears on the 1960 broadcast, the 2010 audience buzzes even if it’s just a clip of him in the on-deck circle. And he asks Vera about this and even though her English isn’t very good, you can tell that she’s moved by this whole event and by the love that the city of Pittsburgh still has for her husband. She says that she can feel Roberto with her and then she gives the quote that I opened this post with, saying that Roberto always told her, “If the Pirates decided to trade me, I would quit. I would not play for another team, only the Pirates.”

And that’s the best part about the entire presentation. Times are awful for Pirate fans right now, but the Pirates will always be the team that toppled the invincible Yankees in 1960. The Pirates will always be the only team Roberto Clemente played for and the only team he ever wanted to play for. A cynic would say that in 2010 fans root for laundry, but that’s not true. I root to be able to experience my own personal 1960 World Series. Right now the Pirates are a terrible 105-loss team, but they’re still Pittsburgh’s team and they’re Roberto Clemente’s team and Willie Stargell’s team and Bill Mazeroski’s team and Honus Wagner’s team and Andy Van Slyke’s team; they’re still the team that shocked the Yankees in 1960, that toppled Walter Johnson in 1925, that beat the incredible Orioles’ rotation in 1971, that overcame a 3-1 deficit as a Fam-a-lee in 1979. And even though they haven’t won anything of significance in 18 years, they’re the team that I grew up watching with my dad and my uncles and my brothers and my friends and that makes them my team, too. And it may take five or ten or 18 or 31 more years, but the Pirates will eventually get back to the top of baseball and when they do, that chapter of Pirate history will be my chapter of Pirate history. And I think it will all be worth it. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.