Last week, my dad sent me an e-mail telling me that he’d picked up three old issues of Sports Illustrated with the Pirates on the cover, as well as some old programs and scorebooks from Pirates games. He said that while they weren’t in great shape, he assumed I’d be interested in them anyways and was sending them along in the mail so that I could look at them.
Of the three SIs he sent, one of them was the famous Willie Stargell/Terry Bradshaw cover, which has its own special place in Pittsburgh sports lore. The second was from early July in 1972 with Steve Blass on the cover, just as he was hitting his stride the year after his post-season performance propelled him to stardom. Neither he nor anyone reading had any idea his career would be over in two years. Despite the compelling stories, neither of these two covers pulled me in. The cover that instead grabbed my eye was this one, a shot of a young and powerful looking Willie Stargell in August of 1971, just months before the Pirates defeated the Orioles in the World Series.
I was born two and a half years after Pops retired, and so the Stargell that occupies my mind’s eye has always been the one on the cover with Bradshaw; the aging, rounding, jovial superstar that laughed and bashed his team to a World Series in 1979. This Stargell was someone different. I went to Baseball Reference and looked up his stat line: .295/.398/.628 with 48 homers, 26 doubles, and 125 RBIs in 1971. The man was an unstoppable force.
Compelled by the cover, I carefully opened the aging magazine up to find Roy Blount’s story. A melting pot of cheerful rapscallions, Pittsburgh is escaping from the National League East reads the intro paragraph. No one writes like this any more. Set across from the first page of text is a gripping picture of Roberto Clemente taken by Walter Iooss Jr., staring apprehensively through a chainlink fence. Pirate power is new, but Roberto Clemente’s singles will soon stretch to Cooperstown. Reading those words, I felt a pang. No one knew just how terribly soon those singles would stretch. He hit .341 at the age of 36 that season. I read on. The article goes details the Pirates’ run to the top of the NL East that year. It’s got Manny Sanguillen’s exuberance, Doc Ellis’s irreverence, a quote from Steve Blass about how he’s just out there throwing that he had no idea would sound incredibly expository in 38 years, and an example of how Clemente could quiet the clubhouse in a second if he chose to do it.
It was a strange feeling reading a story like that about the Pirates, but it got the wheels turning in my head. If there were one Pirate team in history that I could go back in time and watch play, I think it would be that ’71 team. The ’79 team always gets a lot of attention because of the way Stargell and Parker and Tanner carried the Fam-a-lee to an improbable victory in the World Series and the ’60 team was immortalized by Maz’s home run, but the ’71 often gets glossed over as one small part of the greater Clemente story.
Reading the SI story reminded me of an anecdote in David Maraniss’s Clemente biography that was published a few years back. After the Pirates lost Game 6 of that World Series to the Orioles, Clemente told his teammates that they would win Game 7 like it was simply a matter of fact. The team, having just lost a ten inning heartbreaker on the road and facing another road game with the Series on the line, was uncertain. The next night, in a scoreless game in the fourth inning, Clemente came to the plate against Mike Cuellar, a player he had no lost love for, and homered over the left field fence. Everyone in the Pirates dugout sat up. He told them they were going to win and they believed him. They went on to win the game 2-1.
For me, that’s kind of the ultimate baseball moment, the one that I’d go back in a time machine to watch live over and over again. I can actually see myself sitting on the edge of my seat, watching that home run live and feeling my heart catch in my throat while my brain registers what happened.