One-of-a-kind feats of the Pittsburgh Pirates (3 of 3)

One time when I was visiting my grandparents in western Pennsylvania, I was riding in the car with my grandfather when he pointed out a driveway.  “That’s where Bill Mazeroski lives,” he said.

Bill MazeroskiI looked out the car window in silent thought.  There was nothing that stood out about the driveway that disappeared into the woods, nothing that said “A Hall-of-Famer lives here.”  It was humble and unassuming, much like the man himself, based on everything I had read about the Pirates second baseman.

This past Sunday, on his 74th birthday, Bill Mazeroski was honored with the unveiling of a statue at PNC Park.  The statue, based on a photograph from 50 years ago, shows “Maz” in a leaping stride, arms outstreched, batting helmet in his hand, with a look of joy on his face.

“I’m overwhelmed,” said the man on whom the statue was based.  “I can’t believe this could happen to me, a little guy from a coal town on the Ohio River.  Geez, who could have ever dreamed of something like this?”

In all likelihood, it’s a dream that almost anyone who has played with a bat and ball has imagined at least once.  You’re batting in the biggest game there is, Game 7 of the World Series.  It’s the bottom of the 9th inning, and the score is tied.  You wait for the pitch, hit a deep fly ball, start rounding the bases, and hear the crowd roar as the ball goes over the outfield fence to win the championship for your team.

Countless people have surely imagined it, but in over a century of World Series baseball, only one has lived it.  And one of the most endearing things about Bill Mazeroski is that he seems to be more amazed by it than anyone.

The Pittsburgh Pirates were an improving team throughout the late 1950s, and in 1960 it finally all came together and they won the National League pennant with a record of 95-59, seven games ahead of second-place Milwaukee.  For the first time in 33 years, the Pirates were going to the World Series!  Pittsburgh was a baseball town through and through (the Steelers had never been any good), and the whole city stopped to watch their beloved Bucs take on the 97-57 American League champion New York Yankees.

This is a case in which the “David vs. Goliath” aspect of the matchup added a lot of significance to the way the 1960 World Series would be looked at and remembered.  Today, a lot of baseball fans outside of New York love to hate the Yankees because they have the money and prestige to attract the best players in baseball.  Even with today’s expanded playoff system, only 8 out of 30 teams make the postseason, the smallest ratio in major American pro sports– and yet the Yankees make it there year after year.

At the same time, though, there is a specialness in facing a team like the Yankees in the World Series, with their classic pinstriped uniforms and all of their lofty history– particularly if you manage to beat them.  They’re not just any team; they’re the Yankees.

If today’s team of players like Derek Jeter, A-Rod, and Mariano Rivera are the Yankees, then the team the Pirates faced in 1960 were THE YANKEES.  This was the team of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra, managed by Casey Stengel.  They were in the midst of an incredible 16-year run in which they appeared in 14 World Series and won nine of them.  Keep in mind that this was when only two teams, one from each league, even played in the postseason.

The Pittsburgh fans old enough to remember the Pirates’ last trip to the World Series in 1927 were all too familiar with the Yankees’ storied history.  Those Pirates were swept four games to none by a Yankees team considered by many to be the greatest ever. They had an unstoppable lineup known as “Murderers’ Row” that included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

So while Pirates fans were hopeful, they were bracing themselves for the possibility of getting blown out of another World Series.  With players like Mantle (first in the AL in home runs) and Maris (second in the same category), the 1960 Yankees had the hitting power to bury the Pirates under a pile of runs.  At least it was an even-numbered year, which meant that the National League Pirates would begin the series in Pittsburgh, and that Game 7– if the series went that far– would be played at Forbes Field.

Game 1 was played on October 5th in front of 36,000 fans.  The Yankees struck first in the top of the first inning when Roger Maris hit a solo home run, but the Pirates got the strong start they needed in the bottom of the first.  Stringing together a walk, a New York error, a double, and two singles, Pittsburgh took a 3-1 lead.  After Roberto Clemente drove in the Pirates’ third run, Yankees manager Casey Stengel decided that he had seen enough of starting pitcher Art Ditmar and pulled him from the game.

The Yankees were able to close the gap to 3-2 in the top of the fourth inning, but again the Pirates answered in the same inning.  With a runner on base, Bill Mazeroski hit a home run to extend Pittsburgh’s lead to 5-2— a lead which they were able to keep– and the game ended up as a 6-4 Pirates win.

At the statue unveiling ceremony 50 years later, someone pointed out that Mazeroski’s statue was the only one among the other Pirate greats that didn’t show the player holding a bat.  “Maz” thought that was appropriate, though.

“I’m not known for my bat,” he said.  “I would have rather made an out, I would have rather made 10 outs in a row, than make an error.”

Mazeroski distinguished himself first and foremost as a great player on defense at the demanding second base position.  In 1960, he turned 127 double plays and had a fielding percentage of .989, having been charged with only 10 errors the entire season.  In his 17-year career with the Pirates, he won eight Gold Glove awards and still holds the record for the most double plays turned at second base.  Despite his modesty, he was a decent hitter for the Pirates, with 64 runs batted in and 11 home runs in the regular season.  Still, it’s true that he was no Roger Maris.

It’s a strange twist, then, that Mazeroski is best known today for a home run.

The Pirates got the start they needed in the World Series with a win in Game 1, but the next day in Game 2, the Yankees showed why they were called the Bronx Bombers.  The scoring started in the third inning and never let up.  Six different Pirates pitchers tried to stop the parade of New York runs, but the Yankees cruised to a 16-3 rout.

The action moved to Yankee Stadium for Game 3, where a crowd of 70,000 saw an even more dominating performance.  The Yankees jumped to a 6-0 lead in the first inning thanks in part to a Bobby Richardson grand slam.  Then New York pitching ace Whitey Ford went to work, utterly shutting down the Pittsburgh offense with a complete game performance in which he allowed only four hits.  The Yankees won 10-0, and the Pirates looked to be in trouble.  Down 2-1 in the series, they would need to win a game at Yankee Stadium, or they wouldn’t even get to play another game in Pittsburgh.

The #1 pitcher in the Pirates’ rotation was Vern Law, who had been the winner of Game 1.  He was available to pitch again in Game 4, which turned into a real nailbiter.  The Pirates were able to score three runs in the fifth inning thanks to a rally started when Law himself doubled, but otherwise, Yankees starter Ralph Terry was able to keep Pittsburgh off the scoreboard.  In the seventh inning, the Yankees closed to within one run of the Pirates, prompting manager Danny Murtaugh to pull Law for reliever Elroy Face.  The Pirates held on to their slim 3-2 lead to tie New York at two games apiece in the World Series.

So far, the Yankees had been winning in high-scoring routs, while the Pirates had been scratching out the close, low-scoring games.  Game 5 turned out to be another example of the latter.  A double by Mazeroski in the second inning gave the Pirates a lead that they never relinquished thanks to a fine pitching effort by Harvey Haddix.  The Pirates took a 3-2 lead in the series, with the final two games to be played back in Pittsburgh.

Whitey Ford returned to the pitcher’s mound for the Yankees in Game 6, and the result was another complete game shutout and the biggest rout of the series so far.  The Yankees took the sixth game 12-0, tying the series once again at three games apiece.  The championship had come down to just one game– the biggest game:  Game 7 of the World Series.

On October 13, 1960, the Yankees and Pirates walked onto Forbes Field to play the game that would decide it all.  Both teams started pitchers who were undefeated in the series.  The Pirates started Vern Law, who had won Games 1 and 4, while the Yankees started Bob Turley, the winner of Game 2.

A home run by Pittsburgh first baseman Rocky Nelson gave the Pirates two runs in the bottom of the first inning and prompted Casey Stengel to pull Turley from the game after he issued a walk in the second inning.  There was no tomorrow for either team, so they both had nearly all of their pitching staff available to enter the game.

Relief pitcher Bill Stafford appeared to get the Yankees out of a jam by getting Law to ground into a double play, but Pirates center fielder Bill Virdon came up with a clutch hit with two outs to drive in another pair of runs.  Again the Yankees changed pitchers, bringing in Bobby Shantz to pitch the third inning, and he was able to shut down the Pirates offense.  Would the Pirates be able to hold on to their 4-0 lead?  The Forbes Field crowd watched nervously.

New York first baseman Bill Skowron got the Yankees on the board with a solo home run in the fifth inning, and Pirates starter Vern Law began to show signs of tiring in the sixth inning when he allowed the first two Yankee hitters to reach base.  Danny Murtaugh decided to pull Law and put closer Elroy Face into the game.  Face had been able to hold on to slim Pirates leads in all three of their wins, but this was earlier than he was usually called on to enter the game.

Mickey Mantle hit a single to drive in another run for the Yankees, and then 15-year veteran Yogi Berra hammered a home run to give New York a 5-4 lead.  In the top of the eighth inning, the Yankees scored twice to extend their lead to 7-4, and things began to look bleak for the Pirates.  New York was just six outs away from winning another World Series.

But in the bottom of the eighth, things began to get crazy.  With the lead-off hitter on first, the Pirates’ Bill Virdon hit a ground ball toward shortstop Tony Kubek that looked to be a double play, but the ball took an unexpected hop and struck Kubek in the throat, allowing both Pirates to safely reach base.  The game was halted for a short while as Kubek’s injury was attended to.  He left the game and was taken to the hospital with a bruised larynx.

Then Dick Groat singled to drive in a run for Pittsburgh and cut New York’s lead to 7-5, but another new Yankees pitcher entered the game and got the next two batters to make outs, and again it looked like the Yankees had the chance to end the Pirates’ attempt at a rally.

With two outs, Roberto Clemente grounded the ball towards first base, which should have resulted in an easy out, but the Yankees made a very uncharacteristic error.  First baseman Bill Skowron fielded the ball and prepared to toss it to pitcher Jim Coates, but Coates wasn’t covering first!  He had assumed that Skowron would tag the base himself.  With no one to throw to, Skowron had to hold onto the ball and watch as Clemente reached first safely and the Pirates scored another run to make the score 7-6, New York.

Pittsburgh catcher Hal Smith came to the plate.  With two runners on base, he hit a home run to put the Pirates on top 9-7.  The crowd erupted.  The Pirates had scored five runs in the eighth inning, four of them with two outs, to take the lead against the mighty Yankees!  Smith’s home run was perhaps the biggest in Pirates history.  So far.

Ralph Terry entered the game to pitch for the Yankees and was able to get the final out of the eighth inning.  The Pirates brought in veteran Bob Friend, the starter from Game 6 the day before, to try to get the three outs they needed to win.

But the Yankees were not done yet.  The first two batters hit singles, and Murtaugh decided to pull Friend from the game and replace him with Harvey Haddix.  The young pitcher had shown poise under pressure before, but here the stakes were even higher than they had been when he had taken a perfect game into the 13th inning the year before.  Haddix got Roger Maris to foul out, but then Mickey Mantle hit a single to drive home a run and close the gap to 9-8.

With runners on first and third, Yogi Berra hit a ground ball to first that gave the Pirates a chance at a double play to seal the win.  The Pirates’ Rocky Nelson tagged first base to put Berra out, then turned to fire the ball to second to catch Mickey Mantle, but he was startled to realize that Mantle was coming back to first base.  Mantle dodged Nelson’s tag and was safe at first, allowing Gil McDougald to make it home from third with the tying run.

The next Yankee batter grounded out, and Game 7 of the World Series was headed to the bottom of the ninth inning tied 9-9.

The first batter in the bottom of the ninth for the Pirates was second baseman Bill Mazeroski from Wheeling, West Virginia.  Ralph Terry’s first pitch was a fastball outside the strike zone:  ball one.  Terry fired a second fastball.  Maz swung and connected, hitting a line drive toward the left-field fence.  Yogi Berra, playing outfield, turned toward the wall, hoping to play the ball on a bounce.  Instead, he saw the ball sneak over the top of the ivy-covered fence, rustling the trees behind it.

Everything that followed is clear in the memory of anyone who was there (and many who were not).  The crowd breaking into deafening cheers.  Mazeroski rounding second base, leaping– almost skipping, and waving to the crowd with his batting helmet in hand.  Pirates fans began to rush onto the field, joining Mazeroski’s jubilant teammates as he completed the circuit.  Five people were there to greet him when he reached third base.  Fifty awaited him at home, and he almost had to push through them to jump on the plate and officially bring Pittsburgh its first championship in 35 years.

The Pirates’ radio announcer was so excited that he forgot to mention who the pitcher was and
got the final score of the game wrong.  Nobody cared– they just wanted to hear it again.

The New York Yankees were in disbelief that somehow they had lost the World Series to a team they had outscored 55-27 and outhit 90-61 over seven games.  It didn’t seem possible.  Due to voting taking place before the game was over, New York second baseman Bobby Richardson was named the most valuable player of the series, the only time a member of the losing team has ever been MVP.

Mickey Mantle cried in the clubhouse after the game and would later call the 1960 World Series the biggest disappointment of his career.  Casey Stengel, who had won ten AL pennants and seven World Series, was fired as manager of the Yankees before the start of the 1961 season due to the belief that he was too old to continue managing, leading him to remark, “I’ll never make the mistake of turning seventy again.”

Yogi Berra, who went on to win a total of ten World Series with the Yankees, called the loss to Pittsburgh one of his bitterest disappointments.  “We made too many wrong mistakes,” he concluded.

In Pittsburgh, the party went on for hours in the streets.  Horns honked, people threw confetti and stacks of paper out the windows, strangers hugged each other.  The 1960 World Series, and the magical way it ended, became a part of Pittsburgh sports lore forever.  I can speak to this– even though it happened 20 years before I was born, and even though the Pirates won two more World Series in the 1970s, the 1960 Series has stood out in my memory since the first time I read about it.  It brings a smile to my face just to think of it.

The only part of Forbes Field that is still standing today is the section of the left-field wall that Mazeroski’s home run crossed over.  Every year on October 13th, a small crowd of Pirates fans gather, some of them coming from across the country, to listen to a radio recording of Game 7 and imagine they were there.  There is expected to be quite a gathering this year on the 50th anniversary of the game.

Mazeroski’s feat remains unique– he is the only person to have hit a walk-off home run to end Game 7 of the World Series.  The only other example that comes close happened in 1993 when Joe Carter hit a walk-off home run to clinch a World Series win for the Toronto Blue Jays.  But that happened in Game 6– if Toronto had lost, they would still have had a chance to come back and win the last game.

Mazeroski at statue unveiling
Photo by Bob Donaldson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

As for Bill Mazeroski himself, he has never liked being the center of attention.  When he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001, he got as far as saying, “I think defense belongs in the Hall of Fame,” before he began to tear up and was scarcely able to continue his speech.

He has always downplayed the significance of his 1960 home run.  “I hit one home run,” he said in January 2010.  “I get all the credit and don’t deserve it.  You get in the Hall of Fame. You get a street named after you. Holy hell, how can you get a better life than that? Now, I get a statue. I don’t know what to say after that. Just, thanks.”

At the statue unveiling ceremony, he said that the credit belongs to the entire team.  “We’d have found a way to win somehow,” he said.  “I just know it in my heart.  We were destined to win that game.”

That’s perhaps the greatest thing about this story.  The man who hit the biggest home run in history is just an ordinary guy and is content to stay that way.  “Maybe after the 13th, I’ll fade away,” Mazeroski said of the 50th anniversary celebration coming up on October 13.

For Pirates fans, that’s not likely to happen any time soon.


Berra, Yogi. Ten Rings: My Championship Seasons. 2003.

“Bill Mazeroski” and “1960 World Series,” Baseball Almanac.

“Bill Mazeroski” and “1960 World Series,” Wikipedia.

Dvorchak, Robert. “Bill Mazeroski goes deep at dedication.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sept. 6, 2010.

Kovacevic, Dejan. “Mazeroski emotional as Pirates unveil statue model.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan. 29, 2010.

Terrell, Roy. “It Went All the Way!,” Sports Illustrated, Oct. 24, 1960.

One comment

  1. What a wonderful memory, Nathan. Seeing that home run on a tiny TV at my grandparents’ house helped make me a lifelong baseball fan!

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