1971 Some Kind of a Comeback
Roberto Clemente and a no-name crew of pitchers Pirated away a World Series that mighty Baltimore had all but banked
by William Leggett
Issue date: October 25, 1971
The 1971 World Series had been over for 10 minutes, and Steve Blass stood atop Manager Danny Murtaugh's desk in the visitors' clubhouse at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, exuberant over the 2-1 seventh-game victory he had just pitched against the Orioles. Blass was asked if he had received one of those phone calls, so fashionable these days, from someone holding high political office. "I certainly did," Blass replied. "It was from the First Selectman of Falls Village, Conn. He congratulated me and I told him I was darn proud to be a part of the Pittsburgh no-name pitching staff."
Eight days before, the Pirates had entered the Series about as underdog as a team can get. After three more days they were down by two games, and obviously the odds had been too short, if anything. But now they were the World Champions. In a wild turnabout, they won four of the last five games and the gritty, hustling Pirates became the third Pittsburgh team in 47 years to win a World Series. They had produced a hero of major proportions in Roberto Clemente, who got 12 hits, including two home runs, a triple and two doubles, and fielded another just as impressive in Blass, the perfect pitcher to face Baltimore in the two games the Pirates had to win.
With two outs in the eighth inning of the final game and the Pirates holding a 2-1 lead, Blass was in serious trouble. Baltimore had the tying run 90 feet from home with Dave Johnson at bat. Pirate Catcher Manny Sanguillen walked to the mound and talked briefly to his pitcher. Then the 29-year-old Blass turned one of his many slow circles around the mound. "Those circles," he said after the game, "were previews of what is probably going to turn out to be a bad stomach." But he took a deep breath, threw a curve to the plate, and Johnson grounded to shortstop to end Baltimore's last good chance to win a second straight Series.
Until the deciding game, the 68th Series had taken on all the aspects of one of those National Basketball Association playoffs in which the home team always seems to win. The Orioles grabbed the first two games in Baltimore, lost the next three in Pittsburgh and then won the sixth game back home. But the Home Sweet Home refrain turned sour at last.
When it was all over, Baltimore's Earl Weaver delivered himself of a tortured soliloquy. "It wasn't quite as upsetting as when we lost to the Mets in 1969," he said. "And I still think we're the best damn team in baseball, even though we lost the seventh game to the Pirates. We'll be back here again. We'll win 100 games next year. Oh hell, what I'm really thinking and not saying is that it wouldn't be too bad an idea to just paint the fence and plow the tomatoes under."
The Orioles got plowed under when Willie Stargell, the slumbering giant of the Monongahela, opened the eighth inning with a single through the middle that scooted just beneath Shortstop Mark Belanger's glove, thus defeating Baltimore's defensive overshift. Jose Pagan, next up, hit a fly ball to deep center field that went over the head of Merv Rettenmund; Rettenmund juggled the ball as it rebounded from the fence, and Stargell never stopped running. He roared home, beating a relay throw that never arrived because First Baseman Boog Powell cut it off. Baltimore may long wonder whether Powell's big mitt should have intervened, but Stargell almost certainly would have beaten the throw in any event. He was home with the winning run.
"I'm so happy about the way this turned out," Stargell said later. "When it began you would have thought the Pittsburgh Pirates were nothing more than the invited guests at the St. Valentine's Day massacre."
Pittsburgh's first run came on a homer by Clemente, who hit .414 in the Series and proved again, as if he needed to, that on certain days he belongs in a higher league than anyone else. In a classic Series, he was the classic player.
Baltimore itself was thinking in terms of classicism when it survived all sorts of tragedy to win on Saturday and force the Series into a seventh game. The dramatic sixth, in fact, was really the first game that both teams played well. From the fifth inning on, it was a remarkably thrilling thing to watch.
Jim Palmer started for the Orioles, gave up one run and then another to Clemente, naturally, on a homer. When Baltimore finally got two men on in the fifth inningonly the second time that Pittsburgh's faceless pitching staff had allowed that many Orioles on base in 32 inningsBaltimoreans hesitantly began to stir. But the Orioles failed to score, and Weaver went through a weird hat trick. He slammed his cap on the dugout wall three times. "I was so frustrated I was ready to try anything," he said. "I was trying to break a seam in the cap. I had a 16-straight cap going for me [the extent of Baltimore's winning streak before it lost the third game of the Series], and somebody stole it off the desk in my office. We went to Pittsburgh and lost three in a row. After I threw the cap the third time I went into our clubhouse and got myself an old beat-up cap, put it on and when I came out with it in the sixth inning Don Buford hit a home run."
Weaver needed no voodoos where Palmer was concerned. His fastballing righthander pitched fine, unsuperstitious ball that grew stronger by the inning. The Orioles tied the game in the seventh and won it in the 10th when Frank Robinson started a rally with a walk, continued it with a belly flop into third and finished it on Brooks Robinson's fly to medium left center with a plowing slide underneath the leaping Sanguillen at home.
Although the Orioles were even, they still wondered about the three games they had lost to the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Before going there it was all gags; the Orioles had made it look so easy while beating the Pirates in Baltimore. Weaver explained why he had relieved Palmer way back there in game No. 2 despite an 11-3 lead. "I took him out because he had thrown 168 pitches and was beginning to feel twinges of pain in his arm," he said. "Also, I thought I might have to bring him back later."
"Bring him back for what, a bow?" someone asked. No, the answer wasfive days laterto save the Orioles' lives. The Orioles needed saving because of the rebirth of the Pirates, a blessed event due quite likely to nothing more mysterious than that they went home.
Bands played and BEAT 'EM BUCS stickers were omnipresent and people insisted on talking about 1960, the year the Pirates won the Series by beating the Yankees in an extremely dramatic seven games although they were outscored 55 runs to 27. People remembered that those 1960 Pirates were built to take advantage of the peculiarities of old Forbes Field, to run and hustle and punch singles through the rock-hard infield and into the spacious outfield areas. Well, the 1971 Pirates had done pretty well in their ball park, too, modern Three Rivers Stadium, a $35 million dollar saucer with an artificial surface that, if anything, sped ground balls through the infield even faster than the old one. The 1971 Pirates were 52-28 at home.
One thing they planned to do was use their speed. "We have always been a good running club even though we don't have what you might call great stealing speed," said Murtaugh. "Part of our conditioning is to be aggressive on the bases. You'll never hear me say anything when an athlete is thrown out for being aggressive. I don't have a steal sign. I have a don't steal sign."
Pittsburgh started with Blass, who in 1968 had been the team's best pitcher. This season Dock Ellis, who was 19-9, received far more publicity even though Blass was 15-8 and started and completed more games.
"I sat in the clubhouse in Baltimore during the first two games and watched on a television monitor," Blass said. "I could get the ground-level shots and see what was being thrown. I made some notesand left them in Baltimore."
When the Orioles and Pirates trooped out on the artificial turf for game number three all decked out in their double-knit uniforms, it looked like the road-company opening for The Pajama Game. Any ideas that the Pirates would continue their comic efforts of the first two games didn't last long, however. Blass moved through the first 21 Baltimore batters while allowing only one hit.
Pittsburgh meanwhile got a run in the first inning and added another in the sixth when Sanguillen scored from second on Pagan's single. Frank Robinson homered, leading off Baltimore's seventh. ("That's why he makes four times as much as I do," Blass said afterward.) Then with two on in the bottom of the seventh Bob Robertson, 0 for 9 at the time, missed the bunt sign. Third-Base Coach Frank Oceak managed to contain his chagrin when Robertson responded with a better ideaa home run to right center. The Pirates had a 5-1 victory and Blass a three-hitter.
"I was so nervous the night before that I lay in bed for hours without being able to sleep," Blass said afterward. " When I got up in the morning I was still so nervous that I blew a $3.40 breakfast. What was it? Toast, rare."
His afternoon snackOriole, well donehad been much more satisfying. One of Baltimore's four 20-game winners, Mike Cuellar, had been beaten, and now the Pirates figured that the others wouldn't be quite such formidable obstacles as they had once appeared.
So on Wednesday they went to work on Pat Dobson. The first night game in Series history brought out the biggest baseball crowd (51,378) ever in Pittsburgh as well as an estimated 61 million home TV viewers to their sets. And for one short stretch at the beginning they must have wondered why. The Orioles scored three quick runs off Luke Walker in the top of the first inning, and the coup de grâce appeared imminent. Then a thin, 21-year-old pitcher named Bruce Kison came in from the bullpen to relieve, and it was Kison who did the couping. He got the final out of the first inning and, following a bloop double to center field by Paul Blair in the second, set the Orioles downon occasion quite literally; he hit three of them for a Series recordfor the next six innings, allowing only two long fly balls as he moved his sidearm pitches in and out.
The game was taut and filled with point and counterpoint. Pittsburgh scored two runs in its half of the first and then tied the game in the third despite losing a huge argument that erupted when Clemente lined a ball down the right-field line and over the fence. The drive was called foul, but Clemente didn't lose any arguments with Dobson's next pitch. He rammed it into right field for the single that led to the tying run, which is the sort of thing that happens when a man is in a streak as hot as Roberto's. He was so hot, in fact, that each time he came to bat at Three Rivers the organist played Jesus Christ Superstar. He hit balls up around his ears and far out across the plate, and he made splendid catches in the outfield and ran the bases like a mere lad of 20 (he is 37).
The Pirates kept pounding Dobson and Reliever Eddie Watt, but they left men all over the bases and ran them as if drunk. So the game moved along tied into the Pirate seventh, at which point Milt May, a 21-year-old pinch hitter, settled it all by singling home the winning run. The victory really belonged to Kison, of course, who had shown the Orioles an old National League weapon. As Marty Allen, the comic and lifelong Pirate fan said, "Spiro Agnew wouldn't have hit as many guys."
Now the momentum belonged to the Pirates. Their base running, even though erratic, was hurrying the normally efficient Orioles into one silly blunder after another, and their pitching, maligned for most of the year, had suddenly blossomed. In the fifth game Murtaugh named Nelson Briles as his starting pitcher to oppose Dave McNally.
Sometimes, the least of Briles' talents seems to be pitching. A linguist who can speak half a dozen languages, the 28-year-old righthander has played Joe Hardy in the musical version of Damn Yankees and is equipped with a fine voice. One day in 1967 the St. Louis Cardinals were leading the National League when Clemente lined a drive back at Bob Gibson, shattering the fibula in his right leg. Without Gibson, the Cards appeared doomed, but Briles picked up the slack with 14 wins against only five losses for the highest winning percentage (.737) in the league. The next year he won 19 games. Early the following spring, however, the mound was lowered, and Briles was a temporary casualty. Eventually he won 15 games, but he had great trouble adjusting to the change.
So Briles revised his delivery, and the new style was never more in evidence than in the third Series game in Pittsburgh. Briles drove so hard off the mound that he fell down three times. "My record is 11 in one game," he said. Flat out, Briles pitched the best game of his life.
As early as the first inning the Pirates began to run on the Orioles once again. In the second, Robertson homered, and right behind him Sanguillen singled, stole second and scored on a single by Briles, a good hitting pitcher. And Briles kept driving the Orioles down. In only one inning did he allow Baltimore's leadoff man to reach first, and Briles immediately took care of him with a double-play grounder.
The Pirates took advantage of Baltimore's sloppy play to get their other two runs in the 4-0 victory. A walk, a ground out, an error by Brooks Robinson and a wild pitch produced the first. The second came after Gene Clines' triple soared over Centerfielder Paul Blair's head.
In 27 innings at Pittsburgh the Pirate pitchers had held the Orioles to a total of nine hits. The team had made no errors while the Orioles had made five. Bill Mazeroski, the biggest of many heroes on Pittsburgh's 1960 World Champions, stood by his locker. "Bill," he was asked, "is this as good as it was then?" Maz looked around the clubhouse and smiled. "Things are always supposed to be better when you look back on them from 11 years," he said, "but they might not be. They just might not be."