Never had there been a World Series like this one, and no sooner had the last stragglers left town than press-box wags were calling it the Weird Series. Frederick G. Lieb, the estimable baseball writer for The Sporting News, who had seen all but three of the previous 51 world championships, said this one was the "wackiest ever." For 50 years, since the 1910 World Series, when a young team of Philadelphia Athletics teed off on a cork-centered baseball, beating the Chicago Cubs in five games, their team batting average of .316 had survived as the highest in Series history—higher than that of any of those vaunted Yankees clubs that followed. Then came 1960. New York, hitting a phenomenal .338, eclipsed the record by 22 percentage points and outhit Pittsburgh by 82 points.
And lost. The Yankees had 31 more hits than the Pirates (91 to 60), outscored them by more than 2 to 1 (55 runs to 27), had six more home runs (10 to 4), 28 more runs batted in (54 to 26) and the three liveliest bats in the Series: Mantle's, Richardson's and Skowron's.
Richardson, a singles-hitting schnauzer at 5'9", had hit only one home run all season, on April 30, so no one was more surprised than he when, in Game 3 of the Series, he punched a grand slam over the Yankee Stadium fence in left—for four of his six RBIs that day, a single-game Series record. That was far more than pitcher Whitey Ford needed, and he went on to win the game 10-0. By the end of Game 6, in which Richardson had two triples, he had knocked in 12 runs, a World Series record that still stands. Lieb crunched the numbers and quietly asked, "Who ever would have fancied, even in his wildest dream, that a club launching such an offensive could lose a Series?"
As if credulity had not been strained enough, the whole unlikely megillah came to the most dramatic finish possible—no other Series in the Classic's 97-year history has ended with a homer in the last inning of the seventh game—and only after the lead had changed hands twice. No matter what the Yankees did, no matter how hard and how far they hit the ball, the Pirates were ultimately favored by the baseball gods to prevail. Tilting at windmills had become as much a part of Pittsburgh's drill as shagging flies and watching Ralph Kiner hit boomers in BP, but at the start of the '60 season, after a disappointing fourth-place finish the year before, no one except family and friends had expected the Bucs to be in the chase for the pennant, much less the world title.
Only eight years earlier, in 1952, the Pirates had finished last in the league, with a record of 42-112, and had been proclaimed to be among the worst teams in baseball history. They also came in last in the next three years under general manager Branch Rickey, but by the time the Mahatma was fired in the fall of '55—the franchise had been hemorrhaging financially for years-he had assembled the core of the '60 team, including pitchers Law, Bob Friend and Elroy Face; shortstop Dick Groat, an All-America basketball player whom Rickey had signed out of Duke in '52; Mazeroski and rightfielder Roberto Clemente.
Rickey left his fingerprints all over the franchise. In early '54, at a pre-spring-training camp for young players, Mazeroski was one of seven shortstops doing fielding drills when he took a turn at second base to pivot on the double play. Rickey saw that Mazeroski was a natural second baseman, quick and agile, who could throw without cocking his arm, and told the coaches, "Don't move him. He stays at second."
It was the sea-change moment of Mazeroski's life. He taught himself how to turn the double play, how to catch the ball and release it so quickly that it seemed to enter one end of a bent stovepipe and exit the other. He taught himself not to catch the ball in the pit of his glove and then dig it out to throw—that took too much time—but rather to deflect the ball off the heel of the glove into his throwing hand and, in the same motion, toss it to first.
That spring of '54 was propitious for the Pirates. Rickey told Face that he would need more than a fastball and a curve to stick in the big leagues, even with the last-place Bucs. "You don't have a changeup, and you need an off-speed pitch," Rickey said. At the Pirates' camp in Fort Pierce, Fla., former Yankees reliever Joe Page was trying to come back, and Face saw him throw his storied forkball, for which he fit the ball deep between the first two fingers of his throwing hand and fired with the same speed and motion he used on his other pitches. Today mat pitch is known as the split-finger fastball. Thrown well, it looks like a fastball but, at the plate, falls off the world. Rickey's decision to ship Face to Double A New Orleans for a year to work on the off-speed pitch was the turning point in Face's career.
But nothing Rickey ever did for the Pirates quite matched the way they picked the Brooklyn Dodgers' pocket. Rickey, a former Dodgers general manager, knew that Brooklyn was hiding a gifted Puerto Rican outfielder on its Montreal farm team. So he drafted Clemente for Pittsburgh. Clemente was a rookie in 1955 and five years later a .314-hitting All-Star with a Springfield rifle for an arm and racehorse speed.
Those were the players Joe Brown inherited when he took over as Pittsburgh G.M. in '55. By the 1960 season he had subtracted one catcher and added three more, including lefthanded-hitting Smoky Burgess and righty Hal Smith; acquired a fiery third baseman, Don Hoak; and added the wiry, chain-smoking spot starter Harvey Haddix, a lefty nicknamed the Kitten because as a rookie with the St. Louis Cardinals in '52 he had studied at the paw of aging lefty Harry (the Cat) Brecheen. Brown, who would win two championships in Pittsburgh, in '60 and '71, traded with St. Louis for the sweet-fielding outfielder Virdon in '56, the year after Virdon had been voted National League Rookie of the Year. Brown also added utility outfielder Gino Cimoli—a cheerful butt-slapper in the clubhouse—and dug around the minor leagues in search of missing links.