Amid all the
muscle-flexing and fungo-hitting which mean that baseball has returned to the
land once more, a strange and persistent conviction daily grows stronger
throughout Florida that a team called the Pittsburgh Pirates might very well
rise up in 1959, bounce the Milwaukee Braves right on their bratwurst and walk
off with the National League pennant. If they do, it will be because of a group
of young men who wouldn't be recognized by most baseball fans if they should
walk into Toots Shor's at high noon wearing catcher's masks.
The reason for
this cloak of anonymity which shields the Pittsburgh athletes is simply that
the world finally got so tired of hearing how the Pirates were going to rise in
all their youthful wrath some day that it quit watching them. So, when the
uprising finally happened, no one outside the corporate limits of Pittsburgh
was looking. "My goodness," people said, when informed later that the
Pirates had been right in the middle of the pennant race, "what a sneaky
thing for them to do."
Pirates were not at all sneaky. They just got lost in the shuffle. Most of the
excitement during the first two-thirds of the 1958 season was generated by the
Giants—and, when the Giants finally ran out of pitching, the Braves ran off
with the pennant. Or so it seemed. As a matter of fact, however, the Pirates
made quite a run themselves. Starting from a tie for last place on July 22,
they went pelting along until they had climbed over everyone but Milwaukee, and
they gave even the Braves a slight start.
Perhaps the most
unusual thing about this 1958 Pittsburgh team was that on the surface it bore a
marked resemblance to the 1957 one and the 1955 one—and even to the 1952 one, a
clump of very young ballplayers with great potential, a word which, in
Pittsburgh, had come to mean so we won't win this year, either.
however, one basic difference. Where all those other Pittsburgh teams, for
eight long years, finished either seventh or eighth, the 1958 Pirates finished
second. They really did. And a good second, at that. The potential was finally
realized. Without a Willie Mays or a Stan Musial or a Warren Spahn—or a Leo
Durocher—all the youngsters got together under a soft-spoken, tobacco-chewing
Irishman named Danny Murtaugh (who understood and appreciated them), pulled all
at once in the same direction and left the rest of the National League
quivering. Now here they are again, better than before.
Without the power
of the Braves and Giants, with only Bob Friend yet qualified to rank among the
game's really big stars, the Pirates expect to go a long way on superb defense,
consistent hitting and a pitching staff which shapes up as second only to that
of the champion Braves. The big February deal with the Reds, in which Frank
Thomas was used as barter for Harvey Haddix, Smoky Burgess and Don Hoak, filled
in the gaps which most needed filling—a catcher who could hit and a left-hand
starting pitcher—and now the lineup is virtually set. There are no great
experiments for Murtaugh to conduct in the camp down at Fort Myers this spring,
no glaring deficiencies which must be patched. Right now the Pirates are ready
to play ball. Perhaps most important of all, the time has finally arrived when
they know what that means.
Typical of the
brand of youthful experience which could make Pittsburgh so tough in the years
to come is Richard Morrow Groat, a pleasant young man of 28, with a nice wife,
two fine children, a $25,000-a-year job and a balding head. With his neat
clothes, an occasional good cigar and a Chrysler automobile, Groat looks for
all the world like some promising young executive in a successful corporation,
which, in a manner of speaking, he is. Groat is field captain and shortstop of
Rushed into a
major league lineup straight off the Duke University campus in 1952, in all the
helter-skelter of Branch Rickey's big rebuilding plan, he had to learn as he
earned. For a while there, quite likely, Dick Groat was overpaid. Now, however,
things are different; he is a veteran of five National League seasons and has
finally figured out what big league baseball is all about.
So have others.
Bill Mazeroski is only 22, yet he is heading into his fourth major league
season and, with Red Schoendienst gone, Mazeroski stands alone as the league's
best second baseman. Roberto Clemente was brought up to the Pirates in 1955 at
the age of 19, with only one year of Triple-A ball behind him, and was given a
regular job. Now, at 24, he is a genuine veteran, too. Ronnie Kline joined the
Pirates two years after he signed his first baseball contract in 1950, and he
has been around for a long time. The same thing is true, more or less, of
Vernon Law and Bob Skinner and Roman Mejias and others. And it seems hard to
believe that Friend, a major-league pitcher—and a good one—for eight years, is
only 28 himself.
It was not a
system which produced very sensational results when it began. Now things seem
to be working out all right.