Underneath the snappy black blazers the Pittsburgh Pirates wear en route to National League cities this year beat some of the strongest and youngest hearts in baseball—for which ambulance drivers, night nurses and interns on emergency duty should be grateful. The Pirates are barely two weeks into what is obviously going to be a long and brutal season, but the way they have thus far gone about winning ball games combines some of the startling elements found in a gang rumble or a mugging.
Consider their ninth victory of the young season, gained last Saturday night against their tormentors of last season, the St. Louis Cardinals (the Cards, who had a 14-4 record against the Pirates in season play last year, were the only team in the league that had an edge on Pittsburgh). It's 4-2 in favor of the Cardinals in the ninth inning, and young Nelson Briles is pitching a reasonably strong five-hit game. Up steps Bob Bailey, who had hit a homer earlier in the game off Briles. Wham! there goes Bailey's second homer, and the score is cut to 4-3. Out goes Briles, in comes Relief Pitcher Dennis Aust. Up steps Jim Pagliaroni, the handsome catcher who has become the acknowledged team leader of the Pirates. Wham! there goes another home run, and the score is tied 4-4. Out goes Aust, in comes the Cardinals' premier reliever, Hal Woodeshick. Woodeshick gets one out, gets a second. Then up comes Jose Pagan, a .215 hitter last year, a big part of which he spent as a San Francisco Giant. But now Pagan is a Pirate—and a rumbler. Pagan hadn't hit a home run last season or this, but there's a game to be won. Wham! there goes another homer, and the Pirates have the ball game 5-4.
In seven of their first 11 games the issue was settled by one or two runs anywhere from the sixth on into the 13th inning. Even the best of teams can expect to be on the short end of that sort of game at least half the time, but the Pirates won all seven and won with seven different pitchers. Luck? Sorcery? Early foot? Call it anything you want, but note that even with the World Champion Dodgers and the powerful Giants having a merry old time against the havenot Cubs and Astros, there sat the Pirates in first place.
For those who were puzzled by Pittsburgh's early run, listen to the reason for it, as explained quite simply by Atlanta Braves Manager Bobby Bragan. "Speed?" asked Bobby, rhetorically, "They've got it. Power? They've got it. Fielding? They've got it. Pitching? A question. They are young." At that point Bragan paused, looked suspiciously around the room and added: "They have also got Gene Alley at shortstop." With that, Bragan leaned back like a man who has just answered the ultimate question.
Gene who? Good question. Leonard Eugene Alley, known fondly as "Oops" to his teammates, is a shy young man who was weaned on disaster, as were many of the young men now playing regularly for the Pirates. The disaster was the opening of last season. Roberto Clemente, the defending batting champion, was recuperating from malaria, All-Star Second Baseman Bill Mazeroski was out with a broken bone in his right foot. Taking a deep breath, the Pirates ventured forth on their first western swing, lost 12 of 15 games, came home, lost eight of 10 and by May 20 had the unique distinction of being in last place in a league that had the New York Mets.
The man pressed into service to take Mazeroski's place was Alley—"a raw recruit thrown into combat," said Manager Harry Walker. "You either learn, and learn fast, or you get killed." Alley did not make anyone forget Mazeroski, but he did form the seed of inspiration for his manager. After Maz finally returned to active duty Alley, who fully expected to spend the rest of the season on the bench, instead found himself on the other side of second base—where he belonged in the first place. He was the shortstop the Pirates had been looking for, and he and Maz quickly became a double-play combination that Hall of Famer Pie Traynor called "better than Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance."
Of course, it was too late for the Pirates to make up all that lost ground, but from then on, last year, they were the U.S. cavalry coming over the mountain. The Pirates won more games from that point than any other team in the league, including the Dodgers.
The rather remarkable activity around second base explains in part the success the Pirates have had with one-run affairs. The rest comes from a succession of heroes who keep popping up at the most incredibly opportune times. On opening day Pagliaroni picked the perfect place and time for his first home run this year. It came in the eighth with the Pirates a run behind, and it tied the score. Five innings later, next hero—Willie Stargell, the muscular young left fielder. Through 12 innings Stargell, in five tries, had produced a lazy fly, two strikeouts, a ground ball out and a double play. By the time the 13th inning came around Braves Pitcher Tony Cloninger thought he knew just what to do with frustrated Willie Stargell. But this time Stargell swung and sent the ball over the right-field wall 375 feet away and about five rows up into the seats. Then, the next day Stargell hit the ball 375 feet to left field for another home run.
A home run by Stargell is a perfectly proper way to win a ball game, as is a sacrifice fly by Mazeroski, who has a knack of ending things dramatically (the fly came in the ninth to beat the Cardinals). Even a squeeze bunt by Alley that beat the Reds for the fourth straight time last week had an air of legitimacy in it. A more unlikely subject for high honors; especially in the field, is Jesse Gonder, an ex-Met catcher, who started a stunning triple play against the Reds in the seventh inning with the Pirates holding a one-run lead. "I was flabbergasted," said Cincinnati Third Baseman Pete Rose, who ended up as the third out.
There seems to be no end of surprises by the Pirates' little people. Pagan, who stands 5 feet 9 in his bare cleats, tied one game in the eighth inning with a pinch single, and the next night won a game outright with a pinch double. Manny Mota, an inch taller than Pagan, won a crucial game against the Cardinals. Crucial? This early in the season? Yes, sir. The Pirates had lost to the Cardinals the day before for the 18th straight time at Forbes Field. "We had to prove we could beat them," said Alley. "We had to prove it to them—and to ourselves." Enter Manny Mota. Whack! little Manny hit a triple in the seventh, and that was the end of that nonsense.