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Some baseball teams become famous for collecting great pitchers, like the Cleveland Indians. Others seem to develop home run hitters in clusters; the Cincinnati Redlegs, for instance. Some come up with hordes of daring, dashing base runners, as the St. Louis Cardinals did a decade or two back.
The Pittsburgh Pirates collect one-syllable names.
There has probably never been a team in the history of baseball with a more impressive assemblage of single-syllable players than the current Pirates. Ruth could have made this team, or Foxx, or Cobb, but Boots Poffenberger would never have had a chance. The Pittsburgh roster, read with the proper sonority and rhythm, sounds like a half-forgotten fragment of Anglo-Saxon poetry, something to befuddle future generations of unlettered freshmen. Just imagine a dedicated professor of early English literature soulfully intoning:
Or Branch Rickey. He'd do wonders with it. You can almost hear Rickey, eyebrows high, his voice strong and full and rolling, each unintelligible monosyllable suddenly fraught with significance for the future: Pirate skills, Pirate victories, Pirate pennants.
Bobby Bragan, who is Mr. Rickey's agent (which is to say, he manages the Pirates, the team Mr. Rickey created), doesn't recite poetry. For him "Churn, Face; King, Kline and Law" are arms and bats, and they don't sing. Bobby does sing, however (and pretty well, too, for an ex-catcher), and he plays a mean parlor piano. But when he sings he has a smile on his face and a tear in his heart, because the Pirates, for all their Chaucerian promise, are a long way from being a good baseball team. Their pitching is thin, their fielding ordinary and their hitting—well, the Pirate batting order most days is a weak imitation of a major league lineup.
The Pirates would probably be a lot worse off if Manager Bragan weren't around. This swarthy, black-haired, black-eyed, chunky little man doesn't have much to work with—just five players of unquestioned major league ability: Pitchers Bob Friend and Ron Kline, Third Baseman Frank Thomas, Outfielders Bill Virdon and Roberto Clemente. But he uses what he has to full advantage. He wastes no opportunities. If Bragan were a salesman and a door were opened an inch to him, his foot would be in, shortly followed by his mouth, and subsequently by a sale. So far as the Pirates are concerned, Bobby is a con man; and he sells them pride.
This may help to explain Bragan's much-publicized feud with New York Giant Manager Bill Rigney. Bragan doesn't have too much admiration for Rigney to begin with, but the basic reason for his down-grading the Giants (he calls them a last-place club, which angers Rigney) is to up-grade the Pirates. Pittsburgh got its foot in the door last year when it finished seventh after four straight years in eighth place. Bragan means to exploit that, and he has already, to the extent that his players are convinced that they are, at worst, a fifth-place team.
This reasoning can apply to Bragan's custom of fining his players picayune amounts for minor infractions of the rules ($5 for reporting late to the park, $10 for failing to throw a pitchout when it was called for, $20 for failing to slide into second base in a crucial moment). The fines aren't much, but they sting a man's pride. And they help spread Bragan's basic idea that this club is too good to condone carelessness; carelessness is for eighth-place clubs.
This theory would work much better if Bragan had some hitters to back up his pitchers. Last spring when Dale Long flared like a nova and hit homers and drove in runs like Mickey Mantle, the Pirates flared with him, and before you knew it they were soaring along on top of the league. Then, like a nova, Long burned out, and the Pirates died with him, subsiding steadily into seventh place. Over the last two-thirds of the season they had the worst record in the league (worse than the Cubs, worse than the Giants). But Bragan, the con man, kept everyone, including the Pirates, from realizing it, with the result that on the last weekend of the season the puerile Pittsburghers nearly upset Brooklyn's pennant cart with their fierce, almost frenzied efforts to win.