JIM DAVIS: Recalling the Pirates of Old
A few days ago, I was playing golf with a good friend of mine, Harry Hillgrove. Harry is a very nice golfer and a true gentleman, but what sets him apart from most people here in Pinehurst is the fact that as far as I know, he's the only rabid Pittsburgh Pirate fan in town besides me.
If you are unfamiliar with the 2009 version of Major League Baseball, let me just say that this year's Pittsburgh Pirates have set a record for futility. They are now in the throes of their 17th straight losing season, and no team in baseball has ever done that.
Harry used to live in Pittsburgh. He and I were together in a golf cart for about four hours, and when we weren't complaining about the height of the grass on Course No. 1, we were telling each other stories about the good old days, when the Pirates weren't just respectable, they actually won some World Championships.
My love story with the Pirates began in 1947, when the little radio station in Huntingdon, Pa., began to carry the Pittsburgh games. It opened up a whole new world for kids who had never seen a major league game. We became instant fans.
That was the year they bought Hank Greenberg, the big Detroit slugger, and assigned him the job of teaching young Ralph Kiner to hit the long ball. Greenberg did his job well, because Kiner's home run production jumped from 23 in 1946 to 51 in 1947, and he led the league for the next six years.
When we were in high school, after class three or four of us would drive three hours to Pittsburgh, watch the game, and arrive home after midnight. We did this a couple of times a week until our parents put a stop to it.
This was long before the era of Roberto Clemente and Vernon Law. The players I watched were Cully Rikard, Fritz Ostermueller, Whitey Wietelmann, Romanus Basgall, and Clyde Kluttz.
The Pirates were firmly ensconced in last place, but we loved them and their quirky radio announcer, Rosey Rowswell. Rosey didn't travel with the team, but his re-creations of away games were hilarious.
Things began to change for the Pirates in the 1950s under the control of two general managers. They were Branch Rickey, the baseball genius who brought Jackie Robinson to the major leagues, and Joe L. Brown, son of the famous old movie comedian, Joe E. Brown. Rickey developed a productive farm system, and Brown made some of the most astute trades in Pirate history.
Finally, in 1960, everything came together. Homegrown players on that team were Dick Groat, Bill Mazeroski, Bob Skinner, Vernon Law, Bob Friend, and ElRoy Face. Trades brought in Smoky Burgess, Don Hoak, Harvey Haddix and Bill Virdon.
A strange deal brought Roberto Clemente from the Brooklyn farm team in Montreal. That Pirate team won the National League Pennant and beat the fearsome New York Yankees in one of the wildest World Series ever. (Marilyn and I were in the stands at Forbes Field when Bill Mazeroski hit the home run that won the World Series for Pittsburgh.)
After that wonderful year, the Pirates won two National League pennants, two World Series and four division titles. Then came 1993 and beyond. Disaster struck. Bad trades, terrible drafts, losses to free agency, and the drying up of the farm system all resulted in the awful teams of the past 17 years.
Lately, the Pirates have been driving fans like Harry and me crazy by developing star players and trading them away because, management says, they are too expensive.
So Harry Hillgrove and I sat in our golf cart and commiserated with each other about the fate of our beloved Pirates. And it was very sad.
Excuse me, but I have to go now. I want to check the scores.
Contact Pinehurst writer Jim Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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