What I Learned From The Pirates

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Before long it was February, in itself as wretched a month as there is in the calendar, but—and what a but—it was the month in which the call went out summoning ballplayers from hibernation. Daily reports from camps in Florida, Arizona, and California—the Pirates generally trained in Paso Robles, I recall—fed us a steady stream of vital information: how the heroes shaped up, what rookies looked promising, the seeming effect of the winter’s trading—in short, all the gossip of the business that could be swapped with one’s fellow maniacs and tolerated for perhaps a minute or two by others.

Once my family had moved east, and beyond the possibility of my ever getting to Forbes Field again, the Pirates appeared at long last to be on the verge of greatness. That was in the spring of 1923, when I was thirteen. Although I was now technically a Brooklynite, it had not for a moment occurred to me to transfer my allegiance to the Dodgers, much less to the Giants. Especially since new Pirate names were in the air and, with them, a stronger-than-ordinary scent of victory.

Living in alien territory and without Pittsburgh papers to keep me healthy with daily doses of rumor about my own team, I was forced to subsist on such scraps of information as could be had from the New York press. Quite incidentally, that reliance must have done something to develop my lifetime addiction to newspapers; even then there was an inevitable spillover of attention from the sports pages to such other intelligence as the doings of the Harding gang and the peccadilloes of Daddy and Peaches Browning. Curiously, I do not recall being at all caught up in the reporting of the Black Sox scandal, which I learned of in 1920 with the trial of the men who had, incredibly, thrown a World Series for cash. Maybe my interest was limited because they were let off for lack of evidence, even though the newly installed commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, sternly banished them from organized baseball. Or it may be that since the knavery occurred in the American League and the Pirates were in the National, the whole thing was academic to my provincial soul. Or, most likely, I relegated the episode to my subconscious, unwilling to believe that even a tiny handful of heroes might turn crook.

Millions of other fans must have felt the same, because the 1920s were baseball’s golden age. How could it have been otherwise with a galaxy that included Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and George Sisler; Pie Traynor, Rogers Hornsby, and Lou Gehrig; not to mention slightly lesser gods like Dazzy Vance, Zack Wheat, Kiki Cuyler, Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Frankie Frisch. And, towering above the field, radiating by himself a light bright enough to obscure the deeds of the Black Sox and lesser villainies, the gargantuan, one-of-a-kind Babe Ruth.

Inevitably I shared in the nationwide worship of the Babe and only wondered why the unfathomable gods should have wasted him on the wrong team in the wrong league. Besides, by then I had not long to wait for the Pirates not only to boast of colorful sluggers of their own but to come finally to glory. They fielded two World Series teams in the twenties, beating the Washington Senators 4 games to 3 in 1925, and two years later taking a trouncing from the hated Yankees, 4 games to 0. That was the Series in which Miljus, the Pirate pitcher, struck out both Gehrig and Bob Meusel in the bottom of the ninth, only to throw the game away, literally, with a wild pitch that allowed Earle Combs to scoot home from third with the winning run.

For thirty-two years after that the Pirates appeared in no World Series and won no pennants. Through much of the forties and fifties they were settled in at a level ranging from mediocre to lowly, losing in one of those years an unbelievable 112 games out of 154. The great days of Traynor, the Waners, and Cuyler were history; the glorious uprising of 1960, featuring Bill Virdon, Dick Groat, and the brilliant Roberto Clemente, was short-lived, and the renaissance of the seventies, with the “family” spirit generated by Willie Stargell, was still far in the future.

Inevitably I shared in the nationwide worship of the Babe and only wondered why the gods should have wasted him on the wrong team in the wrong league.

Meanwhile, Pirate fans drew what comfort they could from the team’s own home-run hitter, Ralph Kiner, the pitching of Bob Friend, and for one brief season the excitement of Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg. After his resplendent career in Detroit, the Tigers ungraciously let him go to Pittsburgh, which was so glad to have him that the management moved in a wall of Forbes Field to accommodate his hitting habits. The spot was known as Greenberg Gardens, but after a season Greenberg retired from baseball, as he had warned, leaving us Pirate fans to do what we always did best —wait ‘til next decade.