Dick Groat vividly recalls the moment he realized the Pirates could beat the heavily favored Yankees in the 1960 World Series.
It was the top of the ninth inning of Game 1 at Forbes Field, and the Pirates were clinging to a 6-4 lead with one out, one on and the potential tying run at the plate.
“I can remember being at shortstop in the ninth inning of the first game,” Groat said. “A ground ball was hit to Maz (Bill Mazeroski). He came up with it, gave me a perfect throw, and I turned the double play. As soon as I released the ball I said, ‘We can beat these guys!’ and I can remember it as if it happened an hour ago.”
But a lot of strange, wonderful and miraculous things were about to take place between that moment and the one in which Mazeroski hit the dramatic series-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7. There were many gut-wrenching twists and turns before the wild finish, arguably the greatest moment in Pittsburgh sports history.
Tuesday will mark the 60th anniversary of Mazeroski’s heroic homer, which occurred at exactly 3:36 p.m. at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. It is perhaps rivaled in prominence only by the Steelers’ Immaculate Reception at Three Rivers Stadium in 1972, which didn’t result in a championship.
“When I lived (in Hempfield), every time I went out, somebody would ask about it,” said Mazeroski, 84, who has moved to the Philadelphia area. “It’s never gotten too bad. I’ve never gotten overwhelmed with it. It’s just that people keep bringing it up. But I’m quite comfortable with it.”
As the 1960 season went along, the Pirates’ confidence grew as they piled up come-from-behind wins.
The most dramatic of these occurred in the nightcap of an Easter Sunday doubleheader at Forbes Field with the Cincinnati Reds. The Pirates trailed 5-0 in the bottom of the ninth but rallied to win 6-5 with a three-run pinch-hit homer by Hal Smith and a two-run walk-off shot by Bob Skinner, who was down to his last strike.
“That’s when most of us decided we can win this whole thing,” Groat said.
“We came from behind so many times that year that it was unbelievable,” backup catcher Bob Oldis said. “Somebody always got a big hit in the seventh or eighth inning, whether it was Groat, Skinner or (Roberto) Clemente. They knew what they had to do to win.”
The 1960 Pirates also had camaraderie.
“You couldn’t ask for better chemistry than we had. We had pretty much grown up together,” Groat said. “We had more fun. We enjoyed one another.”
Ace relief pitcher Roy Face said guys would often hang out in the clubhouse after games.
“I had a guitar in the clubhouse, and we sat around and sang country songs once in a while after games and had a couple beers,” said Face, who ended up booking a gig with Smith on Perry Como’s NBC-TV show after the World Series.
Injured but dedicated
On the field, the team was consistent. The Pirates had only two four-game losing streaks in 1960. They ended up winning 95 games and losing 59 and clinched their first pennant in 33 years Sept. 25 in Milwaukee, finishing seven games ahead of the second-place Braves.
The Pirates were led by two players who had extraordinary seasons: Groat won the batting title with a .325 average and was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player, and pitcher Vernon Law won 20 games and the Cy Young Award.
But both star players were injured in September. Groat, a Pittsburgh native, was out for most of the month after a Lew Burdette pitch broke his left wrist in a game with the Braves, and there was concern he might not be healthy enough to play in the World Series. Groat wouldn’t hear of it and, despite the pain he was experiencing, said he never discussed it with Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh.
“If I swung at a bad pitch, the pain in my wrist was enough to make you want to scream,” Groat said. “But remember, this is my hometown. I grew up here, and I didn’t want Murtaugh to know that it still hurt. I wanted to play in the World Series in my hometown.”
Law was hurt in the pennant celebration in Milwaukee through no fault of his own. A devout Mormon who doesn’t drink or smoke, Law made sure to avoid the clubhouse party and board the team bus for the airport early. But his teammates caught up with him.
“The guys were still celebrating when they got on the bus,” Law said. “They were ripping shirts off of guys and cutting their ties, and five guys came over and picked me up, and one of the guys grabbed my foot. He was trying to take my shoe off, and I stiffened up my ankle, and then I heard something pop.”
Law had a pulled tendon in his right ankle that caused considerable pain. In order to pitch in the World Series, he had to tape the ankle and alter his pitching motion.
“It kept me from really pushing off of the mound with my back foot like I normally did, so I just kind of fell forward and made up the velocity with arm and hand speed.”
Confidence in the dugout
In Game 2 at Forbes Field, the Yankees piled up runs to beat the Pirates emphatically, 16-3. The series shifted to Yankee Stadium in New York for Game 3, with the Yankees prevailing over the Pirates, 10-0, to take a 2-1 lead in the series. The Bronx Bombers had scored 30 runs in the first three games.
If Pittsburgh fans were losing hope, the players were not.
“We weren’t happy about it,” center fielder Bill Virdon said, “but we didn’t lose any confidence.”
“We got our head handed to us, no doubt about it,” Groat said. “But it was better than losing a close game because there’s no second guessing. We read about the Yankees. We knew how much power they had.”
“They did whip us pretty bad,” Mazeroski said. “The way I thought about it was they scored so many runs, they can’t keep scoring like that, and they didn’t.”
As he had done during the season when the Pirates were on a losing streak, Law became the stopper. In Game 4, he pitched into the seventh inning, allowing only two runs, and Face pitched 2 scoreless innings to get the save in a critical 3-2 victory to even the series.
The next day, Harvey Haddix equaled Law’s performance by also pitching into the seventh and allowing only two runs, and Face again got the save in a 5-2 win. The series went back to Pittsburgh with the Pirates leading three games to two.
Fans hoping to see the Pirates clinch the series in Game 6 at Forbes Field were sorely disappointed. The Yankees drubbed the Pirates again, 12-0, to even the series and set the stage for one of the most exciting World Series games ever played.
“Game 7 was the craziest one I ever played in,” Virdon said.
The luck and grit of Game 7
Things looked good early for the Pirates. Law was on the mound trying for his third win of the series, and the Bucs raced to a 4-0 lead after two innings.
But the lead would change hands four times before the game was over.
Law gave up a run in the fifth, and after he allowed a single by Bobby Richardson and walked Tony Kubek to start the sixth, Murtaugh became concerned about Law’s performance. Murtaugh went out to the mound, determined to take him out of the game.
“I said, ‘Skip, I’m OK. I’ve been able to work out of trouble. I’ll get out of this,’ ” Law said. “He said, ‘Well, I’ve made up my mind.’ You didn’t change Danny’s mind. He made up his mind to bring Elroy in.”
Even though it was a little early in the game to bring in the closer, the move made sense. Face had established himself as baseball’s premier reliever and was having a great World Series with three shutdown appearances that all resulted in saves. He had a cool, confident air about him, often having to be awakened from clubhouse naps during games.
“I used to sit in the bullpen in the late innings, and there were games that I would hope the guy would get a hit so I could go in there. I wouldn’t say it to anybody else, but that’s the feeling I had,” Face said. “It sounds cocky, but that’s the faith I had in myself.”
Face allowed four runs over three innings, including a three-run homer by Yogi Berra, and the Yankees took a 7-4 lead into the bottom of the eighth.
But the Pirates staged a thrilling rally that included timely hitting and at least one very lucky bounce. After a leadoff single by pinch-hitter Gino Cimoli, Virdon stepped up and hit what appeared to be a routine grounder to Kubek at short.
“I was on deck when Bill hit that ground ball and I said ‘Oh, s___!’ Excuse the language, but it was a tailor-made double-play ball,” Groat said. “It took a bad hop and hit Tony right in the throat. And from that point, everything worked out.”
Kubek had to leave the game with runners on first and second and nobody out. Groat came up and tried to hit to the opposite field against lefty Bobby Shantz. After fouling several pitches off, Groat stepped out of the batter’s box.
“I said to myself, ‘If he’s going to make you pull it, pull it and hit it hard and hope it finds a hole.’ ”
It did. Groat singled to score a run, and the comeback was on. Two outs later, Clemente hit a run-scoring infield single to cut the Pirates’ deficit to one run. Up came Smith, who provided the most dramatic moment of the game to that point by hitting a three-run homer to left to give the Pirates a 9-7 lead.
The 36,683 fans at Forbes Field were going crazy. “Forbes Field is an outdoor insane asylum,” is how play-by-play announcer Chuck Thompson described the scene on NBC Radio.
The Pirates were three outs away from beating the mighty Yankees.
But in the top of the ninth, New York scored two runs to tie the game, 9-9. Understandably, the tension returned as the Pirates dealt with the emotional letdown.
“I came in (to the dugout) and sat down and said, ‘Holy cow, what the hell happened here?’ ” Mazeroski said. “I forget I was on deck when the last out was made in the eighth, so I was leading off the ninth. And I was just sitting there wondering how in the world we’re going to pull this thing out. And then somebody said, ‘Maz, you’re up!’ And I said, ‘Ooooh yeah, I forgot about that.’ ”
Fortunately for the Pirates, Maz hadn’t forgotten how to hit.
“I just went up to the plate saying to myself, ‘I gotta hit the ball hard somewhere. I got to get on base,’ ” Mazeroski said. “The first pitch (from Yankees hurler Ralph Terry) was high, and I took it for a ball. The next pitch he got down a little bit, and I hit it good. I knew I hit it good, but I wasn’t sure it was going to go out, so I was busting my tail around first base. When the umpire gave the home run signal, well, I don’t think I touched the ground all the way around from second base.”
And then Maz did something he said was very uncharacteristic.
“I just couldn’t believe that we beat them, and I went kind of goofy. I was always a relaxed player and never showed off, no antics or nothing. I can’t believe that I was jumping around like I was. I almost embarrassed myself when I looked at the film, seeing me waving my hat. I didn’t do things like that. I just played the game and didn’t want to show anybody up. But it was just natural. Holy cow! It was amazing.”
It remains the only time the seventh game of the World Series ended with a walk-off home run. The final score was Pirates 10, Yankees 9. Pittsburgh had its first championship since 1925, and Downtown exploded in a celebration on that sunny Thursday afternoon of Oct. 13.
The memories never fade
Asked whether he would make the same decision to pitch through the pain if he had it to do over again, Law didn’t hesitate: “Yes, I would,” he said.
Mazeroski would go on to play 12 more seasons with the Pirates and earn a spot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for being arguably the best defensive second baseman in Major League history.
It’s a memory that this aging group of ballplayers seems to enjoy reliving.
“That was the best experience I ever had,” said Virdon, who became the Pirates’ manager in 1972.
“So many things that happened that year are so fresh in our minds, and they stay there right to the end of your life,” Groat said.
It’s also a memory longtime Pirates fans will never forget.