“The Pittsburgh Pirates have the best record in baseball”
– USA Today 06/27/2013
I was brought back to my early adolescent years last week. It was Sunday and I was watching our number 5 batter in the late afternoon softball game we were playing. It’s a coed team of mixed abilities defined by enthusiasm for the game and not by age or gender. Our oldest player is about 70 and he’s hitting around .250. I’m 0-3 with with a winning walk-off walk; sort of like Mazeroski without the honest benefit of the hit. The nostalgia came from Ron who had his iPhone up to his ear and eyes – like a 1968 transistor radio – listening to the Pirates play Anaheim. We found ourselves devoting as much attention to their game as to ours.
Barring serious injuries, the Bucs look like they have the legs to keep going. How many of us can allow ourselves the luxury of remembering what a competitive (much less a winning) baseball team is? The Bucs are 51 and 30 as of today, with the best record in baseball, and they’re fun to watch. Don’t discount that; why watch if there’s no entertainment factor? Maybe that’s why I couldn’t abide the Yankees growing up; especially opposite the Mets and the rest of the National league.
I love the poetic geometry of baseball, the importance of fundamentals (how many times couldn’t the Pirates turn a double-play against SF two weeks ago?) the skills and coordination required, and the history – the thousand and one stories we’ve collectively seen ourselves, watched on TV, read about or heard about from our friends, parents, siblings and neighbors. I couldn’t be with Aldrin and Armstrong on the Moon, I didn’t make it to either of President Obama’s inaugurations, but I was there (July, 1977) when Mays, Mantle, Snider and DiMaggio walked in together from Shea Stadium’s center field fence. I can only imagine it’s what the Earps and Doc Holiday looked like going to the OK Corral.
We’ve been doubly blessed this year – the Pirates as a winning club, and the release of “42.” I enjoyed the movie because of who Jackie Robinson was and what he meant to baseball, and also because it brought to life a long-gone era and players who were shop-talk for my brothers, but only history lessons for me. My only gripe about the movie – How do you have a credit blurb for Ralph Branca (one of the good guys who welcomed Robinson to Brooklyn) and not even obliquely mention Bobby Thomson and the 51 pennant?
Even if you don’t like watching the game (you’re a Communist) the lore and history should be able to stand on their own as fine literature. You just need to know who / what to look for.
42 – “In 1946, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) signed Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) to the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking MLB’s infamous color line and forever changing history.”
A Pirate for Life / Steve Blass – “Exploring a pitching career that began with a complete-game victory over Hall of Famer Don Drysdale in 1964 and ended when he could no longer control his pitches, this book details the life of Pittsburgh Pirates great, Steve Blass.”
The Boys of Summer / Roger Kahn – “This is a book about what happened to Jackie, Carl Erskine, Pee Wee Reese, and the others when their glory days were behind them. this is a book about America, about fathers and sons, prejudice and courage, triumph and disaster, told with warmth, humor, wit, candor, and love.”
I Never Had it Made : An Autobiography / Jackie Robinson – “I Never Had It Made recalls Robinson’s early years and influences: his time at UCLA, where he became the school’s first four-letter athlete; his army stint during World War II, when he challenged Jim Crow laws and narrowly escaped court martial; his years of frustration, on and off the field, with the Negro Leagues; and finally that fateful day when Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers proposed what became known as the “Noble Experiment”
Jackie Robinson: A Biography / Arnold Rampershad – “The life of Jackie Robinson is recounted in this biography by Arnold Rampersad, who was chosen by Jack’s widow, Rachel, to tell her husband’s story, and was given unprecedented access to his private papers. We are brought closer than we have ever been to the great ballplayer, a man of courage and quality who became a pivotal figure in the areas of race and civil rights.”
A Moment in Time : An American Story of Baseball, Heartbreak, and Grace / Ralph Branca – “Ralph Branca is best known for throwing the pitch that resulted in Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World,” the historic home run that capped an incredible comeback and won the pennant for the New York Giants in 1951. Branca was on the losing end of what many consider to be baseball’s most thrilling moment, but that notoriety belies a profoundly successful life and career.”
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game / Micahel Lewis – “By re-evaluating the strategies that produce wins on the field, the 2002 Athletics, with approximately US$41 million in salary, were competitive with larger market teams such as the New York Yankees, who spent over US$125 million in payroll that same season. Because of the team’s smaller revenues, Oakland is forced to find players undervalued by the market, and their system for finding value in undervalued players has proven itself thus far.”
October, 1964 / David Halberstam – “The 1964 World Series between the Yankees and Cardinals was coated in myth from the get-go. The Yankees represented the establishment; the victorious Cards were baseball’s rebellious future. Their seven-game barnburner, played out against the Kennedy assassination, the escalating war in Vietnam, and emerging civil rights movement, marked a turning point. Halberstam looks back in this marvelous and spirited elegy to the era, and players such as Mantle, Maris, Ford, Gibson, Brock, and Flood with a clear eye in search of the truth that time has blurred into legend.”
Out of Left Field : Willie Stargell and the Pittsburgh Pirates / Bob Adelman – An “unauthorized” account of the Pirates’ 1973 season, told chiefly through direct interviews with the players. The interviews are more like transcriptions of off-the-cuff tapings. Not only players, but wives, “baseball Annie’s”, agents and management. About 2/3 of the book is comments by the pre-“Pops” Willie Stargell, hence the book’s title. But there’s much more than that. This is the season following the Clemente tragedy, where the team was trying to find itself without their former leader. It was the year the Pirates, despite admittedly underperforming, managed to stay in the pennant race until the end.
The Team That Changed Baseball : Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates / Bruce Markusen – Veteran writer Markusen tells the story of one of the most likable and significant teams in the history of professional sports. In addition to the fact that they fielded the first all-minority lineup in major league history, the 1971 Pirates are noteworthy for the team’s inspiring individual performances, including those of future Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and Bill Mazeroski, and their remarkable World Series victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles.
We Had ‘Em All the Way : Bob Prince and His Pittsburgh Pirates / by Jim O’Brien – Bob Prince, The Gunner, who broadcast the Pirates from the 1950’s through 1975 rooted unashamedly for the Bucs. Like other announcers, he had his pet phrases such as “We have a bug on the rug.” “You can kiss it goodbye. Home run!” “Let’s spread some chicken on the hill with Will.” And, of course, at the end of a close game in which the Pirates were victorious, “We had ’em allll the way.” Bob was Pittsburgh’s answer to the likes of Harry Caray, Vin Scully and Mel Allen. He was colorful, controversial, and a people person.