A young boy’s summer rite of passage and a memorable World Series are recalled on their fiftieth anniversaries.
Memories are the vacations of the mind. They take us to snow-capped mountains glistening in the morning sun and to the high anxiety of the roulette table. They gape with us at skyscrapers that touch the clouds and gasp with us at the majesty of canyons carved from stone.
They evoke smiles for the happy times and heartache for the sadness we will never forget.
Occasionally, they bequeath us a convergence of more than one; a double play that reminds us how varied life can be.
Saturday, July 2nd, 1960: a day lost to the sands of time, save for those who celebrate a birthday or a wedding anniversary, or recalled for a loved one’s passing. It was the first day of an extended holiday weekend and America would celebrate its Independence Day with a new birth, of sorts, as the nation’s first fifty-star flag was hoisted for the first time over Fort McHenry.
The Cold War was raging in 1960 and America’s Space Race against the Soviet Union would soon escalate with a bold challenge to land a man on the moon by decade’s end. The year would witness the election of a new president as John F. Kennedy, the Democrat, and Richard M. Nixon, the Republican, vied for the White House. The Civil War centennial was less than a year away, and the observance of the bloody war that divided our nation segued to another war that would sear the conscience of America in a faraway land called Vietnam. In July, the Ohio Art Company premiered its Etch A Sketch, one of America’s classic baby boomer toys, and a Woolworth Company lunch counter in North Carolina would serve its first black customer. In early September, workers struck the Pennsylvania Railroad for the first time and on October 13th, Bill Mazeroski’s home run in the bottom-of-the-ninth of the Seventh Game gave the Pittsburgh Pirates their first World Series championship in thirty-five years.
There was a riot on July 2nd at the Newport Jazz Festival, a curious occurrence at the time but an omen for the tumultuous decade to follow and one that would conclude with a more notorious, and deadly, concert at Altamont, California on December 6th, 1969. The number one song on the Billboard Top 40 was Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool by Connie Francis and Gunsmoke was number one in the Nielsen television ratings.
I was a seven-year-old boy then, soon to be eight, and unmindful of events that swirled around me. It was summer vacation and that meant baseball and swimming and playing in the woods and staying up late at night. My boyhood days were spent on my grandparent’s small farm where adventure always beckoned. I can never forget the smell of the plum trees near the pasture, pungent and ripe, and of sipping the ice cold water from a nearby spring. At night, I would climb to the hay-covered loft of the big, old barn. Sometimes it rained, and the patter of the raindrops was sure to lull me to a most peaceful sleep. The cows and the chickens I called friends, and Blackie, our Airedale, was always there to lend a sympathetic ear. My life was bliss, save for a certain rooster who guarded the henhouse. It was his kingdom and he seemed to take cruel delight in chasing me from it. Unfortunately, he met a tragic demise and I’ll say only that I had little taste for it.
That Saturday in July 1960 was memorable because I experienced an American boyhood Rite of Passage: the Pittsburgh Pirates were hosting the Los Angeles Dodgers in an afternoon game at venerable Forbes Field and my dad was taking me to my first Major League baseball game!
My father was in the dry cleaning business and occasionally on those carefree, summer days I would ride with him as he delivered crisply pressed and sweet smelling clothing. Thoughtful and personable, and born with the gift for gab, my father was fond of aphorisms, one of his favorites being “you make your future when you’re young” (something I learned a bit late in life). A voracious reader, he instilled in me the love of the written word.
There were four of us going to the game including my Uncle Jack and his son, Jeff, my favorite cousin, who would be seeing his first ball game, too. Uncle Jack was a railroad man; ever the good-natured practical joker, he was soft-spoken with a mischievous glint in his eye and a crack poker player. Jeff and I were the same age and whether it was catching baseball or playing army (throwing clods of dirt made for great play-grenades), we always had fun.
My father lost the coin toss and was bestowed the “honor” of driving to the game. We endured the twin terrors of Pittsburgh’s Parkway East and the Squirrel Hill Tunnel in style, riding in a red ’57 Chevy that my Uncle Johnny had graciously allowed us to use. Our next stop would be Forbes Field.
Forbes Field was still Pittsburgh’s crown jewel in 1960. Opened on June 30th, 1909, it was located in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, and was bordered by Schenley Park. The ballpark was named for John Forbes, a British general in the French and Indian War, who captured the French stronghold of Fort Duquesne and later renamed it Fort Pitt. Spacious and with ivy-covered walls, it measured 457 feet at its deepest point in left-centerfield. In 1935, Babe Ruth hit his last three home runs there as a member of the Boston Braves. Dubbed the “House of Thrills” by Pirates play-by-play announcer, Bob Prince, it hosted four World Series, an unassisted triple play, and stood proud to the end, never allowing a no-hitter.
I have only vague recollections of my first view of the old ballpark. There were the light standards, tall and imposing, and even intimidating, like giant extraterrestrials from an H.G. Wells novel. Staring at the ballpark’s façade, constructed of concrete and steel, and covered by a red-tinted roof, I became skeptical. This couldn’t be a ballpark, I thought; it must be some old building. There is one memory that I’ll always have, though: there were 21,496 fans in attendance that day, and I was one of them!
Once inside the ballpark, we passed vendors hawking game programs, food and drink concessions (there was always time for a soda pop or an Iron City beer), and souvenir stands crammed with more Pirate regalia than one could imagine. The ballpark was alive with the hum of people and the pleasing aromas of hotdogs, popcorn and peanuts.
As we walked the ramp to the right field line, the wonder of all that I had witnessed exceeded my anticipation for the game ... and then it happened!
Entering our section on the second tier, the panorama of Forbes Field exploded before my eyes. The effect that this vista had upon me is similar to the one that nighttime drivers experience as they exit Pittsburgh’s Fort Pitt Tunnel for the first time: downtown Pittsburgh, its skyscrapers and bridges bursting into view, the city’s lights reflecting from the Monongahela River like millions of glittering diamonds set against a polished onyx background.
I was thunderstruck by the view that greeted me. I had never experienced a green so green, and the infield, the “alabaster plaster”, was the most perfect shade of tan. Just beyond me stood the right field screen and the roof that protected it, an eighty-six feet high monolith that the Babe first conquered with his last home run.
I was frozen in place in a moment that will always be frozen in time ... my time. Thankfully, my father came to the rescue and we climbed the steps to our seats just in time to watch some pre-game catch.
Warming up near the first base line were the Pirates, who had held first place for most of the season. The cream-color of their classic vest home uniforms contrasted nicely with the black sleeves and the black caps with that distinctive gold Pirates “P”. Pirates’ uniforms have run the gamut from the tasteful to the garish (see the late Seventies), but the Bucco’s uniform of the Sixties remains my favorite.
Across the diamond were those men in gray. I knew very little about the Los Angeles Dodgers, although they were the defending World Champions, but I was enraptured by the blue of their road uniforms. It was the brightest and friendliest blue I had ever seen and it begged to reach out and shake my hand: “Welcome to the game today, young man. We’re proud to be the opponents in your first major league baseball game.” The Dodgers were the Bad Guys, though, and a team to be thrashed on the way to the pennant.
Right-hander, Tom Cheney, took the mound for the Pirates. Obtained in a December, 1959 trade with the St. Louis Cardinals, Cheney would receive a very special gift in October as he celebrated his 26th birthday the day after the Seventh Game of the 1960 World Series.
As anticipation stirred the crowd, the Pirates took the field and my father pointed in the direction of first baseman Dick Stuart.
I suppose I was an unusual kid in 1960. It seemed that every boy pretended to be Bill Mazeroski or Roberto Clemente, Dick Groat or Don Hoak. Those who could pitch, mostly because they were big, and, compared to me, that was just about every kid, were small-fry versions of Vernon Law, Bob Friend or Elroy Face. I was proud to say that my favorite Pirate was Dick Stuart.
“Big Stu”, as I called him, seemed larger than life, tall and powerful and with a perpetual smile. Though stricken with the nickname, “Dr. Strangeglove”, because of his iron mitt, he looked like a real ballplayer and he could hit home runs and, to me, every homer he ever hit was a game winner. Although I was a shrimp of a lad, barely able to swing the bat let alone blast one over some distant wall, I was always Dick Stuart and, besides, I was a better fielder, though I never would have told him.
Before departing for the game, my aunt had suggested that I yell “Hey Big Stu, go dunk your nose”. While I found this to be somewhat odd, wouldn’t you know that shortly before the first pitch and with my cousin’s goading, I introduced myself to the world of Major League Baseball by screaming: “Hey Big Stu, go dunk your nose.” My cousin laughed, spitting popcorn from his mouth, but I was embarrassed, realizing that I had just insulted my favorite Pirate!
My embarrassment morphed to confusion after the first pitch of the game. Where was he? Where was Bucco announcer Bob Prince? Having listened to Pirates games on the radio for most of the season, I was ready for some play-by-play and demanded to know why I couldn’t hear it. My father, by then likely worried that he had failed in my upbringing, smiled and said that we had to follow the game on our own.
I have fond memories of Bob Prince, the “Gunner” and his sidekick, Jim Woods, the “Possum”, who teamed on the Bucs radio and television broadcasts through the 1969 season. The “Gunner’s” calls of “a bloop and a blast”, “kiss it goodbye” and “we had ‘em all the way” resounded from radio station KDKA and were as much a staple of those humid summer nights, lounging on the front porch, as fireflies and a cold Lemon Blennd.
Tom Cheney and the Pirates survived the top of the first after Junior Gilliam and Wally Moon walked to lead-off the game. Following a sacrifice bunt from Norm Larker that put both in scoring position, Frank Howard and Don Demeter struck out to end the threat. The strikeouts would serve as a portent for Cheney who, as a member of the Washington Senators in 1962, struck out a record twenty-one batters in a sixteen inning victory against the Baltimore Orioles.
In the home-half of the first inning, The Pirates faced the Dodgers’ starting pitcher, Stan Williams. In his third year with Los Angeles, “Big Daddy” stood 6’ 5”, and the right-hander would finish the year with a fine 14-10 record and a 3.00 E.R.A.
Lead-off hitter, Bill Virdon, the Buc’s centerfielder, struck out swinging and shortstop, Dick Groat, the National League Batting Champion and MVP in 1960, fouled out. After leftfielder, Bob Skinner, tripled to right field, clean-up hitter Dick Stuart strode to the plate.
Time has erased whatever emotions were flooding my young veins as my Mighty Casey tapped home plate, but his base hit that scored Skinner must have sent me to my own seven-year-old heaven. My first game and Big Stu had driven in the first Pirate run! All the nickel packs of Topps baseball cards in the world couldn’t have made me happier than I was at that moment. Way to go, Stu!
This was going to be so much fun; one inning gone and the Bucs were already winning 1-0. Sadly, the first inning would be the Pirates high tide. Finding his stride, Williams would limit the Bucs to only two more hits: a Groat single in the third and catcher Smokey Burgess’s two-out double in the seventh. I wonder if Mr. Williams sleeps well knowing that his efforts ruined my first big league game.
In the third inning, the Dodgers tied the game when Junior Gilliam scored after Norm Larker grounded into a double play. What a cheap way to score, I must have thought; the Buccos scored their run like real Big Leaguers.
In the top of the fourth inning, I would munch on my words as Los Angeles took the lead for good, scoring two runs on a Gilliam sacrifice fly and a single by Wally Moon. Smelling blood, the Dodgers heaped humiliation upon me by scoring three runs in the eighth, the final two on a triple to deep center by Moon. One of my strongest memories of the game is watching a baseball soaring to the deepest part of centerfield. While I’ll never know who hit it, I have always believed that it was Wally Moon’s nail-in-the-coffin triple.
With two out in the bottom of the ninth, Dick Stuart batted for the fourth time. Not So Mighty Casey ended the game, called out on strikes for the second time. Hey, Big Stu, go dunk your nose, indeed. The Pirates had lost my first game, 6-1.
I still have the program from that game, unscored and neatly preserved. Thanks, mom. I have the ticket stub, too. It’s just a small piece of green cardboard with my seat location: Section 210, Row G, Seat 5 and with the admission price of $2.50 (that’s $17.90 today). It’s a 1960 version of a microchip programmed with memories.
My only souvenir from the game was a Pirates bobblehead doll with the body of a ballplayer and the head of a gruff buccaneer. It lived on a shelf for years until crashing to the floor, its head severed from the rest of the body as if guillotined. Perhaps the poor thing was clairvoyant and took a mournful leap, knowing that it could never endure the record eighteen consecutive losing seasons currently held by this once proud Pirates franchise.
On Thursday, October 13th 1960, I was attending the third grade at the local parochial school. Judging from those I have spoken to, I must have been the only kid in the Pittsburgh area to have trudged to school that autumn day and not played hooky to watch the seventh game of the World Series on TV; but I remember a packed classroom that exploded with cheers at word of Bill Mazeroski’s home run over the left-centerfield wall.
Whenever I think of that day I recall a time when baseball was about trading and flipping baseball cards and spitting in your glove and picking sides (I was usually last) and wiffle balls and a transistor radio by your side while you slept on a school night and ballparks that were named for the handiworks of God’s creation or for heroes, too, real heroes. We could watch ball games on television and not be distracted by annoying corporate logos superimposed behind home plate.
Baseball has always been about money but something innocent, something pure, has been lost.
Innocence isn’t lost on the ball diamond or the front office; in the newspapers or on the television screen. It’s lost in the minds and the hearts of those who love the Game the most. Looking back, I realize that I lost some of my innocence on that July day. The green was never as green, again; the blue, never as friendly.
After the 1962 season, Big Stu was traded to the Boston Red Sox where he would become the first player to garner thirty home runs and one-hundred RBIs in a season in both leagues and earn a more dubious distinction in 1963 by committing a record twenty-nine errors at first base.
On June 28th 1970, Forbes Field hosted its last games as the Pirates swept a doubleheader from the Chicago Cubs. One of the ballpark’s few vestiges remains in Schenley Park: a portion of the left centerfield wall that once stood in silent salute to a baseball that flew over it and landed in the history books and the hearts of the good people of Western Pennsylvania.
Fifty years is a sigh in the Parade of Ages, but it is a long time in anyone’s life. So much has changed since that Saturday afternoon.
We lost Roberto Clemente on New Year’s Eve, 1972. His final act was one of compassion for his fellow man. “Arriba, Arriba.”
The Pirates battery for my first game, pitcher Tom Cheney and Smokey Burgess, catcher and pinch-hitter extraordinaire, are deceased as are eight other players from that team.
In 2002, I said goodbye to Dick Stuart. Big Stu was on deck in the bottom-of-the-ninth of Game Seven of the ’60 World Series and I suppose that I would have been unbearable if he had hit the Series winner instead of Mazeroski. Still my favorite Pirate, I’ll always believe that every homer he ever hit was a game-winner.
Of the four of us who attended the game, I’m the only one left. My uncle died after a courageous battle against cancer. My cousin, so athletic and popular, would grow to be the epitome of sixties era Cool. Gone much too soon, he’s still cooler than I’ll ever be. My father, always the thinker, succumbed to a stroke at age seventy-eight. I think of him often, and as my years drift by I realize how wise he was. I wish he was here so I could tell him how much I’ve learned from him, knowing that there will be more lessons along the way.
I’m sure they gathered, above, and raised a toast to the game, sipping some heavenly brew too delicious for us to comprehend.
Now, it’s time that I raise one.
Here’s to Bill Mazeroski, who hit the greatest home run of them all, and to Hal Smith, too. Without Smith’s three-run homer in the eight inning of the seventh game, Mazeroski might be celebrated as just a great second baseman.
Here’s to Groat and Roberto, Bob Friend and the Deacon, Vernon Law, and Elroy Face, who saved three games in the Series and the Kitten, Harvey Haddix, winner of Game Seven.
I’ll remember Gino Cimoli, who defined that World Series better than any sportswriter ever did: “They broke all the records and we won the game”… and all the other members of the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates: World Champions and the greatest Yankee Killers of them all!
I’ll tip my hat to Stan Williams and those dastardly Dodgers. It’s been fifty years and it’s time to let bygones be. Junior and Wally (you just had to go four for four that day), Demeter and Larker, you are hereby forgiven, though I shall not forget.
I’ll raise one to the four of us and especially to my father. Hey, dad, put in a good word for today’s Pirates. Surely He knows how much help they need. Till we meet again.
Lest I be remiss, I’ll hoist one to Big Stu, as well. After all, there aren’t any runs or hits in heaven…and no errors, too.
Beat ‘em Bucs.
Note: My thanks to Retrosheet.org for the
July 2nd, 1960 box score and game recap.
If you died today, are you absolutely certain that you would go to heaven? You can be! TRUST JESUS NOW
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