The Pirates were coming off a disappointing 80-82 1964 season, but the Hat knew things would be brighter. Superstar Roberto Clemente would have an operation on his thigh to relieve a blood clot, and then would contract a malaria like ailment before the campaign, but the Hat knew things would be brighter. Future Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski would break his foot in a freak spring training injury and not return until May, but the Hat knew things would be brighter. The Bucs would lose 24 of its first 33 games, but the Hat knew things would be brighter.
Who was this incredible optimist with the moniker the Hat, it was Pirates new manager Harry “the Hat” Walker, who took his positive approach to life and gave the franchise the breath of life it hadn’t had since 1962.
Walker was appointed manager after Danny Murtaugh was forced to retire due to illness after the 1964 season. Harry thought the Bucs had what it took to compete even though the “so-called” experts disagreed with him. Before the season began, the experts, as polled by the Sporting News, picked the Bucs to finish 7th in the 10 team National League.
Despite Walker’s positive outlook, things did not go so well for the club in spring training as Clemente was hospitalized in his native Puerto Rico, first for an operation he had to relieve a blood clot in his thigh, then he developed a fever which would be described as a malaria like ailment. It kept the great one out of the line-up until March 27th and led to a very slow start for Roberto.
Mazeroski then hit the injury list when he broke his foot on March 25th. Maz singled, then advanced to third on a hit where he collapsed as he rounded the base with what turned out to be a broken foot. The injury kept Bill out of the lineup until May 19th, forcing shortstop Gene Alley to plat out of position until then.
Add to everything else that young slugger Willie Stargell was coming back from off-season knee surgery and one wondered what Walker was looking at with those rose colored glasses.
Things were so bad that even General Manager Joe L Brown was injured in spring training when he wrecked his car, as he was about to enter a bridge. Brown suffered a broken nose and 20 stitches in his face while his wife would break her pelvis and ankle.
As bad as things were, Walker never wavered from his approach to managing this team. He wanted his team more fit and many came in much lighter than they were a year ago. Joe Gibbon went from 223 to 210, Carl Taylor 225 to 200 while even the thin Roy Face dropped 5 pounds from his 1964 weight of 160. Walker also wanted his team focused on winning, something that his team certainly was not doing in the first part of the season dropping to 9-24, 4 ½ games behind even the lowly Mets.
Eventually Clemente found his stoke, winning the NL batting crown with a .329 average. Maz recovered and Stargell more than got over his knee problems by hitting 20 homers by the June 24th.
With everybody coming back to form, it sent the Pirates on a 12-game winning streak, before taking 26 of their next 30 games. Stargell had a monster game during the streak, hitting three shots in Dodger Stadium on June 24th, missing a record fourth by about a foot.
The bench would be a important part of the turnaround as Gene Freese, who hit .383 at the time of the streak, although finishing .263 before being sent to the White Sox, Andre Rodgers, .364, finishing at .283 and Jerry Lynch, who began his work at his famous Champion Lakes Golf Course with former teammate Dick Groat before the season began, was at .355 at the time of the streak ending at .281, all had a big part in the reverse of the club’s fortunes.
Perhaps the biggest surprise on the offensive end was the emergence of first baseman Donn Clendenon. At the time of the All-star break, Clendenon was hitting .328. While hoping to make the game as a reserve as he as behind Ernie banks and Gerry Coleman in the ballot, he was disappointed when he was left off and vowed to take it out on the rest of the league during the second half of the season.
Clendenon gave Walker credit for his improvement, as the Hat taught him to hit down on the ball and use his speed to reach first base. As appreciative as his was, his relationship with Walker soured later in the year. After Clendenon struck out in a game, he started arguing with Walker, who fined him $100. When Clendenon wouldn’t back off, Harry replaced him with Rodgers to finish the game.
Walker had a system of fine’s, which brought controversy to the players during the campaign. His system would fine players for poor decisions and plays, and upset the club so badly that morale was very low. They were about to have a players only meeting, protesting the system claiming they were afraid to make a mistake. Harry finally relented and scrapped the system.
The hat was a tough taskmaster though. He didn’t smoke or drink and did not want his players to sneak off to dug out to grab a quick smoke or smoke while in uniform as well as not drink to excess.
Pitching coach Clyde King came to a team in which pitching was listed as its number one weakness at the beginning of the season and turned it around, fashioning the league’s second best ERA at 3.02. On of the things he taught the players were to add the slider to their repertoire. Reliever Don Schwall took to the pitch in a big way ending the season 9-6 with a 2.92 ERA.
Al McBean, who won the 1964 Fireman of the Year Award with a 1.90 ERA and 22 saves, was again the big man out of the pen. McBean, who signed for a meager $100 bonus in 1957, added the slider and slow curve getting 18 saves with a miniscule 2.29 ERA.
Perhaps the greatest story of the campaign was the comeback of former Cy Young award winner Vern Law. Law, who hurt his ankle in the celebration of capturing the NL crown in 1960 eventually leading to a shoulder injury due to the ankle injury ruining his mechanics, had not been the same pitcher since.
He started out 1965 losing 5 in a row, mostly because of the lack of offensive support, before reeling off 8 wins in a row ending the year at 17-9 with a magnificent 2.18 ERA, third in the senior circuit. With all the good going for Law, he had a tough moment on September 1st when he felt a twinge in his shoulder during a 2-1 victory against the Dodgers.
Bob Veale and Don Cardwell also had solid seasons with Veale crushing his Pirate record for strikeouts with 276 that included a record 16 against the Phils on June 1st in a 4-0 victory while Cardwell was 13-10 with a 3.19 ERA.
Overall, Walker turned the Bucs into contenders finishing with 90 wins including an 81-48 finish after the 9-24 start only 7 games behind the Dodgers, (and 40 games in front of the lowly Mets). It was a season in the middle of two eras’ as players who led them to the 1960 world championship and those who would eventually take them to another in 1971 led the way. For the time being the Hat was at the head of the class as the Bucs were a team of the past and future.By Pirates Encyclopedia
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- Al McBean, Andre Rodgers, Bill Mazeroski, Bob Veale, Carl Taylor, Clyde King, Danny Murtaugh, Dick Groat, Don Cardwell, Don Schwall, Donn Clendenon, Gene Alley, Gene Freese, Harry Walker, Jerry Lynch, Joe Brown, Joe Gibbon, Roberto Clemente, Roy Face, Vern Law, Willie Stargell