What a glorious season the Pirates were coming off of in 1965. After a disappointing ’64 campaign, Pittsburgh surprised the baseball world with a 90 wins. The forecast for 1966 was a potential National League championship, and Harry Walker and the boys were up for the challenge.
General Manger Joe L Brown was busy in the off-season trying to put the pieces in place to put the club over the top. He first sent long time Pirate hurler Bob Friend to the Yankees for pitcher Pete Mikkleson. Then in search of a replacement for the retired centerfielder Bill Virdon. Brown sent pitcher Joe Gibbon to the Giants for a little known outfielder by the name of Matty Alou who wasn’t much of a hitter, that is until Walker got a hold of him.
While most thought of the 27 year old as nothing more than a left-handed bat off the bench, The Hat knew he had seen something special and proceeded to work with Alou in spring training to perfect his swing a little. He saw Matty trying to pull the ball and he wanted him to instead push the ball left field. Walker also got him to use a heavier bat and choke up a little more. The results were astounding, what was a .260 hitter in his six year career with the Giants, including .231 in 1965, had now become one of the most lethal hitters in the senior circuit winning the batting title with a .342 average.
There was another man that would compete for the vacant centerfield job in the Steel City by the name of Manny Mota. Although Alou eventually took over the job, Mota still had a spectacular season hitting .332 in 322 at bats.
As many moves as Brown was making, he also was going out of his way to give decent salary rewards for those who were key parts of the Pirate machinery in ’65. One person he was generous to was the great one himself Roberto Clemente. Roberto became the highest paid Buc since Ralph Kiner, but came into spring training with his usual arsenal of maladies, this time including a headache and sore instep.
Clemente and Walker would have a good relationship for various reasons, perhaps the most prevalent being the fact that the Hat respected Roberto and treated him like the superstar he should have always been. The Great one proved to be a worthy while investment winning his one and only MVP award, after a .317-29-119 season, beating the great Sandy Koufax by 10 votes.
On player that management certainly was not excited about as the 1966 season commenced was left fielder Willie Stargell. Coming off knee problems the prior year, Stargell came into spring training weighing 205 pounds, about 10 more than Walker wanted him to. Although the Hat was extremely angry with him, Willie eventually got into playing shape having one of the best overall years of his Hall of Fame career hitting 33 homers, which broke the all time Pirate record for long balls by a lefty, with 102 RBI’s and breaking the .300 barrier with a .315 average.
While the pitching staff would eventually be the downfall of Harry “the Hat” Walker only a year later, in 1966 it would be one of the team’s strength’s. Walker gave complete control of the staff to pitching coach Clyde King. King had a formidable starting rotation to work with led by the fireball hurler Bob Veale.
King felt that Veale had the potential to win 25 games, but tightness in his shoulder in spring training became a concern to the club. The concerns quickly faded as by the end of spring training, Veale had combined on a no-hitter versus the Dodgers and went 16-12 in the regular season with an NL third best 229 strikeouts and a trip to the 1966 all-star game.
The rest of the staff included Vern Law, the former Cy Young Award winner who was coming off a remarkable 1965 campaign which garnered him the Dapper Dan Award as the city of Pittsburgh’s athlete of the year, Steve Blass, rookie Tommy Sisk, whom Walker felt would be a good replacement for the departed Friend and another freshman who went on to be quite a story by the name of Woodie Fryman.
Fryman came to the majors a little differently that most; he was a tobacco farmer. He had tried out for the club six years earlier, but the money Pittsburgh was offering him was less that what he made on his farm which consisted of 12 acres of tobacco, 100 acres of hay, 60 acres of corn to go with his 35 head of dairy cattle.
In July of 1965, the farmer had the urge to try his hand at baseball once again and called Pittsburgh for another shot. They liked what they saw, but gave him only a contract to play with their Batavia team in the New York- Penn league. He quickly rose though the system
and by opening day 1966, had lived his dream in a hurry making the big club.
Woodie had good control and a particularly good fastball and curve ball. His rookie campaign was a success going 12-9 with a 3.81 ERA.
The bullpen was equally as adept led by the master himself Roy Face. Face was 6-6 this season with 18 saves, good for second in the senior circuit. Backing him up were Al McBean, Billy O’Dell, Don Cardwell and the man they got from the Yanks for Bob Friend, Pete Mikkleson. Mikkleson won 9 games for the club, saving 14, giving the Bucs a formidable 1-2 punch to finish off contests, something they would need as through the first 102 games, the team only had 24 complete games, an extremely low figure at the time and finished with only 35 throughout the entire 1966 campaign.
The season began with Veale defeating the Braves in the first official major league game ever played in Atlanta 1-0 in Fulton County Stadium. Unlike a year ago, the team got off to a great start winning 8 of their first 9 and sat 13-5 in first place by May 4th.
As powerful as their offense was, some unlikely forces led them early on. Catcher Jim Paglioroni was hitting an impressive .355 by early June, which proved to be his high water mark as he eventually tumbled all the way down to .231 and shortstop Gene Alley.
By the time 1966 rolled around, Alley was considered the top shortstop in the National League and despite a couple of injuries, twisting his knee while sliding into second on July 17th, and developing what was said to be tennis elbow early in the season, he had his best offensive year ever, hitting .299 while being awarded the Gold Glove.
Alley teamed up with Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski to form one of the most devastating double play combinations in the history of baseball, being the centerpiece of an NL record 215 twin killings over the course of the season. While only hitting .262, Maz showed a burst of power smacking 16 long balls for 82 RBI’s.
Although things were going well on the field, the Great One got himself into a controversy off. Following an 8-7 loss to the Phils in which Philadelphia scored a then record 5 times in the bottom of the 11th to win the game, Clemente was approached by a girl for an autograph as he was boarding the team bus. As Roberto leaned over to sign the ball, out of nowhere someone pushed his shoulder. Seeing the perpetrator, Clemente hit the fan, as Roberto claimed, in self-defense as he saw the fan raise his arm and take a swing at him. The 19-year old fan ended up in the hospital with his front 4 teeth loosened, a Roberto, no worse for the wear, went on his way during his MVP season.
After a small slump where the team dropped to 18-17, in sixth place, the Bucs went on to win 12 of their next 15 games, climbing back up to third. One of the biggest stars during the streak was Mikkleson, who was virtually unhittable. By early June, Pete had appeared in 17 games giving up only 1 run.
While there were several strong offensive players on the team in 1966, their premiere slugger had to be Stargell. The future Hall of Famer, who broke Dale Long’s all time club record for homers by a lefty, had his day in the sun, or das if you will, when he began a streak with a single to left center against the Astros on June 4th, three days later, Stargell hit a grounder against Bob Gibson and the Cards. In between the man they would eventually call Pops, had nine hits in a row, all against Houston, three of them homers, to come within one of the all-time National League record.
By July first, they were in second place only 3 games behind when Fryman pitched perhaps his best game in his career when Pittsburgh shut out the Mets 12-0. Ron Hunt led off the game with a grounder over the mound that Alley got to a fumbled. The official scorer gave Hunt a hit, who was thrown out at second trying to steal. He would be the one Met runner as Fryman shut the door on New York, retiring the last 26 batters to face him. It was Woodie’s third straight shutout.
Things kept going along well at the All-Star break with a 52-33 record, climbing back to within a game of the lead. Offensively, they were incredible as four of the top seven batter in the National League wore Black and Gold Mota, .352, Alou, .338, Stargell, .337 and Clemnete.328, all were among the league leaders. A fourth player, first baseman Donn Clendenon, was also making noise with the club. Clendenon had perhaps his best offensive season ever with 28 homers, 98 RBI’s and a.299 average.
Right after the break, the club defeated the Chicago Cubs 10-4 to pull themselves into first place, a position they would hold until for most of the month until losing both ends of a doubleheader with the Phillies on the last day of the month threw them back into second. Regardless, they kept themselves right in it until the bitter end.
The Bucs took the lead over again on August 4th after beating the Dodgers 8-1 and kept it again, most of August. It was a month that also saw what amounted to a batting practice game against the Reds on August 12th, with the Pirates prevailing 14-11. During the contest, 11 players hit homers, breaking the major league record for homers in an extra inning game. It was a month that also saw third baseman Jose pagan make three errors in an inning, tying the all-time mark in a game against the Mets on the 18th that the Bucs won anyway 9-3.
They held on until back-to-back losses to the Cards on September 10th and 11th, threw them a game behind. The Pirates would not again take the lead the rest of the season as they stayed as close as 1 ½ games, but ended up slipping to third, 3 behind the eventual champion Dodgers.
Despite finishing short of their goal, Brown and Walker were both pleased with the clubs efforts and Joe L would add Dodger great Maury Wills in the off-season to try and push them over the top. Unfortunately, this was to be an end of the run at the NL pennant for this franchise as injuries and a collapsed pitching staff, sent the team down the standings in ’67, costing Walker his job. A job he did very well over the course of his first two seasons, making this club the most feared offensive club in baseball.
By Pirates Encyclopedia
- Al McBean, Bill Mazeroski, Bill Virdon, Billy O'Dell, Bob Friend, Bob Veale, Clyde King, Don Cardwell, Donn Clendenon, Fulton County Stadium, Gene Alley, Harry Walker, Jim Paglioroni, Joe Brown, Joe Gibbon, Manny Mota, Matty Alou, Pete Mikkleson, Ralph Kiner, Roberto Clemente, Ron Hunt, Roy Face, Steve Blass, Tommy Sisk, Willie Stargell, Woodie Fryman