Despite the fact that the Pirates, turned what was supposed to be a return trip to the fall classic into a very embarrassing campaign in 1967, GM Joe L Brown still felt the club had the core players to make a run at the senior circuit pennant in 1968. What he needed to find was a pitcher to stop the bleeding on the mound, what he got was a future hall of fame hurler from the Phils in the form of Jim Bunning.
Even though Bunning was about to turn 36, he was still at the top of his game, despite a 17-15 record in 1967. That year, the future Kentucky US Congressman, lost a major league record 5 one run games all the while, finishing third in the league in wins and second in ERA with a miniscule 2.29 mark. For his efforts, Bunning finished second in the league for the Cy Young Award voting. The trade prompted the Pirates new manager Larry Shepard, who had been a pitching coach in Philadelphia when he was named to replace Danny Murtaugh, to predict a pennant for the club.
The idea was that with the potent Pittsburgh offense, Jim would finally have the support he deserved and have a huge season. When he shutout the Dodgers on the fourth game of the season, 3-0, his 40th career shutout, Brown’s move looked to be a very wise one, even though it cost him three fine prospects including Don Money and 1966’s surprise pitcher Woody Fryman. By the end of 1968, injuries to his groin, ankle and hip led Bunning to win only 3 more games, one after May 6th, as he came in with his worst major league season to date with a 4-14 record.
It was injuries such as Bunning’s as well as several others that turned Shepard’s dream of becoming a major league manager, into as frustrating and unsatisfying venture.
Besides Bunning, Roberto Clemente came into camp with an injured shoulder that he hurt in a fall at his home. Nobody thought it was serious at the beginning, but it continued to bother the great one during the season as he was hitting only .222 on June 1st before improving to .291.
All-star shortstop Gene Alley also hurt his shoulder and played with the pain all year causing him to throw underhand in the field. The injury hurt his hitting as well as he was only at .217 by July 1st before eventually finishing at a poor.245 average. Bill Mazeroski and Willie Stargell were also plagued by the injury bug at one point and time throughout the year along with young shortstop Freddie Patek, who was injured via a fastball on the wrist from Hall of Famer Don Drysdale. Stargell, for his part, had the biggest offensive game of the year by a Pirate when he smacked 3 homers and drove in 7in a 13-6 win on May 22nd.
The injury bug also hit the pitching staff, as Bunning was not the only hurler to go down. Starter Tommy Sisk twisted his ankle and never was able to recover from it finishing only 5-5.
With all the injuries going on, there were some positive things that happened to the Bucs in 1968. Purchasing reliever Ron Kline, who earlier had a poor career as a starter with the Bucs before becoming one of the best bullpen men in the junior circuit, proved to be a master stroke as he went 12-5 with 7 saves and a miniscule 1.68 ERA.
Even better was the emergence of Steve Blass as the staff ace. Blass had a fabulous campaign in the face of adversity with an 18-6 mark for a league leading .750 winning percentage, which included three shutouts in a row in September, and 2.12 ERA, 5th in the circuit. Although Bob Veale had a mediocre 13-14 record, his 2.05 ERA was the third lowest total in the NL.
There was one veteran who did bid adieu to the club in ’68, even though he departed under strange circumstances. In a game against the Braves on August 31st, Blass started the contest, pitched to one batter, and then was strangely relieved by Roy Face while Blass moved over to left field. The appearance by Face allowed him to tie the all-time major league record of 802 pitching appearances with one team. After retiring Felix Milan, Blass came back in from the outfield to retake the mound in the 8-0 victory. Face, it was announced after the game, had been sold to the Tigers and his long Pirate career came to an end.
Veteran infielder Maury Wills also had a strange moment with the club during the season. Wills had another solid campaign, hitting .278 with a 24 game hit streak as well as 52 stolen bases, second to the Cardinals Lou Brock. Where his moment of infamy came was on June 10th, when he refused to play a game against the Giants, while he was mourning the death of RFK. The AL had canceled all games that day in honor of the assassination, while the NL chose to play. Rusty Staub and Bob Aspromonte of the Astros also refused to play and were both fined. Wills was hit with an undisclosed punishment for the incident.
While the Bucs offense sputtered in the year of the pitcher, centerfielder Matty Alou continued the torrid pace he had sent ever since he became a Pirate, by hitting .332, finishing second in the league behind Pete Rose, who won the title on the final day of the season with a 5 for 5 performance.
As bad as the season was going, the club came into the last four games of the season 2 games over .500 with a shot at finishing as high as third. Unfortunately the club was beaten by the Reds and then swept by the Cubs in Wrigley to end their last pure season under the .500 level.
The following season would see big changes for the club as both leagues were broken into two divisions as a playoff was about to be employed for the first time in the long history of the game. In the mean time, the team would have to rely on a plethora of young talent in the minors if they were ever going to compete again, talent that would come to save the day the next season.
By Pirates Encyclopedia
- Bill Mazeroski, Bob Veale, Danny Murtaugh, Don Money, Freddie Patek, Gene Alley, Jim Bunning, Joe Brown, Larry Shepard, Matty Alou, Maury Wills, Roberto Clemente, Ron Kline, Roy Face, Steve Blass, Tommy Sisk, Willie Stargell