Like a farmer who was ready to harvest his crop, 1969 proved to be the proper time for Pirate General Manager Joe L Brown to cultivate his yield of minor league talent.
While his approach to bringing the Pirates back to glory by adding top notch veterans such as Jim Bunning and Maury Wills failed over the past couple seasons, this year he would go to a youth movement, giving opportunities to the several prospects that he had been stock piling over the past few seasons. The new approach proved to be very successful as young players such as Al Oliver, Manny Sanguillen, Carl Taylor, Richie Hebner, Freddie Patek, Dock Ellis, Bob Moose and Luke Walker helped propel the Bucs back into contention, finishing their first season ever of divisional play with 88 wins, in third place.
1969 would prove to be the beginning of a new era in the game as the leagues not only added 2 teams each, but broke out the leagues into two six team divisions. The Pirates were placed in the Eastern Division with the Cubs, Cardinals, Phillies, Mets, and new Montreal Expos, while the rest of the teams were placed in the Western Division. The new set up resulted for the first time ever in a second set of post-season series, the league championship series, which would be a best of 5 games, the winners facing off in the World Series. Ironically, the New York Mets, a franchise that was only 7 years old and one of the two first expansion franchises in senior circuit history, ushered in this new era, by surprisingly winning the World Championship.
To make room for the new guard, the Pirates exposed and lost in the expansion draft, first baseman Donn Clendenon, Wills, Manny Mota and one of their best relievers in the decade Al McBean.
Replacing Clendenon at first was the man they would soon call scoops, Al Oliver. Oliver got off to a slow start and was hitting only .260 with 9 homers and 40 RBI’s after 114 games on August 15th. The Ohio native caught fire, hitting 8 homers with 30 RBI’s while hitting .327 over the final 48 games to finish his freshman campaign at .285.
Hebner took over the reigns at third from Wills and was able to crack the .300 plateau in his rookie season by hitting .301.
Behind the plate, Sangy took control of the situation and gave the Bucs not only their strongest force at catcher since Smoky Burgess, but also perhaps their best in the history of the franchise over the course of his career. The young Panamanian hit .303 giving the club 5 regulars who hit over .300. Overall the team improved 25 points in batting average, with a .277 mark, and took what seemed to be their rightful step atop the National League lead in that department. They also accounted for 725 runs, a full 142 over 1968, which was good enough for second in the circuit.
As far as the rest of the youth movement offensively went, Patek moved into the starting spot at short, replacing former all-Star Gene Alley who was nursing an injured shoulder. Taylor split time between leftfield, right field and first base and hit a whopping .348 in 221 at bats. So impressive was the young player that the Cardinals sent pitcher Dave Giusti to the team at the end of the season for Taylor. Unfortunately for the Cards, Taylor never approached those lofty numbers again, while Giusti became one of the best relievers in the game and the Fireman of the year in 1971.
While the infusion of youth was very important to the Pirate resurgence, the contribution by the Pirate veterans played a very important role also. Roberto Clemente came back from a disastrous 1968 campaign to finish second in the league in batting to Cincinnati’s Pete Rose with a .345 average. The great one also chipped in 19 homers and 91 RBI’s.
Slugger Willie Stargell also returned to the forefront by not only smacking 29 homers with 92 RBI’s, but raised his average 70 points to .307. Stargell’s biggest moment of the season came on August 15th, when he became the first player ever to hit a ball out of Dodger Stadium, crushing the ball 512 feet from home plate. Matty Alou made it three for three with outfielders hitting over .300 as he finished fourth in the league with a .331 average while setting the all-time major league record with 698 at bats.
The bench was solid led by Jose Pagan, who not only hit .285 in 274 at bats, but set a major league record on August 12th when he hit his second consecutive pinch hit homer in a 6-3 loss to San Francisco.
On the mound, Bunning still remained with the club, and fared much better in ’69 than he did the previous campaign. He ended his time with the Bucs at 10-9, winning his 200th game on May 25th, 2-1 against the Giants.
On August 15th, the Pirates finally said good-bye to their aging acquisition when they sent Bunning to the Dodgers for Chuck Goggin and Ron Mitchell, neither of whom ever contributed to the team.
Although Steve Blass continued to show he was the team’s ace by finishing 16-10, it was a young hurler from nearby Export, PA, that stole the show during the season by the name of Bob Moose. Moose finished the year at 14-3 with an NL high .824 winning percentage, splitting time between the starting rotation and the bullpen where he also accumulated 4 saves. The high mark of his phenomenal season, and perhaps his entire career, came against the soon to be World Championship Mets on September 20th. That day Moose was untouchable as he gave up only 3 walks in a 4-0 no-hit performance against New York. It was the first 9 inning no-hit effort for the club since Harvey Haddix’s gem against the Braves in 1959 (which he unfortunately lost in the 13th inning after tossing 12 perfect frames) and the last one to actually end in a no-hitter since Cliff Chambers 1951 classic. After the loss, the Mets won their next nine games to cruise to the first eastern division title.
The unspectacular bullpen was led by Chuck Hartenstien, who picked up a team high 10 saves and a 34-year old pitcher whom the club picked up from the Giants in June, when they traded Ron Kline by the name of Joe Gibbon. Gibbon won 5 of his 6 decisions with the team, saving 9 others, with a team low 1.93 ERA. Lou Marone, a rookie who was called up from AA York, and won his first major league game in his first major league game, May 30th against the Astros, the day he was called up, was also solid from the pen, giving up only 24 hits in 35 1/3 innings for a team low .195 opponents batting average while coming in with a fine 2.55 ERA.
Despite the vast improvement, manager Larry Shepard was relieved of his duties on September 25th, giving way to Alex Grammas who took control of the team the final 5 games of the season, winning 4 of them.
With the success of the youth program, the team’s building blocks for the future now all seemed to be in place. With the improvement they all would certainly show in the future along with the addition of a powerful red head from Maryland by the name of Bob Robertson, the team was about to embark on its most successful sustained run since the early 1900’s.By Pirates Encyclopedia
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- Al McBean, Al Oliver, Alex Grammas, Bob Moose, Bob Robertson, Carl Taylor, Chuck Hartenstein, Dock Ellis, Dodger Stadium, Donn Clendenon, Freddie Patek, Gene Alley, Harvey Haddix, Jim Bunning, Joe Brown, Joe Gibbon, Jose Pagan, Larry Shepard, Lou Marone, Luke Walker, Manny Mota, Manny Sanguillen, Matty Alou, Maury Wills, Richie Hebner, Roberto Clemente, Ron Kline, Smoky Burgess, Steve Blass, Willie Stargell