The pieces seemed all in place for the Pirates to make a run at the 1970 NL Eastern Division championship, but the franchise had been in this position before several times over the past 4 seasons, only to come up disappointed each and every year. In 1966 through 1968, they came into the season as one of the favorites to win the senior circuit pennant and came up short time every time, especially in ’67 and ‘68 when their barely managed to finish .500 the first season before falling under the latter.
This campaign seemed different though, the team was headed by the man who helped mastermind the world championship 10 years earlier in Danny Murtaugh and the young players that performed so well in 1969 had to get better in 1970.
The club broke spring training with a 16-11 record led by an young man, whom former manager Larry Shepard once said had as much power as any one in the league, even Willie McCovey, Big Red himself Bob Robertson. Robertson had a heck of a spring hitting .441 with a team high 8 doubles and 14 RBI’s in only 59 at bats. If Robertson was able to prove his spring outburst was no fluke, there was no telling how this offense could carry them. As a team, only Al Oliver hit below .286 as far as the regulars went.
If the Bucs were supposed to have one Achilles heel in ’70, it was to be their inconsistent pitching staff. As a group they had a nice spring training, except for a new pitcher that they got from the St Louis Cardinals, Dave Giusti, who had a 6.60 ERA, giving up 21 hits in 15 innings. Giusti had split time between long relief and the starting rotation for most of his career and eventually was to be turned into a closer by Murtaugh, a position that the club was sorely lacking the previous season.
Things started out decently as the club raced to an early 10-5 mark after defeating the Braves 10-5 on April 25th. Their early success was to be short lived as nightmares of recent seasons began to rear their ugly heads when they went on a 14-23 stretch to fall to 24-28 in fourth place 5 games back after being shut out 5-0 to the Dodgers on June 4th.
It wasn’t just the pitching that was sub par early on, the offense wasn’t performing either. Overall, they were hitting a collective .254 on June 15th with Matty Alou, who had hit over .300 the past four seasons was hitting only .272, while the great double play combo of Gene Alley and Bill Mazeroski were hitting .207 and .203 respectively. On the positive end, Robertson was hot early as he was at .314 at the time with 10 homers.
Eventually the Bucs pulled to .500 after a 4 game win streak on June 9th and following a loss to the Giants the next evening, tried to get back to .500 when they faced the Sand Diego Padres in the first game of a double header on June 12th, when Dock Ellis faced off against Dave Roberts. Ellis and Roberts locked themselves in a pitching dual through seven innings, the only differences were Willie Stargell’s 11th and 12th homers of the season and…oh yeah…. the fact Dock Ellis had not allowed a hit. Despite the fact he eventually would walk eight in the game, Ellis put down the Padres without a hit over the last two frames to end his masterpiece and etch his name in the history book with a 2-0 gem.
Eventually the Bucs would fall two games under .500 when rookie Jim Nelson took the hill against the Cardinals on June 22nd. Nelson would be phenomenal as he held the Cards scoreless over 10 innings for the 1-0 victory. The win began what was a seven game win streak, vaulting the Pirates over .500, into second place. The last two wins in the streak came at the hands of the Chicago Cubs, whom the Pirates swept on June 28th, 3-2 and 4-1. The significance of that day was it would be the last two games ever played at their classic facility Forbes Field.
Forbes Field had been the Pirates home ever since 1909, the year they had won their first world championship. They played some of their best ball there, such as the magical 1960 team, and some of their worst, the early 50’s to be exact. The facility had become outdated and the attendance at Forbes was not exactly the best in the league as they had drawn only 386, 907 over the first 40 dates of the season, an average of 9,673 a game. To put it into perspective, that’s in the same ballpark as the Montreal Expos draw.
The stadiums in vogue at the time were the multi-purpose, cookie cutter style and the Pirates new park, Three Rivers Stadium, was a $35 million replication of the style to a tee. At the time of the opening, one reporter, Phil Jackman, compared it to a condenser on top of a 1930 style refrigerator. The scoreboard, although antiquated in this day and age, was a marvel and ahead of its time. The turf was a new one called Tartan Turf, which was softer than its predecessor Astro-Turf.
Pittsburgh came into its new digs on July 16th in first place, a position they attained only five days earlier after beating the Cards 8-7. Local legend Billy Eckstine sang the National Anthem as the Bucs entered the field wearing something other than their traditional sleeveless flannel shirt with black undershirts and black hats. They were sporting double knit uniforms with an elastic waist, the first in the majors to do so, and while the bill of the hat was still black, the rest of it was mustard with a black P.
48,845 fans packed Three Rivers and unfortunately saw the Reds beat the Pirates 3-2, despite slugger Willie Stargell’s homer, the first ever at the stadium, which netted him $1,000 from a lumber company.
With the new facility, found greater financial rewards, at least in 1970, for both the city and the club. In the 36 dates at Three Rivers in 1970, the club drew 955,040 an average of 26,528 a game, bringing their season total to 1,341,947, a massive 572,578 more than the year before. The stadium was expected to pump about $15 million into the city’s economy, and as Golden Triangle Association head Jacques Kahn said “In a soft economy, thank heavens for Three Rivers Stadium”. 30 years later, everyone would sing a different tune.
Getting back to the season at hand, the team went on a streak at the end of July where it lost 5 of 6, and fell back to second place by the 31st. They would stay there only two days until they defeated the Braves 10-7 on August 2nd . With the win they moved back in the top spot for what turned out to be the rest of the season.
While the so-called experts expected Pittsburgh to fold in September to the more experienced Cubs and Mets, due to what was perceived as their poor pitching staff, what they saw instead was a mound corps that showed their grit holding opponents to under 3 runs in 17 out of the 28 games, winning 13 of those and 5 others, making their September record 18-10. The staff also maintained a 3.26 ERA that month as well as a 3.70 one for the season which was third best in the senior circuit. During a critical 11 game streak before they won the title against the Mets 2-1 on September 27th, they won 8 games as the hurlers allowed only 22 earned runs and 24 total, in 109 innings, a 1.82 ERA.
Leading the way was an unexpected source, who took his game to the next level to make up for arm injuries to Bob Moose, Dock Ellis and Steve Blass, all of whom missed at least a month of the season with arm injuries, Luke Walker. Walker ended the season at 15-6, which included wins in 8 of his last 11 decisions, including his last five of the season, after he was inserted back in the starting rotation on August 5th. During that 12-start stretch, Walker gave up only 70 hits in 86 2/3 innings for a 2.48 ERA.
Moose was unable to match his ’69 triumph as he was not only bothered by elbow problems, but also had to fulfill his military obligations in the reserves. With all his problems, he managed only an 11-10 record, far off his 14-3 mark the year before.
Blass, who had been the ace in ’68 and ’69, lost 2 of his first 10 decisions, including 7 in a row, and was lost for a time after being hit by a line drive on the elbow. He rebounded when he came back to finish the year at 10-12.
Much of the strength of the staff was in the bullpen, and most of that in its new closer Dave Giusti. After his poor spring performance, Giusti became one of the best closers in the business, picking up an NL second best 26 saves to go with his 9-3 record. Blass’ brother in law, John Lamb, also contributed with 3 saves, a 2.78 ERA and a .209 opponents batting average.
Offensively, the great one, Roberto Clemente, battled through several injuries to finish the year with a .352 average in 412 at bats. Manny Sanguillen improved his average to .325 second only to the Braves Rico Carty (Clemente didn’t have enough at bats to qualify for the title), and was now considered only behind Johnny Bench as the best backstop in the league.
Two newcomers in Robertson and Dave Cash proved to be valuable additions to what was already a potent offense. Cash alternated with the slumping Bill Mazeroski, who hit only .229 but broke the major league record for double plays by a second baseman and the National League mark for putouts, and hit .314 in 210 at bats.
Robertson certainly lived up to his billing by smacking 27 homers in his first full season with 82 RBI’s and a .287 average in only 390 at bats. Overall the club led the league with a .270average.
Even though the team was stalled in three straight games by the Reds in the NLCS, it was their first title of any kind in 10 years. After several seasons of disappointments in which they felt they had the talent to win, but couldn’t make it happen in the won loss column, they finally made it over the hill. The most important thing was they were also a young club and the horizon appeared very bright, as the near future would show us, VERY bright.By Pirates Encyclopedia
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- Al Oliver, Bill Mazeroski, Bob Moose, Bob Robertson, Danny Murtaugh, Dave Cash, Dave Giusti, Dock Ellis, Forbes Field, Gene Alley, Jim Nelson, John Lamb, Larry Shepard, Luke Walker, Manny Sanguillen, Matty Alou, Roberto Clemente, Steve Blass, Three Rivers Stadium, Willie Stargell