What a difference a ballpark makes!
When the Pittsburgh Pirates moved into the friendly confines of Three Rivers Stadium in the middle of 1970, it ended 61 years of oppression for power hitters. Since 1903 when the club led the NL in homers with 34, no Pirate team had ever led the circuit in homers, that is until 1971 when the team moved into their new digs, which was much more favorable to home run hitters. They knocked out an NL high 154 shots in the first full season in the stadium, and led the majors in runs scored with 788, 47 more than their nearest competitors, the Baltimore Orioles.
To illustrate the difference, Dolores Stargell, Willie’s wife, had kept track of the at bats he had at Forbes Field in 1969, when he had 29 homers. By estimating where each ball went, she concluded that Stargell would have hit 52 homers had he played in Three Rivers. To further show the difference, in 1970, Stargell hit 31 homers, 18 on the road, by July 18th of 1971, he had 18 already at home.
Yes this ballpark was going to make a difference for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1971, a huge difference. This team was built for power and hitting, something that Forbes Field could not take full advantage of, something that Three Rivers certainly would.
When asked in a 1971 Sports Illustrated article why they seemed to have more success pitching in 1971, Steve Blass and Dock Ellis, the Bucs two best pitchers, both answered simply that the main reason was the team was scoring more runs.
The season began with the Pirates trading a player who had arguably been their best hitter over four of the past five seasons, Matty Alou. Alou had come to Pittsburgh in 1965 and under the tutelage of Harry Walker, won a batting title and had been consistently at the top of the batting race, until he “slumped” to .297 in 1970. Pittsburgh needed to get both Bob Robertson and Al Oliver into the lineup and needed more pitching. What they got, along with pinch hitter extraordinaire Vic Davalillo, was just that in Nellie Briles from the Cardinals. Briles was coming off a disappointing 6-7-6.22 campaign with the Cardinals in 1970, but only 2 years before had won 19 with the club and had pitched in four World Series games in 1967 and 1968. He would provide the team with a solid arm out of the pen as well as in the starting rotation. He also tossed one of the most clutch performances in World Series history when he two hit the Orioles in game 5, 4-0 to give the Bucs a 3-2 advantage.
The other big off season move they made in an attempt to bolster their pitching staff was not quite as successful as the Briles move, but still provided them with another good arm which helped them, especially in game 3 of the NLCS. The Bucs sent over Bruce Dal Canton and shortstop Freddie Patek to the Royals along with catcher Jerry May, for pitcher Bob Johnson, shortstop Jackie Hernandez and catcher Jim Campanis. While Dal Canton had some solid years in Kansas City and Patek was an important part of their infield for years, including their three western division championship teams between 1976-1978, Hernandez was an offensive liability, hitting .206 and Johnson didn’t quite live up to his solid rookie year in 1970 where he finished behind Bert Blyleven in the rookie of the year voting. Bob didn’t have the greatest season as he finished 9-10 with a 3.45 ERA, but he did come up big in game 3 of the NLCS.
With the series tied at one, Murtaugh called on Briles to break the tie in game 3. Briles came up lame with a pulled hamstring while warming up and the skipper then turned to Johnson at the last minute. Johnson came through big tossing 8 five hit innings, giving up no earned runs in the 2-1 victory.
The Bucs broke out slowly again in April as they had done the year before, finishing, the month at only 12-10. The one player that kept the club going was Stargell, Willie hit a major league record 11 home runs in the first month of the season, including two, three home run games within 11 days of each other. Stargell had owned a Fried Chicken establishment in the Hill district of Pittsburgh and every time he hit a shot, he would give away free chicken to anybody who was in the restaurant at the time of the homer. It prompted Pirate announcer Bob Prince to make the call “Chicken on the Hill with Will”, every time he hit a homer.
Willie probably was the one player who most benefited from the teams new stadium. After suffering for so long in Forbes, Stargell broke out big challenging Maris’ all-time home run mark as he had 30 by the all-star break. Eventually Willie’s bad knee’s got the best of him as he only hit 18 in the second half of the year, but he still led the circuit with 48, including two in the upper deck of Three Rivers, while finishing 2nd with 125 RBI’s and a .628 slugging percentage. He finished a disappointing second to the Cardinals Joe Torre in the MVP race.
Pittsburgh heated up in May, and when Bob Moose defeated the Reds 6-1 on May 19th, they had vaulted themselves into first place. They fell back a few days later, falling to third after losing three in a row, but climbed back up into the lead June 11th when Ellis beat the Cards 11-4. After that, they would not relinquish their position the rest of the season.
The 26 year old Ellis, had been the one pitcher whom the team felt had superstar potential, in 1971 he certainly lived up to that potential. Ellis went 19-9, 5th in league in wins that included a 13 game win streak, with 3.05 ERA.
His performance earned his a selection in the mid summer classic where he gave up the legendary roof blast of Reggie Jackson in Tiger Stadium. Unfortunately by the end of the season, arm ailments felled Dock and he was not the pitcher in the post-season that he had been early on.
On Pirate who’s star did shine in that all-star game was that of the great one himself Roberto Clemente. Roberto was one of two holdovers from the 1960 championship team and was a lot more relaxed this time around. When he first came up in the big leagues, Clemente was more guarded as he not only had to face prejudice because he was a man of color, but he had another bigotry to deal with, one which might have been more traumatic, that of his Latin heritage.
By 1971, the Bucs were a very harmonious locker room that was multi racial and national. There were seven African-Americans to go along with six players of Latin descent, a mixture that was not very common among major league locker rooms, even in the 70’s. With a more relaxed atmosphere and prejudice not as prevalent as it was 11 years earlier, Clemente took over the mantle of leadership and was now able to comfortably kid and round with the players and not take offense that they were making fun of him in a mean spirited way as was the case in the past.
At 37 years old, he was still on top of his game as he finished the season hitting .341, good for 4th in the National League as well as smacking 13 homers and 86 RBI’s. He was also as dominate defensively as he won his 11th consecutive gold glove award and made what former Pirate, then Houston manager Harry Walker said was the greatest play he ever saw in a game against the Astros.
Clemente ended the season with 2.882 hits, which put him in line to become only the 11th player in major league history to reach the elusive 3,000 hit plateau as well as accumulating 1,348 runs. He told the team during a players only meeting in the second half of the year that if they got him to the post-season, he would put them on his back and take them to the Promised Land. It was a promise he certainly delivered on.
The second member of the 1960 championship squad was of course the hero of that season Bill Mazeroski. Maz was younger than Clemente at 35 years old, but unlike the great one appeared to be at the end of his playing career, as the injuries he suffered throughout his career seemed to have taken their toll. Over the years, Bill had established himself as probably the premiere defensive second baseman in the history of the game, holding the all-time NL records for putouts, assists chances and games by a second baseman and the major league record for double plays turned both in a season and in a career. By 1971, his offense had slipped as he hit .254 in only 170 at bats. 23-year old Dave Cash was beginning to take over for the legend and showed to be superior offensively hitting .314 in 1970 and .289 his first full season as a starter in ’71.
As the team got into July, they took their game to another level as they embarked on an 11 game winning streak between July 5th and the 18th. The last game saw pitcher Luke Walker take a no-hitter against the Dodgers into the ninth, only to give up a homer to Joe Ferguson in the 9th inning of a 7-1 victory.
At this point the Bucs were playing .667 ball with a 62-31 record. They had an 11 game lead in the NL Eastern Division and for all intents and purposes, the race was over. There powerful offense was hitting 14 points better the defending National League champion Cincinnati Reds.
This group of players, who made a collective $850,000, $34,000 per man on the average or just about what former Buc Barry Bonds makes per at bat, had, as pitcher Steve Blass put it, perhaps the perfect chemistry.
Some of the key items around the horn included Richie Hebner, Al Oliver, Manny Sanguillen, who had another phenomenal season hitting .319 with 81 RBI’s and was, for at least one season, the best catcher in baseball, and Bobby Robertson.
Robertson, known as the Maryland Strong boy, was a powerful hitter, who smacked 26 homers on the season and made hitting 500 shots his career goal (injuries unfortunately held him about 400 homers short of his goal). He took his game to another level in the playoffs, hitting an NLCS record 3 homers in one game and 6 in the entire post season. As good as he was at the plate, he was just as good in the field as Stargell called him one of the best defensive first sackers in the game. Robertson was proud of his accomplishment and did not want to be compared to former Buc slugging first baseman Dick Stuart, who was known as Dr Strangeglove for his infamous poor glove.
Pittsburgh lost four games in a row to start August and lost Jose Pagan on the 5th with a fractured arm. Enter into the picture a young second baseman by the name of Rennie Stennett. Stennett had come up from the Bucs AAA team in Charleston on July 10th for Cash who was serving his military commitment in the reserves. What was supposed to be a short time up turned into a successful venture when Stennett caught fire, hit .353 and had an 18 game hitting streak. Unfortunately, the youngster would not get a chance to perform in the post-season as Murtaugh left him off the roster in an attempt to use more experienced players such as Jose Pagan (the move would pay off big time in game 7 of the World Series as Pagan hit the game winning double in the 8th inning).
Stennett led a deep bench that included Gene Clines, who hit .308, Davalillo, .285 and young catcher Milt May, who not only finished with a .278 average, but won the first night game in World Series history, game 4, with a clutch pinch hit single.
As good as the bench was, so was the bullpen. Dave Giusti again led the way with 30 saves and was named the National League’s Fireman of the Year. Bob Miller was picked up in early August for Johnny Jeter and Ed Acosta and was phenomenal, saving 3 games in 16 appearances with a 1.29 ERA and .200 opponents batting average. Ramon Hernandez was a late season call up and was virtually unhittable giving up only 5 hits in 12 innings with a 0.79 ERA and 4 saves in 10 appearances.
The team was only 14-17 in August, including the first no-hitter of Bob Gibson’s career, 11-0 on August 14th. While they were never really in danger of losing their league lead, they were only 5 games in front going into the last month of the season.
They got hot as the team ended the month and then defeated the Phillies 10-7 to begin September. The significance of this ball game was that the club sported what was believed to be the first all black line up in the history of the game.
After getting things back on track in September, they easily cruised to the their second consecutive Eastern Division title. As the story goes, they were more successful in the post-season than they were in 1970 wining the club’s fourth world championship (please the refer to the post season chapter for a more thorough run through of the 1971 NLCS and World Series). It looked like this was only the beginning; the team was young enough that the word dynasty was often mentioned in the same sentence with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The youth movement of the late 60’s finally paid off big. The Pirates were now kings of the world.By Pirates Encyclopedia
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- Al Oliver, Bill Mazeroski, Bob Johnson, Bob Miller, Bob Moose, Bob Prince, Bob Robertson, Bruce Dal Canton, Danny Murtaugh, Dave Cash, Dave Giusti, Dick Stuart, Dock Ellis, Ed Acosta, Forbes Field, Freddie Patek, Gene Clines, Harry Walker, Jackie Hernandez, Jerry May, Jim Campanis, Johnny Jeter, Jose Pagan, Luke Walker, Manny Sanguillen, Matty Alou, Milt May, Nellie Briles, Ramon Hernandez, Reggie Jackson, Rennie Stennett, Richie Hebner, Roberto Clemente, Steve Blass, Three Rivers Stadium, Tiger Stadium, Vic Davalillo, Willie Stargell