1973, became one of the most disappointing seasons in the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. The team was still young and the farm system was still strong, to right the ship, several of the young Pirate players would have to work there way back to the forefront and return to the levels that they enjoyed between 1970-72, especially on the mound.
The Pirate system was still one of the most sound in all of baseball, producing Richie Zisk and Dave Parker in 1973 and having several young prospects for the future. In fact to emphasize just how strong the organization was, their instructional team in Bradenton included future major leaguers such as John Candelaria, Odell Jones, Rick Langford, Rod Scurry, Steve Nicosia, Willie Randolph, Omar Moreno and Mitchell Page.
On the bench in ’74 was the man who helped architect the World Championships in 1960 and 1971 and every time the Bucs seemed to be in trouble, found his back to Pittsburgh to help Joe L Brown out of a jam. His name of course was Danny Murtaugh.
Murtaugh had retired on two occasions, in 1964 and 1971 because of ill health, but came back and always seemed to know how to get this franchise back on track. 1974 proved to be his biggest challenge as he needed to correct what was ailing this team that once looked like it was going to be a dynasty.
The fanfare broke out for opening day at Three Rivers Stadium as the team hoped to put their troubles behind them. The Montreal Expos were in town and the day was filled with music from the Kiltie Symphony Band from Carnegie Mellon University and the Harold Betters Quartet. After Duquesne University president Rev. Henry McAnulty threw out the first pitch along with the University of Pittsburgh’s Dr. Wesley Posvar and CMU’s Dr. Richard M Cyert, the club took the field in quest of better times. Instead, the Bucs lost 12-8, stretching the losing streak to 3 games, the first two contests were in St Louis’ Busch Stadium to open the 1973 campaign.
Things really didn’t improve much as they lost their first 6, 10 of their first 12 and ended the month of April 6-12. Normally, the team was not a good April club, but with the poor finish last year, there was a fear that the losing would take root and spiral the club back down to the second division, a place it hadn’t been since 1968.
To begin May, the Pirates played their rivals from Cincinnati, the Reds. Pittsburgh sent Dock Ellis to the mound that day and he proceeded to hit three consecutive batters in the first inning, while walking another before being lifted in the 5-3 loss. Ellis later admitted he was under the influence of drugs that day, but despite the poor performance and revelation, Dock went on to have one of the best stretches in his career. He had gotten off to a poor start, and was 3-8 with a 4.54 ERA on July 10th when he turned it around.
Ellis won his next eight decisions and 9 of 10 ending his streak with a 1.87 ERA. The last game of the stretch, he was beating the Phillies 4-2 in the sixth inning when Willie Montenez hit him with a line drive. He fractured his right hand and was lost to the team for the remainder of the season.
By mid May, the team continued its struggles and after a 7-1 loss to Chicago, its fourth in a row, their record dropped to 9-20 in last place, a position they had not been used to being in since the mid 50’s.
The deluge would continue as Pittsburgh stood at 14-26, when they took on the San Diego Padres in a double header at the Stadium on May 27th. In the first game, the Bucs threw Ken Brett against Randy Jones. Brett who had come over to the team from the Phillies in the off-season for second baseman Dave Cash, was phenomenal no-hitting the Padres through eight innings. He unfortunately gave up two hits in the ninth for a 6-0 win. Brett was one of the best hitting pitchers in all of baseball, whom Murtaugh used in pinch-hit situations several times. In the second game of the double header, Danny employed the strategy as his 2 run pinch-hit triple led the Pirates to an 8-7 win.
Out of all the starters, Brett was probably the most consistent all season. By the sixth of August, he was 12-7 with a 2.74 ERA and had been the Pirates only selection to the All-Star game, which came to Pittsburgh after a 15-year absence, and picked up as win in front of the home crowd. He elbow became sore after that game and Brett was on the shelf until September 10th. It was an injury that eventually required off-season surgery. Over all he won a career high 13 games with a 3.30 ERA as he was not as effective after he came back off the disables list. On top of Brett’s impressive record was something he was more famous for ( and I’m not talking about being George Brett’s brother), his hitting. For the season, Brett hit .310 with 2 homers and 15 RBI’s in 87 at bats. He was widely considered the best hitting pitchers in the majors in 1974.
To get Brett, as was mentioned before, the Pirates gave up their young starting second baseman Dave Cash, who had a fine year with the Phils hitting .300. His replacement was of course Rennie Stennett. Stennett had waited for his chance since his rookie season of 1971 and made the most of it hitting .291 and provided more pop than Cash was counted on for with 7 homers. Rennie crushed the all-time record for hits by a Pirate second basemen, garnering 196 compared to the old mark of 179 by George Grantham in 1930.
As good as his hitting was, his glove was equally adept as he went 59 consecutive games without a miscue. The streak consisted of 408 chances, which was only 10 off the record set by the late Ken Hubbs of the Cubs in 1964. Infield coach and former World Series hero Jose Pagan, worked hard with Stennett, who early in the season had been erratic at first, only to become a player that McKeesport Daily News Sports Editor Luke Quay claimed got to balls that other second baseman watched go through for hits.
Brett’s big day aside, the club continued their downfall, until they hit the low point on June 7th. That day the Pirates dropped a game to the Giants 6-2 to fall to 14 games under .500 at 18-32, 9 games out of first in last place. The 14 games under would represent the furthest fall of the season although their ascent was still a long away off.
Immediately after the game, the Bucs beat the Giants two straight to begin the healing. In the second game, a 14-1 win, Zisk entered the record books by hitting for the cycle. In his second full major league season, Zisk established himself as a bonafide superstar, leading the team with 100 RBI’s while hitting .313, which was good for 5th in the National League. He was tops on the team with 16 game winning hits and has two significant streaks during the season. The first one was a 20 game hitting streak while the second one saw Richie knock in runs in 10 consecutive games, one short of Mel Ott’s all-time National League record that was 45 years old.
Zisk led what was arguably the best offensive outfield in all of baseball. In center was Al Oliver, who also spent time at first, and left fielder Willie Stargell.
Oliver had tremendous season, hitting .321, second in the league with 85 RBI’s. He also ended up with a team high 198 hits, 4th in the NL, 12 triples good for 2nd and 38 doubles, which tied him for second in the league with Johnny Bench. Consistency was the rule for Oliver as he got hits in 82 % of the games he played in and never went more than 2 games without a hit. Oliver split time at first also with Bobby Robertson, a position he really hadn’t played since 1970. Murtaugh wanted more speed in the lineup and the move, along with Clines and Parker platooning in center allowed him to do just that.
As for Oliver, he didn’t like the move after spending so much time learning his new position in center. Nevertheless, he was very effective fielder at first, which his where he got his nickname, “Scoops” from scooping balls out of the ground at first.
In left was the soul of the team Willie Stargell. Stargell had a solid if unspectacular year with 25 homers, 96 RBI’s and making it three for three as far as starting outfielders with the Pirates go when Willie also cracked the .300 mark at .301. During the season, Willie achieved a significant marks, when he got his 1,500th major league hit on May 25th.
Two six game win streak put the Bucs back in eyesight of first by July 3rd when they stood at 34-40, only six games back in 4th place. The team again fell, losing 5 in a row, 12 games under .500 when they played the Reds in a doubleheader on July 14th. After losing the first affair, Reds hurler Jack Billingham, plunked the Pirates Bruce Kison with a pitch, clearing both benches in a wild fight. Andy Kosko hit the Bucs Ed Kirkpatrick after he pushes Sparky Anderson, who stepped on Kirkpatrick’s foot by accident. Reds pitcher Pedro Borbon earned the name of Count Dracula, by taking a piece of flesh from Pirates pitcher Daryl Patterson. The Bucs became unified and won the game 2-1 to end the skid.
The fight ignited the team and they proceeded to win the next seven games bringing their record to 45-49. Pittsburgh then picked up the pace and finally on August 13th, they defeated that same Red team 14-3 to finally push them over .500 at 59-58, 21-9 since the fight.
Although their offense had been solid, and eventually led the league with a 2.74 average, the turn around could be directly attributed to their pitching which was starting to improve again. After a bad start, Dave Giusti caught fire. He stood with only 2 saves and a 4.54 ERA on the 12th of June. Murtaugh decided to give Giusti his first start in 255 games on the 18th and Giusti was solid, combining with Kison and Patterson to shut out the Dodgers 2-0. Dave eventually got back to his successful ways saving 10 games after that with a 6-3 record and 2.65 ERA.
Giusti’s southpaw counterpart, Ramon Hernandez, was solid again with a 5-2 record and 2.75 ERA. 37-year-old veteran Juan Pizzaro, returned to the club and was solid out of the pen with a 1.88 ERA in 24 innings of work. A young reliever came to the majors in 1974 and while he would not really contribute giving up 12 hits and 6 runs in 9 innings, he eventually became the top reliever in the clubs history, his name, Kent Tekulve.
The rotation was led by Ellis, future broadcaster, Jim Rooker and Jerry Reuss, whom the Bucs got in an off-season trade for catcher Milt May. Rooker had his best season to date, winning 15 games and leading the club’s starting rotation with a 2.77 mark. Jim finally had the control in his game and credited former manager Bill Virdon with having the patience with him that allowed Rooker to gain the confidence to be a successful pitcher.
Reuss was the key acquisition in an active off-season for GM Joe L Brown, who besides Cash and May, sent Nellie Briles and Fernando Gonzales to the Royals for Ed Kirkpatrick and Kurt Bevacqua, Bob Johnson to the Indians for outfielder Brunel Flowers, shortstop Jackie Hernandez to Philadelphia for backup catcher Mike Ryan, and the outright sale of Pitcher Luke Walker to the Tigers. Reuss was well worth the price as he won a team high 16 games with a 16-11 record and a 3.50 ERA.
When the Bucs defeated the Giants 4-2 on August 23rd, it started a streak of six wins that finally vaulted the club into first place on August 25th.
Another six game win streak saw them get to 13 games over .500 by September 8th at 76-63, 38-14 since the legendary fight against the Reds.
While it looked like the Bucs were about to cruise to the title, they embarked on a six game losing streak that saw them fall, 2 ½ games behind the Cardinals. The streak made for a dramatic finish to the season. Pittsburgh went back and forth with St Louis, first defeating them 1-0 and 7-3 on the 23rd and 24th to head into first place and then falling back the next day after a 13-12 loss.
With the teams tied for the top spot as the Cards had one game left to play and the Pirates two, the Cards lost a close game against the Expos, 3-2 as the great Bob Gibson took the loss. The Pirates were taking on the Cubs that day, and with a win, would clinch a tie for the NL eastern division title, a loss would leave them tied and potentially cause a one game playoff on October 3rd in Pittsburgh.
First baseman Bob Robertson was the hero of the 6-5 win against Chicago with a 2 run homer. While Robertson still hadn’t broken out of his three year slump, hitting only .229, he did see some of his power return as he smacked 16 shots in only 236 at bats, an average of 1 every 14.7 at bats, while knocking in 48, which netted out as 1 RBI every 4.9 at bats.
The next night, Robertson became the hero again, well sort of a hero, as the Pirates once again took on the Cubs, this time to win the division. The Cubs were in control as they led the Pirates with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Manny Sanguillen was on third and Bobby Robertson was up to the plate. Robertson swung and missed a strike three pitch, which unfortunately went past catcher Steve Swisher. Swisher recovered and threw to first trying to get the final out of the game. Robertson’s back saved the day as the ball hit it allowing Robby to be safe and Sangy to score the tying run sending the game to extra innings.
Al Oliver came up and hit a triple in the bottom of the 10th. Sangy came up next and hit a shot to Cubs rookie third baseman Bill Madlock which he couldn’t come up with. Not only did the Pirates win the game 5-4, but clinched their fourth division title in five years.
They finally seemed to exercise the demon’s that had troubled them for the better part of 1-½ years. Fired up and brought together by the bench-clearing brawl on July 14th, the Pirates finished 50-25 the remainder of the year. Even though they lost to the Dodgers on the dominant arm of Don Sutton in the NLCS, this year was a victory for the franchise, a turn around of a campaign that looked like the troubles of 1973 were going to be mild in comparison. It’s the kind of recovery that only true champions pull off. For the Pittsburgh Pirates, 1974 provide to be a season where they showed what true champions they really.By Pirates Encyclopedia
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- Al Oliver, Bill Virdon, Bob Johnson, Bob Robertson, Danny Murtaugh, Daryl Patterson, Dave Cash, Dave Giusti, Dock Ellis, Ed Kirkpatrick, Jackie Hernandez, Jerry Reuss, Jim Rooker, Joe Brown, John Candelaria, Juan Pizarro, Ken Brett, Kent Tekulve, Kurt Bevacqua, Luke Walker, Manny Sanguillen, Mike Ryan, Milt May, Mitchell Page, Nellie Briles, Odell Jones, Omar Moreno, Ramon Hernandez, Rennie Stennett, Richie Zisk, Rick Langford, Rod Scurry, Steve Nicosia, Willie Randolph, Willie Stargell