It was 1976 and there were two great celebrations going on, one the bicentennial of the United States and the second was the Centennial anniversary of the oldest enduring organization in baseball history, the National League.
The Pirates were coming into this most special of seasons having won the NL Eastern Division in five of the past six seasons, but last year they were challenged by a new up and coming team, their cross state rivals, the Philadelphia Phillies, and this year, the Phils were hoping to capitalize on their new found success and challenge Pittsburgh for the division supremacy.
Almost 100 years to the day that Pittsburgh first played their first game ever, that is the Pittsburgh Allegheny’s in the old American Association, the Pirates opened the nations bicentennial season playing the Phils at Three Rivers Stadium. Pittsburgh won an exciting game 5-4 when Dave Parker scored the winning run, tumbling over Phillies Catcher Johnny Oates, who broke his collarbone on the play.
Although Parker’s production dropped a little, some of it due to a hamstring pull he suffered mid-season and a partial tear of the medial ligament in his right knee, he still had a solid season and was quickly establishing himself as the premiere right fielder in all of baseball.
The Bucs started off quick, winning their first five contests, the last of which was a 3-1 victory by new Pirate pitcher Doc Medich against the Mets.
In an attempt to bolster their starting rotation, Pirate GM Joe L Brown paid a hefty price to the Yankees for Medich, who was 16-16 with the Bronx Bombers in 1975. Brown gave up Ken Brett and Dock Ellis, two of their top starters in 1974, only to come back ineffectually from injuries the following season, and top prospect Willie Randolph. While Randolph went on to become a starter for New York and Ellis won 17 games, Medich went only 8-11 and was sent to Oakland in the Phil Garner deal before the 1977 season.
Pittsburgh finally broke out in early May, winning six in a row, mostly on the heels of some solid pitching performances. The Bucs only gave up 12 runs in the streak, 5 in the first game alone. The starters were the strength of the staff, led by Bruce Kison, 14-9, John Candelaria, 16-7, Jerry Reuss 14-9, Jim Rooker,15-8, and Larry Demery, who split time between the pen and starting rotation, 10-7. Out of the group, John Candelaria became the ace, becoming more consistent than he had ever been and overcoming a chronic bad back.
Candelaria’s biggest moment, not only of the season, but probably his career, came on August 9th against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the game, Candy had a bases loaded situation he got out of in the third to cruise to the gem 2-0.
By that point and time, the team was playing well with a 60-50 record, but the Phillies were playing incredible as they had built a 13 ½ game lead.
If the team had a weakness in 1976, it was their once impenetrable bullpen. Dave Giusti, who came into the season as the all-time National League leader in saves with 127 (the save rule had only been established in 1969), had only 6 saves and a 4.32 ERA, while Bob Moose, who at one point and time in the year went 24 1/3 inning without giving up a run, ended the campaign 3-9. Ramon Hernandez, who never had an ERA above three in the years with the team, finished with a 3.56 one in ’76 and was sold to the Cubs on September 8th, never winning another major league game again.
Philadelphia was able to increase their lead to 15 ½ games on August 24th after a 7-3 loss to the Padres. For the first time since Divisional play was introduced in 1969, the Pirates were seemingly out of the race for the title. Faced with the prospect of an early vacation for only the second time in seven years, Pittsburgh could either fold or show their character in the last month of the season. As Danny Murtaugh’s charges have chosen over the years, the team decided to show its teeth and battle.
It began on August 25th when Kison shutout San Diego 3-0 and off went the Pirates. There was a dominant sweeping of the Giants, where the team outscored San Francisco 15-5 in three games. In the series, shortstop Frank Taveras went 4 for 5 in the second game with two steals that gave him 46 for the season.
Taveras had been a promising young prospect for the few years prior and finally got his first opportunity to start in 1975, despite the fact he hit only .212. In 1976, he improved his offensive game a little hitting .258, but what he really did to bolster the legendary Pirate attack, was give it a feature it had not had in many years, speed. The team, which was once known as the lumber company, could now add lightning to its moniker. They stole 130 bases, which was the best in the division and 4th in the entire senior circuit. The 130 steals destroyed their 1975 output, which was only 49. Everybody seemed to participate, Parker had 19, Rennie Stennett with 18, a young outfielder by the name of Omar Moreno stole 15 (which added to the 55 he had stolen at Charleston during the year gave him a staggering total of 70 in 1976), but it was Taveras who was the unabashed leader. Frankie stole 58 bases this season, which was good enough for 3rd in the National League. In the process he went on a streak wh ere he swiped 27 in a row. It had been the biggest theft amount by a Pirate since Hall of Famer Max Carey took 63 bases in 1916. Backing up Taveras was Mario Mendoza, whom, for those who care, did not break the fabled Mendoza Line and hit only .185.
Pittsburgh kept rolling and eventually stretched their winning streak to 10 games in a row. With the Phillies now losing more consistently, the once insurmountable lead was down to 6 ½ games on September 4th.
Legendary Pittsburgh sportscaster Myron Cope began to proclaim that this surge could lead the Pirates to what he described as a “Miracle at the Point”.
The Winning Streak ended the next evening at the hands of the Montreal Expos as ex bucco Woodie Fryman shut out the black and gold 1-0. Next up was a visit by the Phillies to the stadium in what was shaping up to be the biggest series of the season. First up was a double header on September 6th. The Phils were reeling and the Bucs were hot as Pittsburgh crushed Philadelphia, 6-2 and 5-1 in front of over 41,000 excited fans. In the game the man whom the Phillies once owned and eventually gave up for virtually nothing, Bill Robinson, got the game winning hits in each of the contests.
After limited playing time in 1975, Robinson broke out big for the Pirates in 1976, hitting .303 with 21 homers, regardless of the fact he did not have a position he could call his own. Bill became known as the super sub as he roamed the outfield, playing 78 games while playing 37 at 3rd and 3 at first. For his efforts, his appreciative teammates voted him the clubs most valuable player.
Despite the fact that Robinson was the super sub, he ended up playing more games than Al Oliver, Manny Sanguillen and Willie Stargell. Even though he played in one less game, Oliver had a spectacular season hitting .323 in only 443 at bats after leading the majors for quite a time in batting average during the season. His greatest streak of the year occurred in late June when Al went 22 for 33, a .667 average and hit .434 in a one month period between 6/8 and 7/9 that saw the Ohio Native raise his average from .310 to a league high .359.
As good a season as Oliver had, Stargell and Sangy struggled with injury, and in Willie’s case, family tragedy. Sangy hit .290, but was bothered by a sore shoulder. Starg on the other hand missed time during the season first with a pulled groin, and then to care for his wife Dolores, who suffered a blood clot to the brain, which threatened her life. Stargell took time off to care for his wife, but struggled the rest of the season. His batting average fell to .257 while his home run production dropped to 20, only third best on the team behind Robinson and Richie Zisk, who tied for top honors with 21.
The Pirates completed the sweep of Philadelphia the next evening on a dominant performance by Rooker 6-1, giving him his 13th win of the season and slicing even more into the Philadelphia lead which now stood at 4 ½.
Fryman defeated the Bucs again on September 10th, 4-2, but Pittsburgh took the next two 4-3 and 6-1, the latter of which was a great performance by Kison, followed by young Kent Tekulve’s 9th save of the year. Tekulve was one of the few bright spots in the Bullpen this season as he now looked like he was ready to assume the closer role from Giusti, with a team low 2.45 ERA and 9 saves, which was second only to Bob Moose’s 10.
Except for Woodie Fryman, whom won both games against the Bucs during the streak, Pittsburgh was unstoppable as the Bucs were now 15-2 since falling 15 ½ games back and cut the lead to 4.
They were tripped up in two out of three games against the Mets, but went into Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia on September 15th for an important two game set against the Phils. The Candy man helped drop the Phillies 7-2 in the first game as he was helped by Zisk and Robinson who both hit their 20th homers as Parker added his 11th of the year. The next night, Stennett knocked in two runs with two out to sweep the series and reduce the lead down to only 4 again.
After Medich and Giusti combined to beat the Mets 4-1 the next evening, the Bucs inched closer to their miracle goal of a division title by cutting lead to only 3 games. They were now 18-4 since their low point, but luckily for Philadelphia two things would happen. They did not have to play Pittsburgh any more and the Pirates lost their momentum dropping 5 of their next 6. The Phillies righted the ship taking 12 of their last 14 games, winning the division by 9 games.
The run was a little too late, and the Pirates were going to sit home for the post season only the second time in the last seven years.
For the second consecutive season, the Pirates suffered a troublesome off-season, this time rather than suffering from their own stupidity, it was due to the tragic deaths of two of their most important members, pitcher Bob Moose and their beloved manager Danny Murtaugh.
The death of a young person is always perhaps the toughest one to endure, as was the case for Moose. Seeing a young man cut down in his prime, before he had a chance to complete the promising chapters of his life is truly a sad situation and for the second time in almost four-year, the Bucs lost one of their cherished teammates.
Moose had been a solid member of the staff since 1969, tossing a memorable no-hitter that season. While celebrating his 29th birthday, Moose was killed in an auto accident. Stargell commented on Bob by saying he was very gutsy the way he challenged hitters. The loss was very tough for his teammates to take.
As the Pirate family was trying to cope with the grief of Bob’s death, the club was dealt another blow when word came of Danny Murtaugh’s passing on December 2nd. Murtaugh took over the club with 51 games left in 1957 and stayed with the team in one capacity or another until 1976. On three occasions he retired due to illness, the first in 1964 due to heart attack, the second after the 1971 world championship season and the final one following the ’76 campaign.
Even though the Irishman was only 59, he looked much older due to the several years of managing with his numerous illnesses. Murtaugh always handled himself with class and was an asset to the franchise, one of its true treasures, becoming the only Pirate manager ever to win two world championships.
The two tragedy’s to end the year certainly put a damper on what began as a special season and ended with a truly exciting September. Murtaugh and Moose were two Pirate members that will always be missed.By Pirates Encyclopedia
- Al Oliver, Bill Robinson, Bob Moose, Bruce Kison, Danny Murtaugh, Dave Giusti, Dave Parker, Doc Medich, Dock Ellis, Frank Taveras, Jerry Reuss, Jim Rooker, Joe Brown, John Candelaria, Ken Brett, Kent Tekulve, Larry Demery, Omar Moreno, Phil Garner, Ramon Hernandez, Rennie Stennett, Richie Zisk, Three Rivers Stadium, Willie Randolph, Willie Stargell