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Jim O’Brien: These Pirates of the past part of special times

May 15, 2012
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O’Brien: These Pirates of the past part of special times

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

A youngster with the wonderful name of Nicholas Nottingham sends me e-mails from time to time. I met him at a book fair at the Greenville Library last fall. He’s on the middle school’s wrestling and football teams and seems like a nice kid. He recently sent me an e-mail with a photo attachment. It showed a baseball with a signature that wasn’t so clear, and asked me if I knew the name of the ballplayer. I told him it looked like Ralph Kiner to me. Nick wrote back and asked me if Kiner was any good. I told Nick that Kiner was a Hall of Fame outfielder for the Pirates back in the ‘40s and ‘50s and had the distinction of leading the National League in hitting home runs for seven straight seasons. No one else can make such a claim.

“How much is that ball worth?” wrote Nick in his next e- mail. I told him I don’t know the value of sports memorabilia, but suggested he contact a friend of mine, Diamond Jim Tripodi at his sports memorabilia shop in Rochester, Pennsylvania, or attend the annual Sports Card and Sports Memorabilia Show at Robert Morris University where there were hundreds of card dealers from around the country who could tell him the value of a baseball signed by Ralph Kiner. That show, the 34th of its kind at the Sewall Center at Robert Morris University in Moon Township, is being held this weekend, from Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon. I will be there to sell and sign the sports books in my “Pittsburgh Proud” series, and visiting with some ballplayers who once played for the Pirates and some from other National League and American League teams.

The best known ballplayers are Dick Groat and El Roy Face, heroes of the 1960 World Series champion Pirates. Most of the rest of the autograph signing cast were not headliners, but they were part of special events in baseball history. Long-time Pirates’ fans will be familiar with Bob Bailey, a third baseman from Long Beach, California who was a “bonus baby” with the Pirates in 1961. There was no draft in those days and teams tried to outbid one another to get a whiz kid to sign with their club. The Pirates signed Bailey to a contract for $135,000, the largest ever paid to a ballplayer at that point in baseball history. A “bonus baby” had to stay with the major league team as a rookie and bypass the minor leagues. It was part of the system. Bailey, who will turn 69 this October, played five seasons with the Pirates and 17 years in the big leagues and had a career batting average of .257. His best season with the Pirates was his fifth and final one, hitting at a .279 clip with 13 home runs. He hit 28 home runs and 26 home runs in two of his seven seasons with the Montreal Expos. Charles “Whammy” Douglas, who pitched briefly for the Pirates in the late ‘50s, is another intriguing figure scheduled to sign at the XXXIV Sports Classic Show. Douglas was toiling in the Pirates’ farm system when he was tossed into a trade with the Cincinnati Reds that I regard as the greatest trade in Pirates’ history.

On Jan. 30, 1959, the Pirates dealt Frank Thomas, one of the team’s all-time greatest home run hitters and a Pittsburgh product, along with Douglas, Johnny Powers and Jim Pendleton, to the Reds in exchange for Harvey Haddix, Smoky Burgess and Don Hoak. Haddix, Burgess and Hoak would all play major roles in the Pirates’ winning the National League title in 1960 and then beating the highly favored New York Yankees in the World Series. That’s when Bill Mazeroski hit the home run leading off the bottom of the ninth inning to decide the contest, 10-9, in the Pirates’ favor. Maz, by the way, won’t be at this year’s sports card show even though he has been a mainstay for most of the previous events. Other Pirates participating in this show include Mike “Hit Man” Easler, who provided the kind of consistent offensive force the Bucs could use these days, was a productive player for the Pirates from 1977 to 1983, in his 14-year career. Jim Rooker was a reliable pitcher for the Pirates from 1973 to 1980, and later was a member of the broadcast team and the owner of a bar/restaurant in Ambridge called “Rook’s Saloon.”

Al Jackson started out with the Pirates as a left-handed pitcher in 1959 and 1961 but was picked up by the New York Mets in the expansion draft in 1962. He also pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals during his ten years in the major leagues. Hobie Landrith, who’s 82, will be there, too. He never played for the Pirates, but he was witness to one of the most spectacular home runs in baseball history when he was catching for the Chicago Cubs. Hobie Landrith sounds like the name of a baseball player and he had the distinction of being the first player picked in the expansion draft. Casey Stengel, the manager of the Mets, defended the draft choice by saying, “You gotta have a catcher or you’ll have a lot of passed balls.” Landrith was looking through his catcher’s mask behind home plate when Roberto Clemente hit the only inside-the-park home run in baseball history to win a game, 9-8, at Forbes Field on July 25, 1956. Pittsburgh sports broadcaster John Steigerwald was there and has included it in his book “Just Watch the Game.” Former Pirates’ pitcher and broadcaster Nellie King told me about that game when I interviewed him for one of my books. King said he came in as a relief pitcher in that game and threw one pitch and was the winning pitcher and that Jim Brosnan, later famous for writing the behind-the-scenes book called “The Long Season,” threw one pitch and was the losing pitcher. The bases were loaded and the Pirates were trailing 8-5 when

Clemente came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning. He swung at the first pitch by Brosnan and hit what Steigerwald called “the ultimate grand slam.” A player has hit a grand slam home run to win the game only 20 times in baseball history, but Clemente is the only one to do it with an inside the park home run. King said the ball struck the base of a light pole at the scoreboard in left field and caromed along the wall to the deepest part of center field (458 feet) at Forbes Field. Steigerwald says he can still see Hobie Landrith jumping up and screaming at the umpire when Clemente was called safe sliding under the tag at home plate. It was that close. Landrith later hit a home run of his own that became part of Mets’ lore. It was his only home run as a Met. He was sent to the plate as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the ninth inning with the Mets down 2-1. He was facing Warren Spahn, one of the all-time great left-handed pitchers. Stengel called time out and went up and whispered something in Landrith’s ear. Then Landrith hit a two-run home run to win the game. After the game, when asked what he had said to Landrith, Stengel said, “I told him to hit a home run.” No wonder the New York writers loved Casey Stengel.

I was a college student at Pitt in 1962 and interviewed Stengel after a Pirates-Mets game at Forbes Field and he was delightful, offering his best stuff even for a college student on one of his early magazine assignments. The Mets, by the way, won that game for their first victory after losing, I think, their first eight games. In typical Mets’ fashion that first year in the National League, the win was almost voided when Rod Kanehl, a pinch- runner for Gil Hodges, failed to touch third base on his tour of the bases. Solly Hemus, the third base coach, gave Landrith a sign to hold up between second and third and ran after Kanehl and escorted him back to the bag. If Landrith had passed him and touched third before Kanehl it would have voided one of the two runs.

In 1961, in his debut for the San Francisco Giants, the Pirates were up 1-0 in the bottom of the 11th inning when Landrith hit a game-tying home run to deep left field off relief ace El Roy Face. So Landrith had his moments in major league baseball. I’ve always said that you never know what you might see that you’d never see again when you attend a baseball game. These guys are proof of that. To check the lineup and the signing times for this show, check jpaulsports.com. Admission is $5 a day and children under 12 are admitted free. Friday’s time frame is 4 to 9 p.m., Saturday it’s 10 a.m. till 6 p.m., and Sunday it’s 10 a.m. till 4 p.m. It’s fun just to walk around and see all the baseball and sports cards, the old photos and sports publications, the old uniforms. The Pirates are on the road, playing Jim Leyland’s Tigers in Detroit, so it’s a good weekend to get out for a nostalgic look at baseball.

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien will be appearing all three days at the sports card and sports memorabilia show at Robert Morris University. His website is www.jimobriensportsauthor and his e-mail address is jimmyo64@gmail.com

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