The baseball playoffs start today and since my Chicago teams aren’t in them (they rarely are) it’s good to have a Plan B. This year I have one in the Pittsburgh Pirates.
I lived in Pittsburgh from New Year’s Day, 1963, until Labor Day, 1966, almost four years. I went there to take a job on the copy desk at the Pittsburgh Press, one of two largish newspapers that offered me employment after I’d completed my six months of active duty with the Army Reserve.
Working in Pittsburgh hadn’t been my objective but getting on a metropolitan paper was; in my previous jobs in Champaign and Elgin, Ill., and Ann Arbor, Mich., I’d seen too many good newspaper people stuck in small towns past the point they could easily leave, and I’d resolved to escape that trap. My other bid was from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and for meteorological reasons Pittsburgh seemed the better choice.
It turned out that being chained to a copy desk wasn’t for me, and by the summer of ’63 I was looking for alternatives. Providentially, I got a call from the Wall Street Journal, with whose Chicago bureau chief I’d previously interviewed. I’d scarcely remembered the chat but for some reason he had, and when an opening arose in the paper’s Pittsburgh bureau he passed along my name. I didn’t know a stock from a bond (really), and never had read the paper before I went to work there, but when the Journal offered I accepted, figuring I’d at least get out of the office once in a while.
Life is a series of accidents and this one turned out happily. My new colleagues by example taught me more about reporting in a few months than I’d picked up the previous six years, and I thrived under the paper’s nurturing regime. My late wife Carol and I liked Pittsburgh, too. It wasn’t the city our native Chicago was but it was livable on our modest budget, and a half-hour’s drive in any direction from our home in suburban Crafton got us out into some pretty, rolling countryside. We had children there, and made friends, and were sad to leave when the paper transferred me to New York.
Carol wasn’t a sports fan, and the kids kept us busy, so I didn’t do much ballgame-going in Pittsburgh, but several times I did make it out to Forbes Field, where the Pirates played. It was a big old park, a remnant of the dead-ball era when shots between the outfielders could roll forever and triples were frequent. Sometimes they’d roll under the batting cage, which after batting practice was stashed on the playing surface in deep-center field because there was no other place to put it. You don’t see that sort of thing anymore.
I mostly followed the Pirates (or ”Bucs”—short for Buccaneers-- as they’re called in Pittsburgh) on radio and TV. This acquainted me with Bob Prince, one of the best baseball mike-men ever. Prince was smart and clever, a “homer” who nonetheless made baseball fun even if you weren’t a local. He hung whimsical nicknames on Pirate players of the era (the light-footed centerfielder Bill Virdon was “The Quail”; the tall, stooped leftfielder Bob Skinner, who ran with a bent-legged gait, was “The Dog”), crowed “we had ‘em all the way” after close wins, and sometimes interrupted his playing-field narratives to verbally admire females in the stands. It wasn’t PC but you had to smile.
It didn’t hurt that Prince was a legend in his own time who earned his macho bones with a dive into the swimming pool of a St. Louis hotel from a third-floor balcony, and something of a night-life hero as well. It was said that his nickname “The Gunner” stemmed not from any rapid-fire delivery but from his being threatened by a gun-toting man while he was chatting up the guy’s wife in a bar.
There are reasons besides personal nostalgia to root for the Pirates this fall. This season they broke an epic, 20-year run of sub-.500 finishes, a record for futility even my Cubs can’t match. Their last playoff appearance was in 1992 and ended in agonizing fashion when they blew a 2-0 ninth-inning lead to the Atlanta Braves in the seventh and deciding game of the National League Championship Series. Pirate fans still can see Sid Bream, a heavy-legged Brave, chugging home with the winning run in that one, just eluding catcher Mike LaValliere’s tag after a Barry Bonds throw. I covered that series and recall the play vividly.
It’s widely held that Pirate fans are loyal and long-suffering, and thus worthy of occasional success. I agree with the conclusion even though only the last part of that description is true. The steel mills are long gone but the Pittsburgh area remains blue-collar in spirit, an agglomeration of towns around a smallish central city (population about 300,000) where people are careful with their dollars and wary of enthusiasms.
Sure, they love their football Steelers, but who wouldn’t? The team long has been one of the NFL’s best, and you can fill a big football stadium even in tiny burgs like Clemson, S.C. The Pirates, on the other hand, have topped the 2 million mark in season home attendance just five times in their century-plus history, and this season are averaging only about 28,000 spectators a game, 19th in the majors. The team draws better on the road than at home.
But the people who do show up like what they see and for the nonce, glad to reclaim my Pittsburgh past, so do I. Go Bucs! Win one for The Gunner.