In the twist of history, we remember him as a 24-year-old rounding the bases while waving his helmet in the air. Later that day, he posed for a photo in which he planted a juicy kiss on the sweet spot of his bat.
Both images are true. Both images are disingenuous.
To know the man they called Maz, you’d have to look at his glove. It was a flat, worn piece of leather that reminded colleagues of an old miner’s glove, harkening back to his days as a child in Wheeling, West Virginia.
It had no padding. It had been tied and retied at the webbing. It had scuffs and scars that decorated the fingers.
A teammate once noted that it looked like something a dog had been chewing on.
From 1956 to 1972, he helped lead the Pirates in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health until he could do so no more. A man who made outs almost 75 percent of the time came to serve as a symbol of the Pirates: If you can’t attack, you defend.
During All-Star games, the opposition would come out early, not to watch the National League hitters like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron take batting practice, but rather to watch Maz field. Teammates were said to root for base runners during blowouts so they could watch Maz turn a double play with the grace of a ballerina and the efficiency of an assassin.
His speed in receiving and throwing the ball from second was so great, his manager had him filmed with stop action photography to see how he did it.
The results stunned him.
With 24 frames being shot each second, it took six frames for Maz to catch and release the ball.
One-fourth of a second.
And yet it’s that bat.
It overshadowed his 10 All-Star selections.
It had people forgetting about his 8 Gold Gloves
It probably cost him a chance to be elected to the Hall of Fame during his player eligibility.
That damned bat.
Fifty years ago this week, Bill Mazeroski ended one of the most bizarre World Series in history in an unduplicated fashion. He became and he remains the only man to win a World Series in the ninth inning of the seventh game with a home run.
The two squads who met in this star-crossed Fall Classic represented the “haves” and “have-nots” of baseball.
From 1950 to 1960, the Yankees had participated in nine World Series, winning six of them. They entered the post season with a freakish line up that included several future hall of famers and the American League’s MVP. They won 97 games against 57 losses, but that wasn’t what made them so good.
Bill Nack, a veteran sports journalist, once noted that every time the Yankees played in the World Series, they had a sense of destiny.
They were supposed to win. It was just the natural order of things.
Every time the Pittsburgh Pirates walked onto the field, they had a similar sense: they were destined to lose.
The Pirates hadn’t won the National League pennant since 1927. During the Yankees’ glorious run through the 1950, the Pirates had a more modest goal: escape the cellar.
It was a battle they rarely won.
From 1950 to 1960, the Pirates finished dead last six times. They finished second-to-last twice more. In 1958, the Pirates put together an 84-70 record, good enough to finish second to the Milwaukee Braves in the NL. The next year, they slid back toward mediocrity, finishing two games above .500 and leaving fans to wonder what would be next.
Next would be the breakout year. The Pirates surprised their fans and the rest of baseball by finishing with 95 wins. Vernon Law captured the Cy Young award and shortstop Dick Groat would win the MVP.
Next, unfortunately, would be the Yankees.
Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau once described this World Series as a taffy pull. The first six games were split three wins apiece, but to call them an even split would be stretching the truth beyond even the limits of taffy.
The Yankees won the second, third and sixth games, outscoring the Pirates by a total of 38-3. The Pirates won the first, fourth and fifth games by a total of six runs.
To fully understand this requires an understanding of how pitching and defense matter.
In Game 1 of the World Series, Pirate skipper Danny Murtaugh made the obvious choice, going with his Cy Young winner Vern Law. Yankee manager Casey Stengel took a less conventional route, starting Art Ditmar over future Hall of Famer Whitey Ford. In doing so, Stengel bet that he wouldn’t need Ford in a seventh game.
Revisionism on the part of Yankee fans has painted this decision as fatal and ill-conceived. Truth be told, Ditmar had both a better record and a better ERA than Ford did that season. While Ford would mature into an ace, he wasn’t a clear-cut choice to start the first game. Even more, Ford had arm surgery in the off season, leading to speculation that he wasn’t 100 percent during the series.
For the rest of the series, however, pitching deserted the Pirates. If the old Boston Braves relied on Spahn and Sain and pray for rain, the Pirates were Law, Law, Law. He had 20 of their 95 wins and two of their three wins in the series. Murtaugh’s squad relied on hurlers like Vinegar Bend Mizell, whose start in Game 3 would be his only postseason start of his nine-season career.
With the series on the line and with two of the losses coming at his home park, Murtaugh handed the ball to Law, who was pitching on three days rest.
If anyone had ever captured both the Yankees mystique and the Yankees attitude, it was Maz’s counterpart at second base, Bobby Richardson.
Richardson, who would hit .367 in the series, drive in 12 runs and drill a grand slam, became the only player from a losing team to win the Series MVP.
He understood winning. He understood greatness. He understood the Yankees.
“When we got down to the seventh game, I think we still had that air of confidence,” he once noted. “It was like, ‘OK, gang, it shouldn’t have come this far, but let’s go out there and finish this thing up.'”
A feeling of destiny.
On the other side of the field, the Pirates bolstered their confidence by reminding themselves that this was one game.
They had won three of them already. They had Vern Law. They had home field advantage. They had a roaring crowd of more than 36,000 fans on hand.
They also had an early lead.
First baseman Rocky Nelson drilled a homer to deep right field, scoring Bob Skinner and putting the Pirates up 2-0 in the first. They added two more runs, chasing starter Bob Turley, and doubling their lead, 4-0.
However, after that short burst of energy, the Pirates tightened and the Yankees began to chip away.
Moose Skowron led off the top of the fifth with a titanic homerun to deep right. In the sixth inning, the Yankees chased Law out of the game with a single by Richardson and a walk to Tony Kubek. Reliever Roy Face gave up a run scoring single to Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra followed with a three-run shot to right.
The Yankees led 5-4 in an instant.
Meanwhile, Bobby Shantz had kept the Pirates in check. After five innings of near perfect relief, he looked to be in line for his first win of the World Series as the eighth inning approached.
Statisticians abhor things that can’t be quantified. These quirks and gaffes and hiccups lead to legend and superstition and mayhem. Despite baseball’s best efforts to quantify each and every aspect of the game, some things go beyond the logic of numbers.
During the statistical revolution of baseball, Bill James and his disciples sought to assess every aspect of baseball through a numerical computation. One of the statistical approaches that emerged during that period was the “winning formulas.” The math is complex, but the concept is simple: After each play has ended, the eventual winner has either gained ground toward winning or toward losing. Certain acts are more helpful (those that drive in runs) or more harmful (grounding into double plays). The purpose of this Winning team’s Winning Expectancy (or wWE) is to help statically codify the logic of a game’s outcome.
With Roy Face entering his third inning of relief, the Yankees added to their lead in pure destiny-based Yankee style.
After Face got Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle to ground out and line out, respectively, he walked Yogi Berra. Skowron followed with a single and Catcher Johnny Blanchard replicated the act, plating Berra and moving Skowron to third. Clete Boyer drove a double into left, sending Skowron home and Blanchard to third. A Bobby Shantz flyball to right mercifully ended the frame.
The Pirates were down 7-4.
They had not scored since the second inning.
They had six outs left to do something.
Their wWE stood at 8 percent.
Fans abhor situations that seem hopeless. This is why while baseball is measured in numbers, it is remembered through emotion. When loss is certain, hope springs eternal. When numbers betray them, they conjure images of grit, guile and fate.
Pittsburgh broadcaster Myron Cope noted that while the Yankees had much the better team, it’s who wins over seven games and that the Pirates had team built on resolve. Their wins came late, came suddenly, came from nowhere.
As long as they were alive, they were dangerous.
And so it was when Bobby Shantz took the mound for the start of his sixth inning of work and he faced pinch hitter Gino Cimoli. Shantz had faced the minimum number of batters, erasing a Rocky Nelson walk and a Smoky Burgess single with a pair of double plays. He had worked through the Pirates lineup with ease and he had no expectation of that changing.
When Cimoli looped a 2-2 pitch just over Richardson and yet short of Mantle and Maris, Shantz shrugged it off and watched the infield set itself at double-play depth as it had in the third and seventh innings.
As if on cue, league MVP Bill Virdon slapped a tailor-made double-play ball to Kubek at short.
Kubek steadied himself for the perfect hop and could see the twin-killing unfold in his mind’s eye when destiny unraveled, fate intervened and hope pressed its way out of the infield dirt at Forbes Field.
The ball took an erratic bounce, springing off a rock, a chunk of dirt or perhaps even an ounce of luck. It sprung up like an attacking cobra and crashed into Kubek’s throat. He grasped at the ball and his gullet all at once. He gasped for air as he crashed to the field, the ball bounding harmlessly to his side and letting Cimoli and Virdon reach their stations safely.
Through no fault of his own, Shantz was now in a jam. As Stengel emerged from the dugout to replace his fallen shortstop, he made a quick detour to the mound and yanked Shantz for good measure.
Joe DeMaestri jogged out to short while Jim Coates emerged from bullpen to relieve Shantz, who was still in line for the win.
Coates retired Skinner on a sacrifice bunt and then got Nelson fly out to right.
Two on, two out and Roberto Clemente was the batter.
The Puerto Rican all-star had gotten a hit in every game during this World Series, a feat he would duplicate in his only other series appearance 11 years later. He had speed, grace, a quick bat and a rocket arm that scared base runners who had any compunction about stretching a single into a double.
In the most important at-bat in his young career, he dribbled a slow ground ball to Skowron at first, a play that a professional makes 99 times out of 100. A 1B-P put out.
Rather than jogging back to the dug out or dejectedly running out the play, Clemente took off down the line like a man in fear for his life. His legs churning, his arms pumping, his helmet flying off in his wake.
Skowron, seeing this, tensed for a moment. He made the grab on the big hop and quickly turned to throw to Coates, who was supposed to cover first on this play.
He looked up. Coates was standing on the mound.
Clemente beat it out. Virdon had scored.
Rattled and needing one more out to keep the lead for his team, Coates bore down as he faced Hal Smith, the second-string catcher. Smith had entered the game earlier that inning, taking over for pinch runner Joe Christopher, who subbed in for starter Smoky Burgess. On another even-money pitch, Coates threw one right into Smith’s wheelhouse and he crushed it to deep left, a three-run homer that capped a five-run comeback.
After reliever Ralph Terry came on and got Don Hoak to fly out to left, the Pirates’ wWE stood at 93 percent.
The script was simple: get three outs and win the World Series.
History would name the Pirates the underdog victor, tab Roy Face the lucky winner and give an unheralded career backup named Smith a moment of immortality.
The man charged with this mission was Bob Friend.
If Pittsburgh had a true number two starter, it was Friend, who was being pressed into duty as a reliever at this point. The score was 9-7 and Murtaugh wasn’t taking any chances.
And then the bleeding started.
Richardson cracked his 11th and final hit of the series to start the inning. Pinch hitter Dale Long followed with a single of his own.
Murtaugh could see his general manager crouching next to the dugout in the commissioner’s seating area, waiting for the game to end, so he could leap onto the field and celebrate.
He could see the tying run on base and three MVP winners coming up in rapid succession in the form of Maris, Mantle and Berra.
He could see it slipping away.
Murtaugh had to hang on. He had to. The moment called for action.
He sprang out of the dugout and yanked Friend, who had yet to retire a batter. He plugged in veteran Harvey Haddix, who a year earlier had thrown 12 innings of perfect baseball one night in Milwaukee. Haddix promptly got Maris to foul out to Smith behind the plate.
The tension failed to ebb.
Mantle stroked a single to right center, scoring Richardson and sending Long to third. Stengel sent Gil McDougald out to pinch run, hoping the extra speed could pick up a run with a long fly to one of Forbes Field’s deep outfield alleys.
Haddix worked carefully to Berra, who had homered earlier in the game. He cranked up and fired a breaking pitch that Berra poked toward Nelson at first. A quick throw to second and a relay back to first would end the game.
Nelson staggered as he went for the ball. He was off balance as he tagged first. It was a fatal error that would not be counted as such in the box score.
The force at second was no longer in play.
Seeing he couldn’t make it to second, Mantle dove back to first, a now-unoccupied base. Nelson lunged at him with the ball as Mantle angled his body away from him.
The tag missed. McDougald scurried home. The game was tied.
A Skowron fielder’s choice ended the inning as the stunned Pirates retreated to their dugout.
Of all the people who figured this game wouldn’t reach this point, Bill Mazeroski counted himself at the front of the list. When he took his fielding position in the top of the ninth, he had a simplistic view of the Yankees: Surely we can keep these guys from scoring two runs.
He was wrong. Now, he was up to bat.
“Someone in the dugout yelled, ‘Maz, you’re the hitter!'” he recalled decades later. “I forgot I had been on deck.”
He picked up his helmet and his bat and trudged out to face Terry, a control pitcher who was extremely difficult to hit when all of his pitches were working.
The first pitch came in high and inside, a toss that Blanchard didn’t want to see repeated.
“I can still remember Blanchard, the catcher… He walked out in front of the plate and yelled to Terry, ‘Hey! He’s a high-ball hitter! Get the ball down!” Mazeroski recalled.
Blanchard figured he’d go to an off-speed pitch, keep with Terry’s strength and even up the count.
“I called the wrong pitch,” Blanchard would repeatedly say in the following years. “I called a slider. The slider forgot to slide.”
Mazeroski whipped the bat through the strike zone and crushed the ball to one of the deepest parts of the park.
To call Forbes Field cavernous would be a bit unfair to caverns. The field measured 360 to the left field corner, 406 to left center and 457 to almost straight away center. Berra had a beat on it and was flying after the ball. Maz, thinking double, made the turn past first when he noticed something strange.
Berra had stopped running. He was staring at the wall.
The ball was gone. The game was over. The Pirates were champs.
Roy McHugh, the ancient Pittsburgh sports journalist, once said that the ball left the park at 3:36 p.m. At 3:37 p.m., Pittsburgh touched off “a civic orgy.”
One fan had a sign that said it all:
“Maz for President.”
Depending on how you view it, the homerun was the best or worst thing ever for Bill Mazeroski.
His homerun catapulted the Pirates to the top of the social landscape.
It had slain the giant.
It had made him a folk hero.
However, it overshadowed his defense.
It made him a one-trick pony in the minds of the casual fan.
It made him a target in New York.
When he retired, he had been, without a doubt, the finest fielding second baseman of all time. He was in the upper echelon of all fielders. His hitting was hampered by a terrible park that turned homers into fly outs and singles into ground outs.
Still, by any measure every attempted to quantify fielding, he was a god among men.
However, God doesn’t vote for the Hall of Fame. Men do.
Men who never played the game.
Men who wrote for newspapers about the legends of yore.
Men who hail from large cities. Especially men from New York.
In 15 years of eligibility, Mazeroski never came close to the 75 percent needed to enter the hall. He was viewed by some as a trivia question, by others as a “very very good, but not great” player.
Had he built his career with a dynamic bat and an inferior glove, he would have certainly been in the Hall. The Hall has magic numbers, all of them dealing with hitting: 3,000 hits and you’re in, 500 home runs and your in, .350 average and you’re in.
A strong glove and a weak bat meant you were a great guy, but forget the Hall.
In 2001, the man who had crouched in the commissioner’s box, waiting for the consummation of a World Series title, stepped to a microphone with a message he’d longed to share.
Joe Brown had watched for years as Maz had been passed over for the Hall. As a member of the Veterans Committee, he finally had a chance to do something about it.
Players voted in this committee, not the scribes of New York.
Owners who would have killed for a slick fielders like Maz voted, not the large-market writers who couldn’t find Pittsburgh on a map.
Brown spent several years trying to “convince people to think as I do” when it came to Maz and his dog-eared glove. He had finally succeeded.
“Today is a worthwhile day,” Brown intoned. “I’m smiling. Bill Mazeroski has been elected to the Hall of Fame.”
The rage was quick and swift from the sons of the scribes who filled the airwaves of New York with their howls about how disgraceful it was.
A sham, they decried.
A hoax, they groaned.
A flat-out shady ruse, they decided.
In a strange twist of fate, Maz was elected while Gil Hodges, of the great Brooklyn Dodgers and later of the New York Mets, was kept out.
Once more, small-market Pittsburgh defeated big-market New York.
As he hugged his bronzed plaque and took the stage with more current stars like Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett, Maz readied himself for the speech he had waited a lifetime to give.
Later that day, he took to the podium with several pages of well-worn notes, prepared to explain how happy he was to have received this honor. How defense mattered as much as anything in this game. How he loved everyone who supported him.
And then he couldn’t. A brief moment into his speech, his eyes welled up with tears. He shook with choked-back sobs. He flipped through his speech, desperately looking for something that could help anchor him and get him back on track.
It was nowhere to be found.
As the crowd realized what was happening, they began to applaud him. It sounded like a rainstorm that built slowly with a few small drops and then broke into a full-on pour.
He looked out at the adoring masses and said what he’d longed to say for so long.
“Thank you everybody.”