The Thirty-Year Journey of a Major League Pitcher and Broadcaster

28 October 2009

From the Archives

Nellie Recalls the Moment the Pirates Won the 1960 World Series

In honor of tonight's first game of the 2009 World Series championship, Nellie recalls a series that the Yankees lost, in the last inning of the last game. Nellie's book is now on sale, and would make a great holiday gift for Pirate fans and baseball aficionados everywhere.

Enjoy this excerpt:

...The 1960 Pirates were a group of experienced, mentally tough, hungry, happy, at times crazy, but always-confident players who felt they owned the final three innings of every game. To the fans and the media, they were the “Battling Bucs.”

Benny Benack’s Dixieland Band created a loose and fun-filled atmosphere at Forbes Field that summer with a theme song written by an advertising agency for Iron City Beer, which had everyone singing, “The Bucs Are Going All the Way, All the Way this Year!” Little did the fans realize that the team’s trademark of coming from behind to miraculously win games would continue all the way to the final inning of the last game of the World Series.

The series was supposed to be a mismatch between the favored New York Yankees and the underestimated Pirates. It was, when you added the total runs scored that the Bucs won all the close games. Prior to the Series, I interviewed a few Pirates’ players, asking whom they thought would be the star of the Series. Groat, Face, Law, Hoak, Clemente, and Virdon were often mentioned. Harvey Haddix, whom I had played baseball with in the Army, was the only player to pick Bill Mazeroski. I asked him why, and with the wisdom of a veteran pitcher he said, “Because the Yankees will pitch to him.”

The Series, which began and ended in Forbes Field, was as dramatic as you could get. The Bucs won the opener 6-4, but were blown out in two straight embarrassing losses, 16-3 and 10-0. Their confidence shaking, the Bucs won the final two in Yankee Stadium with strong pitching from Law, Haddix, and Face, who saved the first three wins.

With the Pirates leading 3-2 in the series, back in Forbes Field for the sixth and, if needed, a seventh game, winning the World Series was now a reality for Pittsburgh fans.

However, Whitey Ford shut out the Bucs 12-0 for the second time, so there would be a seventh game. New York Daily News sportswriter Dick Young best described the situation. His lead line read: “As Mrs. Dionne said to Dr. Dafoe, ‘Don’t go away. There’s more to come’.” (Dr. Dafoe was the name of the doctor who delivered the famed Dionne quintuplets.)

The series now came down to one last game. It was to be the most memorable baseball game ever played in Pittsburgh, and perhaps in World Series, history. Blowing an early 4-0 lead, the Pirates trailed 5-4 following Yogi Berra’s three run homer off ace reliever Elroy Face in the sixth inning. The Yankees appeared to wrap it up with two more homers in the eighth for a 7-4 lead. But there was indeed “more to come.”

Trailing by three, the Pirates’ Gino Cimoli pinch hit for Face and singled to right center. Then the Pirates got a huge break when Virdon’s grounder to Tony Kubek appeared to be a sure double play ball, but the ball took a bad hop on the “alabaster plaster” (as Pirates’ announcer Bob Prince described the rock hard infield at Forbes Field), hitting Kubek in the throat and putting two on and no outs. The blow forced Kubek to leave the game and Joe DeMaestri replaced him at shortstop.

With nobody out, Groat gave one of many of his clutch hits, with a single to drive in Cimoli. Jim Coates replaced Bobby Shantz, who had earlier pitched four scoreless innings. With runners at first and second, Bob Skinner moved Virdon and Groat to third and second with a perfect sacrifice, but Rocky Nelson’s fly ball to right did not allow Virdon to score. With two out and a 7-5 lead, Coates would make the blunder that set the scene for the most exciting finish of a deciding game in the history of the World Series.

Roberto Clemente came to bat and tapped a slow roller down the first base line, which should have been the final out of the inning, but Coates was late covering at first and Clemente, hustling as he always did, was safe. Virdon scored, to cut the Yankees’ lead to one run at 7-6. Hal Smith, who replaced Burgess (who left for a pinch runner in the seventh) hit what then appeared to be the series-winning hit. With the count of 2-2, Smith hit a three run homer to left center that gave the Bucs a 9-7 lead going into the ninth.

Bob Friend, who rarely relieved, was called on to finish the game. Bobby Richardson and pinch hitter Dale Long opened the Yankees’ ninth with singles to put the tying runs on base. With the Yankees’ left-handed power hitters—Maris, Mantle, and Berra—coming up, Murtaugh had no choice but to go with left-handed pitcher Harvey Haddix. Harvey retired Maris on a foul out, but Mantle singled, scoring Richardson to make it 9-8 as Dale Long, the tying run, went to third just ahead of the throw by Clemente with only one out.

Casey Stengel, who had erred in allowing Long to stay in the game, finally realized he needed speed, and Gil McDougald was inserted to pinch run for Long at third base.

In one of the most unusual plays, Berra hit a line drive to Rocky Nelson, who was holding Mantle on at first base. Nelson trapped the ball, tagged first, which took off the force play at second. As Nelson went to throw to second, Mantle, who probably thought the ball was caught on the fly, or made one of the most intelligent running decisions in series history, (I firmly believe it was the former) slid back into first base ahead of Nelson’s tag, as McDougald scored the tying run. I vividly recall watching catcher Hal Smith after this play. His head and shoulders dropped in disbelief. The game was now tied and his three-run homer was just a footnote in the box score. Haddix then retired Bill Skowron to bounce out to end the inning.

Viewing the game from one of the booths overhanging the first base side at Forbes Field, I recall how eerily silent it was, similar to a wake, as the Pirates came to bat in the bottom of the ninth. Bill Mazeroski stepped in to face Ralph Terry, the fifth New York pitcher of the game.

The rest is history. Maz hit what many believe remains the most dramatic home run in baseball history to beat the Yankees 10-9 and capture the 1960 World Series Championship.

How Mazeroski felt during those historic moments remained untold until some forty years later. It came not during a sports interview, but during a post-dinner question and answer session at a Pirates Alumni golf outing at South Hills Country Club in the summer of 2001. An audience member asked Maz to “Walk us through what was going on in your mind at that time.” Maz, in his humble “aw shucks” way, preferred not to respond until everyone, players included, pleaded with him to do so.

Roy McHugh, a prominent sports writer for the Pittsburgh Press in 1960, had witnessed Maz’s home run, and when I told him later about the question asked by a fan at the dinner he remarked, “What a great question! Nobody thought to ask Maz that question before.”

As best as I can recall, this is how Maz described that unforgettable event:

“As a kid living in Rayland, Ohio, I was a big Cleveland Indians fan and hated the Yankees. I remember thinking as we took the field in the top of the ninth inning with a two run lead, ‘here we are, needing only three outs to beat the Yankees to win the World Series.’ However, when the inning began to fall apart and they tied the game I started to think, ‘The damn Yankees always seem to win the big games!’ After the inning ended in a tie, I sat dejected in the Pirates’ dugout, feeling the disappointment of losing the lead, until I heard a coach holler, ‘Maz, grab a bat, you’re the lead off batter in the inning.’

“I had completely forgotten I was the batter to open the bottom of the ninth inning.”

Maz continued his vivid recollection of that moment,

“All I was thinking of was getting a good ball to hit and to hit it hard. The first pitch from Terry was a high fastball that I took for a ball. I remember hearing Johnny Blanchard, who took over the catching duties when Berra moved to left field, holler to Terry, ‘Keep the ball down on this guy. He’s a good high ball hitter!’ The next pitch was another high fastball, but in the strike zone. I knew I hit it good and ran hard, knowing it could be a double and possibly a triple as Berra was going to have trouble fielding the carom off the left center field wall.

"As I approached second base, I noticed the third base umpire raise his hands signaling a home run. That’s when I began celebrating, waving my hat, knowing we had actually beat the Yankees. From the time I reached second base and saw the umpire signal home run, until I touched home plate, my feet never touched the ground.”

The crowd at Forbes Field, along with people working downtown and everywhere in western Pennsylvania, began a spontaneous and amazingly peaceful revelry. To this day, Pirates’ fans who took part in the celebration can tell you where they were and what they were doing when “Maz” hit that home run. Only a year ago a fan told me he was driving on Smithfield Street near Kaufmann’s department store, listening to the game on radio when “Maz” hit the home run. He jumped out of the car, left the motor running, went into a bar across the street and joined in the festivities. Soon the people in the bar moved out into the street with their drinks, joining in the bigger celebration outside. Confetti was now pouring from office buildings downtown; people were driving with their lights on, yelling, and honking their horns.

I was lucky to witness the Pirates’ clubhouse celebration. Players sprayed champagne all over the room as they shared hugs with each other. Bob Skinner and Bill Virdon each grabbed a bottle of champagne and shrewdly hid them in their lockers. ….

14 October 2009

PRESS RELEASE for Nellie's Book

Nelson “Nellie” King is a captivating storyteller who loves to share highlights from his long association with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He witnessed many historic moments during his days as a pitcher (1954-1957) and a broadcaster (1967-1975) with his beloved “Buccos,” from the 1950s when the Pirates were “in the basement” to the thrill of the 1971 World Series Championship victory. Now King has recorded his memories in his new book, Happiness is like a Cur Dog: The Thirty Year Journey of a Major League Pitcher and Broadcaster.

In his memoir, Nellie takes us from his birthplace in the hard coal-mining village of Weston Place, Pennsylvania, to the golden age of Pittsburgh Pirates baseball.

One of King's most cherished and vivid memories goes back to 1941 when, as a thirteen-year-old, he saw his first major league game at Shibe Park in Philadelphia as the Phillies squared off against the Cincinnati Reds. Back in those days, fans were allowed to exit from the playing field. As King walked past the visitors' dugout, his brother remarked that both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had sat there. Fourteen years later, on April 24, 1955, Nellie would also sit there in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform.

King considers 1956 the most enjoyable season of his major league career. Nellie was a part of the Pirates team that surprised everyone by moving into first place in the National League on June 20. That year, he had a record of 4-1, 7 saves, and an ERA of 3.15. Joe L. Brown, who was in his first season as a general manager, made a bold decision to go with a roster dominated with talented but inexperienced players, creating the nucleus of the 1960 World Series Champion team.

Although an arm injury unexpectedly ended his bullpen days in 1957, Nellie was able to keep a positive attitude and strong faith that things happen for a reason.

Nellie ultimately found his true second career, sports broadcasting, in 1960. From 1967-1975, he was one-half of the Pirates broadcasting duo alongside Bob “The Gunner” Prince on KDKA radio. Together, the “royal” team of Prince and King would broadcast what Prince called the "Halcyon Days" of Pirate baseball. Current Pirate color analyst Steve Blass thinks that Nellie had a great style of interviewing. Blass thought that King's best quality was to make the person he interviewed feel at home and comfortable.

King's playing and broadcasting careers spanned a generation, and his comments on the game as it is played today are wrapped in colorful stories from baseball's golden age. As the undisputed folk historian of Pirates baseball, King brings to life some of the greatest names in Pirates history: Branch Rickey, Danny Murtaugh, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Bill Mazeroski, Vernon Law, and Dave Giusti. With a sparkling talent for narrative and a reverence for the players, managers, coaches, sportswriters, and fans of his beloved Pirates, King provides rich insights into the politics and economics of baseball during a period of profound social and cultural change, particularly the game’s role in the transformation of race relations in mid-century America and the way that farm systems and growing franchises changed the meaning of baseball in America, on and off the field.

If you love the Pittsburgh Pirates, baseball history, or a good tale well told, this book is for you!

02 October 2009

The 1956 Pittsburgh Pirates' Official Team Photograph

Nellie is the tall guy in the middle of the second row from the top. In 1956, Roberto Clemente was the only Black player on the Pirates' team.

The Thirty-Year Journey of a Major League Baseball Pitcher and Broadcaster