The 1969 Pittsburgh Pirates Get Undone By A Bizarre June
The 1969 Pittsburgh Pirates entered the season on a modest downward path and ended the year with a manager being fired. But in spite of those bleak bookends, the franchise made progress on the field and set the stage for an outstanding run in the decade to come.
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After winning the 1960 World Series on Bill Mazeroski’s historic ninth-inning walkoff in Game 7, the Pirates hadn’t won another pennant (although through 1968 only the first-place team made the postseason and advanced directly to the World Series) and after 90-win seasons in 1965-66, began to decline. Pittsburgh was .500 in 1967 and slightly under, at 80-82 in 1968. Manager Larry Shepard, now in his second year, needed to get things turned around.
1969 was a threshold year in baseball. Expansion put the National League at 12 teams and for the first time, MLB split into divisions. The two-divisional alignment had the Pirates in the NL East. The principal rival at the beginning of the season was the St. Louis Cardinals who had won it all in 1967 and taken the NL pennant in 1968. The Chicago Cubs and New York Mets would prove to be more than a handful in ’69 as well.
The Pirates strength in 1969 was a potent offense, the second-best in the National League in runs scored. And it was a young offense. Al Oliver was 22-years-old at first base, and finished with a stat line of .333 on-base percentage/.445 slugging percentage. Richie Hebner, age 21 on the opposite side of the infield, was at .380/.420. Willie Stargell was entering his prime at age 29 and hit twenty-nine home runs with 92 RBI and his .556 slugging was fourth in the NL.
Mazeroski was in decline at second base and the Pirates didn’t get a lot of offense at shortstop, but young Freddie Patek was a stellar defender. Patek would eventually land in Kansas City and be a starter on teams that won the AL West each year from 1976-78.
Manny Sanguillen manned the catching spot and hit .303, while centerfielder Matty Alou had an OBP of .369 and drilled 41 doubles into the gaps of old Forbes Field, down near the campus of the University of Pittsburgh.
And there was a great veteran setting the tone in rightfielder. Roberto Clemente was now 34-years-old, but he could still field and hit. Clemente won a Gold Glove, had an OBP of .411 and with his .544 slugging percentage he was right behind Stargell in the National League’s top five. To top it off, Clemente’s .345 batting average was second only to Pete Rose in the NL batting race.
Scoring runs might not have been a problem, but preventing them was. The Pittsburgh staff finished just eighth in the National League in ERA. Steve Blass won 16 games and in two short years would be a World Series hero, but his ERA was up over 4. Bob Veale was respectable, but age 33, not anyone you would call a stopper. Dock Ellis was an up-and-comer at 24 and had a decent 3.58 ERA, but ended up 11-17. The great Jim Bunning managed a 10-9 record and 3.81 ERA, but at age 37 was past his prime.
Bob Moose, who split his time between the rotation and the bullpen, proved to the best pitcher on the team, going 14-3 with a 2.91 ERA. The rest of the bullpen was mediocre, with Luke Walker (3.64 ERA), Chuck Hartenstein (3.95 ERA) and Bruce Dal Canton (3.34 ERA).
It’s important to emphasize that these ERAs come in a pitching-dominated era when the mound had just been lowered to try and restored the pitcher-hitter balance in favor of the offense. Pittsburgh’s arms weren’t keeping up with the pace the rest of the league was setting.
The Pirates couldn’t have started the 1969 season much better—they swept the Cardinals on the road, then swept a two-game homestand with the Mets, including a shutout by Bunning. The Pirates swept two more from the Cubs at Forbes Field on their way to a 10-4 start.
Late in April, losing three of four in St. Louis started a backlash wherein Pittsburgh lost 12 of 17 and were six games out of the lead on May 18 (a date that always means a lot to me, because it was May 18-19 in 1999 that I moved to Pittsburgh for a great nine-year run. But I digress). The losing streak hit its peak in Los Angeles when the Pirates lost three straight to the Dodgers over a weekend series, with the Friday and Sunday losses being particularly galling.
On Friday night, the Pirates scored three times in the top of the ninth including a two-run single by Oliver and took a 3-2 lead. The bullpen gave it back with a two-run blast in the bottom of the ninth and a 4-3 loss. On Sunday, Stargell’s RBI double in the top of the ninth broke a 4-4 tie and gave Pittsburgh the lead. Reliever Pedro Ramos promptly gave it back with a solo home run and the Moose couldn’t stop a Dodger rally for the winning run later in the inning.
The Pirates reached the Memorial Day turn at 22-20, in second place in the NL East and six games back of the Cubs. Pittsburgh then played sluggish baseball, going 8-10, while Chicago surged forward and by the middle of June, the Pirates were staring at an 11-game deficit. Fortunately, the Cubs were coming to Forbes Field and the four-game set began a bizarre two-week stretch that essentially settled the fortunes of the 1969 Pittsburgh Pirates.
On a Monday evening, June 16, the Pirates won a 9-8 slugfest by coming behind in the eighth inning. A three-run rally was keyed by an Oliver home run, capping a 4-RBI night for the first baseman. Tuesday was a twilight doubleheader, starting at 6 PM. The opener was a pitcher’s duel and Veale outdueled Chicago’s great Ferguson Jenkins in a 1-0 win. In the nightcap, Pittsburgh was down 3-1 in the eighth. They tied it up, with Stargell delivering the key RBI single. In the ninth, a walkoff single by Hebner brought in the winning run.
The improbable sweep was capped on Wednesday night. Trailing 2-0 in the eighth, Clemente’s two-run blast tied the game and then light-hitting Jose Martinez came up with two-out RBI single in the tenth inning to win it. Pittsburgh was 34-30, and while they still had a seven-game deficit, they were back in the race.
One week later, the Pirates and Cubs got together at Wrigley Field for another four-game set, all under the lights in the all-daytime era of Chicago Cubs baseball. And what happened the previous week got turned completely on its head.
Pittsburgh took a 4-3 lead in the opener behind five combined hits from Mazeroski and Patek at the bottom of the order. A combination of three relievers gave up the lead in the ninth inning of a 5-4 loss. Tuesday was a 3-2 loss, as Bunning gave up an early three-run shot to Ron Santo and the Pirates could not rally.
A Jenkins-Veale rematch was on tap for Wednesday and this time the Veale was not the best in the city (a Godfather reference for those who didn’t get it). Jenkins threw a two-hitter in a 5-2 win.
The season slipping away, Stargell, Sanguillen and Clemente came out swinging on Thursday, each hitting a home run. Pittsburgh led 5-3 in the eighth with Ellis on the mound. Dock gave up a two-run shot to Santo to tie the game. Dal Canton surrendered another two-run shot in the tenth that ended a 7-5 loss.
The Pirates were back where they started when this run of eight games against the Cubs began—eleven games off the pace. In late June, Pittsburgh started a seven-game losing streak that finished whatever hopes of a comeback might be lingering.
They didn’t give up the season though. The Pirates chipped back near the .500 mark by the All-Star break at 47-48 and had a strong August against NL West opponents, ripping off a 13-2 stretch. It never got them back in the race, but it lifted the record to 68-56. The team then played just above .500 the rest of the way, finishing 88-74.
It was going to be a new era moving forward. Shepard was fired with five games left in the season in spite of the team’s improvement off the previous two years. The franchise would leave Forbes Field the following June and move into Three Rivers Stadium. They also had bigger winning ahead of them. Pittsburgh won the NL East in 1970, won the World Series in 1971 and were the NL East’s flagship team in the decade to come.