The Pirates were riding high, having won a dramatic World Series in 1971. Pittsburgh had won the NL East each of the last two years. Even with a managerial change—Bill Virdon took over for Danny Murtaugh, who retired upstairs to the front office–the 1972 Pittsburgh Pirates were more of the same. They ran away with the division title, and it took an exceptionally dramatic NLCS to keep them from returning to the Fall Classic.
Pittsburgh’s offense was quite different than what the modern game tends to offer. The Pirates weren’t into taking walks. Their home run power was mediocre. But they put the ball in play. Four regulars—Al Oliver, Vic Davalillo, Richie Hebner, and the great Roberto Clemente all batted over .300. Two more, Willie Stargell and Manny Sanguillen, were over .290. Dave Cash hit over .280. A key reserve, Gene Clines, hit .334. The Pirates led the National League in batting average and were second in doubles.
And while Pittsburgh only finished sixth in the 12-team National League for home runs, Stargell did provide some muscle—33 homers and 112 RBIs for the first baseman. With everyone else making contact and hitting the ball in the alleys, the Pirates finished third in the NL for runs scored.
The pitching staff was anchored by Steve Blass, who went 19-8 with a 2.49 ERA. Bob Moose made 30 starts, won 13 more games, and finished with a 2.91 ERA. Nelson Briles and Dock Ellis combined to start 52 games, got 29 wins between them, and ERAs in the high 2s/low 3s. Virdon got reliable spot-start work from 22-year-old Bruce Kison. And Dave Giusti’s 22 saves and 1.93 ERA led up a deep bullpen. Pittsburgh’s composite staff ERA was second in the National League.
Major League Baseball started an unfortunate trend of owner-player disputes in 1972, with the players being locked out of spring training. The start of the season was delayed until mid-April and those early games were not made up. The Pirates were slow out of the gate, going 5-8. It was early May, when they won two of three from the playoff-bound Cincinnati Reds, that Pittsburgh took off. That series win triggered a 19-5 run through Memorial Day.
The Pirates were sitting on a solid 24-14 record after the holiday, but the New York Mets were riding high at 28-11. The alignment of this era did not have a Central Division. Thus, Pittsburgh, the Chicago Cubs, and St. Louis Cardinals, were in the NL East, along with the Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, and Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals). The Reds, along with the Atlanta Braves, in a tortured display of geographic logic, were in the NL West.
Moreover, only the first-place team went to the postseason, so even with their strong start, Pittsburgh had some work to do as the calendar flipped to early summer.
That work began in earnest with a West Coast trip in early June. The Pirates won eight of ten, and pulled to within a half-game. By June 23, Pittsburgh was in a virtual tie for first with New York, and Chicago was just two games back. The Pirates were going on the road to play both rivals, and it would start with a weekend in Wrigley Field.
On Friday afternoon, Cash was the sparkplug, getting three hits at the top of the lineup. Clemente ripped a two-run triple. Blass worked into the ninth inning, and Giusti cleaned up the 4-2 win. On Saturday, trailing 1-0 in the seventh, Oliver tied the game with a home run. In the eighth, Sanguillen came up with a two-out/two-run single to put Pittsburgh ahead 3-1. Briles worked into the ninth and Giusti cleaned up.
Sunday’s finale was tight again through seven innings and Pittsburgh trailed 2-1. Sanguillen came to the plate in another big two-out spot, this time with the bases loaded. The catcher hit a grand slam. The Pirates unloaded for four more runs in the ninth and completed the sweep with a 9-2 win.
Over the same weekend, the Mets lost three straight to the Cardinals. So, even when Pittsburgh lost both games in New York to start the following week, the Pirates still led the division by a game.
The following weekend, the Cubs made the return trip to Three Rivers Stadium, then in its second year of existence. A four-game series opened on Friday night. The Pirates lost the opener 4-3 when the tying run was stranded on third base in the ninth inning. On Saturday, Pittsburgh again trailed in the ninth, 3-2. This time, Clemente delivered—a two-run walkoff blast to centerfield for the win.
Pittsburgh’s bats did what they did best on Sunday and that’s simply hammer out hits. Davalillo had a three-hit game, while Oliver, Sanguillen, and Bob Robertson added two apiece. The result was a 7-4 win.
In the Monday finale, the Pirates again trailed in the ninth inning, this time 2-1. This time it was Stargell’s turn to deliver the two-run walkoff bomb.
Pittsburgh had won six of seven games against Chicago, and in four of those wins, the Pirates trailed in the seventh inning or later. It was the most significant stretch in the portion of the season where the Bucs took control of the NL East. By the All-Star break, the Cubs had faded to 10 ½ back. The Mets were still very much in it, but Pittsburgh’s strong push to the break had extended their lead to 5 ½ games.
If the early summer was when the Pirates set the tone, the late summer was when they dropped the hammer. Pittsburgh took two of three from the Mets right out of the break, then racked up three wins in four games against the Phillies. Pittsburgh was plus-seven by the end of July. They stayed consistent through August, going 17-11, while the Mets just fell by the wayside. By Labor Day, Pittsburgh was 80-46 and their division lead had ballooned to twelve games.
The race would never get remotely close again. Pittsburgh rolled to a final record of 96-59, the best in the major leagues, a half-game ahead of Cincinnati, who had dominated the NL West. The Pirates cleared the field in the NL East by eleven games.
Pirates-Reds was the National League’s great postseason rivalry of this decade, this marking the second of four times they met in the NLCS in the 1970s. It was a rivalry that was not kind to Pittsburgh. They had already lost in 1970. This 1972 loss was particularly heartbreaking. In what was then a best-of-five series, the Pirates took Game 1, took Game 3, and then led 3-2 in the ninth inning of Game 5. That lead slipped away, and the series was ultimately lost on a wild pitch. The Reds went on to the World Series.
The NLCS loss was simply heartbreaking from a sports standpoint. The offseason was tragic from a human perspective. Clemente’s native Puerto Rico was devastated by an earthquake. The right fielder made a humanitarian flight to bring supplies. Clemente died in a plane crash at sea. Major League Baseball continues to honor his legacy with the Roberto Clemente Award, given out based on a player’s off-the-field work.