1976 Pittsburgh Pirates: The End Of An Era

Danny Murtaugh was an institution in Pittsburgh. He managed the Pirates from 1959-64, a stretch that included a historic World Series title in 1960. He managed the Buccos again in 1970-71, winning another epic World Series in ’71. After again trying his hand at retirement, he was summoned out and won NL East titles in 1974 and 1975. And speaking of institutions, the Pirates themselves were one in the NL East. Since the leagues split into an East and West division in 1969, Pittsburgh had finished first five times in seven years. The 1976 Pittsburgh Pirates marked the end of both institutions. It was Murtaugh’s final campaign, and the Pirates ceded control over the division.

Some trades that didn’t work out were one key reason for the slippage. Pittsburgh acquired starting pitcher Doc Medich from the New York Yankees. Medich wasn’t bad, but the price included an even better starter in Dock Ellis. Even worse, a talented young second baseman in Willie Randolph was shipped to the Bronx. Pittsburgh then swung a deal to get a veteran second baseman, Tommy Helms. At the age of 35, Helms was fading. The player the Pirates gave up to the Houston Astros was Art Howe, who turned into a reliable third baseman.

Even so, Pittsburgh still had a good team in ’76. The everyday lineup was led by the outfield. Rightfielder Dave Parker slugged .475 and drove in 90 runs. Al Oliver played centerfield and hit .323. Richie Zisk was in left, and he batted .289 and popped 21 homers. At first base, Willie Stargell was now 36-years-old, but he still hit 20 home runs. And then there was Bill Robinson. Grabbing playing time around the outfield and at first when the other players took a day off, Robinson got 416 plate appearances. He batted .305 and hit 21 homers.

Manny Sanguillen was behind the plate and had a nice bat, hitting .290. The problem came in a lack of production from second base, third base, and shortstop. None of Rennie Stennett, Richie Hebner or Frank Taveras were productive.

The pitching was well-balanced and had no real weak points. John Candelaria was 22-years-old, and the young lefty won 16 games with a 3.15 ERA. Jerry Reuss, Jim Rooker and Bruce Kison combined to win 43 games, and all had ERAs in the 3s. Medich’s ERA was 3.51. The bullpen got good work from Bob Moose, Larry Demery and Kent Tekulve.

With the pitching the problem is that no one was a standout. ERAs in the 3s are good, but in the 1970s, it wasn’t as impressive as it is today. Pittsburgh lacked a clear stopper, just as the offense lacked anyone having a signature year. The Pirates finished third in the 12-team National League for runs scored and fourth for composite ERA. They were certainly good. But the bar was being set high in the NL this season.

It’s also worth reminding younger readers that the standards for making the postseason were considerably more rigorous than they are today. There were just two divisions per league and only the first-place team went to the postseason. Pittsburgh had to hold off the up-and-coming Philadelphia Phillies. The division was rounded out by the New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs and Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals).

Pittsburgh opened the season with two games in Philadelphia. The Pirates took a 3-1 lead into the eighth inning before giving up three runs. But in the ninth, Parker worked a walk, Hebner doubled, and Robinson tied it up with a sacrifice fly. Demery came out of the bullpen and kept the game tied 4-4 into the 11th inning. With two outs, a misplayed fly ball in rightfield put Hebner on third base. He scored on a base hit from Mario Mendoza. The Pirates stole a 5-4 win. They came out on Sunday and attacked Phillie lefty Steve Carlton. Sanguillen’s three hits led a balanced attack and keyed an 8-3 win.

All was well in the Steel City, as these wins keyed a 6-1 start. But when Philadelphia came west to Pittsburgh, the Pirates dropped two straight. Then they went on a road trip west and lost six of nine. They did rebound and played pretty well in May. But the Phillies got red hot. By Memorial Day, Pittsburgh’s record was a respectable 24-18. But Philly was soaring at 29-10, the best record in baseball and 6 ½ games in front.

The Pirates went on to lose three of four to the Cincinnati Reds, fresh off winning the World Series in 1975 and destined to repeat this coming October. But Pittsburgh bounced back by going 8-3 on a road trip through Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, and Montreal, none of whom were very good. The Pirates swept the Cubs three straight at home back in Pittsburgh.

But an opportunity to make up some ground at home against Philadelphia was missed when the teams split a four-game set over Fourth of July weekend. Pittsburgh went on to split four more with Cincinnati in the last series before the All-Star break. The Pirates were a healthy 46-35. But the Phillies were 56-25.

A late July visit to Philadelphia was an absolute disaster. Pittsburgh lost four of five by a combined score of 39-17. The Pirates were many as 14 ½ games back as late as August 12. But they got hot. And the Phils finally cooled down.

Pittsburgh ripped off a sizzling 17-6 stretch. By the time they started a big three-game set with Philadelphia on Labor Day, the record was 77-58 and the margin was 7 ½ games. It was a tough row to hoe, to be sure. But with five head-to-head games in September, no one could write off the veteran Pirates.

A Labor Day doubleheader in old Three Rivers Stadium started the must-win stretch. In an opening game that started at 10:30 AM, Kison pitched eight good innings. Pittsburgh scored three runs in the third, thanks to four straight two-out singles from Zisk, Stargell, Parker, and Robinson. They won 6-2. In the 1:30 PM “nightcap,” Demery got a start. He made the most of it, dealing a four-hitter. He got support from an RBI double by Sanguillen in the second, and a two-out/two-run triple from Robinson in the third. Pittsburgh won 5-1.

Hebner took over the finale, driving in four runs against Carlton. Rooker went the distance for Pittsburgh. The 5-1 win cut the lead to 4 ½ games and let everyone in Philadelphia know this race wasn’t over yet.

The Pirates stumbled at home, losing three of five to the Expos and Mets and the margin was back to six when Pittsburgh went to Philadelphia for two games on September 15-16. Once again, the proud veteran team wouldn’t go quietly. Parker had four hits and homered in the opener. Robinson and Zisk also went deep in an easy 7-2 win.

In the Thursday night finale, Robinson homered again and drove in four runs. Stargell homered. This one was tied 6-6 in the top of the ninth. Duffy Dyer was hit by a pitch. Stennett ripped an RBI double to center. The Pirates were still within four games and there were still two-plus weeks to play.

But games with the Mets, Cubs, and Cardinals—with New York the only team above .500—were another disaster. Pittsburgh lost eight of the twelve games. By the time the final week of play began, the NL East race was over.

On the last day of the season, Pittsburgh swept a doubleheader form St. Louis. Both games were 1-0, and the latter was a walkoff. It was a nice way to end Murtaugh’s terrific career.

The Pirates finished the season 92-70. It was still one of the top records in baseball. In fact, only Philadelphia, Cincinnati and the New York Yankees won more games. But in the world of 1976, it wasn’t enough.

Murtaugh retired, and sadly passed away from a stroke a little more than a month after the season was over. A Pirate legend was gone.

The next two years were more of the same for Pittsburgh. With Chuck Tanner now in the dugout, the Pirates had good teams, but ran behind Philadelphia. But a return to October wasn’t far off—in 1979, Pittsburgh returned to the top of the NL East. They returned to the World Series. And they ended the decade with another championship.