1975 Pittsburgh Pirates: The Last October For A Steel City Staple

The Pittsburgh Pirates were one of the most successful organizations in the National League in the early part of the 1970s. They won the NL East each year from 1970-72 and took a World Series title in 1971. In 1974, the Pirates again won the NL East. The 1975 Pittsburgh Pirates continued the pattern of success their home city was enjoying across the board in sports—from the NFL’s Steelers to Pitt football.

Manager Danny Murtaugh had become a Steel City staple. He had been the skipper in 1960 when the Pirates won a dramatic World Series on Bill Mazeroski’s tiebreaking home run over the New York Yankees in the ninth inning of Game 7.

Murtaugh stepped down after the 1964 season, then returned to manage the 1971 championship team before again stepping down. When his successor, Bill Virdon, was sub-.500 deep into the 1973 season, Murtaugh returned and immediately got the team back on top of the NL East a year later. 1975 was Murtaugh’s last ride into October baseball.

Power and pitching were what keyed the 1975 edition of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The team led the National League in home runs and was second in slugging percentage. Willie Stargell, the 35-year-old first baseman hit 22 home runs. Catcher Manny Sanguillen slugged .491. Richie Zisk popped 20 home runs in left field, while centerfielder Al Oliver hit 18 home runs.

No one was better than Dave Parker. The rightfielder slugged .541, hit 25 home runs and had 101 RBIs. He finished third in the MVP voting, an award that ultimately went to Cincinnati Reds’ second baseman Joe Morgan. While Morgan had the better numbers, he also hit in the stacked lineup that was the Big Red Machine.

Pittsburgh had at least three dead offensive spots in their lineup, while Cincinnati had offensive depth.  Parker bore greater proportional responsibility for the Pirates, and there is at least a credible argument that he deserved the 1975 National League MVP.

Whatever runs were produced, the Pirate pitchers made the most of them. They finished second in the NL in ERA. Jerry Reuss was an 18-game winner with a 2.54 ERA. Jim Rooker, Bruce Kison, Dock Ellis and John Candelaria all had ERAs ranging from 2.76 to 3.23. No matter whose turn was up, the Pirates were going to have a good chance to win. Dave Giusti and Ramon Hernandez effectively handled the most important bullpen innings.

Pittsburgh’s start to the season was stop-and-go. They swept the Phillies at home and took three straight from the Mets in New York. But they also lost six of ten on a West Coast trip. The Pirates puttered into Memorial Day with a record of 19-18. Although, with no one taking a hold of the NL East, they were tied for the second with the Mets in a four-team race that included the first-place Cubs and the Phillies.

The early part of summer were good times. Pittsburgh won 10 of 14 out of the holiday weekend, including taking three of four from eventual NL West champion Cincinnati. That moved them into first place. Then they ripped off an 11-2 stretch. The Pirates were out to a five-game lead.  

A visit to Philadelphia brought Pittsburgh quickly back to the pack, with four straight losses. Two strange series with Chicago proved the right antidote. The Pirates played a six-game series with the Cubs at home, replete with two doubleheaders over a Thursday-to-Sunday stretch. The return trip to Wrigley the following week was a five-game set. Pittsburgh went 8-3 in the eleven games.

In the final week before the All-Star break, they won five of seven, and reached the midpoint at 55-43. It was good for a comfortable 6 ½ game lead on Philadelphia, with everyone else well in the rearview mirror.

With another chance to take firm control of the NL East race, the Pirates again settled into mediocrity, going 10-10 on the far side of the break. Mediocrity then turned into simply awful baseball—a 14-game road trip resulted in twelve losses. Pittsburgh was in full-scale meltdown in late August. Their lead dangled at a half-game. The Cardinals and Mets joined the Phils in being back in the race. And the Big Red Machine was coming to town for a four-game set. The Pirates needed to make a stand.

An old-fashioned Friday night doubleheader—starting in the early evening with just twenty minutes between games—got the series started. Zisk homered twice. Rennie Stennett knocked three hits at the top of the order. Larry Demery, who toggled between relief and spot-starting, took the mound and gave eight good innings. Pittsburgh won 7-2.

In the nightcap, the Pirates trailed 2-0 in the bottom of the eighth. In danger of wasting a strong outing from Candelaria, Stennett doubled following a leadoff walk. With runners on second and third, Bob Robertson popped out. A productive groundball from Oliver picked up a run, but there were two outs and Pittsburgh still trailed 2-1. Enter Parker. The big rightfielder homered for the lead. Hebner homered for some insurance. The 4-2 win capped a sweep of the twinbill.

The Pirates bolted to an early 4-0 lead on Saturday afternoon, but Kison melted down in the fifth. The Reds scored eight runs and Pittsburgh lost 12-7. But in the Sunday finale, Reuss went the distance, Stennett and Oliver each had two hits, and the latter homered and drove in three runs. A 5-1 win gave Pittsburgh a clutch series win and got them breathing again.

By Labor Day, Pittsburgh was 75-58, up four games on St. Louis and Philadelphia and plus-5 on New York. They were in Shea Stadium to start an important three-game series with the Mets.

The late afternoon holiday game on Monday was a matchup between Candelaria and the great Tom Seaver. Candelaria pitched well, but the Pirates mustered only four singles off of Seaver and lost 3-0. They needed to respond, and they did. On Tuesday night, Stennett set the table at the top of the order with three hits and a home run. Shortstop Frank Taveras had three hits at the bottom of the order. In between, Bill Robinson and Sanguillen homered. The result was an 8-4 win.

Reuss delivered another big complete-game win on Wednesday, winning 3-1 behind another Robinson home run. Pittsburgh had pushed back at least one challenger back a bit. And they followed this up with consistent baseball, winning 10 of 15 and holding a commanding six-game lead as we moved into the latter part of September.

The lead was still at six games when Pittsburgh hosted Philadelphia to open the season’s final week. A win could clinch it. The Pirates led a tight 4-3 game in the bottom of the seventh. Second baseman Dave Cash ripped a clutch two-run double for breathing room. In the eighth, the avalanche started, and Pittsburgh scored five times. When Tekulve got Philly’s Mike Rogodzinski to fly out to Parker in right, the NL East race was finally over.

Pittsburgh finished the regular season with 92 wins and moved into their fifth National League Championship Series in six years.

The only franchise in the NL that could go toe-to-toe with Pittsburgh consistently in the first half of the 1970s was Cincinnati, and the Reds had their best team. While there were some NLCS games that were good individually, the series itself ended up as a sweep for the Reds.

1975 was the last postseason appearance for Murtaugh, as the Pirates would be overtaken by the Phillies each of the next three seasons and Chuck Tanner took the managerial reins. But the baseball good times were hardly over in Pittsburgh—another World Series run in 1979 wasn’t far around the corner.