Sports:1965-66 Pittsburgh Pirates the Team Time Forgot

The Pittsburgh Pirates last World Series Championship was 1979, with the Willie Stargell, we are family Buccos, and a thrilling 7th game win over the Baltimore Orioles. The other championship seasons for the Pirates were 1909, 1925, 1960, and 1971.  The group that won the championships in 1909, 1925, and 1971, had some good runs of 3 to 4 years, that included a championship season.  The 1960 and 1979 Pirates had, that one year, of a magical combination of camaraderie, skill, and luck that led to a world championship. Then there was the  run of the Barry Bonds Pirates, that won three straight division titles in 90, 91, and 92, but could never quite make it to the world series. They are still talked and written about today. But a team that is rarely mentioned is the Pirates of 1965 and 66. For 1.9 seasons, they played some of the best baseball, this town has ever seen. From May 21 1965 until Oct 3 1966 the Pirates won 173 games and lost 108. From May 21 in 1965 they finished the season 81 and 48 for a winning percentage of .628.  Translated into a 162 game season that would be 102 wins for the year. In 1965 they were 90 and 72 and in 66 they were 92 and 70.  Unfortunately, there was a team out in Los Angeles that was simply better.

The beginning of the 1965 season marked the end of the first Danny Murtaugh era in Pittsburgh.  He had managed the Pirates to the 1960 World Series victory over the Yankees and the Pirates had mostly good years under his regime which began in mid season of 1957.   The new manager of the Pirates was Harry “The Hat” Walker.  Nicknamed the hat for way he always adjusted his hat between pitches, when he was batting.  There were no helmets in those days, when Walker played.  He was one of the most respected hitting instructors in baseball, and the Pirates developed into one of the best hitting teams in baseball during the next 2 years.  The Pirates still had a good core from the 1960 team which included Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente Bill Virdon and pitchers Vernon Law and Bob Friend.  But this was a team with lots of new faces.  Don Clendenon was at 1st, Gene Alley was the new shortstop, and a young Willie Stargell was the left fielder.  Bob Bailey, the new Pirate bonus baby as they liked to call them in those days, was the third baseman.  Jim Pagliaroni  and veteran Del Crandell anchored the catching.    The pitching staff besides Friend and Law had the fire balling Bob Veale and Don Caldwell to round out a solid rotation and Tommie Sisk was a spot starter. The season did not get off to a great start to say the least.  Bill Mazeroski had a broken foot suffered in spring training, and would not  field his position until mid May.  Roberto Clemente suffered a thigh injury in winter baseball, that would hamper him the first half of the season, and cause him to miss about 10 games in April.  Despite all of this the Pirates jumped out to a 5 and 2 start thanks to some very strong starting pitching, particularly by Bob Veale. But then they went on a skid, that would take them to 9 and 22.  Bill Mazeroski started his first game at second base on game 32, but even that could not get the Bucs going as they lost their next 2 games to drop to a season worse 9 and 24. At this point in the season, Harry Walker was considered more of a pain in the ass with his incessant talking and constant hitting instruction.  He really seemed to bug the great one, Roberto Clemente.  But from that point on this team really jelled.  They won their next 12 games, and became one of the best hitting teams in baseball the rest of the season and into 1966. After the 12 game winning streak, they lost their next 2 games, but then ran off another 7 in a row.  For the rest of the summer they treaded water, and finished at the All Star break 44-43.  They continued to have ups and downs after the break, until about mid August, and then they ran off a nice 12 and 2 streak.  The streak was highlighted by a great double header win over the Dodgers at Forbes Field. They beat Sandy Koufax in 11 innings in the first game 3-2, and Vernon Law out dueled  Don Drysdale 2-1 to win the second game, and move the Pirates to within  2.5 games of first place in the National league.  But alas, that would be as close as they would get. Even though they finished strong, by winning their last 4 games to finish 90-72, it would not be enough and they finished 3rd.  But it was one hell of a run in 1965. Vernon Law got the comeback player of the year, as well.

There was great hope entering the 1966 season with that great finish of 65.  The Pirates now loved the fact that Walker talked so much.  Even Clemente was getting use to hit. The 66 season saw the Pirates contend from the beginning. They got out of the gate quickly and were in first place from April 18th to May 4th.  They stayed near the top the rest of way until they regained first place on July 14th.  They remained in first or second except for one day until September 28. They were only 1.5 games out of first place with 3 games to play but were swept by the Giants and finished 3rd again only 3 games back.  It was the first year that Steve Blass contributed to the season in a big way with a an 11 and 7 record and ERA of 3.87.  This team could hit and they were a grinding team.  Their longest win streak was 6 and longest losing streak was 4.  They were never below .500 for the entire season.  They did everything well.  They seemed like a team that could take it all in 1967.  But again, it was not meant to be.  They acquired Maury Wills in the off season and it seemed that this would be the catalyst to propel the Pirates to the World Series.  The 67 team did not jell, however, and Walker was fired in mid season with Murtaugh taking over, but the results were the same.  It would only be Blass, Stargell, Clemente, and in a minor way Mazeroski, to be around for the run in the early 70’s that would bring the next title to the Pirates.  But, for  that two year period, this Pirate team played some great baseball, and was an exciting group to watch. They just couldn’t get to the big stage.  In my mind, it still does not diminish the way they played the game. I will always remember them and that magical stretch they had from mid May of 1965.

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