The Pittsburgh Pirates' Last World Series
Forty years removed from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ most recent championship, the “We Are Family” Pirates reflect on the myriad differences between their game and the one played on the North Shore today.
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Before sabermetrics took over the game, before managers heard of laptops and electronic spreadsheets, when on-base percentage was just a number rather than a dividing line, the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates belted, bopped and boogied their way to baseball’s mountaintop.
Their lineup was laced with characters with nicknames to match, from “Pops” to “Mad Dog” to the “Cobra” to “Scrap Iron” to the “Candy Man.” The roster featured African-Americans — some from the first all-black lineup in big-league history — Latinos and whites. The Pirates defied conventions of the day and the game. They were free spirits who swung freely. Beneath their swagger were grace and grit. They persevered, and they believed.
The Family, as that team came to be known thanks to captain Willie Stargell’s embrace of a pop song by Sister Sledge, is in its twilight now. Stargell, the glue at first base, died in 2001, the same year PNC Park opened. Manager Chuck Tanner, the New Castle native and preternatural optimist, died a decade later. Brash, hard-slugging rightfielder Dave Parker, pro baseball’s first million-dollar-a-year athlete, is battling Parkinson’s disease.
Some still live in or near the ‘Burgh. That group includes Kent Tekulve, the beanpole submarine-ball closer known as the “Rubber Band Man”; Grant Jackson, the southpaw reliever teammates called “Buck”; and Manny Sanguillen, the reserve catcher who, along with Stargell, was the team’s last connection to Roberto Clemente. Another pitcher, Jim Rooker, who saved their season at its most critical moment, lived in the Pittsburgh area from 1973 to 2006 and has lived in Florida since.
Little could any of them have known during the run that culminated with a dramatic, come-from-behind World Series win over the Baltimore Orioles that The Family’s days were distinctly numbered, and so, too, an era when the Pirates were one of the game’s most colorful teams — laden with talent and pioneers when race still cut sharply through sports. Halfway into the next decade, The Family splintered: Just a handful of the ’79 Pirates remained on the roster in 1985 for a team that topped 100 losses and became mired in a drug scandal, marring the team and the sport.
Money and math have reshaped the game, leaving the Pirates to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, unwilling to spend at the rate needed to fill a roster with the kind of talent the ’79 Bucs boasted and unable to find a formula to replicate their championship success, which was driven by a dazzling and diverse band of hard-partying, trash-talking, tough-as-nails ballplayers who laughed at doubters and danced to their own unique victory beat.
“When we get together now,” Rooker says, “we talk about guys playing the game today and ask if this guy or that guy could have made it with us. Most of the time, we say, ‘Nah. He couldn’t have.’”
Following 767 games as a big-league infielder, his career cobbled together with modest skills and a .254 lifetime batting average, Danny Murtaugh took over as manager of the Pirates in 1957.
By 1960, he had guided them to their first World Series win in 35 years. In 1971, Murtaugh led the club to a second title. No one in the 132-year history of the franchise has matched that feat; Murtaugh, who retired in 1976 and died following a stroke later that year, remains the only Pirates manager to claim more than one championship.
Another of the firsts recorded that season doesn’t always get its due in the eyes of former outfielder Al Oliver and other ex-Pirates who were part of it. On Sept. 1, 1971, Murtaugh started the first all-black lineup in major league history.
Two of the starters from that 1971 lineup — Stargell and second baseman Rennie Stennett — were regulars on opening day in ‘79. A third, Sanguillen, held a roster spot.
The roots of the culture that prevailed in the Pirates clubhouse that year can be traced to Murtaugh’s historic lineup for a night game against the last-place Philadelphia Phillies.
“When it comes to making out the lineup,” Murtaugh shrugged at the time, “I’m color-blind and my athletes know it.”
The ’79 Bucs teased one another relentlessly over that subject and many others. Almost everything was fair game for a club known for loving cold beer, hard laughs and any pitch a bat could reach.
Verbal taunts were constant between Parker, the “Cobra,” and infielder Phil “Scrap Iron” Garner.
“You couldn’t print the things we said to each other,” Garner says. But “I respected the hell out of Dave Parker, and I’m pretty sure he respected me.”
Those barbs also had a point.
“There was a little bit of purpose in our banter,” Garner recalls. “It was a way of controlling behavior you didn’t want. If you made a stupid base-running mistake, Dave Parker was gonna bury you. And I would do the same to him. Nobody was above reproach. If you did something foolish, you were going to hear about it.”