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.
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.”
Gatherings on a Florida beach for beers and burgers at the end of spring training were a rite in the 1970s before the start of the season. Inevitably, talk came round to winning it all.
“We always expected to be in the World Series,” Rooker says.
That expectation was dashed during three consecutive regular seasons from 1976 to 1978, with the Pirates finishing second in the NL East to the Philadelphia Phillies each year.
Through more than a third of the ’79 season, the Bucs looked like a team that would again head home in October. On June 14, they dropped a 2-1, 14-inning decision to San Diego, their fifth straight loss, to fall to 28-28. That left the Pirates in fourth place, six games behind division-leading Montreal.
They promptly awakened to take six in a row, going 70-36 the rest of the way.
Stargell, 39 years old and playing in his 17th season, knew something special was happening by late July. Playing in Montreal, outfielder Lee Lacy grounded into what looked to be a double play. Instead, Lacy was called safe at first.
“He was easily out and nobody argued,” Rooker says. “I looked over at Willie and said, ‘Wasn’t Lee out?’ And Willie said, ‘Rook, I’m gonna tell you something. We’re gonna win it all this year.’ I said, ‘How can you say that now? It’s only July.’ And he said, ‘Because the last time we won, it happened like this. The little things went our way.’”
The Pirates won that day to inch to a half-game division lead over the Expos. It was the first time that season they held first place. Pittsburgh finished with a National League-best 98-64 record, then swept the Reds in three games to take the pennant.
A familiar foe awaited them. After cruising to the American League East title with a 102-57 record, the O’s dispatched the California Angels in four games to advance to the World Series.
By then, the Pirates were the talk of sports, rocking to “We Are Family,” bound by Stargell and the stars he awarded teammates to place on their caps for stellar performances. The Bucs were back in the national spotlight.
Their self-assurance never wavered, not even on the night their wild run was on the line.
People call him Johnny Baseball, a nickname based on his encyclopedic knowledge and lifelong love of the game.
John Perrotto grew up in Beaver County, reared on baseball by his father, a steelworker who taught his son how to read box scores at age 5. Perrotto’s infatuation with the game never ebbed, even five decades later. He flew to Florida in February for his 32nd spring training. He covers the Pirates for DK Sports and is regarded as Pittsburgh’s most knowledgeable baseball writer.
His memory, which borders on photographic, carries him back to Oct. 14, 1979, when he and his father received a pair of free tickets to Game 5 of the Series. They sat five rows from the Three Rivers Stadium field.
That provided an up-close view of history. Down three games to one in the best-of-seven Series, Tanner gave the ball to Rooker. The move did not compute. Rooker was 37 and coming off a 4-7 season marked by injuries. Baltimore scouts said he had a sore arm.
O’s first baseman Eddie Murray begged to differ. Rooker proudly remembers Murray’s reaction to being jammed on an inside fastball.
“Murray said, ‘Sore arm, my ass,’” Rooker recalls.
Teammates describe the five innings Rooker pitched as the best any Bucs hurler threw all season. The Pirates rolled to a 7-1 victory and then took the last two games to capture the Series.
Like the ’60 and ’71 champs, the ’79 Bucs defied the odds as they might have defied the calculations of the mathematicians who dominate baseball today.
“I think it has a place,” Perrotto says of sabermetrics, which emphasizes statistical analysis over scouting for strategy and player evaluation. “I’m not anti-sabermetrics. But I think it’s overrated. There are things that don’t show up in statistics. You can’t weight attitude.”
Few players brought more attitude than Garner, who went on to manage 14 years in the big leagues, shepherding the Houston Astros to their first pennant in 2005. He sees value in numbers — to a point.
“Chuck Tanner and [Orioles Manager] Earl Weaver were both numbers guys,” Garner says. “Baseball is a numbers game. But there is more to it than that. Chuck and Earl Weaver knew that. This numbers thing sometimes goes too far, in my opinion.”
Both Rooker and Jackson are mystified by baseball brass’ emphasis on spin rate, a measure of the ball’s spin following its release from a pitcher’s hand. Spin affects velocity and trajectory. Or so it goes.
“Man, I don’t even know what that is,” Jackson says.
Rooker is sure Parker would have displayed no patience for front-office types who never played the game touting wisdom gleaned from spreadsheets.
“Parker would have run their asses right out of the clubhouse,” Rooker says. “We didn’t need that stuff.”
Sabermetrics is only one of the changes the game has seen since the Pirates’ ’79 romp.
Money has transformed baseball to the point that small-market clubs such as those in Pittsburgh and Baltimore can scarcely compete. The O’s, who once won three straight pennants and four in six seasons, captured the Series in 1983 and haven’t been back since.
While the NFL has revenue sharing and a salary cap — two things former Pirates owner Mark Sauer once said the club needed to survive — baseball has no cap and teams are heavily dependent on local television and gate revenue. That tilts the advantage overwhelmingly in favor of big markets.
Perhaps it also explains another phenomenon: the loss of black players. African-Americans made up roughly a fifth of big league rosters in Stargell’s day. Today, that share is less than 8 percent.
An ambassador of the game as well as a chronicler of it, Perrotto recalls asking Aliquippa High School football star and future NFL Hall of Famer Darrelle Revis why he didn’t give baseball a try.
“He said, ‘Man, baseball is a white man’s sport,’” Perrotto remembers.
Socioeconomics might be another factor. Many players drafted today, Perrotto says, played travel ball, a luxury beyond reach of families in poor neighborhoods. More than 45 percent of black children live in poverty compared to less than 15 percent of whites, according to a recent Economic Policy Institute report.
Major League Baseball has responded with programs targeting the inner city, but the gap remains.
Some blame the game, saying it’s too slow. Garner buys neither that argument nor the one about economics.
“The biggest factor is parents,” he says. “They are not getting their kids into the game. Kids get pigeonholed. It’s not money and it’s not the game. I get tired of hearing that.”
Whatever the cause, the trend strikes a contrast to the ’79 Pirates, a small-market makeup of diverse, talented athletes who played not by numbers but for love of the game and one another.
At their center was Stargell. Following the big man’s passing, Oliver, the former outfielder, explained “Pops” in words carrying renewed meaning in the modern political milieu.
“Our society is full of hatred, but he taught us about love. He proved that people of different races and backgrounds can come together for one common purpose.”
That is the enduring legacy of the Pirates’ last champions.