50 Years Ago This Year – Roberto Clemente’s Shining Moments

The starting rotation was mostly made up of Steve Blass, Dock Ellis, Bob Johnson, Luke Walker, and with 18 and 13 starts respectively, Bob Moose and Bruce Kison. Dave Giusti was the primary relief pitcher with Nelson Briles, Mudcat Grant, and Bob Veale pitching in.

The 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates finished in first place as division champions of the old National League East Division. The Buccos won 97 games, losing 65 and finished 7 ½ games ahead of St. Louis. The Philadelphia Phillies were in last place winning just 67 games and losing 96. In the National League championship series, the Pirates handled the San Francisco Giants with ease winning the series three games to one.

Manager Danny Murtaugh had led the team to another World Series in 1960 as the Pirates won that one dramatically. It was a walk-off home run by Bill Mazeroski in game seven that won it for Pittsburgh and he got his second ring in 1971. Murtaugh left the team after the 1964 season giving way to Harry Walker who would be released in 1967 as Murtaugh returned. But his return was just to finish out that season as Larry Shepard took over in ‘68 and part of 1969 but late in the season that year Alex Grammas relieved him of his managerial duties.

In 1970 Danny Murtaugh returned to manage the team but only for two seasons (1970/71). Bill Virdon was the manager in 1972 and after one season, Murtaugh was back again this time managing for the next four seasons before retiring permanently. Tragically, the year he retired he also passed away on November 30, 1976. after suffering a stroke and he was just 59.

Anyone that knows baseball knows the story of Roberto Clemente. Perhaps the greatest defensive outfielder and finest right fielder in the history of the game, Clemente had a powerful throwing arm with incredible accuracy. He wanted respect for his privacy but was known for being the consummate humanitarian, a part of his personality that sadly cost him his life on New Year’s Eve 1972.

I can remember that day as though it happened yesterday even as it was 48 years ago this month. Waking up on January 1, 1973, and coming down the steps from my bedroom I was told that Roberto Clemente was killed in a plane crash. That news stung hard and to this day, it’s surreal that he passed that night in 1972.

Roberto Clemente was deserving of his Hall of Fame induction but in the city of Pittsburgh, he is revered as a hero. He was beloved by all and still is today. Clemente’s long-time teammate Willie Stargell like Roberto also was a player on two World Series-winning teams (1971 and 1979). “Pops” as he was fondly known also died before his time at the age of 61 in 2001 after suffering from a kidney disorder and later complications from a stroke that cost him his life.

While both of these men were held in the highest regard in Pittsburgh and both have statues erected in their honor outside of PNC Park, Stargell would have probably edged out Roberto Clemente as a fan favorite. Willie Stargell endeared himself to Pittsburghers giving them the feeling that he was family. That’s something peculiar in the city of Pittsburgh that maybe other cities can’t claim. There are those in the ‘Burgh that residents there just feel like they know the man. Art Rooney Sr. was another. Mario Lemieux can say the same.

While he is not an athlete or member of the Pirates, radio play-by-play man Bob Prince is as much a part of that 1971 World Series championship team as the players themselves. Prince was also beloved in Pittsburgh and when he was fired by KDKA in 1975 along with his partner Nellie King, there was outrage amongst Pirates fans.

Prince would return in a partial role in 1982 and 1985 but his legacy had already been established and ask any Pittsburgher that grew up in the 19870s and 80’s who Bob Prince is and you will get not just a yes but probably a story as well. Prince was good friends with Roberto Clemente and often referred to him as “Bobby.” Prince himself had the nickname “Gunner.” He had catchphrases he used in calling games that roll off the tongues of long-time Pirates fans even now.

  • “A bug on the rug.”
  • “You can kiss it goodbye.”
  • “Never underestimate the power of the Green Weenie” (referring to a good luck charm that was a plastic green pickle that rattled and fans brought them to Three Rivers Stadium in an attempt to rattle Pirates’ opponents).
  • “Babushka Power” (a reference to his request that women wear babushkas that Prince created in an effort to bring good luck to the Pirates).
  • “Chicken on the Hill with Will” (this was a promotion by Willie Stargell who owned a chicken restaurant in the Hill District in Pittsburgh and if customers happened to be at the counter during a Pirates game and Stargell hit a home run, they would get free chicken).
  • “How Sweet it is” (a Pirates victory)
  • “We had ‘Em all the Way” (also for Pirates victories)

Just like his friend Roberto Clemente, untimely death at the age of 1968 brought a Hall of Fame induction just a year after he passed. Prince was posthumously inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame in 1986 earning the highest award an announcer can achieve, the Ford C. Frick Award. Clemente was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.

In reviewing that roster of the 1971 Pirates, many of them are still alive today but some like the aforementioned have also passed away. Some of the more notable players are listed below accompanied by my thoughts and other comments.

Gene Alley. A fine defensive shortstop but only a mediocre offensive player, Alley is today 80 years old.

Steve Blass. The winning pitcher in game seven of that 1971 World Series, Blass would go onto become a Pirates radio and television announcer for 34 years. Of note is that Blass’s seventh game victory over Baltimore remains the last complete game by a pitcher in a game seven of a series. Blass is well known also for his collapse of skills following the 1972 season when he suddenly could not find home plate a crisis he dealt with for three years until he retired in 1975.

Nelson Briles. “Nellie” would play three seasons with the Pirates and post a record of 36-28. He too would pass on February 13, 2005, of a heart attack and was only 61.

Dave Cash. A very good second baseman, Cash is going strong in 2020 at the age of 72 and after leaving the Pirates in 1973 would play for three more teams before retiring(Phillies, Expos, Padres).

Gene Clines. Playing in just 97 games for the championship team of 1971, Gene Clines was a god defensive center fielder and at the plate that year he hit .308. Clines is now 74.

Vic Davalillo. In 1971 I was 12 years old. Following the Pirates for some I can’t recall, Vic Davalillo was one of my favorite players on that 1971 team. Born in Venezuela, Davillo is a member of the Venezuelan Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum elected in the first class in 2003. Still alive he is 81 years of age today.

Dock Ellis. Unfortunately, the one incident that sticks with Dock Ellis and he is infamously known for is the day he threw a no-hitter and claims he was high on LSD throughout the game. Aside from that, Dock Ellis was an excellent pitcher who played 12 years in Major League Baseball and won 138 games. Nine of those seasons were with the Pirates. Perhaps from over drug use, Ellis suffered from cirrhosis and was scheduled to have a liver transplant done but it was made impossible because of heart disease he later developed. Ellis died on December 19, 2008, due to liver failure at the age of 63. His no-no came on June 12, 1970.

Dave Giusti. An outstanding relief pitcher whose time came long before the specialty relievers were introduced to baseball, Dave Giusti saved 145 games in his 15-year career. 133 of those were as a Pirate because he also played for Houston, Chicago, St. Louis, and Oakland. Dave Guisti just turned 81 this past November.

Richie Hebner. Another fan favorite, the unique fact about this infielder is that he was an outstanding amateur hockey player who considered going pro. In his offseasons, he also worked as a gravedigger. On the baseball diamond, he was a good slap hitter but not such a great defensive third baseman. These days still going strong at the age of 73, he’s back in the funeral business driving a hearse.

Jackie Hernandez. What I remember about Hernandez is that he was not a great hitter but a smooth defender at shortstop. In 2019 Hernandez sadly passed away from cancer.

Ramon Hernandez. Another Hernandez on the team was Ramon who while not playing in the World Series, had one of the most uncanny screwballs I’ve ever seen. A tough pitch to throw, Hernandez threw the reverse of the curveball making the baseball come to the plate very difficult to hit.

Bruce Kison. Kison’s legacy with the Pirates includes winning the first night game in World Series history in 1971. While playing for three other teams after being a part of two Pirate championship teams (71 and 1979), Kison would continue playing until 1985 with the California Angels and Boston Red Sox. Tragically, he passed away at just 68 years old in 2018 after battling cancer. One thing I remember about Bruce Kison was he resembled actor Bruce Davison who with the same first name starred in the movie “Willard.”

Bill Mazeroski. This man is a hero in Pittsburgh. Having played his entire career with the Pirates with his final season coming the year Roberto Clemente lost his life, “Maz” is best remembered for one swing of the bat in the 1960 World Series, a ninth-inning walk-off, series-winning home run against the mighty New York Yankees giving the Pittsburgh Pirates their first Major League title in 35 years. It would also be the last until they won the ‘71 series 11 years later. Still going strong in 2021, Mazeroski is now 84.

Bob Moose. Bob Moose played just 10 years in Major League Baseball all with the Pirates but would have played more if not for a devastating car crash that took his life in 1976 when he was just 29 years old. Sadly, he died on his birthday en route to play golf at a course owned by teammate Bill Mazeroski. In his tenure with the Pirates, Moose won 76 games and lost 71.

Al Oliver. “Scoop” as Al Oliver was known, was an outstanding centerfielder who some believe should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He made the All-Star Game seven times and won the National League batting title in 1982 while with the Montreal Expos. After his career with the Pirates Oliver bounced around with several teams (Rangers, Expos, Giants, Phillies, Dodgers and retired with the Toronto Blue Jays). What I remember of Oliver is that he gave the impression that he did not get the recognition he deserved.

Bob Robertson. “Big Red” for his red hair, Robertson was a large first baseman (6’1”, 195) who can never be forgotten for his image of celebrating the final out in the 1971 World Series hugging winning pitcher Steve Blass.

Manny Sanguillen. Like Hines Ward many years later who would play for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Manny “Sangy” Sanguillen was well known for his infectious smile. Sanguillen has also kept his ties to Pittsburgh by establishing a restaurant called “Manny’s BBQ” located behind center field at PNC Park. Sanguillen was the fastest catcher of his day and was an outstanding spray hitter.

Rennie Stennett. This second baseman was a solid hitter who shares the record for most hits in a nine-inning game, seven, that he accomplished against the Chicago Cubs on September 16, 1975, during a 22-0 Pittsburgh blowout. I clearly remember listening to that game on the radio of which Dave Parker had five RBIs in that game as well. Stennett’s seven hits were all singles. 1971 was Stennett’s rookie season and in 50 games he hit .353 but did not qualify for the World Series.

Bob Veale. It was easy to identify this Pirates pitcher back in the day because he always wore eyeglasses. Veale also stood out in a crowd standing 6’6”, 212 pounds. 11 of his 13 Major League Baseball seasons were played in Pittsburgh, the other three with the Boston Red Sox. Veale would win 120 games as a Pirate losing 95.

Richie Zisk. This outfielder was destined for greatness as a power hitter when the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him in the 1967 MLB draft as a third-round selection. Making his debut in 1971, two years later he started ripping the cover off the ball with 23 home runs in 1973, eventually reaching a high of 35 in 1976. He was traded to the Chicago White Sox that year but would only be there for one season before signing with the Texas Rangers as a free agent following the 1976 season. He would be traded again to Seattle in 1981 playing three more years before retiring. In the end, his career saw a total of 207 home runs hit 69 while in Pittsburgh.

In that 1971 World Series, Roberto Clemente was the star and finally got the national recognition he craved and deserved. Roberto hit an impressive .414 for the seven games getting a hit in every game. With a solo home run of Mike Cuellar in game seven of that series, by winning 2-1 his dinger was the difference in the Pirates celebrating a world series title.

For the series, Roberto Clemente had two home runs, two doubles, one triple, four RBIs, and three runs scored.

The forthcoming season will not be a winning one for the Pittsburgh Pirates. They are simply not very good. But you can bet that at some point during this year, there will be remembrances and celebrations of a World Series title won by the Buccos incredibly 50 years ago this year. Boy, do I feel old!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *