Worst pitch e-v-e-r (depending on who you ask)

MICHAEL: In anticipation of our appearance on the Trib Sports Talk Radio in Pittsburgh this Friday at 10:30, here is yet another piece that was cut out of the book… This was originally written for Yankees fans who no doubt consider it a quintessential “You Stink!” moment. On the other hand, Pirates fans fondly recall it as one of the most glorious memories in the history of their franchise. (Of course nowadays the tables have turned a bit.)

Each year, the primary focus in any professional sport is the race for a championship. Every sport has its pinnacle trophy, but none is as coveted as professional baseball’s World Series, a best-of-seven contest that celebrates our national pastime. An event as important as any holiday on the calendar, it is as traditional as Thanksgiving, as patriotic as the Fourth of July and as anticipated as Christmas morning. Over the last century, the World Series has been woven into the fabric of America’s culture evolving far beyond a mere baseball tournament. It has become the game of all games and has continued to provide us with an endless highlight reel of magical moments evoking childhood memories of agony and ecstasy.

How would one define the World Series? It’s Willie Mays catching what can’t be caught and Don Larsen being perfect where perfection is simply not possible. It’s Babe Ruth telling the fans and media where he is going to deposit the next pitch and a heavily outscored team of Pirates beating the unbeatable Yankees off a ninth inning Bill Mazeroski blast. The World Series is the crushing blow of Fred Snodgrass dropping a routine fly ball and Willie McCovey hitting the final out straight to Bobby Richardson. It’s the Curse of the Bambino, when loyal Red Sox fans live their entire lives without witnessing a championship and when Yankees fans witness four in five years…

With so much stress resting on every single play, it should be no surprise that some of the worst pitches of all time were tossed in crucial moments during Fall Classics. It almost seems unfair that a team’s season-long quest for a championship title can rest on a single man and his ability to hurl an object accurately at a distance of 60 feet. That however, is exactly why they play the game and why the pitchers get paid the big bucks to perform under pressure. Unfortunately sometimes the ball simply does not travel to its intended destination. And although it might be launched with a one-way ticket to the catcher’s glove, it may arrive at another destination, over the outfield wall.

On October 13, 1960, Bill Mazeroski became an instant hero when he became the first player ever to end the World Series by “diverting” one of these predestined pitches. In one of the greatest games ever played, “the Maz” hit a fastball off Yankee pitcher Ralph Terry over Yogi Berra’s head in left field, giving the Pittsburgh Pirates a 10-9 victory and their first World Championship in 35 years.

It still remains as one of the most shocking moments in sports history and many middle-aged Yankee fans are still trying to forget that day. Bob Costas said, “As an 8-year-old Yankee fan in 1960, I literally wept when Bill Mazeroski’s home run cleared the ivy-covered wall of Forbes Field. Thirty-five years later, I believe I have come to terms with it, and can see Bill Mazeroski for what he really was: one of baseball’s all-time great second basemen.”

Not only was Mazeroski the greatest second baseman in Pirate history, he was also very likely the best defensive second basemen of all time. Yet he achieved instant fame offensively with one swing of the bat. He had already made his mark in the Series against the Yankees with a two-run homer in the opener, but no one could have predicted his Game 7 winner.

As a whole, the ‘60 series will always be remembered as one of the most exciting, as both teams played to a 3-3 standoff. The Pirates and Yankees pitching staffs were solid on the mound and both were backed up by strong performances at the plate. There were some overall differences in playing styles. The Yankees played more aggressively while the Pirates relied on finesse, but many feel that this represented one of the best match-ups of the 1960’s.

The Pirates won the opener, 6-4, at Forbes Field, but the Yankees answered in Games 2 and 3. New York, led by Mickey Mantle’s two home runs and five runs-batted-in, knocked six Pirate pitchers for 19 hits and rolled to a 16-3 victory in the second game. As the Series shifted to Yankee Stadium, Bobby Richardson stepped up to the plate and delivered. Having driven in only seven runs in the last 75 games of the AL season and just 26 overall, the second baseman connected for a bases-loaded home run off reliever Clem Labine in the first inning of Game 3. He later contributed a two-run single, giving him a Series-record six RBIs. Yankee powerhouse Mickey Mantle continued to shine with a two-run homer and three other hits. New York was a 10-0 winner, with Whitey Ford pitching a four-hitter.

Down, but not out, the Pirates gave the ball to first-game winner Vern Law in Game 4. Law, a 20-game winner in ‘60 and the NL’s Cy Young Award winner, combined with relief ace Roy Face to beat back the Yankees, 3-2. Art Ditmar, the Game 1 starter for the Yankees, received another chance in Game 5. Bill Mazeroski’s double was the key hit in the Pirates’ three-run second inning. The smash scored two runs and drove Ditmar off the mound. Roy Face returned with 2 2/3 innings of hitless relief after replacing starter and winner Harvey Haddix to nail down the 5-2 triumph. The win moved the Pirates ahead in the Series.

Surprised by their opponents’ tenacity, the Yankees called on a proven combination in Game 6; big bats and the pitching of ace Whitey Ford. The “Bronx Bombers” did their part at the plate with an unbelievable 17-hit spree and Ford again shut out the Pirates, this time holding the NL champions to a meager seven hits. Hoping to clinch their first Series championship in 3 1/2 decades, the Pirates instead wound up 12-0 losers in their own backyard.

While the first six games of the 1960 Series had been statistically notable (the Yankees’ victories, for instance, came by the combined score of 38-3), Game 7 would erase those numbers and leave fans in both agony and ecstasy. Vern Law and the rest of the Pirates showed why they were still there, by rolling over New York to take an early 4-0 lead. However, the Yankees came back with key performances at the plate by Skowron, Mantle and Berra and shot to a 5-4 lead going into the eighth inning. They continued to lead 7-5 and appeared to be in great shape, as reliever Bobby Shantz appeared at the top of his game. Fortunately for the Pirates, appearances can be deceiving.

Gino Cimoli led off the Pittsburgh eighth inning with a pinch single and Bill Virdon hit a sharp grounder toward Yankee shortstop, Tony Kubek. The ball took a bad hop and struck Kubek in the throat resulting in a single. The injury proved serious and he was taken out of the game. Joe DeMaestri was summoned to replace him, as both Pirates remained on base. Dick Groat followed with another single and cut the lead to 7-5. Roberto Clemente kept the rally alive with an infield hit that scored Virdon and advanced Groat to third. Now trailing 7-6, Pittsburgh had two runners on base and Hal Smith at the plate. Smith, who entered the game in the top of the eighth inning after Pirate catcher Smoky Burgess left for a pinch-runner in the previous inning, sent shock waves through the Pittsburgh crowd by blasting a home run over the left field wall.

Bob Friend, an 18-game winner for the Pirates and the Bucs’ starter in Games 2 and 6, came on in the ninth inning to try to protect the 9-7 lead. The Yankees’ Bobby Richardson and pinch-hitter Dale Long both greeted Friend with singles and Pirates manager, Danny Murtaugh, was forced to lift the veteran pitcher in favor of Harvey Haddix. Although he forced Roger Maris to foul out, Haddix gave up a key single to Mickey Mantle that scored Richardson and moved Long to third base. Yogi Berra followed with a strong grounder to first, with Rocky Nelson stepping on the base for the second out. In what, at the time, stood as a monumental play, Mantle, seeing he had no chance to beat a play at second, scurried back to first and avoided Nelson’s tag (which would have been the third out) as McDougald raced home to tie the score, 9-9.

Ralph Terry, who had gotten the final out in the Pirates’ eighth inning, returned to the mound in the bottom of the ninth. The first man he faced was Bill Mazeroski. With a count of one ball and no strikes, the Pirates’ second baseman smashed a drive over the wall in left field, ending the contest and crowning the National League as champions. As the Pirates erupted in a wild celebration, the Yankees stood in disbelief, knowing that they had clearly dominated the Series, but were unable to finish the job. The improbable champions were outscored, 55-27, and outhit, 91-60, but in the end, Pittsburgh prevailed. Years later, Mickey Mantle was quoted as saying that losing the 1960 series was the biggest disappointment of his career. For Mazeroski, it was the highlight. Both men (and many others from this game) would be joined together in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. Some would remember the ‘60 series with fondness and others with regret.

Although Terry’s legacy will always include the pitch he’d rather forget, he did continue to prosper in the post-season along with his Yankee teammates. In five World Series (‘60-’64), Terry posted a record of 2-3, with 31 strikeouts and a 2.93 ERA. Both wins came in the 1962 World Series (of which he was named Most Valuable Player) against the San Francisco Giants, including a 1-0 shutout in Game 7 over Giant’s ace Jack Sanford. After baseball, Terry became a professional golfer, qualified for and played in 4 PGA Tour events (‘81-’82) and started playing on the Senior Tour in 1986.

Someone once said, “It’s not always the better team who wins.” And even the mighty Yankees can fall to an opponent who is able to seize the moment. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Bill Mazeroski were able to do that in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series and proved that “carpe diem” does exist. Terry himself summed it up perfectly when he said, “I don’t know what that pitch to Mazeroski was. All I know is that it was the wrong one.”


3 thoughts on “Worst pitch e-v-e-r (depending on who you ask)

  1. Mazeroski was elected into the Hall of Fame in 2001. On induction day at Cooperstown he only made it through the opening remarks of his speech before becoming so emotional he had to stop. Apologizing to those who “had to come all the way up here to hear this crap,” he sat down to a long and loud standing ovation from the audience and his fellow inductees.

    Posted by youstinkbaseball | May 16, 2012, 1:32 pm
  2. See, from my perspective, it’s one of the greatest pitches ever, because it means that the Yankees lost, which is something that can never, ever happen often enough. 🙂

    Posted by rushslancers | May 16, 2012, 8:01 pm
  3. See, from my perspective, that was one of the greatest pitches ever thrown because it means that the Yankees lost, which can never, ever happen often enough. 🙂

    Posted by rushslancers | May 16, 2012, 8:02 pm

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