Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Maz, the Yankee-Killer

There's really no way to relate, today, with how dominant the New York Yankees were during a big chunk of the last century. During the Babe Ruth era, they won 7 pennants in 14 years, and 4 world series. After, in the 26 year period, from 1936 to 1962, they won the American League pennant 20 times. They won the World Series 16 of those seasons.

They were Globetrotter good, and the rest of baseball was the Washington Generals. They were defined by their great players, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gherig, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, Lefty Gomez, Roger Maris—the list goes on and on, as did the winning. The resentment was understandable, as was the sense of futility, epitomized by the hit musical Damn Yankees, about a working stiff Senator's fan named Joe Boyd, who sells his soul to the devil, to beat the Yankees just one time.

In 1960, most people didn't believe the Pirates belonged on the same field as the Yanks. Led by the great Roberto Clemente, they had some nice players—Dick Groat, Don Hoak, Bill Mazeroski, and the great Dr. Strangeglove himself, Dick Stuart (Gimme some metal, baby!). Nice players, but not nearly as impressive as the Yankees. And outside of Bob Friend and Vern Law, their pitching wasn't, logically, formidable enough to beat them.

Most of that played out, in the series. The Yanks had outscored the Pirates 46–17, outhit them 78–49, outbatted them .338 to .251, hit eight home runs to Pittsburgh's one, got two complete game shutouts from Whitey Ford—and found themselves tied in the series, 3 games each, heading into the decisive game seven, played October 13, 1960, at Ebbets Field in Pittsburgh.

The Pirates took a two run lead into the ninth, but a single by Mantle, and a sacrifice by Berra, tied the score. An air of inevitability surely began to nag at even the most optimistic Pirate's fan—they'd taken the Bomber's to 7, and most people didn't believe they'd do that, but reality was settling in—when Bill Mazeroski strode to the plate to lead off the bottom of the ninth for Pittsburgh.

Maz is as good an advertisement for what is good about baseball as any. He was elected to the Hall-of-Fame by the Veteran's Committee about twenty years ago because of his virtuosity with the glove—Bill James has said that he was as good as any defensive player to ever play the game. Never known as being a great hitter, he was hard-working and tenacious, and played the game the right way. And on October 13, fifty years ago today, Bill Mazeroski became a Baseball God.

Facing Yankees right-hander Ralph Terry, on a count of one ball, no strikes, Mazeroski smashed a belt-high slider that didn't slide nearly enough well over the 406' sign in the left field power alley of cavernous Ebbets Field, stunning the previously jubilant Yankees, and the baseball world. Mickey Mantle always said that loss was the one that hurt him the most, and that he actually cried, in the locker room—he, and they, would take their disappointment out on the rest of baseball the next year, winning 109 regular season games, and taking the World Series in 5.

But 1960 belonged to the Pirates—Clemente, Dr. Strangeglove, and Maz.

Check out this terrific video from ESPN, showing an interview with Maz, now 74, and video of his mighty blast. When you see it, notice the spontaneous joy, as fans pour out of the stands—especially the geeky kid patting him on the back as he rounded third base, and another who came streaking down toward home plate. They'd be arrested today, and the athlete would shrink from contact.

Mazeroski is everything you see—humble, unpretentious, one of the very good guys of American pop culture. They built a statue of him at the new ball park this year. "I had my number retired, then I went into the Hall of Fame,'' Mazeroski said, not long ago. "Then you get a street named after you. How can you get a better life than this? Now, I get a statue.'' And though Ebbet's Field is long gone and demolished, the part of the wall over which he sent his blast has been preserved, outside both stadiums which came in Ebbet's Field's wake.
I read that Ralph Terry has been trying and trying to call Maz, the past few weeks, with no success. A Pirate's employee who works with their alums says that he is always helpful and pleasant, but hard to get hold of (he plays a lot of golf). "The problem is getting him to answer the phone. He has no cell, no voicemail, no computer."

Maz grew up in rural West Virginia and Ohio, dreaming of playing in the Big Leagues, and hating the Damn Yankees. He beat em, too, with one swing of the bat. And unlike Joe Boyd, didn't have to sell his soul to do it.

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