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Pirates To Honor 1979 World Series Champions On Saturday

The Pittsburgh Pirates will honor their 1979 World Series champion team before their Saturday game against the Atlanta Braves. Team members will be on hand for autographs. Fans attending the 4:05 game at PNC Park will receive a Dave Parker bobblehead. The powerhouse Braves, 27-18 as I write this, are an unfortunate choice of opponents. The Pirates of recent years have performed terribly whenever any of their all-time greats are in the house.

Pirates To Honor 1979 World Series Champions On Saturday

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly 45 years since the Pirates last won the World Series. Then again, maybe it’s not so hard for those who have followed them closely over this time. The rival Philadelphia Phillies had won the National League East Division three consecutive years from 1976-78. In the offseason, they signed Pete Rose as a free agent after Rose feigned interest in the Pirates. The experts said there was no sense in the Pirates even showing up for the 1979 season. However, the Pirates would become the World Series champions of 1979. What made it all possible were two big trades and four crazy games.

How To Get Traded in One Easy Lesson

April 15, 1979, Pirates vs. St. Louis Cardinals at Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh. It was the top of the third inning with the Pirates ahead, 2-0, when the Cardinals’ Tom Grieve hit a ground ball that glanced off the glove of shortstop Frank Taveras. Taveras didn’t chase the ball, enabling Grieve to reach first base safely. The next batter, Mike Tyson, hit a chopper to short. Instead of charging the ball, Taveras, sulking over being charged with an error, stood and waited for it, allowing Tyson to reach base. The Cardinals would score an unearned run thanks to Taveras’s indifference and won the game in 10 innings. When the Pirates took the field in the fourth inning, it was Dale Berra at shortstop. The official announcement was that Taveras was removed due to an intestinal virus. Taveras probably caught it while explaining his actions to manager Chuck Tanner.

April 19, 1979. Pirates general manager Hardy Peterson traded the temperamental Taveras to the New York Mets for shortstop Tim Foli and Greg Field. For public consumption, Peterson and Tanner insisted that the deal had nothing to do with Taveras’s actions on the 15th. The fans didn’t believe them, nor were they ecstatic over the trade. The inclusion of Field indicated that Peterson thought Taveras was the better player. Foli didn’t have Taveras’s range and was equally temperamental. Foli was a hothead who always seemed to be getting tossed from games. However, when Foli appeared on the local news after the trade, he spoke of his Christianity. Viewers wondered whether the Mets had another Tim Foli. Of Taveras, Pirates second baseman Rennie Stennett told Charley Feeney of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “I hope he starts putting it together. He appeared to be playing in a trance for the last few days.”

“How Did Peterson Swindle the Giants?”

That was the headline of the June 29, 1979 Pittsburgh Press the day after Peterson acquired two-time batting champion Bill Madlock and left-handed relief pitcher Dave Roberts from the San Francisco Giants for pitchers Ed Whitson, Al Holland, and Fred Breining. Speaking to United Press International, Madlock’s former teammates on the Giants were critical of the deal. “I think they should have got more for Madlock,” said Giants legend Willie McCovey. “It’s basically a giveaway,” groused Darrell Evans. “It was a panic-button push,” complained Gary Lavelle.

However, Madlock was unhappy and underperforming as a Giant, hitting just .261. His original position was third base, but Giants manager Joe Altobelli used him at second base. Madlock was batting fifth in the Giants’ order. He was insulted. He thought he should be higher in the order. On one occasion, he tore up the lineup card and threw it at Altobelli. After Altobelli held a team meeting, Madlock told the press it was “a waste of his time and ours.” Consider this another lesson in how to get traded. Madlock gave the Bucs the right-handed bat they needed and never caused them any problems. At least not until 1984.

“Nobody Rips Up My Lineup Cards”

Tanner played Madlock at third base and moved Phil Garner to second base. Madlock batted sixth in the Pirates’ lineup. At PirateFest in 1999, when asked how he got Madlock to agree to hit sixth, Tanner told me, “I told him, ‘I’m the boss here. Nobody rips up my lineup cards. You’re batting sixth and here’s why. You have the green light to steal whenever you want. You’ll be a second leadoff man for the bottom of the order.’” As a Pirate in 1979, Madlock hit .328/.390/.469, 7 HR, and 44 RBI. More importantly, he stole 21 bases and scored 48 runs. The Pirates may not have won the 1979 World Series without Foli and “Mad Dog.”

45,000 Italians

August 5, 1979, Pirates vs. Phillies At Three Rivers Stadium, Game 1. Rookie catcher Steve Nicosia was having his finest game in the majors. He went 4-for-4 with a home run, two doubles, and three runs scored. Despite his efforts, the game was tied 8-8 as the Pirates batted in the bottom of the ninth. With the bases loaded and right-handed pitcher Rawly Eastwick on the mound for Philadelphia, Tanner sent the left-handed-hitting John Milner to pinch hit for Nicosia, even though it invited Phillies left-handed relief ace Tug McGraw into the game. Tanner never minded a left-handed batter against McGraw, figuring it took his screwball away.

Fans booed Tanner’s decision. “There were 45,000 Italians in the ballpark and they wanted to kill him. They were screaming at him, throwing things on the field,” said Nicosia to author/umpire Ron Luciano in The Rise and Fall of the Roman Umpire. Nicosia was exaggerating. But just a little. In any event, Milner blasted McGraw’s first pitch over the right-field wall for a game-winning grand slam. It was one of the greatest home runs in Pirates history.  In a 1999 letter, Nicosia told me, “I was disappointed at first – but everything worked out ok. Chuck had a way of pulling off the unexpected – he was the greatest to play for – a big reason why we won!”

Take That, Winfield!

August 25, 1979, Pirates vs. San Diego Padres at San Diego Stadium, San Diego. If Milner’s slam wasn’t an omen that the Pirates were destined to win the 1979 World Series, there were more. On this evening, the Pirates defeated the Padres, 4-3, in a 19-inning game that ended at 4:21 AM Pittsburgh time. In the bottom of the 16th inning, the Padres loaded the bases with two outs and Roberts on the mound. At bat was Padres pitcher John D’Acquisto, who worked Roberts to a 3-0 count. The runner on second base, Dave Winfield, could be seen yelling at Roberts and giving him the choke sign. Roberts rallied to strike out D’Acquisto. Of Winfield, Roberts told Feeney rather ominously, “I won’t forget what he was saying to me.”

In the bottom of the 17th, the Padres loaded the bases again, this time with no outs. Roberts rose to the occasion once more, striking out Jay Johnstone, getting a force at home from Jerry Turner’s grounder, and coaxing Bill Fahey to ground out. Finally, Foli singled in the winning run in the 19th.

For the next day’s afternoon game, with the Pirates’ players exhausted, Garner told starting pitcher Bruce Kison that he’d have to win the game all by himself. Kison pitched seven innings of one-run baseball and hit a grand slam in a 9-2 victory.

A Different Kind Of Save

September 1, 1979, Pirates vs. Giants At Candlestick Park, San Francisco, Game 1. Every move Tanner made in 1979 turned to gold for the eventual World Series champion Pirates. The Pirates were leading the Giants, 5-3, with right-handed reliever Kent Tekulve on the mound in the bottom of the ninth. With two outs, Jack Clark reached base on a surprising bunt single. With left-handed slugger Evans due up, Tanner went to the mound to bring in left-handed reliever Grant Jackson. But Tanner didn’t remove Tekulve from the game. Instead, he sent Tekulve out to left field. Right-handed hitter Mike Ivie was in the on-deck circle. Tanner wanted to return Tekulve to the mound in case Evans reached base.

Tekulve calmly went out to left. “I haven’t played the outfield since I was 12,” Tekulve told Dan Donovan of the Press. As Jackson warmed up, Tekulve comically tossed a few blades of grass in the air to check the wind. With Jackson pitching Evans away, Evans hit a pop fly to Tekulve. Despite nobody else on the field having a remote chance to get anywhere near the play, Tekulve waved everybody off and made the catch to end the game. It had to have been the only time in baseball history that a team rushed from the dugout to congratulate an outfielder for catching a routine fly ball. As teammates rushed past him, Jackson, who earned the save, looked on in silent surmise.

Pirates Meet Orioles In 1979 World Series

Everybody remembers Willie Stargell’s game-winning home run off Scott McGregor in Game 7 at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. The images are burned into our memories: Stargell waiting while wind-milling the bat. Stargell connecting with the pitch. The towering shot sailing into the Pirates’ bullpen. The Pirates’ relievers jumping up and down. Bill Robinson greeting Stargell at home with a half-hug. But how many remember how the Pirates got to that point?

“Sore Arm, My Ass!”

October 14, 1979, Pirates vs. Baltimore Orioles, World Series Game 5, Three Rivers Stadium. The Orioles led in the Series, 3-1. They had just won two games in miserable mid-October Pittsburgh weather by scores of 8-4 and 9-6. They sent Mike Flanagan to the mound to wrap it up. Flanagan was 23-9 in the regular season and would win the American League Cy Young Award. The Pirates’ pitcher would be 37-year-old left-hander Jim Rooker. Spending significant time on what was then known as the disabled list, Rooker was 4-7 with a 4.60 ERA, at a time when that high of an ERA from a starter was uncool. Across the nation, fans may have taken one look at that matchup and opted for Sunday afternoon NFL football. They missed one of the greatest upsets in baseball history.

Rooker went hard for five innings. The only run he gave up was scored on a double play when the Bucs conceded the run to get two outs. He gave up just three hits. Nicosia kept calling for inside fastballs against the Orioles’ stacked lineup of right-handed hitters. The Orioles were surprised at how hard Rooker was throwing. They may have had a bad scouting report. Rooker heard one batter mutter, “Sore arm, my ass!” Rooker departed after five innings, down 1-0, but the Pirates rallied for seven late runs to win it, 7-1.

The Last Word

In the 1970s, five teams won World Series: the Orioles (1970), Pirates (1971, 1979), Oakland Athletics (1972-74), Cincinnati Reds (1975-76), and New York Yankees (1977-78). Four of the five were small market teams and none were one-hit wonders. It was an era we may never see again.


Main Photo Credits: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports


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