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50 Years Ago: Pirates All-Star Had a Memorable Memorial Day

On Memorial Day 1974, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Ken Brett had a Memorial Day that few pitchers could match. The Pirates traded second baseman Dave Cash to the Philadelphia Phillies to obtain Brett for the 1974 season. Brett, the older brother of Kansas City Royals great George Brett, was a left-handed pitcher. However, his more famous brother didn’t get all of the family’s hitting genes. Brett the pitcher hit four home runs for the Phillies in 1973. He also holds the distinction of being the youngest player ever to pitch in the World Series, when at age 19, he pitched 1 1/3 innings for the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 Series. Although the Pirates would win the National League East Division in 1974, Brett was their lone representative (and the winning pitcher) in the All-Star Game played at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium.

Ken Brett and the Pirates Had a Memorial Day to Remember in 1974

The Pirates were at Three Rivers on Memorial Day for a doubleheader (kids, ask your parents) against the San Diego Padres. In Game 1, Brett pitched a complete game shutout in winning, 6-0. It had to have been one of the greatest unknown pitching performances in the history of baseball. So, you’re not impressed? You might point out that the 1974 Padres finished last in the West Division with a 60-102 record. You might remind me that these were the Padres of shortstop Enzo Hernández. It was Hernández who did the impossible in 1971, when he had just 12 RBI in 618 plate appearances.

But what if I told you that the heart of the Padres lineup featured Dave Winfield, Nate Colbert, Cito Gaston, and Johnny Grubb? What if I told you that Brett pitched eight perfect innings before settling for a two-hitter? What if I told you he did it with a defense behind him that included a catcher in center field and a second baseman in right field?

A Depleted Lineup

Bad luck had hit the Pirates all at once on this day. Slugging left fielder Willie Stargell was recovering from the flu. First baseman Al Oliver had an injured ankle. Center fielder Dave Parker had a torn hamstring. Parker’s platoon partner, Gene Clines, was out with a bruised foot. Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh had to get creative to put some semblance of a major league team behind Brett on this Memorial Day.

The leadoff batter in Game 1 was shortstop Frank Taveras, an error-prone rookie who would develop into an error-prone veteran. Second baseman Rennie Stennett, who was sometimes used in the outfield earlier in his career, was in right field. Ed Kirkpatrick was in center field. He began his career as a catcher with the Los Angeles Angels in 1962, eventually becoming a corner defender in the infield and outfield as well. These two Memorial Day games marked the only appearances in center field by Kirkpatrick and the only appearances in the outfield by Stennett in 1974. Batting cleanup was left fielder Richie Zisk, the only other regular in the game besides Taveras and Stennett.

Murtaugh decided to rest catcher Manny Sanguillén and third baseman Richie Hebner in Game 1. Thus, the five through eight spots in the order were occupied by players who were all batting under .200. Big red-headed first baseman Bob Robertson was in the third year of a slump. Kurt Bevacqua, who’d done nothing to distinguish himself at that point in his Pirates career, was at third base. With Stennett in right field, veteran infielder Paul Popovich played second base. Another veteran, Mike Ryan, was behind the plate. Brett couldn’t have expected much support, offensively or defensively. He may have taken one look at the lineup card and decided he needed to pitch a no-hitter.

Near Perfect

Whether he thought that or not, Brett handled the Padres order easily. For eight innings, the only Padre to cause the Pirates fans in attendance to gasp was Derrel Thomas, who hit a line drive directly at Robertson in the fourth inning. Ryan told Bob Smizik of The Pittsburgh Press, “I was thinking no-hitter by the third inning. The guy was throwing good.” The crowd of 15,367 (along with the usual assortment of freeloaders) was getting into it by the seventh inning. Not only was Brett throwing “good,” but he was doing it under pressure. He was locked into a pitching duel with Padres left-handed ace Randy Jones. The Pirates were winning, 1-0, going into the bottom of the eighth. The Pirates’ bats then erupted for five runs. Brett contributed a bloop RBI single of his own.

Taking the mound with a 6-0 lead in the top of the ninth, Brett faced catcher Fred Kendall, the father of Jason Kendall, who would play for the Pirates from 1996-2004. Brett got ahead in the count, 1-2. With the crowd going wild, Brett fired a slider. Kendall rolled a hard groundball single between Bevacqua and Taveras, neither of whom had a realistic chance of making a play on the ball. “It was a good pitch,” said Ryan, “but not as much inside as it could be.” Brett finished the game with a two-hit shutout. The game was over in one hour and 38 minutes.

Brett insisted the long layoff in the bottom of the eighth had nothing to do with losing his chance at immortality. In a joint postgame interview, Brett was good-natured toward Kendall, a former teammate when they were in high school. Then it was time for Game 2. Brett and the Pirates weren’t yet finished on this Memorial Day.

Brett Delivers Again

Where Game 1 was a pitcher’s duel, Game 2 developed into a slugfest. Sanguillén and Hebner were back in the Pirates lineup, which otherwise remained the same. The Padres were ahead, 3-1, after the seventh-inning stretch. However, these were the days when the Pirates were The Lumber Company and could muster up a five-run inning, rather than watch their bullpen give them up. The Pirates had another one in them on this Memorial Day. Sanguillén and Popovich started the Pirates’ seventh with singles against Padres right-handed starter Dan Spillner. Taveras was next. Although he was 1-for-2 in the game, raising his average to .270, Murtaugh wanted a left-handed batter. With his choices limited, he turned to Brett.

Brett smoked a 1-2 pitch into left-center field for a triple, tying the game and sparking a five-run inning. By the game’s end, Brett was 10-for-23 in 1974, hitting .435/.458/.870. The two teams went back and forth in the late innings. It took a two-run homer by Hebner off Jim McAndrew in the bottom of the ninth to give the Bucs an 8-7 win.

The Pirates had a doubleheader sweep and Brett’s long day was over. What pitcher could ever top the Memorial Day Brett had for the Pirates in 1974?


Photo Credit: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports


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