BACKGROUND: It took the nastiest brawl in Three Rivers Stadium history to roust the Pirates from a season-and-a-half's worth of post-Clemente dolor. Aided by a weakened National League East, the 1973 Bucs clung to a mathematical chance at the postseason until the regular season's final day, but their 80-82 finish fell far short of their immediate predecessors. The division flag flew elsewhere for the first time since 1969.
An earlier mythical sea-farer had once advised in a time of misery, Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit: "Maybe someday you will rejoice to recall even this." Followers of the '73 Pirates, however, had cause to feel that way about the team far sooner than anyone could have expected. The Bucs started 1974 by losing their first six games. By June 7—notwithstanding Dock Ellis' unconventional motivational tactic of trying to hit every Cincinnati Red to bat against him—they had fallen to 14 games under .500 and owned the worst record in the major leagues. Three days later they squandered an 8-0 eighth-inning lead in a loss to San Diego.
As of the late afternoon of July 14, the situation looked bleak: the Pirates had lost 12 more games than they had won, occupied sole possession of the division cellar, and stood just a second game of a doubleheader from the Reds sweeping a five-game series at Three Rivers Stadium. But Bruce Kison threw inside to Dave Concepcion, Jack Billingham hit Kison with a pitch, and Sparky Anderson accidentally stepped on Ed Kirkpatrick's foot. Tempers flared. The ensuing brawl would see Pedro Borbon bite Daryl Patterson on the back, Mario Mendoza punch Bill Plummer from behind, and Richie Hebner tackle no fewer than four Reds. Writing in The Pittsburgh Press, Bob Smizik deemed the encounter as "a melee that must be considered among the best in recent baseball history." Writing in the Beaver County Times, Rich Emert invoked WIIC-TV's popular "Studio Wrestling" by noting that "[a]ll that was needed was for the organist at Three Rivers Stadium to start playing the Gillette Theme and to have Bill Cardille describe the action."
The Bucs won that game and the next seven heading to the All-Star break. By August 12, they had reached .500 for the first time all season. "It's been a coincidence," Al Oliver told Smizik when asked whether the fight had rejuvenated the team. Thirteen days later they swept the Padres in a doubleheader to assume first place in the NL East.
As of the late afternoon of September 10, Pirates' prospects looked rosy: winners of 40 of their last 55 games, most recently a one-sided triumph in Wrigley Field, they held a 3.5 game lead over second-place St. Louis. But their fortunes would again shift dramatically over the next week. Matters began to unravel on that very day, when when the Bucs learned that ace reliever Dave Giusti would miss several days with a bad back. A night later, Ellis was cruising with a three-run sixth-inning lead in Philadelphia when he broke a bone in his hand attempting a bare-handed stop of a Willie Montanez comebacker; Kison and Ramon Hernandez would surrender three runs apiece as the Phillies rallied for an 8-5 win. Jerry Reuss and Kison followed by allowing six eighth-inning tallies to turn a 4-0 lead into a 6-4 defeat. A weekend in Montreal yielded a Barry Foote walk-off triple and a blown three-run eighth-inning lead, sandwiched around a 17-2 defeat. St. Louis now had a 1.5-game lead, and the Cardinals extended it by dropping the Pirates to their sixth consecutive defeat in a 13-inning game at Three Rivers Stadium.
The pendulum, however, would swing back in the Pirates' favor. Wins over St. Louis in the next two nights halted the losing streak, and the Buccos trailed by 1.5 games with ten games remaining on their schedule when the rivalry reconvened in Busch Stadium on September 24.
It was now the Bucs' turn to vault ahead. In the opener, Jim Rooker celebrated his 32nd birthday with nine scoreless innings and rookie Miguel Dilone's dash home on Richie Hebner's single gave the Pirates a 1-0 ten-inning win. Seven runs over the sixth and seventh innings a night later broke open a close game and lifted the Bucs back into first.
In the series finale, Danny Murtaugh sent Ken Brett to the mound against rookie Bob Forsch, with first place in the balance.
ACTION: The Pirates ambushed Forsch, driving him from the game before he could record the second out in the top of the first. Manny Sanguillen's three-run homer capped the opening salvo and gave the Bucs a 5-0 lead.
Brett made it through the first two innings without incident, but the contest began to veer into weirdness in the bottom of the third. The Cardinals opened the inning with five consecutive singles, good for three runs. After Brett retired Bake McBride on a fielders' choice for the first out, Bucs' pitching coach Don Osborn came to the mound to relieve Brett in favor of Larry Demery. Obviously displeased, Brett appeared to voice harsh words towards Murtaugh as he approached the runway to the clubhouse after leaving the field.
Demery's entrance failed to stop the Cards: Ken Reitz's two-run double to left drove in Joe Torre and McBride to tie the game. Pinch-hitter Jose Cruz followed with a run-scoring single for a 6-5 edge.
Al Oliver's RBI double off Claude Osteen drew the Bucs even again in the fifth, but St. Louis manager Red Schoendienst called on his top reliever, eccentric 25-year-old left-hander Al Hrabosky. That week's Sports Illustrated offered readers a character sketch of Hrabosky:
It is Hrabosky's custom to commune with himself between pitches at a site just off the mound. After receiving the ball from his catcher, he will turn his back on the hitter, amble off to his spot and, with head bowed, soliloquize on his own worthiness. Then, having convinced himself of his preparedness for combat, he will wheel about and stride to the rubber with a rolling, listing gait reminiscent of Groucho bearing down on the perennially nubile Margaret Dumont. His pitching motion is frantic and contorted. He looks for all the world like a man who has just stubbed his toe, but his fastball, when it is working, is as speedy as any in the National League.
The "Mad Hungarian" retired the side to maintain the tie. In the bottom of the frame, the Cardinals surged ahead with three runs off Bucco reliever John Morlan. Two future executives ignited the inning: Ted Simmons singled and Morlan hit Torre with a pitch. McBride's sacrifice fly and Reitz's two-run homer gave St. Louis a 9-6 advantage.
The Pirates persisted. Oliver's two-out single in the sixth drove in local rookie Ken Macha and Rennie Stennett to cut the deficit to one run. Murtaugh's calls to the bullpen began to yield positive outcomes: two perfect innings from Hernandez and a scoreless eighth from Giusti kept the Cardinals in view.
In the top of the ninth, Schoendienst sent Hrabosky out for his fifth inning of relief. Hrabosky struck out Willie Stargell, but hit Dave Parker with a pitch. Sanguillen then singled to center. McBride threw to third, but the ball bounced away from Reitz. When Hrabosky, backing up the play, failed to pick up the ball, Parker hustled home with the tying run.
Giusti added a scoreless ninth and tenth. Hrabosky responded with a scoreless tenth of his own. The left-hander had pitched no more than 4.1 innings in a game all year, but, in the top of the eleventh, Schoendienst deployed him for inning #7.
Possessing humbler ambitions for his own relievers, Murtaugh pinch-hit Art Howe—like Macha a rookie hailing from the Pittsburgh area—for Giusti to lead off the eleventh. Howe beat out a bunt single. Another rookie, Dilone, pinch-ran. Stargell chopped a high bouncer over first baseman Torre's head for a single, with Dilone racing to third.
Hrabosky recovered to strike out Parker, but Sanguillen followed with another turf-aided bouncer over shortstop Jack Heidermann to score Dilone and put the Pirates ahead. Kirkpatrick then provided two insurance runs by crushing Hrabosky's final pitch of the 6.1-inning outing to right center for a double.
The Pirates had a 12-9 lead and needed only three outs to escape St. Louis in first place. Murtaugh, however, lacked available experienced pitchers. He had used all of his regular relievers. He declined to put one of his regular starting pitchers into the game.
Instead, Murtaugh went with rookie September call-up Juan Jimenez, who had made two low-leverage appearances after spending the season at AAA Charleston. The move backfired. Ted Sizemore greeted Jimenez with a line-drive single to left field. Reggie Smith drew a four-pitch walk. Simmons jumped on Jimenez's first pitch for a double that rolled to the wall in right center; Sizemore scored to reduce the Pirates' edge to two runs.
Murtaugh summoned Jim Minshall to the hill. Like Jimenez, the Bucs had recalled Minshall after he spent the season in the minors (most of it with AA Thetford Mines), and he had pitched in two low-leverage situations previously. The 6'6'' Minshall induced Torre to hit a one-hopper to Stennett at second. Conceding the Cardinals' eleventh run, Stennett threw to Kirkpatrick at first, but his off-balance toss sailed wide of the mark, allowing Simmons to score the tying run and Torre to reach second. It was Stennett's second error of the night after 59 consecutive games without a miscue.
The speedy McBride bunted and beat Minshall's throw to first for an infield single, sending pinch-runner Larry Herndon to third. Minshall recovered to strike out Reitz for the first out of the inning.
With local time nearing 11:30 pm, Schoendienst's final move yielded the win. He sent Jim Dwyer to pinch hit for Heidermann. Dwyer's fly ball to left proved deep enough to score Herndon, and the Cardinals had earned a 13-12 victory and sole possession of first place in the NL East.
A week from today we will know if the Pirates lost the pennant last night.
They lost the biggest game of the season in a wild 11 innings last night. They lost because two rookie pitchers, who had spent most of the season in Charleston, couldn't hold a three-run lead in the 11th inning.
- Charles Feeney, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It was the kind of game that can make a team crack. At least one of the Pirates did. Ken Brett was no man to be next to last night.
"Nine bleeping outs, they wouldn't let me in there for nine bleeping outs," Brett was yelling at the top of his voice minutes after the Pirates blew [a game] to the Cardinals last night.
Danny Murtaugh, picking up a leg of chicken from a buffet in the middle of the Pirates' clubhouse, turned to his pitcher a few feet away and said: "Now, Kenny, I asked you nice to be quiet."
- Bill Christine, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Granted, Murtaugh's bullpen was spent. Larry Demery, John Morlan, Ramon Hernandez and Dave Giusti had gone before on this gothic night which reduced Ken Brett, the starter, to a ranting, contemptuous child.
This was a "two game" with the Cardinals a half game behind the Pirates, and Murtaugh did not want to disturb his pitching rotation for the season's final days.
But it would have been a lot more reassuring if the Pirate manager had gambled with a starter—Jim Rooker, Jerry Reuss or Juan Pizarro in relief.
Murtaugh may regret not having taken the gamble. His managing in this game smacked of the conservative style which Bill Virdon used late in the race last year. Virdon's Philistine ways resulted in his being fired.
- Christine, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
POSTSCRIPT: Four years earlier, the Pirates had likewise lost an apparently devastating decision in the heat of a pennant race, but rebounded nicely after a three-run Stargell first-inning home run in their next game. History would repeat in 1974. Roughly 21 hours after the conclusion of the nightmare in St. Louis, Stargell unloaded a three-run homer off Jerry Koosman in the top of the first at Shea Stadium. The Bucs went on to rout the Mets, enabling them to pull into a tie with the idle Cardinals. They would never again trail in the divisional race.