PITTSBURGH (AP) — Left fielder Yogi Berra never had a chance as the homer cleared Forbes Field’s ivy-covered wall with a dozen feet to spare, releasing a pent-up jolt of excitement and a crescendo of joyful noise that Pittsburghers had saved up for more than three decades.
As the Pirates runner rounded second base, he saw jubilant fans screaming and jumping on top of the dugouts. On NBC Radio, a disbelieving Chuck Thompson’s voice rose above the mass hysteria to tell his national audience, “We have just seen and shared in one of baseball’s great moments!”
Inside that trampled-upon Pirates dugout, players still shaking off losses of 16-3, 10-0 and 12-0 to a Yankees team that was setting nearly every offensive World Series record celebrated like bat boys rather than a bunch of big leaguers.
The Yankees — the vaunted, hated, dreaded, unbeatable Yankees — seemingly had been beaten by a team known as the Impossible Pirates, who were about to win Pittsburgh’s first World Series title in an agonizingly long 35 years.
Only one problem: Bill Mazeroski wouldn’t bat for another inning.
On Wednesday, baseball celebrates the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest games ever played, the Pirates’ memorable 10-9 victory over Mickey Mantle’s Yankees in Game 7 of a 1960 World Series that was beyond wacky, beyond description and almost beyond belief.
What’s become lost in all the years is that Mazeroski’s solo home run in the ninth inning, one eclipsed in baseball lore perhaps only by Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard ‘Round The World in 1951, might not have been the Pirates’ biggest homer of the game.
Hal Smith’s three-run shot off reliever Jim Coates put Pittsburgh ahead 9-7 and capped a five-run eighth that still ranks as the greatest late-inning comeback in World Series Game 7 history. For 15 minutes, it was the biggest World Series home run of all time, and Smith’s teammates were sure it had won the game.
“I knew I’d hit it — it was the hardest ball I ever hit at Forbes Field,” said Smith, a platoon catcher who had entered the game only that inning. “I hit that ball. I really hit that ball. I think it landed in a tree in Schenley Park. When I saw the people celebrating, going crazy, I said to myself, ‘Uh oh, I’ve done something.'”
Only it didn’t win the game. In the Yankees’ ninth, Mantle pulled off a gem of a baserunning move by eluding first baseman Rocky Nelson’s swipe tag on an apparent double-play grounder, allowing the tying run to score and setting the stage for the only home run to end a World Series Game 7.
Fame can be fleeting, and some of Smith’s teammates have long wondered how it eluded him.
“It’s the biggest forgotten home run in baseball history, in my opinion,” said shortstop Dick Groat, the NL MVP that season despite missing most of September with a broken wrist.
Vern Law, the Cy Young Award winner who started Game 7, said, “I always felt sorry for him because here he was, the hero, and then it was taken away from him. People forget that. Instead of him being the hero, it was Maz.”
Hal Smith turns 80 on Dec. 7 but, recovering this summer from a heart operation, he couldn’t attend a PNC Park reunion of that 1960 team in June.
Still, time is treating many of those Pirates well. Law is 80, looks 60 and regularly threw batting practice until last year. Bill Virdon, 79, and Mazeroski, 74, are Pirates spring training instructors. Ace reliever Roy Face, at age 82, still looks as if he could throw his forkball for a strike.
Their Game 7 victory is so storied in Pittsburgh that when a film of NBC’s Game 7 telecast — thought to be long since lost — was discovered in the wine cellar of the late Bing Crosby, the famed singer and former Pirates co-owner, a theater was booked for a November screening. Later, the last game played before expansion changed the shape of baseball forever will be shown on MLB Network and sold on DVD.
No doubt it will be a big seller in Pittsburgh, where Mazeroski’s homer is repeatedly voted in fan surveys as the city’s greatest sports moment, ahead of the Steelers’ six Super Bowl titles, the Penguins’ three Stanley Cups and Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception.
Even if it was Smith who momentarily expected to be recalled forever for one well-timed swing against a belt-high fastball.
“Joe Brown gave me a compliment as fine as I’ve ever gotten,” Smith said, referring to the late general manager who assembled that ’60 team. “He said my home run was the biggest thrill of his life. I said, ‘What about Maz?’ And he said, ‘After you hit that home run, I knew we were going to win.'”
Back then, the Yankees almost always won. They won the World Series in 1956, 1958, 1961 — when Roger Maris hit 61 homers and Mantle hit 54 — and 1962. They came into that ’60 Series riding a 15-game winning streak and, after losing Game 1 by 6-4 on — yes — Mazeroski’s two-run homer, they overpowered the Pirates 16-3 and 10-0.
Outside of Law, Harvey Haddix and mop-up reliever George Witt, no Pirates pitcher had a Series ERA below 4.50, and six had ERAs of 5.23 or above.
The Pirates hadn’t played in the World Series since 1927, when they were meekly swept by the Yankees following a Game 1 batting practice barrage of home runs by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The ’60 Pirates were threatening to be embarrassed again until they rallied to win 3-2 behind Law in Game 4 and 5-2 behind Haddix in Game 5, both at Yankee Stadium.
“We won a game against Cincinnati in April when we were trailing 5-0 in the ninth, and we never stopped believing after that,” Groat said.
The Yankees couldn’t believe what soon-to-be-fired manager Casey Stengel was doing.
For inexplicable reasons, he passed over staff ace Whitey Ford in Game 1 to start Art Ditmar, who didn’t make it out of the second inning in either the opener or Game 5. While Ford was 12-9 during his worst year of a 13-season stretch in which he averaged 17 wins, he went 25-4 a year later to Ditmar’s 2-8.
“That was the only time I was mad at Stengel in my life,” said Ford, who pitched shutouts in Game 3 and Game 6 during one of three World Series in which he had a 2-0 record.
Stengel also yanked reliever Bobby Shantz, a premier fielder, in the eighth inning of Game 7, a move that proved pivotal when Coates was late covering first on Roberto Clemente’s infield single that preceded Smith’s homer. At times, Stengel yelled for pinch-hitters who were no longer on the team. And he brought in Ralph Terry, gassed from warming up five times in the bullpen, rather than a well-rested Ryne Duren or Luis Arroyo at the end of Game 7.
Two pitches by Terry to Mazeroski, and it was over. The Yankees outscored the Pirates 55-27, outhit them .338 to .256, outhomered them 10-4, yet lost. For the only time in his major league career, Mantle cried afterward.
“We made too many wrong mistakes,” Berra said later, as only he could.
“The Pirates should never beat our club,” Maris said. “I think if we played this team all season, we’d beat them real bad. They were real lucky. I think it is impossible to get any more breaks than they had in this series.”
Of course, impossible was a word the Pirates heard all season. A year later, they tumbled to sixth place in the National League.
Mazeroski never sought fame — “I always said I got too much credit,” he said — and Smith doesn’t begrudge him for getting it. Asked if he’d have a statue outside PNC Park, rather than Mazeroski, if his homer stood as the game-winner, Smith said, “No-o-o-o-o. Maz made the Hall of Fame, not me.”
Smith hit only 15 more homers, three in 1961 and 12 as an expansion-team catcher for the Houston Colt .45s in 1962. Today, his former teammates wish that history remembered Smith’s home run, as much as Mazeroski’s, was responsible for felling the mighty Yankees.
“If it wasn’t for his home run, Maz’s wouldn’t have meant nothing,” Face said.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.