10/10/2010

Recalling an Infamous Home Run

I've been down with the flu for several days and it's disrupted all the normal routines. It's a pretty nasty bug. I'm at the stage now where it's a low-grade fever and general aching malaise interrupted by occasional fits of violent and rather painful coughing. And there are powerful sneezes as well.

So I've spent most of the past few days in the guest bedroom. We have a stereo in that room that has a cassette tape deck, and I've dug out old tapes that I haven't played in years, tapes that in some cases I'd forgotten I have. And I've passed much of the time by drifting in and out of sleep as I listen to, among other things, Garrison Keillor monologues.

I've also spent the last several nights in that room so Jane can sleep without being awakened by my sudden noisy coughing and weary groans of exasperation. Around 3:30 this morning I woke up coughing and couldn't go back to sleep. So I sifted through the old tapes looking for something to put on the stereo.

One of the tapes I'd forgotten I have is a copy of the radio broadcast of the seventh game of the 1960 World Series between the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates. So I put that one into the player.

I was 10 years old when that game was played, and I remember it very well -- at least the final few innings. I didn't realize it at the time, of course, but that World Series game and the 1960 Major League baseball season was the end of an era. In 1960, there were still only 16 Major League teams -- eight in each league -- and the teams played a schedule of 154 games.

In 1961, Major League baseball would begin an expansion that would eventually swell the number of teams to 30, increase the regular season schedule to 162 games, and lead to a post-season playoff that stretches into November.

When New York met Pittsburgh in the 1960 World Series, I was at the peak of my passion for the Yankees. I'm not sure how a hick kid from a tiny rural town in the South became a Yankees fan, but I think it must have had something to do with Mickey Mantle. I'd learn later that Mantle was about as tragically flawed a man as has ever lived, but in 1960 he was a god walking among mortals.

I lay there in the dark listening to broadcaster Chuck Thompson's account of the game, which was played on October 13, 1960. At some point I realized that the 50th anniverary of that memorable game is only a few days away. The fact that I'm getting old enough to recall events 50 years ago is a little unsettling. I remember all of the fanfare surrounding the 50th anniverary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, which occurred years before I was born, and so that anniversary celebrated an event that, for me at least, was safely in the distant past and wasn't a reflection of my own aging.

But now, I'm old enough to remember things that happened half a century ago. Time passes.

The game itself was a wild, high-scoring, see-sawing affair. After two innings, Pittsburgh led 4-0. But the Yankees rallied, and by the sixth innning they held a 5-4 lead.

In 1960, World Series games were played during the day, and October 13, 1960 was a Thursday. So that meant that I wasn't able to turn on the game until after I'd gotten home from school. But I got home in time to see the end of the game.

In the top of the eighth inning, the Yankees extended their lead to 7-4, and it looked like it was all over. But in the bottom of the eighth, a fluke occurred that changed the course of the game. With Gino Cimoli on first, Bill Virdon hit a bouncing ground ball to Yankees shortstop Tony Kubek. It should have been an easy double-play, but the ball hit a pebble, took a wicked erratic hop, and hit Kubek in the Adam's apple. Everyone was safe, Kubek had to leave the game, and before the inning ended the Pirates had taken a 9-7 lead.

Still, the Yankees came back in the top of the ninth inning to tie the score at 9-9, and I was confident that the Yankees would hold the Pirates in the bottom of the ninth and win it in extra innings, especially since the bottom of the Pirates' lineup was coming to bat in their half of the inning.

Listening to the tape last night, of course, I knew what would happen. Bill Mazeroski would lead off for the Pirates against Ralph Terry. He'd take Terry's first pitch for a called ball. Then he'd hit Terry's second pitch over the left field wall, the Pirates would win, 10-9, Pittsburgh would go berserk, and I'd trudge quietly upstairs to my room with tears of disappointment running down my cheeks.

Listening to the game in the dark through a feverish haze 50 years later, I didn't start crying. But I still shook my head in disbelief that Terry gave Mazeroski a pitch that he could knock out of the damn ballpark.

NOTE: The photo at the top of this post was shot by George Silk for Life magazine. It shows University of Pittsburgh students watching from the tower of the Cathedral of Learning and cheering Bill Mazeroski's home run that won the 1960 World Series.