The 1970 Pittsburgh Pirates: A Year Of Goodbyes & Hellos

The 1970 Pittsburgh Pirates said goodbye to an institution, old Forbes Field, which they moved out of at the All-Star break. They said hello to an institution, bringing back manager Danny Murtaugh, who had been at the helm for their 1960 World Series title. And the 1970 Pittsburgh Pirates ultimately said hello to their first NL East title in an era of divisional play that had begun just a year earlier.

Murtaugh inherited a team that had gone 88-74 in 1969, though they finished twelve games behind the eventual World Series champion New York Mets. In 1970, the Pirates would be built around a balanced pitching staff and a lineup that didn’t wait around, but attacked.

Pittsburgh’s pitching staff was third in the National League in ERA without a true ace. Dock Ellis was the best of the regular rotation and the 25-year-old went 13-10 with a 3.21 ERA. Bob Veale, the 34-year-old lefty went 10-15 with a 3.92 ERA. Steve Blass and 22-year-old Bob Moose were both close to the .500 mark with ERAs in the high 3s. Veale’s 202 innings were the biggest workload among the regular four starters, and this was an era when it wasn’t uncommon for top starters to end up between 250-300 IP.

What the Pirates had was depth. Their 43 saves look low by today’s standards, but in 1970 it was second-best in the National League. Luke Walker represented this staff the best—he made 19 starts, 23 relief appearances, won 15 games and finished with a 3.04 ERA. Dave Giusti saved 26 games and won nine. Bruce Dal Canto added nine more victories. Pittsburgh had the depth to survive the long haul.

Offensively, the Pirate strength was finishing fourth in the league in slugging percentage, but it wasn’t home run power driving that, where Pittsburgh was only seventh in a 12-team league. The Pirates did it with a sustained attack that second in batting average and fourth in doubles. What they didn’t do very well was be patient—the worst in the league at getting walks and that ultimately kept them at eighth in runs scored.

Pittsburgh was strong at the corners, both infield and outfield. The great Roberto Clemente was 35-years-old and still going strong in rightfield. Clemente finished with a .407 on-base percentage/.556 slugging percentage. In left field was 30-year-old Willie Stargell, who would eventually succeed Clemente as the heart and soul of the team. For now, Stargell was the heart and soul of the lineup, leading the Pirates in home runs (31) and RBI (85).

The corners of the infield were filled with young ‘uns. Bob Robertson, the 23-year-old first baseman, hit 27 home runs and drove in 82 runs. Richie Hebner, age 22 and playing third base, finished with a .362 OBP/.464 stat line.

Manny Sanguillen was a solid offensive threat at catcher, hitting .325, although the fact his OBP was just .344 shows he was a microcosm of the team’s offense, in all its strength and all its weakness. The rest of the team up the middle were liabilities at the plate.

Centerfielder Matty Alou’s OBP was just .329 and he lacked power. Shortstop Gene Alley couldn’t hit. And at this stage of his career, one-time World Series hero Bill Mazeroski couldn’t either. Mazeroski only hit .229 and the Pirates would have been better off giving more of his at-bats to young Dave Cash, who batted .314 in part-time duty.

Pittsburgh started well, taking three of four from New York over the course of the first two weeks and began 9-4. But they followed that with a 3-10 stretch that included being swept in Cincinnati, giving up 24 runs in three games to a powerful Reds lineup.

The Pirates stabilized after that, but still reached Memorial Day with a record of just 20-23. The rest of the NL East was also off to a slow start though, and the Pirates were only 3 1/2 games back of the Cubs, with the Mets and Cardinals nestled in between (the Phillies and Expos rounded out the six-team division).

The week of June 22-28 was the turning point of the season and appropriately it was the final week for Forbes Field. The homestand that ended on the 28th gave way to a lengthy road trip that would lead into the All-Star break and the subsequent opening of Three Rivers Stadium on July 16.

It was a stacked week, with eight games, beginning with a Monday doubleheader against St. Louis. After dropping the opener, the nightcap went scoreless into the tenth inning. Two of the weak links in the Pirate lineup came through—Alley singled, was bunted over and Alou drove him in.

After a 7-2 win on Tuesday, more walkoff heroics came on Wednesday. Pittsburgh trailed 3-2 in the ninth and tied the game with the aid of a wild pitch. They won it in the eleventh with the help of an error, setting up reserve Al Oliver’s game-winning single. Pittsburgh kept up the thrills in Thursday’s finale, trailing 2-0 in the ninth. Triples from Robertson and Cash keyed a three-run rally and a win.

Had enough of the late-inning drama? The Pirates hadn’t. The Cubs were in for the final weekend at Forbes and a great pitcher’s duel between Ellis and Fergie Jenkins was tied 1-1 in the ninth. Consecutive singles from Hebner, Clemente and Oliver won the game.

It was the dream sendoff week for the old ballpark and it culminated with a Sunday doubleheader sweep. In the seventh inning of the final game, Mazeroski doubled. It was the final hit of Pittsburgh’s 4-1 win. Appropriately enough, the man who had the most famous hit in this park—the walkoff home run that ended Game 7 of the 1960 World Series—also had its final hit in a week of walkoff wins.

Pittsburgh didn’t slow down when they went on the road. They went 10-4 into the All-Star break and took the lead in the NL East. They led New York by a game and a half at the break, with Chicago five games back. St. Louis fell from contention and the balance of the season would be a race between the Pirates, Cubs and Mets.

The last week of July was not kind to Pittsburgh, as they dropped five of seven and briefly slipped a half-game behind New York. Then the Pirates started August with a 7-1 stretch and by the middle of the month they were four games up. No one in the division played well for the next couple weeks—Pittsburgh went 3-10, but still arrived at Labor Day with a two-game lead on Chicago and plus 2 ½ on New York.

Chicago came to Three Rivers the Tuesday after Labor Day and took two of three, with Veale and Blass both getting their eras pinned back. By week’s end, the Pittsburgh lead was down to a half-game, with all three teams stacked within a game.

The following weekend brought a four-game set in New York’s old Shea Stadium. The Friday opener was scoreless into the seventh when Robertson hit a two-run blast that was the big blow in a three-run rally. The Mets cut the lead to 3-2, but Giusti was able to save it for Blass.

Saturday’s 2-1 win captured everything that was best about this pitching staff—Walker went five solid innings and bullpen-by-committee, at a time when such was hardly the norm, got the final twelve outs. New York took the opener of the Sunday doubleheader and the nightcap went to extra innings tied 5-5. Stargell homered to lead off the tenth, it triggered a four-run outburst and the Pirates moved 3 ½ games ahead of the Mets, while the Cubs were still within two.

There was a week and a half left, and a four-game split with lowly Montreal was modestly disappointing, but both Chicago and New York were starting to fade. Pittsburgh entered the last weekend of the season with a 2 ½ game lead on both teams, but the Mets would get a head-to-head shot in Three Rivers, while the Cubs played a bad Phillies team.

Alou and Sanguillen each had three hits on Friday and led the way to a 4-3 win. The Cubs lost and the lead was 3 1/2. Saturday afternoon saw Blass pitch his way in and out of trouble—he gave up twelve hits and didn’t make it out of the seventh inning, but kept the game tied 3-3. In the bottom of the seventh, an error set up the winning run for the Pirates. Another loss by the Cubs clinched a tie for first and Pittsburgh still had four games left to play.

Ellis got the ball for Sunday’s home finale and similar to Blass, kept working his way out of trouble. Ellis gave up ten hits as he worked into the eighth inning, but allowed only one run and Giusti relieved him with a 2-1 lead. The closer got the final four outs without incident and it was time to celebrate on the confluence of the Three Rivers. Pittsburgh’s final record of 89-73 was only one game better than the previous year, but sipping champagne makes it feel like a world of difference.

Cincinnati won 102 games and was easily the best team in the National League, as “The Big Red Machine” made its first postseason appearance. Pittsburgh’s pitching staff was up to the job in the best-of-five National League Championship Series, but they couldn’t get the key hit. Three games in a row were tight…and all three went against the Pirates. The season was over. 

It was still a championship year in Pittsburgh and it was the beginning of something special. They would win the NL East five times in the six years from 1970-75, and in 1971 they would bring home the World Series trophy.