The 1973 Pittsburgh Pirates Take A Step Back

The 1973 Pittsburgh Pirates came into the season looking for a fourth straight division title and to win their second World Series title in that same time period. The Pirates did indeed contend in ’73. But it took a mediocre division to keep them in the race, and in the end, they still came up short.

The step-back was certainly no fault of Willie Stargell. Now 33-years-old, but still playing leftfield, Stargell put together the best year of his brilliant career. He finished with an on-base percentage of .392 and a slugging percentage of a stunning .646. He hit 44 home runs and posted 119 RBIs. He batted .292 and came in second in the National League MVP voting.

Stargell was joined in the Pirate outfield by Al Oliver, who popped 20 homers of his own, and Richie Zisk, who finished with a stat line of .364 OBP/.526 slugging. Another Richie, third baseman Hebner, hit 25 home runs. Even though Pittsburgh didn’t get good years from notables like Manny Sanguillen behind the plate, Bob Robertson at first base or second baseman Dave Cash, they still finished fourth in the National League for runs scored.

The pitching was more mediocre. There was a nice core three in the starting rotation, with Nelson Briles, Bob Moose and Dock Ellis. But in an unexpected development, Steve Blass, the team’s best pitcher in recent years, just completely lost it. Blass was only 31-years-old and there were no injury factors. But he made 18 starts, finished with a mammoth ERA of 9.85 and was out of baseball by the following season. It was a shocking fall from grace for a man who had been an October hero.  

Losing depth in the rotation accentuated the problem that none of Briles, Moose or Ellis was really a true #1 starter. Manager Bill Virdon pieced together starts from Bruce Kison, Jim Rocker, Luke Walker, and others. Dave Giusti was still a good closer. But it wasn’t enough to stop the Pirate staff from finishing seventh in what was then a 12-team National League for staff ERA.

Pittsburgh swept the St. Louis Cardinals to start the season, got out of the gate at 8-3 and it looked like all was well in the Steel City. But the Pirates dropped three straight at home to a good Los Angeles Dodgers team at the end of April. They were swept three straight at home by the New York Mets. By the time Memorial Day arrived, Pittsburgh was stumbling at 17-21, in fourth place in the NL East and facing a 7 ½ game deficit.

This situation was even more urgent in the baseball era that existed prior to 1994, when each league was split into just two divisions, an East and a West, and only the first-place team advanced to the postseason. The Chicago Cubs were in first place, with the Mets and Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) in second and third respectively.

The Pirates swept the Atlanta Braves out of the holiday weekend, then won a series over the eventual NL West champion Cincinnati Reds. But a corner had not been turned. Pittsburgh promptly went into a free-fall, lost 11 times in 13 games and were in a 10 ½ game hole by June 18.

An 11-6 stretch against divisional rivals stopped the bleeding, but the Pirate roller-coaster continued into the All-Star break. Fortunately, the roller coaster turned upward with a four-game sweep of the San Diego Padres to close the first half. Pittsburgh’s record was only 46-49, but that was good enough to be within 4 ½ games of the Cubs and Cardinals, who were tied for first. The entire NL East was within 7 ½ games. This race could go to anyone who wanted to step up and grab it.

The latter part of summer saw Pittsburgh mostly tread water, while the division as a whole—if this were possible—became even more defined by collective mediocrity. On August 31, Pittsburgh was 63-65. But St. Louis, setting the pace, was only a game over .500. Chicago was 64-67. The Pirates and Cubs were meeting at old Three Rivers Stadium over Labor Day weekend.

A Friday doubleheader got the series started. Stargell ripped a three-run blast that was the highlight of a six-run third inning. Rocker tossed a complete game in a 7-0 win. The nightcap was tied 2-2 in the fourth. Hebner’s solo blast started a three-run burst. Reliever Bob Johnson did good work in shutting things down, as Pittsburgh beat Chicago ace Fergie Jenkins 5-2.

On Saturday afternoon, Kison and Cub starter Burt Hooton dueled in a scoreless tie through eight innings. In the bottom of the ninth, Hebner singled to right with one out. An Oliver double set up a second and third situation for Zisk. He singled to center, and the Pirates had a 1-0 win. Even though they lost on Sunday, the Pirates were back to .500, only one game back and in second place. The entire division continued to be packed within seven games of each other.

With St. Louis coming to town next, opportunity was at hand. But tensions between Virdon and the team had been boiling all year. When Pittsburgh lost three of four games to the Cardinals, they boiled over. Virdon was fired. Danny Murtaugh, a lifer with the organization, who managed the 1970 division champs and the 1971 World Series champs, moved from Farm Director back into the dugout for the stretch drive.

The Pirates had also made a callup that would help them in the present and significantly impact their future. Dave Parker, at the age of 22, got 144 plate appearances down the stretch in this 1973 season. He slugged .453 and got a fantastic career started.

There was still time to turn this season around. Pittsburgh won two of three over Philadelphia. When the Pirates went to St. Louis for a weekend series on September 14, their record was up to 72-71 and that was good enough to hold a one-game lead.

Briles pitched Friday night’s opener and worked six good innings to lead a 3-1 win. On Saturday, a big seventh-inning was keyed by Parker’s three-run blast and the Pirates won 7-4. Pittsburgh lost on a Sunday, but the big series win had pushed St. Louis two games back with two weeks to play.

As those who watch horse racing know, when a race is packed, what often happens is the horses that have been lurking in the middle, or even all the way back, suddenly make a burst at the end. That’s what was starting to happen in the NL East. The Expos were only a half-game back. And the horse with the Mets logo on it, who lingered in last place in August, was starting to come steam down the stretch.

Pittsburgh and New York would play in a strange five-game stretch that would cover Monday through Friday, the first two at home and the latter three on the road. The Pirate bats pounded the great Tom Seaver for a 10-3 win in the opener and all looked well. But Pittsburgh’s pitching problems came home to roost. Over the next four games, they allowed 27 runs and lost all four. The Mets were now in first place. The Pirates were a game back. The Expos, Cardinals and Cubs were two back. There was a week and change to go.

Taking three of four from Montreal delivered the Expos a big blow, but Pittsburgh then lost a series to Philadelphia. Coming into the final weekend, the Mets were 80-78, the Pirates were 79-79 and the Cardinals were hanging on at 2 ½ out.

Pittsburgh would get the break they needed. The Mets lost once on the final weekend and opened the door. But the Pirates lost two quick games against the Expos and their bid was over. Pittsburgh finished the season 80-82. For all the excitement the division race brought, this was still only the eighth-best record in the National League and tied for 14th among 26 major league teams overall. It was mediocrity for an organization that had become used to excellence.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Pittsburgh immediately got back on top of the NL East in 1974, and then again in 1975.  The 1973 season was just a strange and disappointing aberration in a great era of Pirates baseball.