1975 Pittsburgh Pirates: The Last October For A Steel City Staple

The Pittsburgh Pirates were one of the most successful organizations in the National League in the early part of the 1970s. They won the NL East each year from 1970-72 and took a World Series title in 1971. In 1974, the Pirates again won the NL East. The 1975 Pittsburgh Pirates continued the pattern of success their home city was enjoying across the board in sports—from the NFL’s Steelers to Pitt football.

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Manager Danny Murtaugh had become a Steel City staple. He had been the skipper in 1960 when the Pirates won a dramatic World Series on Bill Mazeroski’s tiebreaking home run over the New York Yankees in the ninth inning of Game 7.

Murtaugh stepped down after the 1964 season, then returned to manage the 1971 championship team before again stepping down. When his successor, Bill Virdon, was sub-.500 deep into the 1973 season, Murtaugh returned and immediately got the team back on top of the NL East a year later. 1975 was Murtaugh’s last ride into October baseball.

Power and pitching were what keyed the 1975 edition of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The team led the National League in home runs and was second in slugging percentage. Willie Stargell, the 35-year-old first baseman hit 22 home runs. Catcher Manny Sanguillen slugged .491. Richie Zisk popped 20 home runs in left field, while centerfielder Al Oliver hit 18 home runs.

No one was better than Dave Parker. The rightfielder slugged .541, hit 25 home runs and had 101 RBIs. He finished third in the MVP voting, an award that ultimately went to Cincinnati Reds’ second baseman Joe Morgan. While Morgan had the better numbers, he also hit in the stacked lineup that was the Big Red Machine.

Pittsburgh had at least three dead offensive spots in their lineup, while Cincinnati had offensive depth.  Parker bore greater proportional responsibility for the Pirates, and there is at least a credible argument that he deserved the 1975 National League MVP.

Whatever runs were produced, the Pirate pitchers made the most of them. They finished second in the NL in ERA. Jerry Reuss was an 18-game winner with a 2.54 ERA. Jim Rooker, Bruce Kison, Dock Ellis and John Candelaria all had ERAs ranging from 2.76 to 3.23. No matter whose turn was up, the Pirates were going to have a good chance to win. Dave Giusti and Ramon Hernandez effectively handled the most important bullpen innings.

Pittsburgh had a stop-and-go start to the 1975 season and was 19-18 on Memorial Day, though no one in the NL East was able to get any separation. The Pirates went on a 35-15 stretch that saw them take first place for good and stretch their lead as high as 6 ½ games, but there were still some anxious moments before it was over.

On August 17, Pittsburgh was licking its wounds, having been swept four straight by Cincinnati—who was then in the NL West, a geographic idiocy not rectified until the realignment of 1994 that created a third division in each league and put both the Pirates and Reds in the NL Central.

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The Philadelphia Phillies, a team on the rise, had cut the margin to a half-game, and the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets were also in hot pursuit. Pittsburgh responded as a veteran team does—they won 14 of the next 19, including taking three of four from the powerful Reds, and pushed the lead back to 6 ½ games. By the time two September series showdowns with the Phillies took place, the NL East race was all but settled.

Pittsburgh finished the regular season with 92 wins and moved into their fifth National League Championship Series in six years.

The only franchise in the NL that could go toe-to-toe with Pittsburgh consistently in the first half of the 1970s was Cincinnati, and the Reds had their best team. While there were some NLCS games that were good individually, the series itself ended up as a sweep for the Reds.

1975 was the last postseason appearance for Murtaugh, as the Pirates would be overtaken by the Phillies each of the next three seasons and Chuck Tanner took the managerial reins. But the baseball good times were hardly over in Pittsburgh—another World Series run in 1979 wasn’t far around the corner.