50TH ANNIVERSARY OF HAL SMITH

By Murray Chass

October 14, 2010

This column was supposed to be about the 50th anniversary of Game 7 of the wacky but wonderful World Series of 1960. But it wasn’t going to be about Bill Mazeroski, whose ninth-inning home run won the Series and remains the only home run to win a World Series in the seventh game.

The focus of the column was going to be Hal Smith, the platooned catcher, whose three-run home run in the eighth inning made Mazeroski’s heroics possible, not to mention necessary.Bill Mazeroski2 225

Smith’s two-out home run against the Yankees’ Jim Coates climaxed a five-run Pittsburgh rally and gave the Pirates a 9-7 lead. The Yankees tied the game in the ninth, and Mazeroski led off the Pirates’ half of the ninth with a home run over Forbes Field’s red-brick left field wall against Ralph Terry.

The lasting memory of that climactic moment is seeing Yogi Berra, his back to the field, watching the ball sail over the wall.

“I thought the ball was going to hit the fence,” said Berra, who played left field that day while Johnny Blanchard caught. “That’s why I turned around. If I thought it was going to clear by that much, I wouldn’t have turned around. I would have just walked off.”

The term “walk-off home run” had not yet joined the baseball lexicon at that time so it was not applied to Mazeroski’s game-winning homer, but the blow would later catapult the second baseman into the Hall of Fame.

The Hall’s former veterans committee elected Mazeroski, whose career didn’t justify his election. He was one of the game’s best defensive second basemen, he was a pretty good clutch hitter and there was the home run.

But all of that doesn’t add up to the Hall of Fame. Mazeroski got there because of Joe L. Brown, the Pirates’ former general manager, who used his turn among members of the good-old-boys veterans committee to engineer his former player’s election.

Mazeroski had different kinds of help leading to the home run. Mazeroski obviously hit the home run on his own, but plays that preceded it put him in position where his homer won the World Series.

The most notable of those plays was Bill Virdon’s bad-hop grounder with a runner at first and no one out in the eighth inning with the Yankees leading, 7-4. Instead of getting one or two outs on the grounder, shortstop Tony Kubek got a baseball in the throat, and the Pirates two runners on and no one out.

A run-scoring single and two outs later, Roberto Clemente hit a roller to first baseman Bill Skowron for what appeared would be the third out.

“I think if Coates had covered first base when Clemente hit that ball to first base, why not?” Berra said in a telephone interview at about the very minute that Mazeroski hit the home run 50 years earlier.

Yogi Berra 225Berra said he didn’t know why pitcher Jim Coates didn’t cover first base, but Clemente wound up with a single and the Pirates with another run (7-6) and Smith coming to bat with two runners on.

Smith hit a home run against Coates, putting the Pirates ahead, 9-7. Without that surprising blow from a batter who had hit 11 home runs during the season, Mazeroski would not have become Pittsburgh’s hero, maybe not have made the Hall of Fame.

I had planned to focus this column on Smith, but between his traveling from his home in Texas to Pittsburgh and the Pirates’ celebration of the 50th anniversary, our signals got crossed and we missed each other.

Berra, on the other hand, didn’t have anywhere to go to celebrate anything and was easily located at home in New Jersey. Berra, of course did a lot of celebrating in his time as a player. He played in the most World Series of any player, 14, and played on the most World Series winners, 10.

“It was a tough one to lose,” said the 85-year-old Berra, who is completely recovered from a fall he suffered during the summer. “But Mickey was the only one who felt bad,” he said, referring to Mickey Mantle. “He started crying.”

But even these many years later Berra had one regret from that World Series. “I wish we had started Whitey the first game,” he said, recalling it as if it were yesterday, “but Lopat talked Casey into starting Ditmar.”

Eddie Lopat was the pitching coach, Casey Stengel the manager. Art Ditmar, who had a 15-9 record that season, lasted only five batters into the Series opener, giving up three runs and getting only one out. Ford, who had a 12-9 record, shut out the Pirates in Games 3 and 6.

The Yankees won Ford’s starts, 10-0 and 12-0, and gained their third victory, 16-3. The Pirates won the opener, 6-4, and subsequent games, 3-2 and 5-2, before outlasting the Yankees, 10-9 in Game 7.

When Berra and I finished talking about that World Series but before we completed our conversation, he startled me with what I guess can go down as his latest Yogism, not as colorful as, say, “It gets late early” or, talking about a restaurant, “It’s too crowded; nobody goes there anymore.”

This one was more personal.

“Did you hear that Murray Chass died?” he asked.

“What?” I said, stunned, not certain that I had heard him correctly.

“Did you hear that Murray Chass died?” he said, repeating himself.

“Yogi,” I said, “that was Maury Allen.”

“Oh yeah,” he said, realizing he meant the former New York Post baseball writer.

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