It was the summer of 1960, beastly hot as always. I was not yet 16 years old. The Flying Fraction, the 77/54 street car, creaked along the tracks as I made my way to dirty, dingy Forbes Field to see the Pittsburgh Pirates play. As we rounded corners the wheels bit into the track; they complained loudly. I sat on a wooden bench, my baseball glove tightly held in my left hand and my right braced against the side of the car just in case we lost power or worse yet, skipped off the tracks. I had experienced both, and it was not fun. The streetcar trip took about 45 minutes if everything was on time, not including a 15 minute walk/run up the hill to the street car turnaround, and a ten minute stroll to the park. Bleacher seats cost a dollar. That left me a few quarters for a hotdog.
Games were played during the day, even though there were lights. Most were not televised, our folks did not have a television anyway. We lived in a working class neighborhood. Mom stayed home to raise us; Dad worked at a dairy plant six and a half days a week. He took a second job to make ends meet. My summer job was day labor in the Borough park where I earned 50 cents an hour, and gave most of that to dad.But as a family we had all we needed.
The 1960 Pirates were actually closing in on a National League Pennant, an historic event, and we were excited. The team was filled with colorful characters, some very straight-laced and others reminiscent of the partiers of years gone by. They would go on to win 95 games and clinch, then head to the World Series. Improbably, they would beat the vaunted New York Yankees in seven games, with a walk off home run by Bill Mazeroski in the bottom of the ninth inning. One of baseball's greatest moments.
This Sunday they were playing the Saint Louis Cardinals, and the crowd was, as always that year, going to be loud and big. As I handed my dollar in and walked to my seat in far right field, I felt the power that only a city that needs a good reason to cheer can feel. We were Pirates fans, cheering the vaunted Bucs on to victory.
I gazed over the top of the railing. A Pirate player approached and waved. He was one of the few black players in baseball, and even on the Pirates team. Number 21, Roberto Clemente, was the best of the 1960 Pirates, but he was overshadowed by the more flashy and American-born players. Roberto Clemente had a thick accent and the newspapers quoted him in Pidgin English, phonetically, as if they were making fun of him. He was a target of discrimination at Spring Training in Florida, but like Jackie Robinson, he showed great grace and never retaliated,
I watched as he casually caught fly balls, basket-catching most, and then watched as he rifled the ball, sometimes underhanded, back to the infield. Once, during the game, he threw out a runner at the plate, firing a direct shot to catcher Smoky Burgess, The crowd was delirious. Overall, I’d get to see him five more times in the 1960 regular season.
The Pirates won that day. In October my dad and I went to one of the World Series games, winning a ticket lottery, paying 14 dollars a seat. The Pirates were creamed by the Yankees. My absence from high school, totally unexcused, earned me detention for the rest of time where they played the Series I heard the final inning of the final game on the school’s PA system.
Yes it's just a small leather-wrapped baseball. A friend of my Dad’s got me an autographed ball, one signed by all the members of the team, even the manager. I still have it, and have kept it and the box in fairly good shape all these years. My life changed quickly: college, army, marriage, kids. Some memories fade. years later, Roberto Clemente died tragically while on a humanitarian flight. He’s still the only player ever inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame immediately after he died.
I never saw Jackie Robinson play, but my memories of the man who followed him, Roberto Clemente, a player who might never have had the chance if it weren’t for Jackie, are golden.