The Best Game Ever: Pirates vs. Yankees: October 13, 1960.
The 1960 World Series is the first that I recollect because my favorite team at the time, the New York Yankees, was in it. I have seen Bill Mazeroski's walk-off home run to win the Series many times since, but then I was in the third grade, listening to the game on the radio that my teacher had brought into the classroom. I didn't cry when the Yankees lost, as my hero, Mickey Mantle, did; but I remember being disappointed. After all, my team was supposed to win. How many eight-year-olds outside of Pittsburgh were rooting for the underdog Pirates, who had only two winning seasons during the 1950s while the Yankees were a dynasty, winning six World Series and losing two others? Yet Pittsburgh was victorious, taking three close games, losing big in three others, before the Pirates' second baseman hit a homer on the first pitch in the bottom of the ninth to win the World Series.
Jim Reisler was a small boy from Pittsburgh, though only two when Mazeroski hit his famous home run and thus too young to have any of his own memories of the event. A sports journalist and historian, Reisler has written for magazines like Sports Illustrated and is the author of four books on baseball. For this book, he has relied on interviews with twenty-two people, including a number of the players involved, to provide retroactive assessments of the game and add color to the play. He has dipped heavily into the Pittsburgh and New York newspapers of the period, and the book also includes a number of black and white photos which capture the 1960 World Series.
Reisler has structured the book around the game itself, like Daniel Okrent's classic, Nine Innings, or, more recently, Jane Leavy's Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy, describing the action, pitch-by-pitch. He also writes about how the teams were built and the individuals on both squads, both stars and bench warmers. The interviews with Dick Groat, the Pittsburgh shortstop, especially provided interesting insights about the team on and off the field, but this is not the Bucs' version of Ball Four. Reisler writes about the announcers, photographers, and the fans in Pittsburgh, many of whom still meet at what is left of the left field wall every October to listen to a rebroadcast of the game. He builds the story to its inevitable climax and in the end attempts to connect us to another of baseball's "golden ages"--the era of radio, the "Game of the Week" and "Home Run Derby" on black and white television, and baseball cards; the story also connects Reisler to his own father who was at Forbes Field that day, a la Field of Dreams. It becomes "The Best Game Ever."
It is clear that Reisler loves baseball and that this game was important to him and other Pirates fans. The game becomes more than a game--it was "blue collar versus blue blood, as the story line went. Stanwix Street against Wall Street. Pierogies versus filet mignon" (xx). It was the triumph of a very good team of hard-working players like Don Hoak, Bob Friend, Bill Virdon, and Elroy Face over stars like Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Yogi Berra. But Pittsburgh had two future Hall of Famers in the lineup--Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente--and the unlikely upset by the unheralded Pirates seems somewhat cliched. But the story is interesting and well told, for the most part.
But that is not enough to overcome the factual errors and careless assumptions which plague the book and irritate the reader. For example, Pittsburgh fans have identified mistakes about the dimensions of Forbes Field and its seating capacity; a radio broadcaster is misidentified; and places in Pittsburgh are mislocated. Knowing beforehand how the game played out, Reisler speculates that Casey Stengel, the Yankees' manager, considered using Bobby Shantz as his starter, even though Shantz had not started a game all year. The decision to use Bob Turley was not described. Turley, by the way, was knocked out of the game in the second inning, and Shantz got into the game one inning later and pitched solidly until he was removed at the end of the seventh. He describes the insertion of Hal Smith into the game as a replacement for Smoky Burgess, who was taken out of the game for a pinch runner, as "an afterthought" by the Pirates' manager, Danny Murtaugh; Smith, though, was the backup catcher, who would naturally have stepped into the lineup after Burgess was removed.
Reisler's attempts to address larger historical questions are suspect. Nostalgia for the "good old days" leads to a world where kids enjoyed "baseball in vacant lots or stickball in the streets" rather than playing MLB 08 on their PlayStations. Modern baseball is compared unfavorably to the era of eight teams in each league, with no playoffs. He also discusses larger social issues like racism in American society, noting that the collapse of the Negro Leagues was "the end of a truly sorrowful chapter in baseball history" (xxviii). But there is no comment about the sea of white faces in the Pirates' team photo; there were only two African Americans (Gene Baker and Joe Christopher) and one Puerto Rican player (Clemente) on the World Series roster.
A final problem is the book's title, The Best Game Ever. Was it the best game ever? The lead went back and forth from Pittsburgh to the Yankees and back to Pittsburgh before New York tied the game in the top of the ninth; and Mazeroski did hit the only walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth in World Series history. Reisler himself says that the game was the best in terms of sheer entertainment value. It wasn't just the ninth inning, but the eighth inning alone [when the Yanks extended their lead to 7-4 after scoring 2 runs only to see the Pirates retake the lead with five of their own in the bottom of the inning] was worth chapter after chapter. ... So we said, "What the heck, call it the best." (Richard Sandomir, "In the World of Books, Every Game Is the Best," New York Times, April 21, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/21/sports/21greatest.html)
But the Yankees' pitching was shaky, apart from Shantz, and the Pittsburgh relievers couldn't hold a lead. There have been far better games from a pitching standpoint: Don Larsen's perfect game in 1956; Bob Gibson of the Cardinals was superb over 3 Series in the 1960s, and Jack Morris pitched a 10-inning gem to clinch the 1991 Series for Minnesota, as Reisler himself notes. Mazeroski's shot was dramatic; so was Carlton Fisk's homer off the foul pole in 1976, and Toronto fans might point to Joe Carter's 3-run walk-off home run which won the 1993 World Series in a game that was not the best ever, but certainly one of the most exciting. But it was a Game 6, not a Game 7.
Moreover, Mark Bowden had written that the 1958 NFL championship game won by the Baltimore Colts over the New York Giants was "The Best Game Ever." According to Richard Bradley, "The Greatest Game Ever," though, was the 1978 playoff game between the Yankees and the Red Sox which was decided by Bucky Dent's three-run homer over the Green Monster in Fenway Park. Mark Frost has asserted that the 1913 U.S. Open victory by Francis Ouimet over Harry Vardon was the "Greatest Game Ever"; or was it North Carolina's victory over Kansas, led by Wilt Chamberlain, in the 1957 NCAA basketball final? Sports fans, with their own strong team affiliations, will continue to make their own choices.
If readers are expecting a deep analysis of how the underdog Pirates represented blue-collar Pittsburgh, or how the Series was inserted into the presidential campaign of 1960, or the impact of racism on Major League Baseball, they will be disappointed. The factual errors should have been corrected. And whether this was the "Best Game Ever" can be debated.
But if the reader simply wants a description of the game, its players, its key plays, and, of course, its dramatic climax, then this is a book worth looking at. It is a good story, and Jim Reisler does recreate quite well the details and excitement of the 1960 World Series. Baby boomers are taken back to their youth when baseball really mattered and Bill Mazeroski fulfilled the fantasy of small boys everywhere, even Yankee fans, of hitting the home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the World Series.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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