Friday, August 10, 2012

Back To The Future: The Lumber Company 1970-79

Pittsburgh wasn't a baseball wasteland in the era stretching between Billy Maz and Sid Breim; the seventies rocked some of the best hardball ever played in these parts. But when the announcers refer to the Lumber Company, all but old-timey fans get a little hazy.

The seventies were a highlight film era for the Pirates. They left Forbes Field for Three Rivers Stadium, and that escape from the cavernous Oakland park launched the Lumber Company. They knocked out an NL high 154 HRs in the first full season at TRS, and led the majors in runs scored with 788. The seventies club became the first to sport double-knits and pill box caps, and the first team to fill in a lineup card with all minority players. But they'll be remembered longest for the exploits of The Lumber Company.

In that decade, they won two world series and six Eastern Division titles, finishing second three times and a dismal third once. Bucs claimed two batting championships, two home run titles, two NL MVPs and two World Series' MVPs.

Their rivalries with the Big Red Machine early in the decade and the Phillies toward the end were the stuff of baseball legends, dripping with swagger and testosterone. You think Cutch, Joey Votto and Coles Hamel are something? You shoulda been there for Pops and Dave Parker, Johnny Bench and Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt and Lefty. Those games were as heated for the fans as the Steelers-Ravens matches are today.

The Lumber Company started in 1970 with Danny Murtaugh, Roberto Clemente, Rennie Stennett, Willie Stargell, Steve Blass, Manny Sanguillen and Al Oliver and ended in 1979 with Pops, Sangy and Stennett still around along with Chuck Tanner, Dave Parker, John Candelaria, Dock Ellis and Teke.

In 1970, the Pirates won their first NL East division title of the decade, but were swept by the Reds in the playoffs. The next season, they won the pennant behind Stargell's league leading 48 bombs and took the NLCS over the San Francisco Giants in four games.

That led to their fourth World Series crown over the defending champs, Baltimore. Pittsburgh won behind a .414 plate performance by Clemente, who was named the WS MVP, and two masterful games twirled by Blass. That's also when (9/1/71) the first MLB all-minority lineup was unveiled: Rennie Stennett 2B, Gene Clines CF, Roberto Clemente RF, Willie Stargell LF, Manny Sanguillen C, Dave Cash 3B, Al Oliver 1B, Jackie Hernández SS, and Dock Ellis P.

The Big Red Machine derailed them in the 1972 NLCS, and the Bucs suffered their worst finish and only losing campaign of the seventies (80-82, good for third place) in 1973. It was a primo year for Captain Willie, though, who led the NL in homers and RBI (43/119).

They suffered other losses that were even more painful. Clemente died in a plane crash in the Atlantic on December 31st, 1972, on a relief mission to quake battered Nicaragua three months after collecting his 3,000th hit. The next season, Blass would lose his mojo to what is still known as "Steve Blass disease."

The Pirates made the playoffs in 1974 and 1975, but lost the NLCS to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds, going down in four and three games. Richie Hebner, Omar Moreno, Bob Robertson, Richie Zisk, The Cobra, Ellis, The Candy Man and Teke joined the lineup during this period.

After finishing second to the Phillies in 1976, Danny Murtaugh passed away at home in Chester. The Pirates traded Sanguillen to the Oakland As for manager Chuck Tanner, a New Castle native, and the show went on.

The Pirates would finish runnerup to the Phillies once again in 1977, though Parker won the batting title (.338). That's the same year that the Pirates began wearing their iconic yellow and black uniforms with pillbox caps adorned with  "Stargell Stars," and Goose Goosage pitched for the Bucs, leaving for free agency at the season's end.

The following season, the Pirates made a late season run at the Phils, coming down to a final four game series that Pittsburgh needed to sweep for the crown. They went hard, winning the first pair, but were eliminated in the next-to-last game 10-8 when a ninth inning rally fell short. Parker won another batting title (.334) and was named National League MVP.

The "We Are Fam-a-lee" (ironically performed by the Philadelphia singers Sister Sledge) team finally got over the hump in 1979, fighting off the Montreal Expos to take the NL East flag. The Pirates then swept the Reds in the NLCS as Stargell feasted on their pitching. He won the first game with a three-run homer in the 11th and batted .455 in the three game series. Better times were just around the bend.

The Pirates squared off against Earl Weaver's favored Baltimore Orioles again in the World Series. They fell behind 3-1, but became one of the handful of teams in history to overcome that deficit, changing the Os prearranged victory parade into a funeral procession.

During the 1979 championship season, a Pirate player was designated as MVP every which way possible - All-Star Game MVP (Dave Parker), NLCS MVP (Willie Stargell), World Series MVP (Willie Stargell), and NL MVP (Willie Stargell, shared with Keith Hernandez of the Cardinals).

And it is scary how well the today's Pirates of June and July compare to the Lumber Company - the current group put up a .268/.325/.460 line and monthly 6.1 WAR for sixty days. The original Lumber Company had a slash of .269/.326/.403 and 5.7 WAR/month for over a decade. Neither team liked to walk much (7%), but the LC did a better job of putting the ball in play with a 14% K rate compared to their modern counterpart's 22%.

And for the last two months, the guys have outslugged the Fam-a-lee. The original Lumber Company averaged 131 HR and 727 runs per year while the June-July guys would average 234 dingers and 828 runs if extended throughout a season. Even with the cold start figured in, the 2012 Bucs are on track score 664 runs and pound out 184 homers, 30 more than the highest output of the Lumber Company (though we suspect a little regression may creep into those numbers before they become final).

So enjoy the way these guys are swinging the bat this summer. It's the way they used to swing them back in the seventies in the day of Pops, Cobra, Scoops and the gang for the Pittsburgh Lumber Company.


Anonymous said...

What a great time it was growing up in the 70s in the 'burgh. I remember the Lumber Co. years, and those great great battles with the Phils, Reds, and Dodgers.

Only wish my kids could get a chance to go into a time machine to see what baseball was like in those glorious days of Bucco past.

Ron Ieraci said...

Not only some great teams and rivalries, Anon, but a lot of larger-than-life characters, too. It was a terrific era in Pittsburgh and MLB.