View From Lodi, CA Pittsburgh, PA: My Night With The Stars—Baseball Stars, That Is
April 09, 2009, 05:00 AM
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During the days leading up to Major League Baseball's 2009 opening day, ESPN broadcast a feature displaying amazing sport collectors' memorabilia.  Featured were autographed Babe Ruth baseballs, bats used in historic games and a love letter from Marilyn Monroe to Joe DiMaggio tucked inside the Yankee Clipper's wallet.

All of it is great stuff—the best that money can buy. But what does it mean to the owner who never met Ruth, Monroe or DiMaggio?

Right this instant, anyone who has between $5,000 and $15,000 can go on eBay to purchase Ruth-signed items. They're common. As baseball historians know, Ruth graciously signed everything put in front of him.

Since I moved to Pittsburgh, however, I've gathered several Pirate autographs from outstanding players on World Series championship teams. And along with them I have great stories to tell.

Every October 13, fans and former stars gather at what remains of the Forbes Field wall (see it here.) to listen to a radio re-broadcast in real time of Bill Mazeroski's dramatic bottom of the ninth 1960 game winning homerun (See clip here.) that carried the Pirates to victory over the heavily favorite and hated New York Yankees.

I told Elroy Face, a key relief pitcher, that when I attended the University of Pittsburgh during those years, my roommate and I snuck into the bleachers during the seventh inning after the ticket-taker had left. In those late innings Face, now nearly 80, shut the opposition down cold.

Bob Friend, a Pirate pitching stalwart, and I had a lively conversation about the modern day "pitch count" mania that takes starters out of the game around the sixth inning. Friend called it the stupidest thing he'd ever heard of.

Famous Pirate broadcaster and former Bucco pitcher Nellie King was there. And well he should have been. King called the last games ever played at Forbes Field, a doubleheader against the Chicago Cubs with both ends won by the Pirates.

During the fifth inning, King announced: "40, 918 present here at Forbes Field. Lady Forbes. We'll close her down today."

Then, last week, I attended a get-together for diehards held at the Roberto Clemente Museum.

The 1960 National League batting champion, Most Valuable Player and former Pirate captain Dick Groat and I talked about Pitt basketball.  Groat, an All-American from Duke University, has done the Pitt radio color commentary for 30 years and still says that "basketball is the sport he played best."[Ex-Duke Star Groat Is Panther at Heart, by Ray Fittipaldo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 18, 2007]

Left-handed pitcher Grant Jackson prides himself on being one of the fastest working starters in baseball history. Jackson recounted a game in Montreal's old Jarry Park Stadium where he took care of business in 1:36, about the time it takes to play five innings today.

None of these Pirates will ever be in the Hall of Fame. But they were among the most outstanding players of their era.

Face's 1959 single season 18-1 record the best winning percentage ever.

At various times during his career the durable Friend, who never missed a start, won twenty games and led the league in Earned Run Average. Over sixteen seasons, Friend won 197 games for the Pirates, then consistently an eighth place finisher in an eight-team league. With the Yankees, Friend would have won 300.

Jackson, the winner of the 1979 World Series seventh game against the Baltimore Orioles, was at his toughest during the post-season where he went 3-0.

As for shortstop Groat, in 1952 he went straight from the Duke campus to the Pirate starting line up where he got two hits in his first game. Groat appeared in five All Star games. The consensus among Groat's peers is that he was the era's toughest clutch player.

Of course, all the Pirates I met signed for me. In fact, they signed multiple times—autographing several of the old yearbooks, programs and magazines that I have amassed over the years.

More importantly, they gave their time bigheartedly. I never doubted that if I had wanted to reminisce longer, they would have been happy to join me.

Groat, Friend, Face and Jackson's autographs will never bring thousands at auction. They will never be elected to Cooperstown.

But they've given me wonderful tales to share with my friends. And they all will always be in my personal Hall of Fame.

Joe Guzzardi [email him] is a California native who recently fled the state because of over-immigration, over-population and a rapidly deteriorating quality of life. He has moved to Pittsburgh, PA where the air is clean and the growth rate stable. A long-time instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, Guzzardi has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.