Pittsburgh Pirates: Unsung '71 Champs Deserve Their Due

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Pittsburgh Pirates: Unsung '71 Champs Deserve Their Due
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(For complete Pirates coverage, see Piratesreport.com.)

PITTSBURGH -- It doesn't take much for Manny Sanguillen to flash a smile, but it you want the supersized, wider-than-the-Allegheny version, just mention the 1971 Pirates to him.

"It was a great summer for the players and the fans and the city," recalled Sanguillen, an All-Star catcher for the team that will be celebrated at PNC Park on Tuesday night.

His face lights up like Pittsburgh after dark while he says this.

"We had a great bunch of guys. We were like brothers. We had a lot of fun, and the most fun happened when we won on the field."

The Pirates have had three world championship teams in the post-expansion era, and there are some obvious similarities among them. Each won at least 95 games in the regular season. Each won Game 7 of the World Series as underdogs.

They also went about their business a bit differently. The 1960 champs will forever be the Boys of Summer locally, the team that beat the mighty New York Yankees and put Pittsburgh on the sports map. The 1979 champs were closer than lint on Velcro, a group that had all that character and all those characters plus Sister Sledge to boot.

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ieve that the 1971 team are victims of the Middle Champions Syndrome, as it were. It doesn't get the attention of the first or the last but is overshadowed in the middle.

"When I hear what (the national media) say about us, it drives me crazy," Sanguillen said. "They don't give us enough credit. They forget how good we were that year."

In fact, a case can made for the 1971 team as the most dominant if not the least appreciated in modern history.

"I played for the '79 team, and it was very good," Sanguillen said. "But the '71 team was better. We had more talent. We could do everything."

Ten reasons why the '71 champs may rate as the best of 'em all:

+ Balance. Few if any Pirates teams were so effective at both sides of the ball.

At the plate, it ranked first in hits (1,555), runs scored (788), triples (61), home runs (154) and slugging percentage (.416) and second in batting average (.274) and on-base percentage (.330). On the mound, it was fifth in earned run average (3.31). The defense was in the middle of the pack statistically, but only two teams turned more double plays.

 

 

"It was a solid ballclub -- very solid," said Steve Blass, one of the World Series heroes that season. "We had good pitching and defense. We had good hitting. We had a good bench. It was well-balanced baseball team."

+ Roberto Clemente. By his otherworldly standards, The Great One had a rather ordinary regular season -- .341 batting average, 13 home runs, 86 RBI and Gold Glove defense.

Nonetheless, at 36, Clemente remained capable of brilliance. No one ever did it better on a bigger stage than The Great One did in October, when he turned the World Series into his own private showcase.

+ Depth. Could you live with a line-up of Al Oliver, Jackie Hernandez, Bill Mazeroski and Jose Pagan in the infield, Gene Clines, Vic Davalillo and Richie Zisk in the outfield and Milt May behind the plate?

No, that wasn't the 1971 Philadelphia Phillies. That amounted to the 1971 Pirates B team.

Said Blass, "If somebody got hurt or was in a slump, we felt comfortable that somebody else could carry the banner for a few days or even weeks if needed."

 

 

+ Dominance. This may be the best argument of all: The '71 team outscored its opponents by 189 runs, the greatest differential of any in the post-expansion era.

The '60 team had a plus-41 differential in eight fewer games, while the '79 team checked in at plus-131 overall. At plus 179, the 1972 team ranks second overall.

One more fun fact: The '71 hit 46 more home runs than it allowed.

+ Danny Murtaugh. The Whistlin' Irishman who guided the 1960 Pirates to the World Series was in his third full season at the controls. Eleven years later, at 53 years of age, Murtaugh was in his prime as a manager, older and wiser and even more effective because of it. In bench coach Bill Virdon, he had a future manager at his side.

+ Offense. In post-expansion times, only the 2000 edition scored more runs, and it did so in the early stages of the the Steroids Era.

This bunch had it all -- mashers in Bob Robertson and Willie Stargell, slashers in Clemente, Oliver, Sanguillen, Dave Cash and Richie Hebner and gnats who bugged the heck out of opponents in Clines, Davalillo and rookie Rennie Stennett.

 

 

This was one of the most prolific longball teams in franchise history, as it accounted for 154 home runs. Only the 1966 edition (158) had more in the pre-Steroids Era. Led by Stargell, whose 48 homers led the league, five players hit 13 or more.

+ Pitching. The attack was so dominant that the mound corps went overlooked by comparison.

The staff that didn't blow batters away but threw lots of strikes and groundballs. Among National League teams, it ranked third in fewest bases on balls (470), fourth in double plays (133) and fifth in earned average (3.31) and home runs allowed (108).

Blass (15-8, 2.85) and Dock Ellis (19-9, 3.06) anchored a rotation that had unusual strength in numbers. A half-dozen pitchers started at least 13 games, and all had sub-3.56 earned run averages. Only one lost more games than he won. And in veteran Dave Guisti, the bullpen boasted one of the premier closers in the game.

+ Sanguillen. He turned in one of the greatest seasons of any catcher in franchise history. Not only did he produce a .319 batting average and team-high 170 hits, but he gunned down 51 percent of would-be base-stealers and was charged with only five errors, by far the best totals of any National League regular at the position. He also hit .379 in the World Series.

 

 

Sanguillen finished eighth in the Most Valuable Award vote, but on merit, he deserved to be three or four spots higher.

+ Star power. The 1960 team had Clemente and Mazeroski, and the 1979 team had Stargell, but only this was the only championship team that had the three future Hall of Famers on its roster.

+ Stargell. At 31, this was the pre-Pops version, the one that was at the height of his athletic dominance.

In addition to home runs, he ranked among the top three in extra-base hits (first), slugging percentage (second), intentional walks (third), total bases (third) and on-base percentage (third) in the league.

Somehow, St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Joe Torre was voted the Most Valuable Player by a considerable margin. As at least one person might say, it was a fitting conclusion for a team that many forgot how good it really was over the years.

Follow me on Twitter @PaulLadewski

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