Saturday, 2 November 2013

Where Is The Bill Mazeroski Homerun Ball?



Bill Mazeroski (courtesy Post Foods)
On a bright 13 October 1960 at Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, the Steel City of America, over 36,000 spectators were in attendance to watch the winner-take-all 7th game of the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The last time the Pirates had won a championship was 1925, when they came from behind 3 games to one to beat the Washington Senators, the first time a team had come back from that far a deficit. Two years later, the Pirates made it to the World Series again, their last time. However, they were swept by the powerful   Yankees who had won 110 games and lost only 44, the year Ruth smashed his magic record 60 homers and Lou Gehrig was right behind (in the batting order too) with 47. A good many of the fans in the seats on that sunny 13 October either hadn’t been born yet in 1925 or were just youngsters. As for the 1960 Yankees, they were looking at their 10th trip to the Big Show since 1949, all managed by Casey Stengel. The 1960 season was going to be the last year of the 16-team majors with 8 teams in each league. Expansion was coming with 2 new teams slated for the American League in 1961...and 2 more for the National League in 1962, one of them the infamous New York Mets.

Today, with the score knotted at 9-9, everyone—the fans, the players, the media, those listening on radio and watching on TV—took a deep breath as Pirates second-baseman Bill Mazeroski left the on-deck circle and strode to the plate as the first batter up in the bottom of the 9th in a game that saw the lead change hands several times. Despite all the scoring, the game, so far, had taken only 2 hours and 36 minutes to play. That doesn’t happen today. Either do World Series day games. Born in West Virginia, the 24-year-old Mazeroski was in his 5th year as a Pirate, already considered the best-fielding second-baseman in the National League, perhaps the majors. Regular season stats bore a .273 batting average with 11 homers and 64 RBIs from his spot in the second-half of the order. No big whoop for hitting stats, really. In the series, however, he was up to .292. with 5 RBIs. His only homer was enough for  the Pirates to take the lead in the first game to stay.

To date, it had been a wild, thrilling, record-breaking series. Stengel’s Bronx Bombers of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford had won their three games by lopsided scores of 10-0, 16-3, and 12-0, the latter just the day before to tie the series. The Yankees had 10 homers to Pittsburgh’s meager 3. The Yankees team batting average stood at .338. The Pirates were a whole 80 points behind. The 3 best hitters in the series were all Yankees. Moose Skowron at .375 and 2 homers…Bobby Richardson at .367 with 2 doubles, 2 triples, a homer and 12 RBIs…and Mickey Mantle at .400, 3 homers and 11 RBIs. Switch-hitting Mantle--while batting right—awed the fans when he cleared the distant center field wall at Forbes Field, 438 feet away and 15 feet high, a first for a right-handed batter at the park since its opening in 1909. Based on where the ball finally landed, a local reporter measured the blast at 478 feet! The best pitcher so far was Whitey Ford with 2 shutouts in 2 starts. But none of these mind-boggling Yankee stats meant sweet-bugger-all to Mazeroski as he stepped into the batter’s box to face right-handed hurler Ralph Terry because the Pirates had hung on by winning 6-4, 3-2, and 5-2. The Pittsburgh squad weren’t slouches by any means. They still had the National League batting champ in slick-fielding shortstop Dick Groat, the best right-fielder in the game in Roberto Clemente, the Cy Young winner in Vern Law, and the league’s top reliever in Elroy Face.

It was still anybody’s game and anybody’s series. Terry, too, was a 24-year-old, a pitcher just coming into his own. He hailed from Oklahoma, 10-8 on the year, with a 3.40 ERA in 23 starts and 12 relief appearances. Prior to the 9th inning, he had been warming up a good half-dozen times since starter Bob Turley had run into trouble in the 1st inning. Instead, Stengel had brought in Bill Stafford, Bobby Shantz, and Jim Coates in that order. Now Casey Stengel was finally counting on Terry here to hold the fort and take the Yankees into late innings so the big bats could get going once again. Casey was expecting a lot. Did he actually think that Terry had anything left after throwing so many pitches in the bullpen all day?

A few minutes past 3:30 that afternoon, the first pitch from Terry to the right-handed hitting Mazeroski was a ball, a combination fastball-curve called a slider…

Mazeroski stepped out for some moments and sighed before getting set once again. At exactly 3:36, the next pitch came in letter high, right over the plate. Mazeroski swung and met the ball solidly with a slight uppercut. He later called it a slider that didn’t slide. Terry insisted it was a cut fastball, a pitch somewhere between a slider and a fastball. However, both men did agree on one thing…it hung like a batting practice pitch. As the ball soared into the air towards left field, all eyes were on the ball and left-fielder Yogi Berra at the same time back-peddling to the warning track in left-center. But Yogi could only watch in frustration as the white, round speck disappeared over the ivy-covered wall to give the Pirates their first World Series championship in 35 years. It was also the first World Series won by a walk-off homer. Needless to say, the city of Pittsburgh went absolutely nuts for days…

In retrospect, Mazeroski would not have come to bat in that bottom of the 9th situation in the 7th game, if not for Casey Stengel’s brain fart way back in the first game at Pittsburgh, when he decided to start Art Ditmar instead of the ace Whitey Ford. If Ford had started the first game, he also would have thrown the fourth and seventh games. Stengel wanted to save Ford for Game Three at Yankee Stadium, because Ford was unbeatable at home. The Yankees players were baffled by Stengel’s decision (actually so were the Pirates), while Ford was crushed. Ditmar was a sinker ball pitcher, and the Pirates were low-ball hitters because of all the low strikes called by National League umpires. The American League was known as the high-strike league. What happened? Ditmar got shelled early and the Yankees lost 6-4. Ford, as already stated, threw 2 complete games, both shutouts, and was unable to start the seventh game because he had just thrown his second shutout the day before in Game Six at Pittsburgh.

Stengel was fired immediately following the World Series. He was 70 years old. It was the end of an era. Some Yankees players thought his time was up 2 seasons before, after  the Yankees pulled off a near miracle by beating the Milwaukee Braves in the World Series after being behind 3 games to one.

Baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown houses many famous homerun baseballs. Babe Ruth’s 60th from 1927, Roger Maris’ 61st from 1961, Mark McGuire’s 62nd three decades later, Hank Aaron’s 715th lifetimer to beat the Babe…but they do not have the Mazeroski ball that ended Game 7 of the 1960 World Series. So, where is it?

Well…
Forbes Field in the early years of pre-World War I (courtesy United States Public Domain)
Enter 9th grader Andy Jerpe, a 14-year-old, who had made his way to Forbes Field just a few blocks away from his home for the deciding game. When the Yankees scored twice in the top of the 9th to tie the score at 9-9, Jerpe got up to leave. He wanted to beat the rush out of the park, and he had to get home to help his mother prepare dinner. If it was me, I wouldn’t have been that nice. Dinner would have to wait. Anyway, making his way outside the stadium, he was just a few feet beyond the left-field wall, when he heard a crack of a ball meeting a bat, and saw a ball dropping  out of the sky only 15 feet from him, landing in a cluster of cherry trees, across the street from Schenley Park. At the same time, he heard a deafening roar from the crowd. He strolled over and grabbed the ball, while the cheering grew louder and louder. A police officer appeared and escorted Jerpe to the Pirate clubhouse. Inside, in the midst of all the celebrating and spraying of champagne, Jerpe asked catcher Hal Smith (who had hit a 3-run homer in the 8th to put the Pirates in a 9-7 lead) sign the ball, along with Mazeroski.  Jerpe then decided to offer the ball to Mazeroski, but he said, with a huge grin, “You keep it. The memory is good enough for me.”  So right. Mazeroski will never be forgotten in Pittsburgh. Today, he is honored in the city with a sidewalk plaque in Schenley Park, near where Forbes Field once stood. He’s also in the Hall of Fame, getting there in 2001, mostly for his defense, although the 7th game 1960 World Series homer  didn’t hurt.

At home, Jerpe eventually put the ball in a Plexiglas display for safe keeping. That is, until the following spring, 1961, when his buddies convinced him to take the ball out to play with. They went to a playground across the street where Jerpe hit flies to his friends. After several lofters,  he shanked a foul into some knee-high weeds off to the right. The kids looked for the ball for a whole hour, but no sign of it. Jerpe even went back the next day and looked again. No ball.

What a shame. The Bill Mazeroski ball was lost forever. In a 2010 newspaper interview written by Bob Cohn of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review,  Jerpe still feels bad for taking the ball to the playground that spring, 1961. But what the heck, he was just a kid.

What would the Mazeroski ball be worth today? A million dollars?

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