It is going on 40 years since the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates won a World Series and that number doesn’t look to end anytime soon under current owner Bob Nutting. Since the Pirates last won the 1979 World Series, other professional sports franchises with even longer championship droughts have come to an end. Teams such as: the Chicago Cubs, the Boston Red Sox, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the New Orleans Saints, the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia Eagles all won their sports championship after even longer playoff droughts than the Pirates current one.
The Pirates last two World Series championships were in 1971 and 1979. To conjure up those pleasant memories, how would those two teams have fared against one another in a seven-game series, in a battle of World Series Champions 1971 versus 1979?
How did both teams get there? The 1971 Pirates won the National League Eastern Division with a 97-65 record. They then went on to defeat the 90-win San Francisco Giants in the NL Championship Series three games to one. That Giants club had four future Hall of Famers on it in Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry. The Pirates then went on to defeat a Baltimore Orioles squad that repeated as American League Champions in the World Series four games to three. That Orioles squad had one of the greatest starting pitching staffs of all time with four 20-game winners on their pitching staff.
The 1979 Pirates won the National League Eastern Division with a 98-64 record. They went on to sweep the 90-win Cincinnati Reds in the NL Championship Series. That Reds team had three future Hall of Famers on it in Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tom Seaver. The Pirates once again faced Baltimore in the 1979 World Series and defeated the Orioles four games to three.
How do the two Pirates championship teams of the ‘70s compare position by position? 1971 as compared to 1979:
Catcher – Manny Sanguillen vs. Ed Ott & Steve Nicosia
Sanguillen was in his prime in 1971 and hit .319 and drove in 81 runs. Sanguillen was an All-Star in 1971 and finished 8th in the National League’s MVP balloting. Ott appeared in 117 games and hit .273. Nicosia appeared in 70 games and hit .288. Edge: ‘71
First Base – Bob Robertson vs. Willie Stargell
Obviously, an edge to Stargell on this one but Robertson was no slouch. Big Bob had 26 home runs, driving in 72 runs and hit .271. The Captain was National League co-MVP in 1979 sharing the honors with Keith Hernandez. It seemed like Stargell came through whenever a big hit was needed in 1979. Stargell hit 32 home runs with 82 runs batted in and hit .281 on the year. Edge: ‘79
Second Base – Dave Cash vs Phil Garner
Cash took over the position from long-time Pirate second baseman Bill Mazeroski and hit a solid .289 in 1971, scoring 79 runs and stealing 13 bases. Cash’s fielding percentage was .983 compared to Garner’s .966. Garner was a spark plug for the ’79 Pirates scoring 76 runs, hitting 32 doubles, stealing 17 bases and hitting .293 on the year. Garner had more power than Cash hitting 11 home runs to four and Scrap Iron drove in 59 runs to Cash’s 34. Edge: ‘79
Shortstop – Gene Alley & Jackie Hernandez vs Tim Foli
Even though Hernandez is remembered in the ’71 World Series, Alley played in 114 games compared to Hernandez’ 88 during the 1971 season. Alley hit .227 and Hernandez .206. Foli was very steady in the field and hit .291 for the Pirates in 1979. Edge: ‘79
Third Base – Richie Hebner vs Bill Madlock
Hebner appeared in 112 games in 1971 hitting 17 home runs, driving in 67 runs and hit .271 on the year. The Mad Dog was a key addition to the ’79 club coming over from the San Francisco Giants and played in 85 games with the Bucs, Madlock hit .328 and stole 21 bases while playing a solid third base. Edge: ‘79
Left Field – Willie Stargell vs. Bill Robinson
Stargell had a tremendous year in 1971 finishing second in the NL MVP vote to Joe Torre. Stargell led the league with 48 home runs, drove in 125 runs and hit .295. Stargell did strike out 154 times in 511 at-bats. Robinson was a solid performer and in 1979 hit 24 home runs, drove in 75 runs and even stole 13 bases but the edge here definitely goes to Stargell. Edge: ‘71
Center Field – Al Oliver vs. Omar Moreno
Oliver had 31 doubles and hit .282 with 14 home runs and 64 runs batted in for the ’71 Pirates. In addition to playing center field, Oliver also played 25 games at first base in 1971. The Antelope had a terrific year in 1979, often getting on base and setting the table for Tim Foli to bunt him over and then get singled home to give Manager Chuck Tanner an early lead. Moreno scored 110 runs with 196 hits, hitting .282 and led the National League with 77 stolen bases while driving in 69 runs. Moreno’s speed enabled him to cover a lot of ground in the outfield defensively and finished 15th in the National League’s MVP balloting. Edge: ’79
Right Field – Roberto Clemente vs Dave Parker
At age 36, the Great One still hit .341 with 178 hits and drove in 86 runs playing in only 132 games and Clemente finished fifth in the National League MVP voting. Parker was in his prime in 1979 and was one of the best players in all of major league baseball. The Cobra scored 109 runs, had 193 hits, 45 doubles, 25 home runs, drove in 94 runs, stole 20 bases and hit .310 while playing in 158 games. Parker had a terrific arm defensively but few, if any in major league baseball history, equaled Clemente’s. Parker finished 10th in MVP balloting in 1979. Edge: ‘71
Bench: Gene Clines, Vic Davalillo, Bill Mazeroski, Milt May, and Jose Pagan vs Rennie Stennett, John Milner, Lee Lacy, Manny Sanguillen, Mike Easler and Matt Alexander.
Manager Danny Murtaugh used his bench effectively in 1971. Clines hit .308 playing in 97 games and led the team with 15 stolen bases. Davalillo hit .285 and played in 99 games and stole 10 bases for the Buccos. Clines and Davalillo played all three outfield positions and Davalillo also played first base in 16 games providing Murtaugh with some flexibility with his lineups. May provided another left-handed bat off the bench and hit .278. Pagan provided Murtaugh with a right-handed hitting third baseman and hit .241 while Mazeroski hit .254.
Milner provided some left-handed power for Chuck Tanner’s Bucs in 1979 hitting 16 home runs, driving in 60 runs and hitting .276. Lacy gave Tanner a right-handed hitter and Lacy hit .247 in 1979. Stennett hit .238, Sanguillen hit .230 in 74 at-bats and Easler hit .278 in just 54 at-bats. Alexander gave Tanner a fast pinch-runner and stole 13 bases on the year.
Clines, Davilillo and May gave Murtaugh three players that saw a good bit of playing time and hit better than .278. Only Easler hit .278 for the ’79 Bucs off the bench and that was with only 54 at-bats. The ’79 bench had more power due to Milner’s presence but since you usually use pinch-hitters to get on base as opposed to hitting a home run. Edge: A slight one to the ’71 Bucs.
Starting Pitching – Steve Blass, Dock Ellis, Luke Walker, Bob Johnson, Bob Moose and Bruce Kison vs. John Candelaria, Bert Blyleven, Jim Rooker, Bruce Kison and Don Robinson.
Ellis went 19-9 with a 3.06 ERA for the ’71 Bucs with 11 complete games while Blass went 15-8 with a 2.85 ERA and had 12 complete games and five shutouts. Moose, Walker and Johnson won 11, 10 and nine games respectively with a combined 14 complete games between them. Moose’s ERA was 4.11, Walker’s 3.55 and Johnson’s 3.45. Kison was 6-5 with a 3.40 ERA.
The Candy Man was the ace of the staff with a 14-9 record and a 3.22 ERA with eight complete games for the ’79 Bucs. Blyleven was 12-5 with a 3.60 ERA and Kison was 13-7 with a 3.19 ERA. Robinson was 8-8 with a 3.87 ERA and Rooker was 4-7 with a 4.60 ERA. Edge: Even
Bullpen – Nellie Briles, Mudcat Grant, Jim Nelson, Bob Miller, and Bob Veale vs. Jim Bibby, Enrique Romo, Dave Roberts, Grant Jackson and Ed Whitson.
Briles would prove to be a key figure for the Bucs pitching staff in 1971 winning eight games with a 3.04 ERA and pitched 136 innings and was a spot starter with 14 starts in his 37 game appearances and four complete games. Grant was 5-3 with a 3.60 ERA, Nelson was 2-2 with a 2.34 ERA, Miller 1-2 with a 1.29 ERA, and Veale was 6-0 with a 6.99 ERA (that’s not a typo).
Bibby provided spot starts, starting 17 of his 34 games he appeared in and went 12-4 for the ’79 Pirates with a 2.81 ERA and had four complete games. Romo appeared in 84 games and had a 10-5 record with a 2.99 ERA, Roberts was 5-2 with a 3.26 ERA and Jackson appeared in 72 games with an 8-5 record and a 2.96 ERA and had 14 saves. Whitson was 2-3 with a 4.37 ERA. Edge: ‘79
Closer – Dave Giusti vs. Kent Tekulve
Giusti finished 14th in the National League’s MVP balloting, the highest of any relief-pitcher and the only pitchers to finish higher in the balloting than Giusti were Ferguson Jenkins and Tom Seaver. Giusti was 5-6 with a 2.93 ERA and saved 30 games in 1971 for the Pirates and won the Fireman of the Year Award in the National League as the league’s top reliever.
Tekulve appeared in 94 games and had 31 saves in 1979 with a record of 10-8 and a 2.75 ERA. Tekulve finished eighth in the National League MVP balloting. The only other pitchers to finish higher were Joe Neikro and Bruce Sutter. Edge: EVEN
Manager – Danny Murtaugh vs. Chuck Tanner
Murtaugh rates a slight edge over Tanner as Murtaugh won two World Series titles, each time as an underdog and with two entirely different clubs in the ’60 Bucs and the ’71 Bucs. Edge: ’71
The 1971 Pirates led the National League in runs scored with 788, home runs with 154 and were second in hitting .274 on the year. Only three Pirates (Clines, Cash and Davalillo) had 10 or more stolen bases on the season. The 1979 Pirates also led the National League in runs scored with 775, second in home runs with 148 and second in hitting with a .272 team batting average. One big difference is the ’79 Pirates were second in the league with 180 stolen bases, the ’71 Pirates only stole 65 bases.
How does this series play out? The ’71 Pirates pitching staff will need to keep Omar Moreno off the base paths where he can set the table for the ’79 Pirates. Each manager just wants to get the ball in the hands of their outstanding closer with a lead. It’s hard to imagine Clemente not having another great series showcasing his great ability and almost singlehandedly leading his team to victory. Captain Willie Stargell in ’79 displayed his greatness as well in leading the Bucs to a World Series title. I see this one going the distance and to a seventh game with Clemente being the difference.
If you’re too young to remember these two teams, you may enjoy reading how the Pirates two 98-win Pittsburgh Pirate teams in 1991 and 2015, but didn’t get to the World Series, would have fared against each other. You can find that article at: https://johnbaranowski.wordpress.com/2019/04/27/pittsburgh-pirates-battle-of-98-win-teams-1991-vs-2015/
John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites. This and other articles written by him can be found on his blog: https://johnbaranowski.wordpress.com/