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"Chicken on The Hill with Will": Pittsburgh Pirates Baseball

August 11, 2017

During the 1972 baseball season, my 'brand-new' wife and I were living at Schenley Arms apartments at the intersection of Bigelow Blvd. and Center St. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We both were full-time students (me at Pitt and she at Shadyside Nursing School), and had part-time jobs. Consequently, our schedules were often incongruous. One night, she was already in bed, 'cutting zees', while I was up working on a research paper and listening to the Pirates game on KDKA radio. They were playing in San Diego, so it was getting pretty late. The Buccos were losing in the top of the ninth inning but, as all real baseball fans know, "it ain't over till it's over." There were two men on base and Willie Stargell was up to bat.


I wasn't much of a baseball fan as a kid. I only played one year of Little League and our home team, the Phillies, weren't much to get excited about during most of the 1960's. But, in the late summer of 1970, I started attending the University of Pittsburgh (where most of the students were from the region), and found that nearly everyone was enthusiastic about the Pirates. They were a pretty good team. They were leading the National League East and had some big names, like Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.

I could look out the window of my 18th floor dorm room and see right down into old Forbes Field. It was empty and quiet. The Pirates had moved to the North Side, into Three Rivers Stadium, earlier that season. Not every Pirate's game was on TV back in those days, but when they were, a bunch of us gathered in the dorm's rec room to watch. I got swept up in the fervor. I had a little transistor radio and listened to "The Gunner," Bob Prince, and his sidekick, Nellie King, call the games as often as I could. The 'Bucs' did win the National League East but got beat by the Big Red Machine (Cincinnati Reds), in the National League Championship Series, three games to zip.

Bob Prince spouted "Gunnerisms," as his strange phrasings were called. His descriptions were so animated that I could see the action in my imagination. I enjoyed hearing games on the radio more than watching them on TV. I could clearly envision the different kinds of single base hits: a "bloop" went just over an infielder's head and landed in the shallow outfield; a "tweener" went right between two diving infielders; a "dying quail" arced slowly and fell in front of an onrushing outfielder; a "little bingle" barely made it to the pitcher's mound, like a bunt.

With my eyes closed and the radio next to my ear, I could almost see the outfielders racing after a "bug on the rug" as a line drive split the gap and rolled to the warning track. I would pump my fist and shout "yes!" when Roberto was safe at first "by a gnat's eyelash." I groaned when Doc Ellis's three-two fastball was "as close as fuzz on a tick's ear" but the umpire called it "ball four." I smiled when a slick "hoover" (double play) ended a stressful inning. When the Pirates were down by a couple of runs, along with Bob Prince and thousands of other fans, I desperately hoped for a "bloop and a blast" to tie it up. And, when "Willie La Starge" came up to bat, I always urged him to "kiss it goodbye;" to "spread some chicken on The Hill." *

            * Willie Stargell owned a chicken restaurant in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. One of the ads urged listeners to buy take-out and "spread some chicken on The Hill." A TV or radio in the establishment was always tuned to the Pirates' games. A customer who was in line when Willie hit a home run got his chicken free of charge. Whenever Stargell was up and the team needed a run, Bob Prince would plead: "Come on Willie, let's spread some chicken on The Hill."

When I returned to Pitt for my sophomore year (August, 1971), the Pirates were in first place in the National League East again. The Giants and the Dodgers were battling it out in the West. The Pirates made major league baseball history soon after. On September first they fielded MLB's first all-minority line up: Rennie Stennet, Gene Clines, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Manny Sanguillen, Dave Cash, Al Oliver, Jackie Hernandez and Doc Ellis. All were black men. They beat the Phillies 10-7 in an exciting game, upping their record to 82 wins, 56 loses.

The Pirates finished their 90th season (85th in the National League) at 97 & 65, seven games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL East. Stargell led the league with 48 homers and Roberto ("Bobby" as The Gunner familiarly called him), ended the regular season with 178 hits and a .341 batting average. Ace pitcher, Doc Ellis, finished 19-9 with a 3.06 ERA. The Buccos then faced off against the San Francisco Giants (who won the West by one game over the Dodgers), in a best-of-five series. They lost to Gaylord Perry at Candlestick Park in Game One, but won the next three (the last two in Three Rivers Stadium), to claim the National League Pennant.

The Pirates met the Orioles in the 1971 World Series. Baltimore had won the pennant with its third consecutive ALCS sweep (over Oakland this time). It was also their third consecutive 100+ win season. No one but the people in Western Pennsylvania gave the Pirates much of a chance. They dropped the first two games in Baltimore but Pittsburgh fans were still bursting with confidence. When the team came home for the middle three games, Bob Prince warned the national audience: "Now we're going to lay some Bucco magic on 'em." And, we did, winning three in a row, taking the series lead.

Back in Baltimore, the Pirates lost Game Six, 3-2 in ten innings. In the seventh and final game, pitcher Steve Blass faced off against Mike Cueller for the second time in the Series. Blass earned a complete game victory in Game Three. Both pitchers were sharp and the game was scoreless until the fourth inning when Roberto "kissed one goodbye." The Pirates eked out another run in the top of the eighth. Baltimore managed to scored one in the bottom of that inning, but that was it. Blass threw a complete game, again, shutting down the Orioles in the bottom of the ninth. The Buccos were world champions!

Before or since, I haven't had such an exhilarating experience. My roommate and I walked all the way from campus in Oakland to Downtown (streets were blocked, busses weren't running and there was no place left to park within a mile of The Point). Over 300,000 Pirate fans gathered in the Golden Triangle. It was so crowded the team couldn't get into town through the Fort Pitt Tunnel from the airport to join the party. There was some 'bad behavior' that night, as might be expected, but for the most part it was just an enthusiastic celebration that everyone who was there will remember for the rest of their lives.


I met my future wife about then. What a autumn! The Pirates were world champions and I was in love. We were married a few months later and moved off campus, into the apartment at Schenley Arms. Life sure was different, but the Buccos were still expected to 'repeat' in '72. The night she was already asleep and I was up late working on a Comparative Lit paper and listening to the game in San Diego, the Pirates were leading the National League East, again.**

            ** The Pittsburgh Pirates won the National League East in 1972, but lost to the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS. The Buccos didn't win the World Series again until 1979 (Willie Stargell, "Pops," was the leader of that team). 1972 was Roberto Clemente's last baseball season. In December, he died in a airplane crash off the coast of  his native land, Puerto Rico, while delivering humanitarian aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims.

It was the top of the ninth. We'd blown a lead and were down by a run. There were two outs, but two Bucs were on base when Willie Stargell stepped into the batter's box. He was anxious, but ready; took a few of his famous windmill warm-up swings. "We could sure use a hit, here," Nellie King said. "No," Bob Prince corrected. "We need to 'spread some chicken on The Hill'." As the pitcher began his wind-up, The Gunner added: "I'll tell you what. If Willie hits one now, I'll buy chicken for everyone on The Hill." I don't remember what the count was, but sure enough, Stargell "kissed one goodbye," and the Buccos came from behind to win the game 9-7.

Willie Stargell's chicken restaurant was closing for the night by then, but hundreds of people besieged the place. They were cooking chicken into the wee hours of the morning. Their entire inventory went out the door 'free of charge'. The place was closed for the next couple of days, until the new order came in. Willie personally called The Gunner and asked him to 'never, ever, do that again!' In an era when I could get a Big Mac, a large fries and a soda (sorry, I was in Pittsburgh--a 'pop'), for less than a dollar, Bob Prince got an invoice from Willie Stargell for about $2,300 to cover the cost of all the chicken that was 'spread on The Hill' that night.


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