My grandparents got me the best birthday present imaginable. Using her connections with a leading architectural firm in the city, my grandmother gave me four box seat tickets to a Pirates game the weekend before my twelfth birthday.
It is hard to imagine in these times but my mother drove my nine year-old brother, my friends Alan and Phillip and me the Bouquet Street entrance of Forbes Field, dumped us off and told us that she would meet us at that very spot when the game was over. What independence we enjoyed!
Our first decision involved a solicitation on the sidewalk from a Pittsburgh institution, “the Peanut Man”. The Peanut Man was an older African-American gentleman who had perfected his compelling technique over the years. Grandpa Don said he had been selling peanuts there when he played football for Carnegie Tech in 1928. The Peanut Man had a line to pitch those little snack bags. “Don’t fo’get yo’ peeeeeenuts boys.” he kindly suggested as he handed them to us like a mother handing out lunch boxes. And of course, we bought them just as everybody did every time I went to the ball park with whomever I accompanied. Everyone knew you get your peanuts here, even if the only thing you did was feed them to the squirrels in Schenley Park.
Compared to the colossal parks of today, Forbes Field was small but oh so intimate. Even if you were in the back row of the grandstand by third base, you could see the expressions on manager Murtaugh’s face – not that you needed to check, his face had the same dispassionate sour expression without regard to opponent or score. Many of the seats, however, did have pillar obstructions and you might crane your neck to see a close play at first or you might miss Bill Virdon snagging a long fly altogether – learning of the result not from sight but from the reaction of the crowd.
But that day we had box seats! I had never sat in box seats before but I knew there were no pillars there. The anticipation grew as we were led to our seats by an usher – an usher taking kids to a seat! It was almost enough to make me forget that Grandpa Don had given me a half-dollar to tip the usher as he always did, even if the seats were in the right field stands. And then the usher opened the seats and sapped up a few remaining drops of dew with a rag and we were in the third row and right beside the visitor dugout. WOW!
This was a special day of sorts, but I did think there was one unfortunate part of a great day. The opponents were a brand new team and they were not supposed to be very good – The New York Mets. This was to be their first series in Pittsburgh. (What was a “met” anyway?) But as I looked at my program and realized who would be in that so-close-you-could-touch-it dugout, my heart began to brighten. The Mets were composed of players who had been left off a “protected roster” that each team could compile. Since teams tended to protect the future of their teams as opposed to the past, the Mets had a roster of some truly great players. Baseball legend Casey Stengel was the manager of the team. Everybody loved Casey, although I did feel bit sadness for him on that day. He was returning to Forbes Field, the scene of his last day in a Yankee uniform where just a year and a half before on that wonderful October day our Pirates improbably beat the Yanks in the World Series. That game cost Casey his job. But soon enough I could hear his gravelly voice talking calmly to players in the dugout – just the sound of his voice made me laugh- you had to love Casey. And coming out of the dugout was Gil Hodges! And later, Ritchie Ashburn! – these men were icons of the game and there they were, up close.
The game began. To tell the truth I can remember so little of the game itself – it was more a matter of basking in the sunlight of these ballplayers and watching them in action. When you sit in the box seats you are usually among many season ticket holders. In April against a weak team, these “fans” often showed levels of only passing interest – I guess they could always feast on the beauty of the game later in the season when we were fighting for our lives against the Giants! One older gentleman in a homburg hat, who looked like he had been to every game since Pie Traynor was a rookie, smoked his stogie while reading the Press. He actually read the paper when Groat and Clemente – batting champions for the past two seasons – were at bat! On the other hand, we kids had to treasure every possible minute such as Dick Stuart hitting a home run – I do remember that! We somehow knew we’d never be back to box seats again and drank in the opportunity.
Shortly after the game began, a woman in the next box began fielding the same question over and over from her young children, “When is Daddy up?” This peaked all of our interest and the gentleman in the hat put down the newspaper and asked the question, “So, who IS your father?” The woman smiled and replied, “Frank Thomas.” “Ahhhh haaaaaaaa, Frrrrrrrank Thomas!” the man smiled and raised his stogie in a reverent salute. Thomas had been a solid player and fan favorite in Pittsburgh during many of the lean years of the mid-fifties. He was the best power hitter after loss of Ralph Kiner. Unfairly, it seemed to many, he was traded just before the Bucs began to jell and the Pittsburgh native missed out on that same victory that cost Casey his job.
The game ended, the Pirates won, and we linked up with my Mom just as planned. The Mets went on to lose 120 games that year – a major league record that still stands. But that was day of great excitement for me. I’d never see Gus Bell or Don Zimmer play another game at Forbes Field but I got to see them that day and it remains a warm memory.