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Pirates Bill Mazeroski touches home when he gets to Cooperstown

Sunday, July 29, 2001

By Robert Dvorchak, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

LITTLE RUSH RUN, Ohio -- It's 500 miles or so by car from this clump of houses in the Ohio River Valley to the Hall of Fame, but the distance covered by Bill Mazeroski from his boyhood in a one-room house to baseball immortality was more like a journey to the far side of the moon.

Never comfortable in the public eye, Bill Mazeroski had to sit for reporters' questions at a press gathering Thursday at PNC Park. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

"It's something so far away you could never imagine," said Rich Bippo, a lifelong friend and high school teammate of the best defensive second baseman to play the game.

Next weekend, a caravan of three buses and 15 to 20 cars from coal and steel towns of southeastern Ohio like Rayland, Tiltonsville, Warrenton, Yorkville and Wheeling, W.Va., across the Ohio River will head north to Cooperstown, N.Y., to see one of their own deliver an acceptance speech on having his bronze image placed among the greatest of the greats.

They will share in the moment because one of them, from the humblest of blue-collar roots, rode a skyrocket to fame. Mazeroski, a coal miner's son who once hit pebbles with a broomstick, slew the pinstriped Yankees with a fairytale home run to end the 1960 World Series. A working-class hero who dug an outhouse for his uncle to get the money to buy his first baseball mitt turned more double plays than anyone in the history of the game. As a boy he earned pennies from motorists for directing traffic through a blind underpass of Ohio Route 7 and now will have a section of that road named for him, just as sections have been named for football great Lou Groza and entertainer Dean Martin.

"The Hall of Fame is not just his award. It's the Ohio Valley's. He's just there to accept it for everybody else. A person is a little bit of everything he met in his lifetime," Bippo said. "He knows where he came from. We all lived our dreams through him. That's going to be a thrill of a lifetime, just to see that."

Humble beginnings

Mazeroski's road to Cooperstown began in the hollow where Little Rush Run tumbled down to the Ohio River from a ridge top called Turkey Point. Born to a Polish father and German mother in 1936, Mazeroski and his sister grew up in a one-room, Lincolnesque dwelling that lacked basics like electricity and indoor plumbing.

The place, now reclaimed by nature except for a chimney swallowed by underbrush, stood off an unpaved lane that even today is blacktopped only on the lower stretches.

"It was little more than a chicken coop, a one-room shack, off a cow path," said Bill Del Vecchio, a lifelong friend and an insurance executive from Rayland who serves as Mazeroski's business manager. "His nickname was Catfish, because if he didn't catch catfish, they didn't eat. He fished every day. And he was bouncing a ball of some sort every day of his life."

It's extraordinary how life comes full circle, though. When he was a boy, Mazeroski was not allowed to walk across the Vine Cliff Golf Course in Rayland to fish on the banks of the Ohio. After his playing days were over, he owned the course that he was once shooed from.

Mazeroski's father, Lew, had part of his foot amputated in a mining accident. And he steered his son away from a life of donning a helmet with a lamp on it and carrying a pick and shovel into a hole in the ground. Baseball was his way up.

Dan Brown, 59, who still lives off that dirt lane up the hollow from Little Rush Run, remembers playing basketball with Mazeroski in the hay mow of a barn, a 5-gallon bucket nailed to a beam serving as the hoop.

"He really deserves to be in the Hall of Fame," Brown said. "He put Rush Run on the map."

Well, not really. Little Rush Run is too tiny to earn a mention in any atlas.

An elite athlete

By the time he was 13 years old, Mazeroski was so good he was playing in the coal mine leagues against grown men. His glove was paid for with the sweat he put into digging a two-hole outhouse for his uncle, Elias "Alex" Ogden, or Uncle Og. That glove wasn't any bigger than his hand, but he wanted a small glove so the ball wouldn't get lost in the webbing.

 
 

Mazeroski by the numbers: A chart of his achievements.


Pirates in the Hall of Fame

Max Carey
Class of 1961
Speedy outfielder ... 10-time National League stolen-base champion.

Fred Clarke
Class of 1945
A manager at 24, he led the Pirates to four pennants and the 1909 world championship.

Roberto Clemente
Class of 1973
Four-time National League batting champion ... superb right fielder.

Kiki Cuyler
Class of 1968
Four-time stolen base champion ... lifetime .321 hitter.

Ralph Kiner
Class of 1975
Slugging left fielder who led National League in home runs for seven consecutive seasons.

Willie Stargell
Class of 1988
Power-hitting first baseman who hit 475 career home runs ... co-MVP in 1979.

Pie Traynor
Class of 1948
All-time great third baseman with a .320 career batting average.

Arky Vaughn
Class of 1985
Slick-fielding shortstop and speedy baserunner who hit .318 in the majors.

Honus Wagner
Class of 1936
Greatest shortstop in baseball history ... eight-time batting champion.

Lloyd Waner
Class of 1967
Record 223 hits as a rookie ... .316 career batting average.

Paul Waner
Class of 1952
3,152 career hits ... hit better than .300 14 times in his career.

   
 

"It was just a piece of leather with some strings. Kids now would throw that sucker away," Bippo said.

One of the teams he played for was Fontana's Cafe, which sold foot-long hot dogs. After every game, Maz got 54 inches worth -- four and a half -- of hot dogs.

At Warrenton Consolidated High School, located in the shadow of a coal tipple and the Yorkville plant of Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, Mazeroski was a shortstop and a pitcher and All-Ohio as a 5-foot-11 inch center on the basketball team. There were fewer than 60 kids in his graduating class.

In his junior year in 1953, Mazeroski led his school to the state baseball championships, facing bigger, richer schools from Akron and Cincinnati on the final day. He pitched both games, winning the first in the morning and losing the second, 2-1, despite throwing a two-hitter that turned to defeat when both runs scored because a ball rolled through the center fielder's legs.

A team picture shows that many of Warrenton's uniforms didn't match. They were a rag-tag assemblage that drew jeers from privileged opponents.

"They laughed at us. When Maz got on the mound, they didn't laugh anymore," Bippo said.

By then, his peers knew they were witnessing greatness.

"You knew he was better than everybody else. You knew he was special. But he didn't act that way. He was a private person until he was in private, then he really liked to have a good laugh," Bippo said. "He was a little out of our league. But he was one of those guys you couldn't dislike.

"He wasn't a bookworm. But he never made mistakes playing baseball. Whatever it was, he seemed to be a step ahead of everybody else, physically and mentally. He always took the extra base, always threw to the right base. In gin, he remembered all the cards that were played. If we played pool and he broke, I never got a shot. He had a strong mind. He was soft-hearted, but if you played against him, he never wanted to lose. He'd beat you into the ground," Bippo added.

Bill Del Vecchio saw the fierce fire of a competitor, too.

"He could beat you at anything you tried to do, tiddly-winks, ping pong, throwing darts. Anything kids could do, he'd beat you with that hand-eye coordination. He was born with it. He's just a natural at anything he does," Del Vecchio said. "He wanted to win. I beat him at our first game of ping pong. The next 1,000 games, he beat me. His thighs were as thick as hams and he was strong as a bull. And he worked every day. He never did catch a ball. He just deflected it so he could throw it quicker. He practiced that millions and millions of times. He practiced his steps to the bag, too."

He could also punt a football 60 yards. But Lew Mazeroski never allowed him to put on a helmet and pads.

"They knew where he was going," De Vecchio said.

Pivotal move

Rich Bippo tagged along for Bill Mazeroski's tryout with the Pirates after they had graduated from high school in 1954. The first ball he hit in batting practice caromed off the 406-foot mark on the brick wall in Forbes Field, the same spot that would bring everlasting glory in 1960. Though he grew up an Indians fan, Mazeroski signed a Pirates contract for $4,000.

In the minor leagues at Williamsport, Mazeroski was asked to take some balls at second base because there was a glut of shortstops. Branch Rickey Sr. saw him make one double play pivot and told him he was never going back to short. He made the major-league roster in 1956 when he was 19.

Bippo remembers being invited to lunch at the old Carlton House hotel, Downtown. A man in a suit came over to Mazeroski's table and asked, "How's the best second baseman in the National League?" Another man sauntered over and asked the same thing. Then another.

"Hey, Maz, who were those guys," Bippo asked.

"Umpires," Mazeroski replied.

 
 
In Maz's class

Joining Bill Mazeroski next Sunday for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.:

Kirby Puckett, outfielder and hero of two world championship teams with the Minnesota Twins.

Hilton Smith, star pitcher from the Negro Leagues mostly with the Kansas City Monarchs.

Dave Winfield, Gold Glove outfielder and one of only seven players to have 3,000 hits and 400 home runs.

   
 

He also recalled the time his boyhood friend -- the one without money for clothes and such, the one who brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school in a paper bag -- came back to the Ohio Valley driving his first car, a Lincoln.

"He was waving at everybody, and I mean everybody, we passed. So I asked him why. And he said, 'In case they know me, I don't want them to think I'm stuck up,'" Bippo said.

Second to none

If he wasn't born with a silver spoon, Mazeroski had a mother lode of gold. When Rawlings began awarding Gold Gloves in 1957, Maz won eight of the next 10 at second base. Among the major league records he holds are: most seasons leading in assists (nine); most seasons leading in double plays (eight); most double plays in a season (161 in 1966); and most career double plays (1,706).

A seven-time All-Star, he had a .260 lifetime batting average in 17 seasons -- all with the Pirates -- with 138 home runs and 853 RBIs. With his glove, he saved at least as many runs as he drove in.

"He was the best second baseman of all time. Nobody came close," said Joe L. Brown, the long-time Pirates general manager. "He was durable, strong, intelligent. Everybody talked about his quick hands, but nobody talked about his leg work. Danny Murtaugh used to say his legs were so quick, so agile, he had the leg control of a ballet dancer."

Bill Virdon played with him for 10 years and said he had the toughest job ever in center field.

"He never let a ball go through him, but I still had to back him up," Virdon said.

He remembers every time a runner tried to take him out at second base. They'd hit those tree-trunk legs as Maz pivoted for his throw to first, and many would lie in a crumpled heap. Maz would help them up and ask, "Are you all right?"

"Nobody played second base like he did. Nobody," Virdon said.

In his 17-year career, Mazeroski never made more than $50,000 for a season -- a sum that the megabucks players of today can eclipse with one at-bat. One of his last appearances in a game was pinch-hitting for Roberto Clemente on the day the Great One got his 3,000th and final hit. Now both will be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Game 7

Bill Mazeroski bounds around the bases after his Game 7 home run beat the Yankees in the 1960 World Series.

October 13, 1960. Seventh game. World Series. 3:36 p.m. Bottom of the ninth with the Yankees and Pirates tied, 9-9. A moment so delicious everybody can remember where they were.

Bill Del Vechhio sat in Forbes Field next to Mazeroski's wife, Milene, a Braddock native who worked in the Pirates front office.

Rich Bippo, who was an usher in Mazeroski's wedding and later served as mayor of Rayland for 20 years, was on the grenade range with a bunch of Army recruits from New York at Fort Knox, Ky., about to make some extra money on some wagers.

Mazeroski led off. With a 1-0 count, Yankees pitcher Ralph Terry let loose a high slider that didn't slide. Mazeroski launched it over Yogi Berra's head and the 406-foot mark in Forbes Field. It remains the only seventh game to end with a home run.

Mazeroski ran the bases in jubliation. Following in his wake were a hard-scrabble steel city, an entire region, every coal miner, every mill hunk, all the dirt-poor kids with holes in their pants and shoes who ever hit a pebble with a broomstick and fantasized it was the home run that won a World Series.

Virdon and his triumphant teammates waited in a cluster at home plate to greet him.

"If we couldn't do it, we were glad it was him. We knew it wouldn't change him," Virdon said.

As the celebration later flowed into the city streets, the hero found his wife of two years and went out to the solitude of Schenley Park to sit on a quiet bench.

"We sat there with the squirrels and we talked," Milene Mazeroski said. "We were trying to let it sink in that we had just won the World Series."

He allowed himself one later moment in the spotlight. He was a mystery guest on TV's "What's My Line?"

Call from the Hall

There is crying in baseball.

Mazeroski had gotten lukewarm support for 15 years from the baseball writers who vote on the Hall of Fame. He didn't have much more luck with the Veterans Committee, although last year he came up one vote short of induction.

He was in spring training as a special instructor, sitting on an equipment locker in McKechnie Field when the call came on March 6. Using a cell phone, he called his wife, a big tear running down his ruddy, red nose.

"I heard this silence, then he kind of mumbled something," Milene said. "I knew somebody was crying. Then he said, 'Mi, we made it.'"

In the six score and something years profesional baseball has been played, 253 men have been enshrined at Cooperstown. Mazeroski is the 188th former player to earn a bust. He has joked that he will make the shortest induction speech ever, but his deeds have done all the talking for him.

"You dream of becoming a major league ballplayer, of getting a big hit, of being an All-Star, of playing in the World Series. But you never dream of this. I never, ever thought I'd have a chance to get in," Mazeroski said. "I'll try to live up to it."

A regular guy

One of the landmarks of Tiltonsville, Ohio, is Bill's Bar, home of the world's greatest barbecue ribs and a shrine to Bill Mazeroski. Owner Bill Del Vecchio decorated it with old newspapers, seppia photographs, posters, pictures and all kinds of mementoes recalling the life and career of a humble man from humble roots.

Over the bar is a jersey from an old-timers game. It was preserved because of its flaw, a misspelling that reads: MAZERSOKI.

Del Vecchio told the story that how, after the vote became official, Mazeroski begged off a visit to the White House and a visit with President Bush. It wasn't about politics. It was about a man who chafes at being fussed over.

"He said he went fishing," Del Vecchio said. "He said, 'Why me? I'm nobody.' He doesn't realize how great he is. He's turned down all kinds of offers to ride in Labor Day parades, too. He might go to five card shows a year, but he could have made all kinds of money. It's not his way."

Mazeroski comes back to the bar perhaps once a year, to drink beer and smoke cigars and spin fishing yarns with his buddies.

"He'll rub it in every once in a while. He'll ask us what we did for a living, what jobs we had," Del Vecchio said. "Then he'll say, 'I never had a job. I played all my life.' "

You have to pry it out of him to get Mazeroski to talk about his long road.

"I never talk about Rush Run, or up on the hill, with no electricity, carrying water and coal," Mazeroski said. "I don't have any qualms about it. We were happy. We never knew any better. We never knew there was something better out there. We thought we had it made."

With that, he chuckles with the glee of a man who is able to laugh the last laugh, a gifted, fun-loving, hard-working man who blazed a trail from the hinterlands to the Hall.

"It takes awhile, doesn't it?" Mazeroski laughed. "You have to go through a lot to get there, I know that. Back then, I couldn't envision how far that was."

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