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Oyler: Speaker recounts Pittsburgh's rich history in baseball

| Monday, Feb. 8, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

The first Bridgeville Area Historical Society program meeting of 2016 was held on the last Sunday afternoon in January.

The speaker was Mr. Jim Haller; his subject, “Growing Up in Baseball in Pittsburgh.”

Mr. Haller is a retired restaurant manager, a volunteer at the Heinz History Center, and, a passionate baseball fan. His talk was entertaining, informative and presented in an audience-friendly manner.

The speaker grew up on Pittsburgh's North Side. His first introduction to baseball as a young boy was with baseball cards sold with bubble gum. This was typical for most boys in the mid-20th century.

Like Mr. Haller, we “flipped cards,” a juvenile form of gambling. Your opponent would flip his card — to be legal it had to turn over three times before it hit the ground. You then responded by flipping your card.

If your card matched (face up or face down) your opponent's flip, you won his card. If it didn't, he won your card.

We always started with cards that weren't particularly valuable to us, hoping a string of bad luck wouldn't force us to risk the ones we valued.

The speaker still has an impressive collection of baseball cards from the 1950s.

In 1952, 17-year-old Jim Waugh was the youngest player ever to pitch for the Pirates; Mr. Haller has his card and had the pleasure of meeting him a few years ago.

The remnants of my baseball card collection are a nice group of the 1941 “Play Ball” series, which celebrate baseball's last year before World War II, and a handful of the 1938 Goudey “Heads Up” series.

I am particularly fond of the Goudey series; they featured faces of 24 big-leaguers, mounted on tiny cartoon bodies and supplemented with relevant information on each player.

The speaker reviewed the history of the Pirates, beginning with their ancestors, the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. In 1890 the Alleghenys acquired a second baseman named Louis Bierbaur despite a claim by the Philadelphia Athletics that he was under contract to them. The A's called the act piracy; the Alleghenys were quick to take advantage of the opportunity to rename themselves the Pirates.

Barney Dreyfuss became owner of the Pirates in 1900 and operated a very successful franchise until 1932. He initiated the World Series in 1903 by challenging the Boston Pilgrims to a nine-game series between the champions of the two major leagues, a series the Pirates lost.

They did win World Series championships in 1909 against the Detroit Tigers and in 1925 against the Washington Senators, while losing to the New York Yankees in 1927.

The 1909 series is remembered for the rivalry between Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb, the biggest stars of their respective leagues.

One newspaper called the Pirates' 9-7 win over the Senators and Walter Johnson in 1925 “the greatest World Series game ever.”

Several prominent writers declared the 1925 Pirates to be the finest baseball team ever assembled.

It would be 35 long, difficult years before the Pirates would again raise the World Series Championship banner.

Mr. Haller's baseball card hobby laid the groundwork for him to become a serious Pirate fan in 1954.

His timing was right as he missed the worst of the “Rickey Dinks,” the 1952 team that won 42 games while losing 112. Nonetheless, he suffered through several losing seasons until 1958 when things began to look up.

In 1959 the Pirates traded local hero Frank Thomas to Cincinnati for Don Hoak, Harvey Haddix and Smoky Burgess and filled out a roster that was good enough to take them to the World Series in 1960.

My brother and I were fortunate in being able to get tickets to two games of that Series, games the Pirates lost to the Yankees 16-3 and 12-0.

Nonetheless, the Buccos won all the close games, including Game 7 with Bill Mazeroski's celebrated home run.

The speaker went on to discuss two other world championship teams — 1971 and the remarkable career of Roberto Clemente, and 1979 and the equally admirable career of Willie Stargell.

In the long run it is easy for Bucco fans to overlook the many bad seasons the team has had and to cherish the five World Championship teams.

The next Historical Society program meeting is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 28 in the Chartiers Room of the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department on Commercial Street.

Author and historian Ken Kobus will discuss “How Pittsburgh Became the World Steel-Making Center.” The public is cordially invited.

John Oyler is a columnist for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at 412-343-1652 or joylerpa@icloud.com.

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