ONCE IN A LIFETIME

Howie Mooney
FiredUp Network Sports Writer

@HowieMooney

Sunday, June 19, 2022


ONCE IN A LIFETIME 

There are many who say that a triple is the most exciting play in baseball.  Watching the batter hit a ball into a corner or off a stanchion in the outfield wall and take a wild carom as he speeds around first base and then second and slides safely into third is undoubtedly exciting.  But isn’t an inside-the-park home run a little more exciting?  Especially for the home crowd and even more if there are men on base?

What if I told you that, in all of Major League Baseball history, only one inside-the-park home run has ever been struck with the bases loaded?  To this point, it’s true.  It happened in July of 1956.  The Chicago Cubs were in Pittsburgh to play the Pirates.  Neither team was particularly great that season.  The Bucs would finish seventh and the Cubbies would finish behind them in the National League by the end of the year.

Going into the game on July 25, The Pirates were in fifth place in the NL with a record of 41-47.  Chicago came into this one at 39-47.  The teams had played the day before and Pittsburgh had prevailed by a count of 6-2.  Ron Kline got the win to bump his record up to 9-10 and Bob Rush took the defeat.  He was now 8-4 on the year.

The crowd at Forbes Field on that summer Wednesday evening was listed as 12,431 and if they stayed until the end, then they would witness something remarkable.  Bob Friend was the starting pitcher for the home side and he was great for the first seven innings.  He had surrendered just four Chicago hits over those first seven frames and his Pirates held a 4-0 lead going into the eighth.

But in the top of that eighth inning, Friend struggled.  He gave up four Cub singles while only being able to retire one batter.  Pirates’ manager Bobby Bragan called upon the right hander, Elroy Face, to come on in relief of Friend.  The problem for Face in this situation was that the Cubs had beaten up on the Pittsburgh reliever through the course of this season.  Of his six losses to that point in the year, Chicago had saddled him with five of them.

They promptly began to smack Face’s pitches all over the Forbes Field grass.  Walt Moryn doubled to score two Chicago runs.  Jim King was the next hitter and he was intentionally walked.  But then Eddie Miksis and Hobie Landrith each pounded out doubles and the damage was done.

Face did manage to get a couple of strikeouts but he also gave up six hits to the visitors and the teams went into the bottom of the eighth inning with the Cubs now leading the dejected Pirates 7-4.  The Pirates managed to claw back and score one more run in the bottom of the eighth.  But then Chicago put up a run in the ninth to restore their three-run lead heading into the bottom of that final inning.

If the score stood, then Face would be handed another loss by those hated Cubs.  Chicago reliever Vito Valentinetti would get the win.  There is no doubt that some of the Pirate faithful had headed for the exits in the top of the eighth inning.  “Gotta beat the traffic home.  You’ve got school tomorrow, Johnny.”  But for the people who stayed, they got to see something that had never been done before and has never been done since.

Bragan sent Hank Foiles in to pinch hit for the last Pirates’ pitcher of the ninth inning, Nellie King.  Foiles worked Cubs reliever Turk Lown for a base on balls.  That brought the top of the order to the plate.  Bill Virdon already had three hits on the night and he touched up Lown for a single.  Dick Cole came up and he earned a walk off of Lown as well.  The bases were now drunk for the third-place hitter, Roberto Clemente.

The 21-year-old Clemente already had a sacrifice fly in the game and he had singled earlier also.  He had been hot having homered a couple of times in the team’s previous three games.  He also had driven in four runs in the game against the Cubs the day before.  Chicago manager Stan Hack went out and took the ball from Lown.  He called in the right hander, Jim Brosnan, to come in and face the right-handed hitting Clemente.

After his warm-up pitches were completed, Brosnan looked into his catcher, Landrith, for the sign.  He delivered the first pitch to the Pirates hitter.  Clemente barreled it up and hammered the ball deep into left-centre field.  It hit the cage that surrounded the base of the light-tower out there and rolled toward centre.  Foiles came in to score.  Virdon came home.  Then Cole scored as well.  Solly Drake, the Cubs’ centre fielder, and Jim King, who was patrolling left got to the ball together.

Lester Biederman was a writer for the Pittsburgh Press newspaper.  In his game account, he wrote that “Pirates were scurrying around the bases like teenagers chasing Elvis Presley”.

As Clemente was approaching third, Ernie Banks, the Cubs’ third baseman was calling for the relay.  He got the ball from Drake just after Clemente had rounded the bag.  Bobby Bragan had his arms up to try to hold Clemente at third but the youngster ran right through the ‘stop’ sign.  

By the time Banks was able to get the ball out of his glove and home to Landrith, the Pirates’ right fielder had slid home, but he missed the plate!  He had to reach back with his hand and touch the plate to count not just the game-winning run, but the only ever walk-off, inside-the-park grand slam homer in history.

After the game, Bragan was questioned about seeing his young player run through third while he was trying to hold him there.  “Here, Clemente ties up the game for sure and I threw up the ‘stop’ sign.  After all, we have some long ball hitters coming up, no one out and getting Bobby home with the winning run looks easy.  I hold up my hands and say ‘stop’, but not Roberto.  He just kept going and, of course, he scored and we won.  But it was a close play.  Wow!”

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That night, just before midnight, the Swedish ship, MS Stockholm, struck the Italian ocean liner, the SS Andrea Doria, in thick fog off Nantucket Island.  1,660 people were saved but 51 lost their lives. 

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In 2015, Martin Espada penned an article about that night in The Massachusetts Review.  Espada wrote, “What Roberto Clemente accomplished in Pittsburgh on July 25, 1956, stupefied the tobacco-spitting baseball lifers all around him precisely because it transcended baseball, entering the realm of pure theater and then myth. Even his defiance of authority that day — running through hapless Bobby Bragan’s sign — enhances the quality of the legend.”

That home run was the third of that week for the young Clemente.  That said, it was just his sixth of the 1956 season.  He would only hit one more round-tripper the rest of that year.  It would take Clemente a while to grow into his body.  In his first five seasons in the majors, from 1955-59, he would hit a total of 26 home runs.  His batting average at the end of 1956, though, was .311.

Starting in 1960, he would begin to establish his legacy as he was selected to the All-Star Game in every season for the rest of his career except for 1968.  His batting average was above .300 every season from 1960 to 1972, except that 1968 season.  He was also stellar in the field as he won a gold glove every year he played from 1961-1972.  He won four batting titles between 1961 and 1967 and was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1966 when he hit 29 home runs, drove in 119 and hit for a .317 average.  

Clemente had amassed 3,000 hits by the end of the 1972 season.

That 1972 season would be Clemente’s last.  On December 31 of that year, Clemente was on a plane to bring much needed food and supplies to victims of a deadly earthquake in Nicaragua.  The DC-7 crashed into the ocean after leaving Carolina, Puerto Rico killing all passengers and crew aboard, including Clemente.

The Baseball Hall of Fame waived its rule, in which a player must wait five years before being eligible to be voted into the Hall, for Clemente.  He was inducted posthumously in 1973.  He was the first Caribbean player and the first Latin American player to be enshrined.

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You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network, or on 208 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts, including Alexa.  Howie also hosts Like Father, Like Son with his son, Reese here on the FiredUp Network and those same platforms as well.