The Legacy of the 1970s Pittsburgh Pirates: A Dominant Decade

Although a player’s strike caused the 1972 season to start a week and a half late, the defending champion Pittsburgh Pirates had another great season, finishing with the best record in the Major Leagues. On Sept 30th, Roberto Clemente reached his goal of getting 3,000 hits in his career. The Pirates would face the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS and held a two games to-one lead.

They lost the fourth game but were three outs away from another NL pennant in game five when the Reds scored two runs to win it, and the Pirates’ season was over. It was a tremendous disappointment for the team, but it paled compared to what happened two and a half months later when Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash.

A Losing Season Before Bouncing Back

His death affected the team so much that they finished the 1973 season with an 80–82 record. They bounced back in 1974 with another trip to the NLCS, but they lost to the LA Dodgers three games to one, and in 1975 they would lose to the Reds again.

The Pirates finished the 1976 season with a 92–70 record, but the Phillies finished nine games ahead. A few months later, their long-time Manager, Dan Murtaugh, died of a stroke at 59 yrs old. The Pirates had good seasons in 1977 and 1978 but again finished second in their division behind the Philadelphia Phillies. One bright spot was that outfielder Dave Parker won the NL MVP in 1978.

Led by Manager Chuck Tanner, the Pirates finished the 1979 season with a .605 winning percentage, their second-best record in the last nineteen years. The team didn’t have an overpowering pitching staff, but they did the job. John Candelaria led the staff in wins with 14, and Kenton Tekulve had the lowest ERA at 2.75.

Willie Stargell and Dave Parker baseball cards
Photo Courtesy Mark Morthier's Private Collection of Willie Stargell and Dave Parker baseball cards

First baseman Willie Stargell led the team in home runs with 32. Outfielder Dave Parker hit 25 home runs, led the team in RBIs with 94, and had a batting average of .310. Outfielder Bill Robinson belted 24 home runs, while third baseman Phil Garner batted .293. Shortstop Tim Foli and centerfielder Omar Moreno also batted close to the .300 mark. Moreno played in all 162 games and Led the NL in stolen bases with 77. Third baseman Bill Matlock acquired in a mid-season trade, batted .328.

The Pirates faced their old nemesis, the Cincinnati Reds, in the NLCS for the fourth time in ten years. They swept the Reds and would now face the Orioles in a rematch of the 1971 Series. The only two players remaining from that 1971 team were the 35-year-old Manny Sanguillen, now the backup catcher, and the 39-year-old Willie Stargell, the team leader, affectionately called “Pops” by his teammates.

After four games, the Pirates trailed three games to one, but this was a close-knit team that banded together like a family. Their theme song was “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. The next three games were no contest as Pittsburgh outscored the Birds 15–2 to win their fifth World Series trophy. Stargell won the Series MVP award and the National League MVP.

1979 Fleer baseball card with Baltimore Orioles vs. Pittsburgh Pirates
Courtesy of Mark Mortiher's Private Collection of a 1979 Fleer baseball card with Baltimore Orioles vs. Pittsburgh Pirates

Pirates fans have not had much to cheer about in the last 43 years, making it to the playoffs only six times and losing every time, but during the decade of the 1970s, the Pirates were a team to be reckoned with.

Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond.  He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area. 

He is also an author of No Nonsense, Old School Weight Training (Second Edition): A Guide for People with Limited Time and Running Wild: (Growing Up in the 1970s)

Mark Morthier headshot - host of Yesterday's Sports podcast on the Sports History Network
Photo Courtesy: Mark Morthier

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