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Shannon Reed

Can a Sports-Crazed City Turn a Theater Person into a Baseball Person?

World Series 1960 at Forbes Field (AP Photo)

Shannon Reed | Longreads | October 2017 | 16 minutes (3,891 words)

 

All Pittsburghers, even those who can’t be bothered with baseball, know what happened on October 13, 1960: the Pirates’ second baseman, Bill Mazeroski, hit a walk-off home run, which shot over the left field fence of Forbes Field in Oakland, and into history, securing for the Pirates the World Series in the seventh game. In the photos of Mazeroski rounding third and heading for home, the joy is palpable, as teammates and fans rush toward him, arms extended, faces actually aglow. Forbes Field, where the game was played, arches upward in the background, almost like a sanctuary; apt, because that home run was miraculous. The city exploded with happiness.

I was born 14 years too late to witness it, but grew up in a Pirates-loving household two hours east of Pittsburgh. People in Johnstown still talked about Mazeroski’s miracle in the late 1980s. My dad went to a banquet then at the Holiday Inn downtown at which Mazeroski received an award. Dad took to recapping his conversation with the slugger as often as possible in the weeks following it, and people always listened intently, as though some great wisdom were being passed along, instead of a simple exchange of pleasantries.

But I rolled my eyes every time he told the story. Back then, I thought Mazeroski’s triumph was ancient history, something vaguely important, but that had happened a long time ago on a field far, far away. I was busy defining myself as a theater kid, so Pittsburgh’s allure was in the promise of high school drama club trips to see touring Broadway shows at the Benedum Center downtown. I liked baseball well enough, more than any other sport, having played catcher on a Little League team for a few years. But still, I wasn’t especially keen on it, even when the Pirates made it to the postseason in 1990, 1991, and 1992.

Even though great baseball was still happening in Pittsburgh, it seemed to me at 16, 17, and 18 that the best days of the sport in the city were far behind. This, I know now, is what history does. It telescopes, so that dozens of years compress into one memory, while the present moves serenely forward at its usual stately pace. The thousands of past years you did not experience blend together, while those in your own recent past are distinct as memory. Thus, I saw the Pirates’ days of triumph, long before I was born, as history, while my then-present awareness of the team, with their parade of good and bad games, fair and foul seasons, were memories that couldn’t compete with past glories frozen, triumphant, in time.

But when I enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh in 2012, suddenly the history of Pirates baseball became real to me. Walking around the campus one day I stumbled upon the actual physical remnants of those glory days. From 1909 to the 1970 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates had played on Forbes Field, and now its back wall, flag pole, and home base are preserved on Pitt’s campus, an athletic shrine in the heart of an academic neighborhood. The carefully preserved fragments immediately reminded me of the abandoned, disintegrating cathedrals, abbeys, and chapels I had visited in Ireland. Great wonders had been glimpsed here, seen by the community, but now all was quiet.

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