Bill Virdon (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

July 23, 1968: Bill Virdon pinch-hits game-tying homer in return from retirement, Reds outlast Pirates in 12 innings

This article was written by John Fredland

Bill Virdon (THE TOPPS COMPANY)Three years after announcing his retirement, Bill Virdon returned to active service in July 1968, when injuries and military obligations left the Pittsburgh Pirates shorthanded. Though brief, Virdon’s reactivation produced one memorable moment: a game-tying two-run ninth-inning home run off star reliever Ted Abernathy in Pittsburgh’s 12-inning, 7-6 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Forbes Field on July 23.

William Charles Virdon began his major-league career with the St. Louis Cardinals, but a trade to the Pirates in 1956 gave him his most enduring professional home.1 He spent 11 seasons in center field in Pittsburgh, winning a Gold Glove in 1962 and contributing essential fielding and hitting to the Pirates’ 1960 World Championship team.2

After a solid 1965 – 135 games played, a .279 batting average – Virdon retired at age 34. “I don’t have the zest for the game I once did,” he admitted.3 “I find my mind wandering during a game, and my concentration just isn’t there. I could hang on for a few more years, but I don’t want to be a hanger-on.”4

Virdon spent 1966 and 1967 managing in the New York Mets system but returned to the Pirates in 1968 as the first-base coach and batting and outfield instructor under first-year manager Larry Shepard.5 Contenders in 1965 and 1966 under Harry Walker, the Pirates had finished sixth in the NL in 1967, leading to Walker’s midseason dismissal.6

They continued to struggle under Shepard in ’68, and a 10-game losing streak from July 6 through July 15 dropped them into seventh place.7 Poor health hindered Pittsburgh, most notably star right fielder Roberto Clemente’s offseason shoulder injury.8

At Virdon’s suggestion, Pirates leadership had discussed his return to action in May, when Pittsburgh fell to ninth in the NL.9 By July the need became more acute, especially after rookie infielder Freddie Patek was diagnosed with a broken wrist on July 11.10

General manager Joe L. Brown’s replacement options were limited. At Triple-A Columbus, utilityman André Rodgers had a sore arm,11 and third baseman Richie Hebner – a top prospect at age 20 – was on reserve duty with the Marines.12 Seven more players at Double A were tied up with military service.13 The cast of healthy, available players in Pittsburgh’s farm system did not impress Brown.14

Lacking or being unwilling to use a more conventional backfill, the Pirates turned to the 37-year-old Virdon, who had joined pregame practices to get into game shape.15 Patek went on the disabled list on July 15; Virdon was added to the active roster.16 “I will use him late in a game, on defense, or as a pinch-hitter,” Shepard said.17

Virdon returned with an inning in right field on July 17, in the first game of a doubleheader against the Mets.18 He pinch-hit in the nightcap with two outs in the ninth and the tying run on second but fanned against Ron Taylor.19 He made another inning-length defensive appearance in Pittsburgh’s July 21 win over the Atlanta Braves.

The Reds, tied with the Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants for third in the NL, 13 games behind the first-place Cardinals, then came to Pittsburgh for a three-game series, with Cincinnati right-hander Jim Maloney starting in the opener.

With Virdon in the first base coaching box, Pittsburgh leveraged shaky Reds defense into a first-inning run. Speedy Maury Wills tapped a leadoff roller to third and reached when Tony Perez bobbled it for an error. After Gary Kolb, subbing for Clemente in right,20 singled, Maloney retired Matty Alou and got Willie Stargell to bounce an apparent double-play ball toward Tommy Helms at second.

Helms flipped to Leo Cardenas for the force on Kolb, whose slide redirected Cardenas’ relay to first. The ball skipped toward the Pirates dugout; Wills scored for a 1-0 lead.

Pirate starter Al McBean defused a second-inning Reds threat by turning Cardenas’s comebacker into a double play and seemed headed for a scoreless third when Maloney and Alex Johnson fanned. But Mack Jones – playing because regular right fielder Pete Rose was out with a broken thumb21 – singled. Vada Pinson’s triple to left-center drove in Jones.

Lee May walked, and Johnny Bench, an emerging star in his first full major-league season,22 singled to left, driving in Pinson. May beat Stargell’s throw to third, which prompted Bench to dash for second. Jose Pagan threw wildly into right field, and May scored for a 3-1 Cincinnati lead.

The Pirates got one run back in the fourth. Donn Clendenon walked with one out and scored on Jerry May’s two-out double, cutting the gap to 3-2.

Jones answered in the fifth, crushing McBean’s 3-and-1 pitch to the opposite field, clearing the 405-foot mark in left for a solo homer. An inning later, Perez pulled reliever Ron Kline’s 2-and-2 offering to the same part of the ballpark for a 5-2 Reds advantage.

Maloney carried the lead to the bottom of the sixth, when Stargell drove a one-out homer – his 18th of the season, fifth-most in the NL – into the right-field upper deck. Mazeroski singled one out later, while Maloney struggled with the midsummer heat and humidity, “whirl[ing] his arm” between pitches to the next batter, Jerry May.23 After May worked the count to 2-and-1, Reds manager Dave Bristol pulled Maloney for Clay Carroll, who retired May to end the inning.

The Reds pushed for insurance in the seventh and eighth, but baserunning errors kept the game close. In the seventh, Carroll led off with a single off Kline, then tried to go first-to-third on Johnson’s single to center – but Alou gunned him down. Johnson took second on the throw, then tried to move up on Jones’s tapper to short off new reliever Luke Walker – but Wills threw him out at third. Bench’s and Perez’s singles off rookie Dock Ellis put runners on the corners to start the eighth, but Pagan fielded Helms’s sharp grounder near third, tagged Bench attempting to return to the bag, and threw to first for the double play.

In the meantime, Carroll contained the Pirates in the seventh, and Bristol summoned Abernathy to get the final out of the eighth. Abernathy remained on the mound in the ninth, with the Reds still leading by two runs.

Jerry May flied out to begin the inning, but Pagan drew a five-pitch walk. With the pitcher’s spot due, Shepard summoned Virdon for only his second big-league at-bat since 1965.24

The 35-year-old Abernathy, a right-handed submarine pitcher, had won major-league Fireman of the Year honors in 1967. his ERA so far in 1968 was 0.96, and he had yielded only two homers all season.25

But he fell behind 3-and-1 to Virdon, who connected with the next pitch and pulled it over the screen in front of the right-field seats for a home run. The crowd came “out of their seats in a minor wave of hysteria and Virdon’s wife and daughters were caught up in the emotion,” the Pittsburgh Press observed.26 The game was tied, 5-5. 27

“I had him in a hole, and he knew it,” Virdon said afterward.28 “Abernathy thought I might be taking that pitch, and he was just trying to get it over. But the moment I connected, I felt it was gone.”29

Virdon remained in the game in right. Longtime Pittsburgh bullpen ace Elroy Face – with Virdon, Clemente, and Mazeroski the only Pirates from 1960 remaining on the roster – and Abernathy traded scoreless innings in the 10th. The Reds stirred in the 11th when pinch-hitter Fred Whitfield reached on Clendenon’s error, Woody Woodward pinch-ran, and Johnson’s single sent Woodward to third. But Johnson attempted to advance when the throw from the outfield went loose; Clendenon picked up the ball and threw to Mazeroski for the out. The tie held.

Virdon had a chance for additional heroics in the 11th, batting against Gerry Arrigo with Mazeroski on first and two outs, but he struck out looking. The 40-year-old Face returned in the 12th for his third inning of relief. Lee May singled with one out. Bristol called for the hit-and-run, and Bench bounced his fourth hit of the game past Mazeroski, who was moving to cover second.

Perez followed with his fifth hit, driving in May with the go-ahead run. Helms then singled to left for the Reds’ 20th hit of the night;30 Bench scored from second as Stargell’s throw to the plate, arriving about 10 feet ahead of the runner, squirted through Jerry May’s legs and to the backstop.

Arrigo and Bob Lee held the Pirates to one run in the 12th, and Cincinnati escaped with a 7-6 win, its fifth in a row. “Everything comes hard for us,” Bristol said afterward. “We played hard enough to win three games tonight.”31

Virdon appeared in two more games without batting,32 before retiring for good when Patek returned on August 7.33 He went on to manage four major-league teams, including the Pirates, from 1972 through 1984. He later served as a coach and instructor, remaining active in the Pirates organization well into the twenty-first century.34

 

Author’s Note

Bill Virdon’s coaching duties in 1968 apparently included supervision of the Pirates’ batting-practice program. During the season, the Pirates needed a left-handed batting-practice pitcher.

The author’s father, also named John Fredland, was a student at the University of Pittsburgh in 1968 and member of Pitt’s baseball team. In 1967, as a senior in high school, he was the winning pitcher in Pittsburgh’s Class B Catholic League championship game.35 When the high-school season was over, he played for an amateur team called the Little Pirates, sponsored by the big-league Pirates.36

Based on the author’s father’s experience with the Little Pirates, he received a tryout as a lefty batting-practice pitcher. His audition involved throwing in Forbes Field’s bullpen with Bill Virdon watching him.

In a 2021 email, the author’s father remembered throwing a few pitches, then hearing Virdon say, “That will work fine.” He spent the summer pitching batting practice to the Pirates, memorably working with Roberto Clemente when the legendary right fielder was recovering from an injury.

 

Sources and Acknowledgments

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org for information, including the box scores. He also used game coverage from the Cincinnati Enquirer, Dayton Daily News, Dayton Journal-Herald, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Pittsburgh Press newspapers.

This article was inspired by longtime Pirate fan “Hammerin’ Hank,” who mentioned Virdon’s 1968 return to action on Twitter in November 2021, after Virdon’s death at the age of 90.

SABR member Kurt Blumenau contributed insightful comments on an earlier draft of this article. Fact-checking was performed by Kevin Larkin.

https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/PIT/PIT196807230.shtml

https://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1968/B07230PIT1968.htm

 

Notes

1 Jack Hernon, “Pirates Get Bill Virdon From Cards: Littlefield, Del Greco Go to St. Louis for Outfielder,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 18, 1956: 30.

2 “Virdon … gave the Pirates the best centerfielding since the days of Lloyd Waner,” Pittsburgh sportswriter Jack Hernon observed when Virdon retired in 1965. “He was a steady, spectacular outfielder. His centerfielding was overshadowed only by Willie Mays and this was due to Mays’ hitting ability alone.” Jack Hernon, “Virdon Retires as Pirate Centerfielder: Veteran Glove Star Seeks Position as Minor-League Manager,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 17, 1965: 28.

3 Lester J. Biederman, “Bill Virdon Retires as Player and Looks to Managing Career,” Pittsburgh Press, November 17, 1965: 73.

4 Biederman, “Bill Virdon Retires as Player and Looks to Managing Career.”

5 “Bill Virdon Named Coach by Pirates: Shepard Picks Ex-Buc Outfielder for First Base, Instructor Jobs,” Pittsburgh Press, October 18, 1967: 81. Part of Virdon’s motivation for leaving the Mets organization was Gil Hodges being named New York’s manager for 1968. “There’s quite a guy,” Virdon said of Hodges in January 1968. “A good man and a fine manager. He could last for 10 years there.” Al Abrams, “Sidelights on Sports,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 1, 1968: 24.

6 Lester J. Biederman, “Pirates Fire Manager Walker: Murtaugh Back for Season,” Pittsburgh Press, July 18, 1967: 1.

7 Charley Feeney, “Pirates Lose 10th in a Row, Tie Club Mark: Chicago Cops, 2-1, in Ten Innings,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 16, 1968: 14. The Pirates began the streak by losing doubleheaders to the Chicago Cubs on July 6 and 7. After a three-day rest for the All-Star break, they were swept in a third straight doubleheader against the Philadelphia Phillies on July 11. Willie Stargell later described the Pirates’ July doldrums in his autobiography: “Frustrated and terribly confused, [Shepard] tried another closed-door meeting in July. But nothing seemed to work. We’d already fallen too far too fast. We were miles away from the pennant race. We became the butt of our fans’ jokes. One article in a Pittsburgh newspaper stated that we were guaranteed at least a sixth-place finish our next season. Of course, the same article also explained that the league was expanding to two six-team divisions the next year.” Willie Stargell and Tom Bird, Willie Stargell: An Autobiography, (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 124-125.

8 Clemente, who had won three NL batting titles in four seasons entering 1968, injured his right shoulder in February in an accident at his home in Puerto Rico. At the All-Star break in 1968, Clemente was batting .245/.297/.433. While pitching dominated the 1968 season – average runs per game by NL teams was 3.43, down from 3.84 in 1967 and well under 1969’s average of 4.05 – these figures still represented a decline in productivity. After the Pirates rested him for several games in July and August, Clemente batted .368/.440/.568 over his final 26 games of the season to finish with totals – when compared with league averages – consistent with the rest of his stellar peak. Charley Feeney, “Roamin’ Around,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 30, 1968: 19. Other injured Pirates in the season’s first half included catcher Jerry May, All-Star shortstop Gene Alley, and starting pitcher Jim Bunning, a future member of the Baseball Hall of Fame and key offseason trade acquisition. Bill Heufelder, “Bob Skinner’s Back in Town,” Pittsburgh Press, July 11, 1968: 33.

9 Charley Feeney, “Roamin’ Around,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 16, 1968: 15. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggested a possible reason for Virdon’s desire to return, citing hearsay reports that “Virdon … quit prematurely [after the 1965 season] because he wasn’t particularly fond of Harry Walker, who was running the Pirate show at the time.”

10 “Patek Lost to Bucs for Three Weeks,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 11, 1968: 26. The Pirates had called up the 23-year-old Patek from Triple A on June 2, with Alley’s right shoulder injured and Maury Wills struggling at third. Charley Feeney, “Maury Wills on Spot as Pirates Recall Patek,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 3, 1968: 32. Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles Dodgers hit Patek on the wrist with a pitch on June 18, but the broken bone was not diagnosed until three weeks later. Charley Feeney, “Aroused Bucs Zoom by LA for 7th in Row: Alou Drives in Clincher,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 19, 1968: 24.

11 Rodgers had played in 158 games for the Pirates from 1965 through 1967.

12 Charley Feeney, “Pirates Return Virdon to Active Roster: Patek ‘Disabled’ in ‘Emergency Move,’” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 16, 1968: 14.

13 Charley Feeney, “Pirates Return Virdon to Active Roster.”

14 The Pittsburgh Press reported a “shortage of talent in the farm system” as a factor in Virdon’s return, noting that major-league veteran John Kennedy was “batting cleanup for Columbus. His lifetime average is .213.” Les Biederman, “Desire, Determination Rank Tops with Leo,” Pittsburgh Press, July 16, 1968: 33.

15 Charley Feeney, “Pirates Return Virdon to Active Roster.” Virdon had batted eight times in 1966 while manager of the Double-A Williamsport Mets, going hitless with one walk.

16 Charley Feeney, “Pirates Return Virdon to Active Roster.”

17 Charley Feeney, “Pirates Return Virdon to Active Roster.”

18 Les Biederman, “Virdon Return Dimmed in Nightcap,” Pittsburgh Press, July 18, 1968: 33.

19 Biederman, “Virdon Return Dimmed in Nightcap.”

20 Clemente missed six games from July 19 through the first game of a July 26 doubleheader with a viral infection; some newspaper reports also cited his lingering shoulder injury as a reason for rest. Les Biederman, “Alou’s Two Hits Sink Braves for Veale, 2-1,” Pittsburgh Press, July 21, 1968: 4,1.

21 Rose broke his left thumb against the Dodgers on July 6; he traveled to Pittsburgh with the Reds but did not play. Bill Ford, “Rose on Road Trip,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 24, 1968: 33. He returned to the lineup on July 27 and finished 1968 as the NL’s leader in batting average (.335), on-base percentage (.391), and hits (210). Rose was second in the NL’s MVP voting behind Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals.

22 “Bench is a comer, hardest hitting catcher around,” the Pittsburgh Press observed. Les Biederman, “Virdon Adds Luster to Bucs Dark Year,” Pittsburgh Press, July 24, 1968: 58. The 20-year-old Bench had been selected for the NL’s All-Star team and played an inning on defense in the NL’s 1-0 win over the AL on July 9. He earned NL Rookie of the Year honors and a Gold Glove, the first of 10 in his Hall of Fame career.

23 Bill Ford, “Reds Need 12 Innings, but Win 5th Straight, 7-6: Bucs Tie in Ninth on Virdon’s HR,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 24, 1968: 33.

24 The Pirates had already used left-handed-batting Manny Jimenez and righty Manny Mota as pinch-hitters. Right-hander Carl Taylor was also available, and he pinch-hit in the 12th inning.

25 Abernathy had an 0.62 ERA at the All-Star break, with only five earned runs allowed in 73 innings. He had allowed two runs during two post-break appearances in one-sided games, raising his ERA to 0.96. Prior to this appearance, the only batters to have hit home runs off him in 1968 were Willie Mays and Jim Ray Hart of the San Francisco Giants.

26 Biederman, “Virdon Adds Luster to Bucs Dark Year.”

27 It was Virdon’s 91st career home run – and his first since a solo shot against Drysdale on September 1, 1965, in the second game of a doubleheader at Forbes Field.

28 Biederman, “Virdon Adds Luster to Bucs Dark Year.”

29 Biederman, “Virdon Adds Luster to Bucs Dark Year.”

30 The Reds finished 1968 leading the major leagues in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. They finished in fourth place in the NL with an 83-79-1 record.

31 Jim Ferguson, “Reds Win Easy One the Hard Way,” Dayton Daily News, July 24, 1968: 32.

32 On July 26, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Cardinals, Shepard sent up Virdon to bat for Kline with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the 10th inning of a tie game. When St. Louis replaced right-hander Wayne Granger with lefty Joe Hoerner, Shepard pulled back Virdon for Pagan, who drove in the winning run with a sacrifice fly. Les Biederman, “Clendenon Real Hero as Pirates Earn Split,” Pittsburgh Press, July 27, 1968: 6. Virdon’s fifth and final appearance was as a defensive replacement in the ninth inning of the Pirates’ win over Cincinnati in the second game of a doubleheader on July 31.

33 Les Biederman, “Aches, Pains Collar Bat Star Clemente,” Pittsburgh Press, August 8, 1968: 31. The Pirates finished 1968 in sixth place with an 80-82 record.

34 In March 2015, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a photo of Virdon, in uniform, at Pirates spring training. “Former player, manager and now Pirates special assistant Bill Virdon observes batting practice this past week,” the caption noted of Virdon, who at that time was 84 years old. “Throne of Knowledge,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 1, 2015: C-12.

35 “St. Mary Cops Catholic ‘B’ Title: Perfect Season for Mounties,” Pittsburgh Press, June 11, 1967: 4, 5.

36 Jerry Roberts, “Little Pirates Use Bucs’ Philosophy,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 24, 1980: North, 13.

Additional Stats

Cincinnati Reds 7
Pittsburgh Pirates 6
12 innings


Forbes Field
Pittsburgh, PA

 

Box Score + PBP:

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