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45 Years Ago, A Missed Bunt Sign Helped The Pirates Win The World Series

Pirates' Bob Robertson (7) is congratulated by teammates Roberto Clemente, second from left, Willie Stargell (8) who were on base when the home run was hit. Next batter Manny Sanguillen is at right. Orioles catcher Ellie Hendricks is at left.

The World Series gets underway in Cleveland Tuesday night. Forty-five years ago though, it was Pittsburgh in the Fall Classic. The Pirates were not expected to win that year, until a moment of extreme on-field confusion turned the series in their favor.         

The 1971 World Series, a best of seven game affair, pitted the Pirates against the defending champions, the Baltimore Orioles. Baltimore had four pitchers who each won 20 games that year, which was only the second time to happen in Major League baseball.

The Pirates were heavy underdogs, so much so that one writer smugly predicted the Orioles would win the series in three games. But speaking at a recent 45th reunion of the players from that championship team, Pirates first baseman Bob Robertson said he wasn’t buying it.

“That didn’t bother us one bit,” Robertson said. “Wow, we’re facing four 20-game winners. I mean that was the headlines and stuff. Well, what are you going to do? Go in the closet some place and hide? No.”   

Credit Gene J. Puskar / AP
Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame second baseman Bill Mazeroski, left, joins 1971 Pirates teammates Al Oliver, center, and Bob Robertson during a celebration of their World Series win over the Baltimore Orioles.

After the Pirates lost the first two games of the series in Baltimore, it wasn’t looking good for the Buccos and their fans as the series shifted to Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh for game three. The Pirates found themselves in a close game, leading by a run in the bottom of the 7th inning. Roberto Clemente was on second base and Willie Stargell was on first. That’s when the Robertson came up to bat against Orioles pitcher Mike Cuellar. 

“So, when I was in the on-deck circle, the only thing I thought about is, ‘I have to get something going,’” Robertson said. “I wanted to hit the ball as hard as I could.”

Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh had a different strategy in mind. He wanted Robertson to put down a sacrifice bunt, something the first baseman hadn’t done all year. Third base coach Frank Oceak flashed the bunt sign, not once, but twice. But Robertson wasn’t paying attention.

“I didn’t see it. I didn’t see it,” he said. “But you have to understand how all this all come about. Danny had me hitting fifth. I just hit 28 home runs that year, drove in 82 runs. I never bunted. So, in order for me to try to lay down a bunt … on Astroturf? I don’t think so.”

Clemente was leading off second base. He was confused and tried to call time out. But the second base umpire, Jim Odom, denied Clemente’s request.

“Well, Clemente turned to me and turned around and tried to call time,” said Odom at the time. “And under ordinary circumstances, he would have been given time. But Cuellar was in his pitching motion and it was just too late. I couldn’t give it to him.” 

Good thing too because on that very same pitch, Robertson was ready to drive the ball deep.

“And he threw me a screwball and I hit a long home run to right-center,” said Robertson. “But if I would have bunted, or if I would have popped it up, what would have happened? You understand? So, I think that was the turning point in that whole World Series.”

Robertson’s 3-run homer broke open a close game, and the Pirates went on win 5-1. But in the dugout afterward, there was some concern that Robertson might be in trouble for committing one of the cardinal sins of baseball; missing, or perhaps even blowing off an important signal from the coaching staff. But his teammates Bill Mazeroski and Steve Blass had his back.

“When I got back to the bench, I think Mazzy tapped me on the leg and said ‘You know you missed a bunt sign?’ And I looked over at Murtaugh and he had his hat down over his eyes and his belly was goin’ up and down. He was laughing at the time but if it would have turned out differently… it’s like a reporter asked me at the time, ‘If he fines you, are you going to pay the fine? Sure, I’ll pay it’ and then Steve Blass spoke up and said ‘I’ll pay the fine if there’s a fine to be had. ‘”

The Pirates won four of the last five games of the ‘71 series to become just the fifth team ever to win the World Series after losing the first two games. It all began with a missed bunt sign, and for Bob Robertson, fine or no fine, all was forgiven.    

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