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August 16, 2012

Pirates of earlier era received stamp of approval

NORMAN — After a seemingly endless drought, the Pittsburgh Pirates are poised to have a winning season.

It’s been a long time coming, and this summer has been one more reminder of how fortunate I was growing up.

That was an era when the Buccos were perennial contenders, producing a constant crop of hitters who terrorized opposing pitchers.

There wasn’t anything fancy about the Pirates recruited by Joe L. Brown and managed by Danny Murtaugh. They swung at just about anything that came in their direction — and usually hit it. There was no need to manufacture runs; the Pirates were poised to attack the baseball.

Great teams produce great memories, and one that’s seared permanently in my brain is Roberto Clemente, standing atop second base at Three Rivers Stadium, doffing his cap to the crowd after attaining his 3,000th career hit.

That was late in the 1972 season. And while they had another outstanding year, the world champion Pirates lost to Cincinnati in the playoffs. But even worse, a few months later they lost Clemente. The Great One died in an airplane crash New Year’s Eve while on a mercy mission to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua.

Clemente’s death resonated far beyond his fan base in Pittsburgh. His exploits as an athlete on the field and a humanitarian off were the stuff of legend. The accolades poured in, and one came from the U.S. Postal Service, which in 1984 placed his image on a stamp.

Recently, another Pirate from that era was similarly honored. Willie Stargell, the great slugger, is depicted on his stamp staring ahead with bat poised to strike.

It’s one of the most fearsome images a pitcher of that era could face. Stargell, looming over the plate, his bat spinning like an airplane propeller. It was as if he were preparing to send the ball on a cross-country journey.

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