I am a frustrated sports writer as I have mentioned before. From early childhood I enjoyed playing sports, watching sports, and reading about sports. Once I accepted the fact that I was unlikely to end up as the second baseman for the L.A. Dodgers, my dream job was to be a beat writer for Sports Illustrated, covering either college football or basketball or Major League Baseball. So I have enjoyed (abused?) the opportunity this column provides to do an occasional sports column. In my own fashion.
The recent death of Franco Harris, Hall of Fame running back for the great Pittsburgh Steeler teams of the 1970’s, provided the motive for this column. So, as any viewer of television crime shows knows, if you have motive and you have opportunity, a crime can result. Here it is.
I think that at least arguably (a word which they teach you in law school to use when you accept there may be other points of view) the most iconic single moments in NFL history and in Major League Baseball history each occurred down the road from where I have lived the last 42 years of my life. In Pittsburgh, née the “Steel City”(not so much so the last 30 or 40 years, more the home of technology and fabulous health care and entrepreneurs over that time) and the “City of Champions,” a phrase coined by the late broadcaster Howard Cosell (said to be able to make the world of fun and games sound like a Congressional inquiry) in the1970’s when the Steelers and the Pirates were winning world championships on a regular basis. Later to be joined by the NHL’s Penguins. Sometimes I think the state flower of my part of West Virginia is the Penguins logo on the back of a car.
So Franco’s recent passing gives me the opportunity to reflect on a couple of the most iconic moments in American sports history, certainly the two seminal plays in Pittsburgh sports history. Fortunately, in my time in and around the Burgh, I have had the good fortune to meet both heroes of these points in time on several occasions. Another column for another day.
First, of course, there is Franco and his “Immaculate Reception,” a still-disputed (somewhat) miraculous (yes, a play on words) pass reception Harris made and carried into the end zone of the now long gone Three Rivers Stadium, in a December 1972 playoff game against the hated Oakland Raiders. Even a casual sports fan has probably heard the phrase “Immaculate Reception” and maybe seen a replay.
On fourth down and with the clock running down, and the up and coming young ”Stillers” about to be sent packing, their future Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw dodged an almost certain sack and unleashed one of his typical 100 mph passes (a Pittsburgh investment guy I know tells the story of Terry dislocating both thumbs of one of his business associates, a former small college football player who had asked to “play catch” at 50 yards with Terry on the floor of Three Rivers.)
This is where the story gets really interesting. Bradshaw’s pass hits somebody (either Raiders safety Jack Tatum or Steelers running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua) about 30 yards downfield and ricochets (hard) back towards the Steelers’ line of scrimmage. At this point, the football goes out of sight of the television camera and ends up in Franco’s hands, who alertly was following the old coach’s rule of “keep your eye on the ball.” Franco ends up racing through the stunned Raiders defense and scores the winning touchdown and is stormed by “Franco’s Italian Army” in the end zone.
The catch involved two controversies. First, if the ball had hit Fuqua (the Steelers receiver) and ended up in Franco’s hands without touching Tatum, the play would have been an “illegal touching” under the rules at the time, and the Steelers would have lost. Secondly, there is debate (unwarranted in my opinion) as to whether the ball hit the turf before Franco grabbed it. A replay from another camera angle shows that it clearly did not. Or almost clearly.
A few fun facts about the game and the play. While there was no “booth review” then, it took the officials about 15 minutes to reach a conclusion that the touchdown counted. Thirteen future NFL Hall of Famers played in the game. And, perhaps most interestingly, if not for this single play, Frenchy Fuqua would probably be remembered only because, on his nights on the town, he was known to wear extremely high heel shoes made of glass that contained live tropical fish. I kid you not. Only Frenchy remains among the living of the main protagonists here, and he refuses to say whether the ball hit him.
The phrase “Immaculate Reception” was coined by legendary Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope, who also invented The Terrible Towel and famously, and generously, gave the rights to The Terrible Towel to Allegheny Valley School, which cares for the intellectually and physically challenged. Myron’s only son, who was autistic, attended the school, and I heard recently that the proceeds from sales have now raised over $6,000,000 for Allegheny. As Myron would say on his broadcasts, “Double Yo’i !”
Then there is the “Mazeroski homer.” In my opinion the defining sports moment in Pittsburgh sports history, even ahead of the Immaculate Reception. It occurred on Oct. 13, 1960, when I was in the second grade and living innocently on Cherry Lane in Christiansburg. At the time, baseball was still king. The NFL was just about to blossom, but it trailed Major League Baseball in popularity and exposure, and the NBA was almost a semipro sport. Soccer was played only by communists. It was a time when the World Series was played in the day time, and kids took transistor radios to school to listen to the games.
This event was the seventh and deciding game of the series and featured the 800 pound gorilla New York Yankees versus the upstart Pittsburgh Pirates. In the bottom of the ninth inning, in “venerable Forbes Field” (You can’t write “Forbes Field” without putting “venerable” in front of it.”) near the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, Bill Mazeroski, a 24-year-old “good field, no hit” second baseman, an eighth-place hitter, came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning of a 9-9 game that had already had more thrills and ups and downs than a baseball game deserves. Maz hit the second pitch over the left field wall of Forbes with a despondent Yankee left fielder Yogi Berra drifting back and eventually giving up pursuit. This was the Yankees of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and Whitey Ford and Yogi.
A few interesting factoids from this game. It remains the only time a World Series has ended on a walk-off homer (a term not used then) in the bottom of the ninth inning of a seventh game. The home run ball was found by 14-year-old Andy Jerpe, a neighborhood kid walking home from school. Straight out of the movie Sandlot, young Mr. Jerpe had used the ball the next spring in a neighborhood game and it was lost in a ravine near his home. Maz had refused Andy’s offer to give him the ball, saying, “keep it kid.”
Ralph Terry was the pitcher for the Yankees who gave up the homer to Maz. He went on to redeem himself to some extent by getting the last out of the seventh game of the 1962 World Series when Willie McCovey of the San Francisco Giants scalded a bases loaded line drive into the glove of scrappy Yankee second sacker Bobby Richardson (You can’t write “second sacker Bobby Richardson” without putting “scrappy” in front of his name.) The McCovey line drive and Bobby’s catch became a staple of the Peanuts cartoon strip for several years. Charlie Brown was shown sitting on the curb, holding his head in his hands and saying, “If only McCovey had hit the ball two feet higher.”
The Yankees outscored the Pirates 55-27 in the Series, but managed to lose 4 of 7. Mickey Mantle called the Game-7 loss the low point of his career. Yankee manager Casey Stengel was fired after the game and famously said, “They told me I was too old, I told them I’ll never make that mistake again”.
And along the lines of Frenchy Fuqua’s tropical fish esoteria, for many years it was thought that no video of the game existed. At that time, live broadcasts were not preserved by the networks. But 50 years after the historic game (broadcast on NBC by Mel Allen and Bob Prince, two of the greatest of all time), a tape of the game was found in the wine cellar of the Bing Crosby home at Pebble Beach. The legendary Irish crooner of his time, Bing was a part owner of the Pirates in 1960 and had been too nervous to watch the game live.
I remember vividly where I was when each of these moments happened. Much like when JFK was assassinated and when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
On October 13, 1960, I ended up in a fist fight in the middle of Cherry Lane with my great childhood neighbor and friend Richard, who had the temerity to root for the Pirates merely because that was the Little League team he was on (All true Americans were Mickey Mantle fans back then, except for Richard and my Dad.) And on December 23, 1972, I was home from college on Christmas break and in the den of my great friend Greg watching the Immaculate Reception with Greg and his Dad.
Franco died two days before the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, and three days before his number was retired in a game between the Steelers and the Raiders in Pittsburgh this past December.
Of such heroes are iconic moments made. And preserved.
PS: As far as I know, there is still a gathering on October 13 each year at the left field wall at the former sight of “venerable” old Forbes Field. The brick wall remains as it was in 1960, along with the flagpole which was inside the wall, and a crowd gathers and listens to a broadcast of the game, and someone sells 25-cent hot dogs. Home plate from the last game at Forbes rests in the floor of the lobby of the Pitt Graduate School of Business. I have been to the October 13 reunion several times. I always feel the ghosts.
Evans “Buddy” King is a proud native of Christiansburg, CHS Class of 1971. He resides in Clarksburg, W.Va., where he has practiced law with the firm of Steptoe & Johnson, PLLC, since 1980. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.