Mazeroski was a defensive gem at second base

Updated: April 13, 2005, 12:21 PM ET
By Nick Acocella | Special to ESPN.com

"After it was over, it was pretty much like any other game. I just thought it was another home run to win a ballgame and would never last 40 years," says Bill Mazeroski on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Although Bill Mazeroski is best known for his ninth-inning,

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Bill Mazeroski heads toward home plate after hitting Series-winning homer against New York.
seventh-game home run that allowed the Pittsburgh Pirates to beat the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series, that dramatic moment has obscured the fact that he was the premier defensive second baseman of his -- or perhaps any -- time. After years of waiting, he was selected by baseball's Veterans Committee to enter the Hall of Fame in 2001.

Unassuming and quiet, Mazeroski was a seven-time all-star who compiled 2,016 hits in his 17-year career with the Pirates. A lifetime .260 batter, he reached double digits in homers six times and, playing in the expanses of Forbes Field, collected more than 20 doubles nine times.

But defense was the name of the game for Maz, winner of eight Gold Gloves. Almost three decades after he retired, he still holds major league records for second basemen for most double plays in a season (161), most double plays in a career (1,706), most years leading a league in DPs (eight) and most seasons leading in assists (nine).

"He had marvelous range, great instincts and never threw to the wrong base," says Dick Groat, Mazeroski's first Pirates double-play partner. "His release on the double play was phenomenal. When Maz was a kid, I had a couple of years' experience on him. If I would move Maz and tell him to play here or play there, I never had to tell him a second time. Ever."

Gene Alley, the Pirates regular shortstop for Maz's last eight seasons, describes his teammate's technique: "Maz never really caught the ball, never really closed his glove over it, turning the double play. He could tilt his glove at an angle and hold his hand just so. It was a wonder the ball stayed in there. Then it would slide out in his hand just like that. He was the only one I ever saw do it like that."

Former Pirates centerfielder Bill Virdon says, "Nobody ever played second base like he did, and I've been in the game 50 years. The impressive thing about Maz was that he did everything perfectly. I backed him up for 10 years and never got a ball."

Mazeroski was born on Sept. 5, 1936 in Wheeling, West Virginia. Before Bill entered school, his coal-miner father Lew moved the family to rural southeastern Ohio, where they lived without electricity. Lew Mazeroski, though an alcoholic, found the time to teach his son the basics of baseball.

In 1954, after graduation from Warren Consolidated High School in Tiltonsville, Ohio, where he pitched and played shortstop, Mazeroski signed with the Pittsburgh organization. Sent to Williamsport of the Class A Eastern League, he played shortstop, hit only .225, and hardly shined on defense.

In spring training of 1955, he impressed general manager Branch Rickey by making a fluid double play while filling in at second base. Rickey decided then that Mazeroski was a second baseman.

For Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League, the top-ranking minor circuit at the time, Maz batted only .170 in about a month and was dropped back to Williamsport, where he hit his stride, batting .293 with 11 homers, 65 RBI and turning a league-leading 108 double plays.

Mazeroski completed his minor league education with a half-season in Hollywood in 1956. His .306 average and 70 double plays in 80 games earned him a midseason promotion to the Pirates at 19. His first season and a half were frustrating, however. Manager Bobby Bragan believed in winning every game every day and would pinch-hit for his young second baseman as early as the second inning.

With the Pirates on their way to a tie for the cellar in 1957, Bragan was replaced by the more patient Danny Murtaugh, who gave his young talent a chance to mature. Murtaugh's approach paid off as the team went 25-26 under him, and Mazeroski, among others, began to shine. He finished with a .283 average, which would be his career high, and participated in 96 double plays.

As the Pirates jumped all the way to second place in 1958, the team's best season since 1944, Mazeroski batted .275 with a career-high 19 homers. This also was the first year he was involved in more than 100 double plays. He would not slip below that mark until 1969.

Those 19 homers induced Mazeroski to try pulling the ball more, which led to a 34-point decrease in his batting average to .241 in 1959. His home-run total fell to seven as well.

In the summer of 1960, however, hitting instructor George Sisler taught him to stand deeper in the batter's box and to wait on curves until after they broke. With this lesson learned, Maz, who was hitting .237 on August 3, finished the season at .273 and with 11 homers. He also led major league second basemen in putouts (413), assists (449), double plays (127) and fielding percentage (.989).

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Mazeroski is congratulated by third base coach Frank Oceak after his historic home run.
But against the Yankees it was his hitting that led to his winning the Babe Ruth Award as the outstanding player in the World Series. His .320 average was the highest on the Pirates among players who appeared in all seven games.

In Game 1, his two-run homer off Jim Coates propelled Pittsburgh to a 6-4 victory. He drove in two runs in the Pirates' 5-2 victory in Game 5. And in Game 7, his dramatic homer off Ralph Terry in Forbes Field gave the Pirates a 10-9 victory and their first world championship since 1925. The Sporting News named him the Major League Player of the Year.

The Pirates slumped after their world title, but Mazeroski continued to be the foundation of the infield, especially after the other three infield regulars - Dick Stuart, Don Hoak and Groat - were traded after the 1962 season, leaving Mazeroski the old man of the infield at a mere 26.

While Mazeroski's average dropped 26 points to .245 in 1963 and his RBI total plummeted from 81 to 52, he turned 131 double plays with a new keystone partner, Dick Schofield.

Mazeroski had a major injury in 1965, a broken foot suffered trying to stop short on the basepaths. He missed 35 games in the field, but still took part in a league-leading 113 double plays.

The following year, the Pirates battled for the pennant into the last week of the season, eventually finishing only three games behind the Dodgers and one behind the Giants. One of the essential ingredients of that pennant drive was a National League team record 215 double plays; Maz was involved in his record 161. Offensively, he knocked in a career-high 82 runs to go with his .262 average and 16 homers.

As the 1960s drew to a close, Mazeroski's career wound down. He played only 65 games in the field in 1969 and had his last 100-game season in 1970. He appeared in four playoff games from 1970-72, but three of them were as a pinch-hitter. When the Pirates won the 1971 World Series over the Baltimore Orioles, Mazeroski was 0-for-1.

Reduced to a utility role in his last two years, Mazeroski retired after the 1972 season with 853 RBI in 2,163 games. He coached for the Pirates in 1973 and with Seattle in 1979 and 1980. And though he's retired, he still helps out at the Pirates spring training camp.

Mazeroski lives in Panama City, Fla., with his wife Milene, whom he met through Murtaugh and married in 1958. He spends his days playing golf and fishing for striped bass. A modest man, he protects his privacy and rarely engages in nostalgia.

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