The Pirates are in the midst of a second consecutive run at the playoffs, and at the Post-Gazette we’re just as furiously making a run at digitizing thousands of historic Pittsburgh sports photos.
In doing so, we found seven images that show two Pirates of the past in great detail.
Specifically, they show Pirates’ hands.
They belong to two battery mates in Pittsburgh: catcher Smoky Burgess and relief pitcher ElRoy Face.
Burgess is notable because his hands appeared to hold a bat differently than most professional baseball players. Gripping the bat in one’s fingers, away from the palms and thereby lining up the knuckles is the quickest way to swing at a ball.
Burgess’ knuckles, however, did not line up in the more common fashion.
Apparently it didn’t matter for him; Burgess was often tapped to pinch hit for the Bucs, and he once set an MLB record with 507 pinch-hit appearances. He hit an impressive .285 off the bench.
In 1965, he held the highest lifetime batting average for a catcher and was known in Pittsburgh for a 6-for-18 performance at the plate in five 1960 World Series games.
Face’s fingers were long and spindly enough to throw a devastating forkball — a pitch that dropped straight down because of the split grip.
“Coming at you, it looked exactly like a fastball,” Dick Groat said in a Pittsburgh Press story 20 years after Face’s retirement. A mechanic from childhood, Face didn’t start playing baseball until he was 15. He came late to the game but learned quickly.
Joe Page pitched in Pittsburgh during the final year of his career, and he taught Face the forkball that spring of 1954. It made him the pitcher he was out of the Pirates’ bullpen for the next 12 seasons, including in 1959 when he won 17 straight games. That’s still the longest such single-season streak for a reliever.
Face had a contentious relationship with fans at Forbes Field: “They can boo me all they want, as long as we win,” he told Lester Biederman of The Pittsburgh Press in August 1963. “I figure the fans pay their money, let ‘em boo.”
For both players, the unorthodox styles fell into that magical baseball category: whatever works. Ty Cobb gripped the bat with his hands apart. Roberto Clemente never owned a fundamental swing, but rather one so violent that when he connected, good things happened. Burgess, who died in 1991 at age 64, may have used an odd grip, possessed a wide girth, and owned a reputation for swinging at pitches over his head, but he retired with a .295 lifetime average.
As Biederman wrote in March 1965: “Somebody once described Burgess in a white Pirate uniform as a walking laundry bag since he’s short and round and stout. But nobody—nobody—ever kidded Smoky about his hitting.”
Nor did they kid Face, who turned 86 this year, about his forkball fingers.