Forty-five years ago today, in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, Pittsburgh second baseman Bill Mazeroski blasted a fastball from New York reliever Ralph Terry over the left-field wall for a 10-9 victory and a shocking Pirate upset over the heavily favored Yankees.
Still the only championship-clinching, bottom-of-the-ninth Game 7 homer in Series history, Mazeroski's memorable gallop around the bases and ensuing bedlam at Forbes Field became the ultimate "walk-off" home run more than four decades before the creation of the current catch-phrase.
And Vern Law was there.
Better put, the Pirates were there because of Law. His stellar 1960 season and World Series performances were largely responsible for giving title-starved Pittsburgh its first baseball championship in 33 years.
With the 2005 World Series on the horizon, Law's 1960 highlight film copied from its original 16mm format to VHS and needing a transfer to DVD will be pulled out and watched again in his Provo home with family members and friends.
Pittsburgh and the majors seemed a world away for Vernon Sanders Law, a Meridian, Idaho, farm boy and overpowering pitcher who didn't know what a change-up was until he signed with the Pirates in 1948 at age 18.
Without a draft system, teams competed head-to-head in scouting and signing prospects. Herman Welcker, a U.S. senator from Idaho who helped direct Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew to the majors, recommended Law to friend and fellow Gonzaga classmate Bing Crosby, the actor/singer and then part owner of the Pirates.
Cigar-chomping representatives from eight other teams lined up to visit the Laws, but Pittsburgh officials were savvy enough to not bring cigars into the home of the Mormon family instead delivering a box of chocolates and a dozen roses for Law's mother. The clincher came midway in the visit, when the phone rang with Bing himself on the line, and Law inked his first contract worth $175 a month plus a $2,000 signing bonus.
"A rookie today makes more money in his first year than I made in my whole career," he says. "But that was pretty big money for a kid working on a farm, hauling hay for a dollar a day."
The 6-foot-2 right-hander reached the big leagues in 1950, going 7-9 that year. The next season, he tore his rotator muscle pitching both before and after a long rain delay in a game in Chicago. Ice wasn't used for pitchers' arms, and shoulder injuries weren't well understood. Doctors removed Law's tonsils, checked his teeth and did everything but try leeches to alleviate the shoulder pain.
Two years away from pitching while serving in the military during the Korean War helped heal the shoulder so much so that in '55, he tied a National League record of pitching 18 innings in a game.
Teammates dubbed Law a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints "Deacon" and "Preacher," while media coverage often identified him as a "lay Mormon minister" known to offer an occasional silent prayer on the mound. In filing a report to the commissioner's office on ejecting Law from the dugout during a contentious 1955 Pirates-Phillies game, umpire Stan Landes wrote: "I didn't want Vern to hear all the abusive language."
In 1960, Law won the Cy Young Award (only one given for both leagues then) and pitched in both All-Star games (two were played that year). In one, he came in and helped the National League out of a two-on, no-out jam. In the other, he pitched two scoreless innings for the win.
In 35 starts, he logged 18 complete games, a 20-9 record, 120 strikeouts and a 3.08 earned-run average in an era when five-man rotations and relief specialists were nonexistent.
The day the Pirates clinched the NL pennant in Milwaukee, Law quickly dressed and headed for the team bus, eschewing the champagne-laden celebration. When teammates joined him, the revelry had evolved to cutting other's neckties and ripping off shirts.
Struggling to keep his shirt from being removed, Law hunkered down to withstand the foursome getting at his clothes. When a teammate grabbed at a shoe, Law locked up his foot and leg to endure the twisting, resulting in a severe ankle injury that first forced an altered pitching delivery in the Series and in turn led to persistent shoulder woes the following season.
The 1960 World Series was projected as a likely four-game sweep by the Yankees, featuring pitching ace Whitey Ford and a modern-day Murderers' Row of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Bobby Richardson, Yogi Berra and Moose Skowron. Pittsburgh hadn't reached the Series in 33 seasons; New York had played in eight of the previous 10.
Starting in the Forbes Field opener, Law took a 6-2 lead into the eighth inning before giving up back-to-back singles and stepping aside for ace reliever Roy Face in the Pirates' 6-4 triumph.
The Yankee hit parade then came alive. New York followed a 16-3 Game 2 victory in Pittsburgh with a 10-0 Ford shutout at Yankee Stadium.
In the Pirates' 3-2 Game 4 win, Law earned his second win in as many starts, helping his own cause by going 2-for-3 at the plate with an RBI double and a run scored.
After Pittsburgh took the next game 5-2, the Bronx Bombers lived up to their billing with a 12-0 rout, forcing a decisive Game 7 back at Forbes Field, where Law returned to the mound.
No sleep came before the Oct. 13, 1960, game. "I had to go out and give my team a chance," he says. "I didn't want to be remembered as the guy blowing the World Series."
Stifling the Yankees early while his teammates jumped out to a 4-0 lead, Law was pulled in the sixth by manager Danny Murtaugh with two on in a 4-1 game. He still thinks he could have should have pitched more but figures Murtaugh saw something, perhaps with the bum ankle.
New York finally solved Face's forkball and finished the seventh inning ahead 5-4, behind Maris' RBI single and Berra's three-run homer. The back-and-forth battle continued into the final two innings before the Yankees tied it 9-all in the ninth.
Opening the bottom of the ninth, Terry threw two fastballs to face Mazeroski, who drove the second over the fence to punctuate what MLB.com has called "maybe the greatest Game Seven in World Series Championship history."
Law faced another obstacle fighting off frenzied fans and honoring the invitation to appear at a Pittsburgh TV station for a post-Series show.
With the crowd besieging the locker-room doors, Law got a timely assist from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, a fellow Idahoan and future LDS Church president who had secured dignitary tickets for a family foursome through Law. Benson suggested a backdoor to a stadium alley, where the Cabinet member's chauffeur collected the group and drove off unnoticed.
Setting several single-game and Series offensive records, the Yankees outscored the Pirates 55-27 and outhit them 91-60. In the four games Law didn't start, New York averaged nearly 11 runs.
"Dad always says, 'The Yankees got all the records and we got the rings,' " said son Vance Law, who followed his father's footsteps not only in his own respectable major-league career but also coaching at BYU.
After that stellar 1960 season, the Pirates rewarded Law with a $15,000 raise, upping his salary to $50,000. While shoulder problems kept him in and out of the lineup for the next season or so, Law still reached double-digit victories in four of the final six seasons of his 16-year career. The highlight came in '65 a 17-9 mark with 13 complete games, a career-best 2.15 ERA and the Lou Gehrig Award as baseball's comeback player.
Retiring after the '67 season, he had pitched in 483 games, starting 364 and completing 119 en route to a 162-147 record. He racked up 1,092 strikeouts and had a 3.77 ERA. Respectable at the plate, he hit .216, including 11 home runs, 90 RBIs and only 179 strikeouts in 883 at-bats.
"I wouldn't trade my life with anybody else," he said earlier this month. "I played during the golden day of baseball, back when it was a game and when it was fun."
By 1969, Law had moved to Provo to become a BYU assistant coach for the next 10 years. And when son Vance assumed the head job in 2000, his dad returned to the Cougars' field, sharing pitching tips, throwing batting practice and shagging foul balls hit out of the stadium.
A few years back, his wife, VaNita, persuaded Law to bring his collection of baseball memorabilia out of storage, saying that while their six children knew of their father's baseball career, their children's children needed to understand what Grandpa had done. The basement family room is now lined with jerseys, equipment, plaques, posters and photos.
The 29 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren or any visitor to the Laws' Grandview Hill home can see Law's Cy Young and Lou Gehrig awards, his cover photo from an October 1960 Sports Illustrated, and a shelf containing several dozen autographed baseballs bearing signatures of Hall of Famers or "guys I just respected."
After a seven-bypass heart surgery earlier this year, the 75-year-old Law was swinging golf clubs within two weeks before succumbing to family and nurses' pleas to honor the appropriate period of recovery. Law has since returned to his two favorite surfaces the fairways and the pitching mound.
In the many golf tournaments and appearances Law still makes with other baseball alumni, he reminisces with Pirate teammates, former Yankee foes and other old-timers about their era, their careers and the '60 Series. He ran into Mazeroski recently and kidded his former infielder about the 1960 World Series while true to trait downplaying his contributions."I said, 'Maz, if I hadn't screwed up that Game 7, you wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame.' "
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