March 27, 2023

Reminiscing As Pirates Lose Two Ties To Golden Era In The Past Week

August 17, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

As a kid growing up in rural western Pennsylvania there was always stuff to do to stay busy.  The range of options was pretty expansive with everything from lounging under a tree to spending hours in the sun harvesting crops, but once the sun started to go down everything was put aside to catch the latest Pirates game on the radio.

We’re not talking about today’s “stumble through life” Pirates…these were the “Battlin’ Bucs” that morphed into the “Lumber Company” and seemed to win the Eastern Division title every year.  The Mets within the Division and the Reds within the National League were the two most hated rivals.

As the years have passed, that era of baseball has become a distant memory.  It’s been how many years since the Pirates have had a winning team?  Back then we thought it was our birthright for the Pirates to be in the hunt for the NL crown every year.

This week the architect of that juggernaut passed away.  Joe L Brown was the man who built the 1960 and 1971 World Series champs.  He also laid the foundation for the 1979 Series winners.

He was always Joe L because his dad was famous actor/comedian Joe E Brown.  Ironically, I stumbled upon a Joe E Brown movie the other day on one of the classic movie channels and while laughing at his antics I also wondered about the Joe Brown I knew.  Today in the news, word of his passing.

As a kid growing up in the 70’s, I aspired to be the Pirates play-by-play guy.  In the 80’s I became a bona fide member of the press and Brown was called back to Pittsburgh to clean up the mess that was the Pirates in the early to mid-80’s.  The Pirates then were much like the Pirates now…the Galbreaths didn’t have the money to compete for big name players and Pete Peterson tied his wagon to some players who were either at the end of their career with not much to offer or players who decided they weren’t going to play for their paycheck.  Of course there was also the cocaine scandal that rocked all of baseball but seemed to be centered in Three Rivers Stadium.

Joe was easy to talk to and he always seemed to have time to talk.  Even for young guys in the press who were still wet behind the ears, he was willing to give up his time.  I asked him why he’d spend as much time with a young reporter like me as he would with Hall of Fame writers like Charlie Feeney and Dick Young.  He replied, “You’re just as important as them and don’t let them tell you otherwise.”  There was no pecking order for Joe.

Brown was a respected baseball man pulled from retirement in 1985 to clean up a mess and make the team saleable.  He was able to jettison some of the aging and lethargic players for promising talent.  The new ownership group hired Syd Thrift to relieve Brown of his caretaker role.

Thrift finished the job Brown started by building the last winning baseball teams to play in Pirates uniforms.  Brown’s touch from his hiring in 1955 until his final departure in the late 80’s involved winning baseball that was something to behold.  He always signed the right players and made the right trades.  The Yankees had “Murderer’s Row” and in the 70’s Sports Illustrated dubbed the Pirates line-up “Four Murders In A Row” in an article about Clemente, Stargell, Oliver, and Sanguillen.

Savvy moves on an off the field was how he built the “dynasty” and I’ll call it that.  The Pirates’ strength was their farm system and their ability to cull the fields of Latin America.  Even in the early days of free agency, Brown kept the Pirates’ ship sailing full steam ahead.

While Brown’s assembled teams were keeping us enthralled with the game of baseball, it was his club’s announcing team that kept us in touch.  Bob Prince and Nellie King were the voices of the Bucs.  They shared the booth for radio broadcasts and alternated every three innings when there were both TV and radio broadcasts.

While the “Gunner” was the star of tandem with decades of stories and hundreds of catch phrases, King was the former Pirates player (1952-57) who used his dedication as a player to perfect the craft of broadcasting.  King was the quiet every man to Prince’s outlandish showman.  King would simply call a home run…Prince would scream “You can kiss it goodbye!”

King was a technician.  He worked hard to master his new trade.  He joined the Pirates broadcast crew in 1967 and just as he was hitting his stride as an announcer he was caught in the crossfire between Prince and management of KDKA radio; the duo was fired following the 1975 season.  The question was asked then and again recently with his passing, if Prince was the problem why fire King too?  There was never an answer.

While Pirates fans were aghast that they would no longer be listening to Prince or King, King simply moved on.  He was doing radio work around Pittsburgh in the off-season, including color analyst for Duquesne University basketball, and soon became the Duquesne Sports Information Director and Golf coach.

King was genuine; he had a concern for everyone on press row but he wasn’t just concerned about their needs during the game; he would take time to get to know them away from the game.  He’d ask about families, jobs, interests…you felt a part of his family.

He later returned to the Pirates Press Box as an official scorer.  While players would call the press box after a game to ask many of the scorers to reconsider an error or hit call, I don’t think King’s calls were ever questioned by the players.  He had been on the field for many Major League games unlike the other official scorers in the rotation the Pirates used and the players respected his tenure.

Brown and King were ties to an era that can only be remembered longingly.  King passed away at the age of 82.  Brown was 92.  Both were men who made the world a nicer place and the world isn’t as nice a place without them.  Both will live in Pirates lore as much for their contributions as men as their accomplishments in the game.

Tim is a life-long Pirates fan who aspired to be the next Bob Prince. Of course, the Gunner was replaced before Tim was out of high school and Lanny Frattare got the job but that didn’t stop him from making his way into the press box. Following college, Tim began covering the Pirates, as well as the other pro and college teams in Pittsburgh, for WBZZ-FM and WMBA-AM.

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