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A Friend of Pirates history

Bob Friend, All-Star pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1950s and 1960s, was one of the most durable and consistent pitchers of his generation. For 15 years, from 1951 to 1965, he averaged 232 innings pitched and 13 victories for some of the worst teams in baseball.

As a 24-year-old in 1955 he became the first pitcher to lead his league in ERA while pitching for a last-place team. He went on to led the National League in victories once, innings pitched twice, games started three times, and WAR for pitchers twice. He also lost 230 games while winning 197, and pitched 3,611 innings, good for 61st all-time.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Bob Friend, one of the heroes of the 1960 championship season, about his life in the major leagues.

Wolf: You began with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1951 after just one year of minor league ball. How were you signed?

Friend: I was signed as a freshman out of Purdue University by a former Dodgers scout from the Branch Rickey era and who joined the Pirates. Stan Feasal, who was a Big Ten basketball official in Indiana, had scouted me for a long time. I stayed with him and signed with the Pirates in 1950 for a bonus of $12,500, which was pretty good for those days. I joined the Pirates in spring training in 1950 and then played minor league ball in Waco, Texas, and split the season with Indianapolis.

Wolf:: You were promoted from class B baseball in the Big State League after just a few games.

Friend: Yes. Under Al Lopez, who was the manager (for Waco) at the time. He was a big influence on me. In my last game at Waco I pitched a no-hitter and Joe Brown (business manager of the team) called me in and said “You’re going to Indianapolis.”

Wolf: You went back to the Pirates’ spring training in 1951. At what point did you find out that you made the team?

Friend: I really didn’t know that I made the team until Billy Meyer, who was the manager at that time, came up and told me that he liked what he saw and he’d give me a shot.

Wolf: You played under Bill Meyer for two seasons in 1951 and 1952. Your first few seasons with the Pirates in the early 1950s must have been somewhat frustrating. How was Bill Meyer as a manager and how did he handle pitchers?

Friend: He was one of the good ones. He came over from the New York Yankees system . . . He was losing his patience with the players they were bringing up. I don’t think he could go through another losing season, especially like the one in 1952 when we lost 112 games.

Wolf: Did the Pirates have a coach at that time who helped pitchers develop?

Friend: We had a good pitching coach in Bill Posedel who had pitched for the old Boston Braves. But you gotta have the talent to work with.

Wolf: The 1952 season at 42-112 must have been hard on you. You were a young pitcher, only 21 years old in your second season, and you’re pitching primarily as a starter and as a spot reliever. When Fred Haney became manager in 1952, did the Pirates change at all?

Friend: Fred brought in some new ideas he had from the Pacific Coast League. He had some players he coached there and brought them with him. In the meantime Branch Rickey had a finger on him and the club, and he made most of the decisions. That didn’t last too long with Fred Haney either. After three seasons he left and went on to have a good career with the Milwaukee Braves.

Wolf: How was Branch Rickey as a general manager? Did he control all aspects of the Pirates’ day-to-day operations?

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Friend: Yes, he did. He had his own people in there from the Brooklyn Dodgers. He had some great scouts. His idea was to build an organization like the Brooklyn Dodgers or the St. Louis Cardinals. He kept bringing players in and out of the minor leagues to see who was going to fit. He ran everything!

Wolf: How did the players respond to Branch Rickey? Did they have any interaction with him?

Friend: They respected him but they were also afraid of him because he was tough on contracts. The way he was sending people in and out of the minors, you didn’t know who would be next. The one he gave the most trouble to was Ralph Kiner. Ralph was one of the great guys on the team. They traded him in 1953. We traded five for five with the Cubs and (the players) traded uniforms before the start of the second game of a doubleheader. That was the only person I thought he mistreated. Ralph Kiner kept bringing people into the ball park. He was a good influence and really missed.

Wolf: In your early years with the Pirates, the attendance with typically around 600,000-700,000 per year or about 8,000 per game. How did the fans treat the Pirates?

Friend: They were pretty good especially considering how much we lost. How can you be happy with that? The Pirates are an old franchise. They were sophisticated baseball fans and they knew what was going on. They kept coming back and they were loyal.

Wolf: Did you have any concerns starting your career with the Pirates as a young player in 1951?

Friend: I didn’t have any concerns. I felt very fortunate. I knew they were rushing me along a couple of seasons too early, but I appreciated the fact that they would let me sit around. I pitched regularly and got experience by pitching some good games and getting hammered in others. I learned how to pitch.

Wolf: You had a breakout year in 1955. You led the National League in ERA with a 2.83 mark and won 14 game for a last place team. You won almost 25 percent of the Bucs’ games that year. What do you think contributed to your success?

Friend: At the end of the 1954 season, Fred Haney, Bill Posedel, and other coaches got together with me and altered my pitching windup so I could hide the ball a little better. That gave me a real good breaking ball. The batters had a tough time picking up the pitches from me because of the new windup.

Wolf:Wolf: What pitches were in your arsenal in 1955?

Friend: I didn’t have all the pitches like they do today. I don’t think anyone did. I had a pretty good sinking fastball, which had natural movement. It was a tough pitch to hit. I had a good sharp breaking curveball. It was like a sinker and it was effective. And I had an off-speed pitch but I didn’t use it too much. I really just used those first two pitches and got by with them when I kept the ball down.

Wolf: Were you an overhand thrower?

Friend: I was at about three-quarters and the pitches had natural movement. You can’t teach that. It was the way the ball came out of my hand. It had a natural sink.

Wolf: In 1956, you have yet another manager, your third in six seasons. Bobby Bragan comes in. There was no real difference in the record in 1956, but did you notice a difference in the attitude of the Pirates or with Bragan’s system?

Friend: Bobby was another product of the Dodgers system. He was a great communicator. I always liked him. I wanted to pitch regularly and he let me, sometimes even on two-days’ rest. I wound up pitching 314 innings that year. Bobby was tough and brash, and he could get on to you. It looked like we’d have a big improvement. That was the year Dale Long hit home runs in eight consecutive games. We had signs that we were going to do good things.

Wolf: When Rickey resigned, Joe Brown became the new general manager in 1956. Did you notice anything different with the young Joe Brown?

Friend: Yes. Joe was different than Branch Rickey. He wasn’t going to copy Rickey. Who can? Joe Brown had his own style. He communicated well with the players. They liked Joe and he was fair in contracts.

Wolf: One of the first trades Joe Brown made was acquiring the 1955 NL Rookie of the Year, Bill Virdon.

Friend: Virdon was a workman! He was originally with the Yankees and then the Cardinals. There was not a better center fielder in baseball. He didn’t hit a lot of home runs, but he got a lot of big hits. He was one of the big guys for us in the 1960 World Series. He helped solidify the outfield.

Wolf: Bill Virdon might be one of the most underrated players of his generation. Do you think he covered as much ground in the outfield as Willie Mays or Curt Flood?

Friend: He wasn’t as flashy as Willie Mays. Willie Mays was quite a ballplayer and timed many of the outfield hits. Maybe Virdon got a better jump. Willie Mays outran the ball. He had that kind of speed. Virdon could go back on the ball so well. Forbes Field had a big outfield. Virdon could play short and cover all the short pop flies and line drives to center field. If something was hit deep, he had the ability to go back on the ball. There wasn’t a better defensive center fielder than Bill Virdon in my era. This includes Duke Snider, Willie Mays, and later Curt Flood.

Wolf: In 1957 there was a big shift with the Pirates. Bragan was fired after about 100 games and Danny Murtaugh comes in to manage that last 51 games and leads the Pirates to a 26-25 record. What did you notice with Murtaugh? Was there a feeling that the Pirates were ready to capitalize on their talent?

Friend: I don’t think Bragan went out the way he planned. He and Joe Brown got into it because of the way Bragan was bringing in players at different positions. He’d bring in an outfielder to pitch. Nobody knew anything about Murtaugh except that he was a low-key guy. Danny assured everyone that everything was in place. He assured Dick Groat and Bill Mazeroski that they wouldn’t be taken out of games and would play regularly. Bragan used to take them out for pinch-hitters and now that wouldn’t happen anymore. Murtaugh gave the players confidence. He was a player’s manager. He handled the players individually . . .

Wolf: In 1957 you have a core of players, Dick Groat, Bill Mazeroski, Gene Freese, Bob Skinner, Bill Virdon, and Roberto Clemente, and also Vern Law, Elroy Face and yourself pitching. What made Murtaugh get the most out of his players?

Friend: The players were more relaxed and they knew they’d be treated like majors leaguers. They wouldn’t be taken out of games like they were in the past. Everyone bought into the system and we had more confidence.

Wolf: In 1958 the Pirates won 84 games, their best season in 14 years. You won 22 games and were named an All-Star for the second of three times in your career. How did the team approach 1958?

Friend: Everyone was a year older, we had a good double play combination, and good power with Frank Thomas who hit home runs. The team gained confidence and you could see it coming. We played for the pennant the entire year. You have to give credit to Murtaugh and Joe Brown.

Wolf: In 1959 there was a slight move back. You’re still above .500 at 78-76. The group you’ll see in 1960 is almost together.

Friend: We gave up our power hitter, Frank Thomas, in 1959. He had hurt his hand that winter and it didn’t progress like he thought. But we got Smokey Burgess, Harvey Haddix, and Don Hoak (in the trade for him), and they really put us in the pennant in 1960. That was a brilliant move by Joe Brown.

Wolf: You are one of the most consistent and durable pitchers of your generation. You pitched over 200 innings for 11 consecutive seasons and consistently won. But you had a rough season in 1959 (8-19 with a 4.03 ERA). What happened?

Friend: I’ll tell you what happened. I came to camp in lousy shape. I tried to take off too much weight. I was weak and my legs were weak. It was my fault. I felt bad about it and I suffered for it. I was fortunate that Murtaugh stayed with me.

Wolf: In 1960 you pick up three more players who’ll have a big impact on the team: Gino Cimoli, Hal Smith and Vinegar Bend Mizell. But I’ve read reports from Sport magazine and other national polls that the Pirates were expected to finish no better than fourth.

Friend: Well that’s expected. I don’t think they knew the team we had. Hal Smith, Gino Cimoli and Vinegar Bend Mizell had competed in very good organizations. Vinegar Bend Mizell was very effective for us in 1960. Hal Smith had a great season, caught a lot of my games, and was a great catcher. He had a lot of experience and played under Paul Richards in Baltimore. Gino Cimoli had played for the Dodgers and had a great arm. We also had Clem Labine from the Dodgers. We had a mixture of players who were on championship teams and who knew how to win, and that molded the team we had.

Wolf: Hal Smith mentioned to me that you liked him to catch your games. Why?

Friend: We got off to a good start. I had such a terrible year in 1959 and then started 1960 with Smith behind the plate. I had some terrific games early. I think Murtaugh saw that and he said he’d use me and Smith together. I liked Smokey, too. He caught a lot of Vern Law’s games. Hal Smith was a key force on the 1960 team. He got a lot of big hits.

Wolf: In 1960 you have another great year. You are named to your third All-Star team and win 18 games. How did playing in Forbes Field, the biggest in the big leagues, change your pitching?

Friend: I was never concerned about the long ball like you would in Chicago or Brooklyn. I got to the point that if I kept the ball down and had good control, I’d do well. I liked Forbes Field. It was a good hitters’ park and had a great background with the ivy . . . A lot of the guys would try not to hit the long ball at Forbes Field and became better hitters. That was our team, too. We didn’t hit a lot of home runs, but we knew how to hit. We’d spray the ball around and that’d drive opponents nuts.

Wolf: In 1960 the team leads the NL in hitting and runs scored, but was near the bottom in home runs. Recently, Bill Virdon called the team “a bunch of scrappers.”

Friend: He’s right about that. Our guys knew how to hit. We hit .276 as a team. We could hit to the opposite field and hit-and-run. We were a team that was able to come back in games when were behind in late innings. I remember being down to Sandy Koufax, who was unhittable. He had a 3-1 lead in the eighth in L.A. And guess what? We came back to win. (Friend, no doubt, refers to the Bucs 6-3 victory over the Dodgers on May 11, 1960). Those are games you’d usually lose but not the 1960 team. We had a game where Bob Skinner hit a grand slam off of Bill Henry and it was so dark at the time. It was the second game of a doubleheader. We ended up winning 6-5 and it drove (Reds manager) Fred Hutchinson nuts. (Skinner’s grand slam was in the bottom of the ninth on April 17). That was the type of team we had.

Wolf: When the World Series began, the Pirates were an amazing underdog. How did you and the Pirates approach the World Series?

Friend: We respected the Yankees . . . They were a good team, but we beat some good teams in the National League . . . and came into the World Series in good shape. We had a tough battle to fight down the stretch for the NL pennant. The Yankees clinched early on and that might have hurt them. We were not overconfident, but we knew we had a shot. They didn’t start Whitey Ford in Game One and that helped us, too.

Wolf: The Game One victory had to give you a lot of confidence. I often read that some of the keys to the victory were Virdon’s steal in the first inning and his acrobatic catch of Yogi Berra’s fly ball to save runs in the seventh inning.

Friend: Virdon made so many great catches. The one I really remember was (in Game Four) when Virdon ran down Bob Cerv’s hit and caught it against the wall. That catch won the game for us in Yankee Stadium. We won 3-2. He was the guy that really hurt the Yankees in that series. Mazeroski, of course, had a pretty good series, too. He hit a two-run home run in Game One and the terrific home run off Ralph Terry in the ninth inning of Game Seven. It was a typical Pirates win like we had all season. We found a way to win.

Wolf: You pitched Game Two in Pittsburgh.

Friend: I felt strong. I made a couple of bad pitches. I had about seven strikeouts (actually six) in that game and pitched four innings . . . Murtuagh (pinch-hit) for me with bases loaded in the bottom of the fourth when we had a chance to score a lot of runs. Gene Baker hit for me and hit into a double play and we didn’t score any runs. So we’re down 3-0 and end up losing 16-3. I pitched better than the score looked, but I was not effective after that game. I think I put too much pressure on myself. I expected to have a good series. I was one of the hottest pitchers coming down the stretch, but didn’t perform well in the World Series. We end up winning though and that’s the big thing.

Wolf: You came back in Game Six as a starter. That’s the game Whitey Ford pitches a shutout.

Friend: You can stick a fork in me. I did not have it that game. (He gave up five runs in two innings and was charged with the loss, his second of the World Series). I did not have my pitch location and I was pushing. And then Murtaugh really gave me a chance to close it out in Game Seven. I thought I made two really good pitches, but gave up two singles. That was the story of my World Series individually, but individually doesn’t count. It was a team effort.

Wolf: Do you think Murtaugh and the players approached 1961 as if a repeat championship was a distinct possibility?

Friend: We all thought we had a shot. The players were a little older. Don Hoak, who had a great season for us in 1960, was older and not the same for us at third base. I don’t think our defense performed like we did in 1960 . . . Vern Law had a bad arm. We struggled. We came back in 1962 and were still fighting.

Wolf: The Pirates had a good year in 1962 and came in fourth, but won 93 games, which is the most wins ever for a fourth-place team.

Friend: We had a good team. The Yankees beat the Giants that year and we just couldn’t overcome the teams in front of us (Giants, Dodgers, and Reds). They were just a little bit better than we were. But it was a good comeback after 1961.

Wolf: 1962 was the year of N.L. expansion. You had another great year in 1962, won 18 games, and led the league with five shutouts. You were extremely durable in your career. Did you ever suffer an injury in your career?

Friend: I had no injury in my major league career. I was fortunate. It’s just one of the things. Maybe (it was) my delivery. Robin Roberts told me early on “Don’t baby your arm.” I threw the ball every day. I threw batting practice and never rested. I was strong and durable.

Wolf: What was your reaction when you learned that you were traded to the Yankees after the 1965 season?

Friend: I kinda expected it. I was stubborn at the time. They wanted me to go to the bullpen and I hadn’t pitched out of the bullpen in a long time. I wanted to start. I knew I was nearing the end and if I could help a team, why not?

Wolf: You pitched 222 innings in your last year with the Pirates and that would be among the league leaders today.

Friend: I didn’t have the strikeouts and my overall stuff was down. My control was pretty good and my ERA was good that year, but I wasn’t effective . . . . Maybe the toll of pitching all those innings caught up, but I did not have any arm trouble.

Wolf: You are traded to the Yankees and finish out the season with the Mets. Did you realize that would be your last season or did you go to another spring training (in 1967)?

Friend: No, I didn’t go to another spring training. I didn’t know what was going to happen. At age 35 and with the Mets rebuilding, Seaver and others were starting to come up. They had a plethora of pitching prospects in their organization. It wasn’t a big surprise. It came to an end and I enjoyed my experiences with the Yankees and the Mets.

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Chris Waters
12 years ago

Mr. Wolf: An absolute thanks for doing this. Bob Friend is such a classy guy, so deserving of his family name. A credit to humanity, very few among baseball players!