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A Great Manager, A Great Man

7/1/2016

by Colleen Hroncich

Two-time World Series champion manager Danny Murtaugh was a man of faith, charity and humor

Danny Murtaugh visits with religious sisters on Nuns’ Day

Pittsburgh Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh visits with religious sisters on Nuns’ Day at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh in the early 1960s. (Photos courtesy of Colleen Hroncich)

Pittsburgh Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh loved his faith, his family, his country – and practical jokes. It didn’t matter to him whether you were a family member or friend, a teammate or sports reporter – anyone was fair game when it came to pranks.

In the spring after the Pirates’ improbable World Series victory over the New York Yankees in 1960, Murtaugh welcomed a new player to training camp.

“I’m putting you with Bob Skinner because we like to put our strongest men with him,” Murtaugh told him.

“Why is that?” the rookie asked nervously.

“Ordinarily Skinner’s a very nice guy, but on occasion he’s subject to fits at night,” Murtaugh explained. “It takes a strong man to put him down.”

Skinner, Pittsburgh’s All- Star left fielder, approached Murtaugh the next day.

“You put me in with some kind of nut,” he complained. “I got up about 4 o’clock to go to the bathroom, and this kid pounced on me and held me down till I convinced him nothing was wrong.”

Murtaugh couldn’t decide what was funnier: the rookie sleeping with one eye open and waiting to pounce, or Skinner being ambushed on the way to the bathroom.

Through hustle, determination and strength of character, together with a dose of good humor, Murtaugh scraped his way out of poverty to become a two-time World Championship manager. He was universally admired and respected by those who knew him – not only as a baseball player and manager, but also as a World War II veteran, a family man, a faithful Catholic and a Knight of Columbus.

FATHER, SOLDIER, MANAGER

The third of five children, Daniel Edward Murtaugh was born on Oct. 8, 1917, in Chester, Pa., to Daniel and Nellie Murtaugh. Murtaugh’s father worked in the shipyards, and his mother took in laundry and sold pies. To help heat their home, young Murtaugh and his sisters used to walk along the railroad tracks looking for bits of coal that had fallen from the trains.

Lunch was often a potato sandwich – slices of raw potato between two pieces of bread – and when it rained or snowed, Murtaugh slept with an umbrella between him and the holes in the roof above. Nevertheless, he had a happy childhood amid a close-knit community.

Like many boys in his day, Murtaugh grew up playing sandlot baseball. He played shortstop in high school, and a few years later he made a St. Louis Cardinals farm team. He made his major league debut with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1941, leading the league in stolen bases as a rookie. Since Chester was only 20 miles from Philadelphia, it was a homecoming for Murtaugh, and the jump in pay enabled him to propose to his high school sweetheart, Kate Clark. The couple was married at St. Robert’s Roman Catholic Church in Chester on Nov. 29, 1941.

Just eight days later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Baseball continued during the war, and Murtaugh stayed with the Phillies until 1943, the year he and Kate welcomed their first baby, Timothy. When Tim was just four months old, Murtaugh was called to military service. He was given the opportunity to stay stateside and play on the U.S. Army baseball team but chose instead to help the war effort by joining the 97th Infantry.

Although Murtaugh didn’t talk about the war much, Tim recalls one story about his dad being pinned down by a sniper and another about his volunteering to take the place of a fellow soldier on a dangerous mission behind German lines.

Following the war, Murtaugh returned to baseball. According to Tim, “Those years in the infantry walking across Europe took a lot out of his legs. It probably shortened his playing career because one of his big assets was speed.”

Before long, the Murtaugh family expanded, as Danny Jr. was born in 1947 and a daughter, Kathy, arrived two years later.

In 1948, Murtaugh was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he played for four more years before moving into a coaching position. Named Pirates manager in 1957, his debut was a Sunday doubleheader.

“My dad started that Sunday by going to Mass, like he always did, and he was very surprised when he heard the name of the celebrant: Father Murtaugh,” Kathy recalled. “He took it to be a good omen – until the Pirates lost both games.”

LIVING THE FAITH

Despite the rough start, the Pirates made a remarkable turnaround under Murtaugh’s leadership. After tying for last place in 1957, the team finished second in 1958, the same year he joined the Knights of Columbus as a charter member of Peace Council 4518 in Ridley Twp., Pa.

Murtaugh’s role in the team’s turnaround led baseball sportswriters to vote him the Associated Press Major League Manager of the Year.

Pitcher Bob Friend later said, “He was the best manager I played for. I think our success was a function of Danny’s managerial style.” All-Star shortstop Dick Groat agreed: “Danny did a better job of handling people than anybody I was ever around.”

The team faltered in 1959, but rebounded in 1960 to win the World Series against the mighty New York Yankees. Few predicted the Pirates would win against the likes of Yankee legends Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. In fact, the Yankees outscored the Pirates 54-27 in the series, but the Pirates eventually won Game 7 with a walkoff homer by Bill Mazeroski.

By all accounts Murtaugh remained modest in his success and was quick to divert praise from himself to his players. However, if he ever got a little too big for his britches, his wife was sure to rein him back in. After the World Series hubbub settled down, he and Kate were home alone one night. Reading the sports section, Murtaugh asked, “Kate, how many really great managers do you think there are in baseball?” Without looking up from her knitting, Kate replied, “I think there’s one less than you do.”

Murtaugh managed four more years before retiring for health reasons. By this time, his son Tim was playing minor league baseball, having signed with the Pirates in 1965. Danny Jr. was in college at Tim’s alma mater, Holy Cross in Massachusetts, and Kathy was attending a Catholic high school.

Tim recalled, “Catholic education was very important to my parents. We all went to Catholic schools and then attended Catholic colleges.”

Kathy agreed that her father’s Catholic faith was an integral part of his life.

“I remember being embarrassed when the nuns would tell my whole elementary school, ‘Watch Danny Murtaugh when he goes to receive the Holy Eucharist. He’s a famous baseball manager, and look how reverent he is. If he can be so devout, you can too,’” she recalled. “Even on road trips, my dad always made it to Sunday Mass, and he encouraged his coaches to join him.”

Throughout his busy baseball years, Murtaugh remained active in his community. Like his father and grandfather, Murtaugh volunteered for the Chester Fire Department, even serving as chief for a time. He was a popular speaker at sports banquets and charity events. He never accepted a penny for hometown appearances, and he quietly donated out-of-town fees to charity, along with the proceeds of his occasional endorsements.

“I didn’t know about all the good work he did until after he died,” Kathy said. “He used to say that if you did a good deed and then talked about it, it was no longer a good deed.”

KNIGHT OF THE YEAR

While Murtaugh enjoyed spending more time with his friends and family during these years, baseball always called to him. He said, “Managing a ball club is like getting malaria. Once you’re bitten by the bug, it’s difficult to get it out of your bloodstream.”

In 1970, Murtaugh agreed to return as Pirates manager. Heading into the 1970 season, the team was not expected to be in the pennant race, yet they won the National League East title. The Associated Press and Sporting News named Murtaugh Manager of the Year.

In September of the next year Murtaugh fielded a starting lineup that was all people of color, a first in Major League Baseball history. When reporters asked him about it after the 10-7 win against the Phillies, Murtaugh said, “I put in the nine Pittsburgh Pirates that I had the best chance to win with tonight.”

Al Oliver, former outfielder and first baseman who played on the 1971 squad, said that Murtaugh “brought together Latin American players, Afro-American players and Caucasian players for one common cause – to win and bring a World Championship back to Pittsburgh. He was able to bind us together as a team.”

Murtaugh’s underdog Pirates went on that season to win another World Series championship by beating the Baltimore Orioles. It was an upset no one expected, since Baltimore had four 20-game winning pitchers.

The Pirates lost the first two games of the series in Baltimore. Returning to Pittsburgh, Murtaugh ripped up the scouting report on the Orioles and told the team, “Let’s go play like the Pittsburgh Pirates.” According to catcher Manny Sanguillen, “The clubhouse erupted in applause. And that’s when the games changed.” The Pirates took all three games in Pittsburgh, lost Game 6 in Baltimore, and finally won Game 7 in a 2-1 showdown.

In recognition of his accomplishments, the Pittsburgh chapter of the Knights of Columbus honored Murtaugh as “Knight of the Year” in 1972.

According to his son Tim, also a member of Council 4518, Murtaugh was a proud Knight who spoke often at K of C banquets and Communion breakfasts.

“My dad loved the Knights,” he said. “Whenever he was home from baseball, he served in an honor guard at funerals for brother Knights.”

Murtaugh retired from managing for the fourth and final time after the 1976 season, citing health issues and a desire to spend more time with his five grandchildren. Sadly, he suffered a stroke and died just two months later at age 59.

His brother Knights, assembled as an honor guard at the funeral Mass, were out in full force to bid him farewell. Father Francis O’Reilly, the priest who officiated at his 1941 wedding, celebrated the Mass and gave the homily.

“Danny Murtaugh was a man of baseball, but you see all of these priests here, all of these mourners, and you know that he must also have been a man of God,” Father O’Reilly said. “He lived a life of dedication and love, and we should all be inspired by him.”


COLLEEN HRONCICH is a granddaughter of Danny Murtaugh and author of the 2010 biography The Whistling Irishman: Danny Murtaugh Remembered. Her husband, Brian, is a member of Grove City (Pa.) Council 3658.