After a weekend of celebrating the anniversary of one championship-winning team, I thought it would be fitting to look at an unsung piece of another.
At PNC Park, on Aug. 21 and 22, the 1979 Pirates, 30 years later, were feted, and for good reason, as one of five World Series-winning teams in the franchise’s storied history. The 1960 club, of course, gets plenty of ink, what with Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski’s series-winning home run in Game 7. Everyone in this town knows about that moment, but how many know who was coaching first base at the time?
That would be none other than Lenny Levy, a man who spent most of his professional life in some way associated with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but never actually played a game for the big-league club.
That’s not to say he didn’t have designs on playing in Forbes Field. As a kid, he was a ticket-taker in the ballpark, then a batboy. A graduate of Taylor Allderdice High School, Levy was a talented catcher who was signed by Hall of Famer Pie Traynor in 1936. Though he only played briefly in the Minors, he stayed with the organization in some capacity until 1963.
His attempts at achieving his big-league dream were interrupted by World War II, when he was stationed in China as a Marine from 1942 until the end of the war. He began his coaching career in 1947, though clearly he took a few shots at making it as a player before hanging it up for good. A 1948 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story about the train the Pirates used to head west for Spring Training (in Hollywood, Calif., that year) lists Levy as one of the catchers on the trip.
Even though he didn’t make it as a player, he clearly had the ability to spot and work with young talent. He worked officially as a scout from 1951 to 1956 and discovered plenty of great players.
“I remember my uncle came over and asked, ‘Do you want to go for a ride with me?’” recalled Levy’s nephew Joe Kleinerman, who now lives outside of Las Vegas. “I asked him where. He said, ‘Wheeling, W.Va. There’s an up and coming player I need to go see.’ He went in and signed Dick Groat.”
That was 1952. He also signed Frank Thomas in 1947 and the three-time All-Star once said that Levy “played a big part in my career.” Thomas would be included in a trade following the 1959 season that brought in Smoky Burgess, Harvey Haddix and Don Hoak.
And yes, Mazeroski was one of his finds as well, in 1954. Groat and Maz, of course, formed the double-play combination for that World Series team in 1960.
Even when he wasn’t directly involved in baseball and the Pirates, there was connection. Levy owned and operated a car dealership for years, first on Forbes Avenue, not far from Forbes Field. Where do you think Pirates players went for automobiles? Levy operated that dealership, which moved to Baum Blvd. in later years, into the 1980s.
He stayed in Pittsburgh until just a couple of years before his death. A member of the Western Pennsylvania Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, he moved to California and died at age 79 in 1993. The official cause was heart trouble and a stroke. But after a lifetime of being a Pittsburgh Pirate in some fashion, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that the move away from the Iron City contributed as well.
The tapestry that is the history of the national pastime never ceases to amaze me. The centerpieces — champions, award winners, Hall of Famers — are well known, discussed and analyzed. But when you look closer, when you admire the handiwork close up, there are lesser known, but no less important, threads holding all of that history together, links from greats like Pie Traynor to Bill Mazeroski.
There’s no question that Lenny Levy, despite never having played a single game in the Major Leagues, is one of those crucial threads.
(Jonathan Mayo, The Chronicle’s sports columnist and a staff writer for MLB.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)