There was nothing ordinary about the autumn of 1960. Nixon was sweating and Kennedy wasn’t, and together they would put television on the map. Sputnik was already three years in, while Alan Shepherd wasn’t quite yet. And the Pirates, Cardinals and Braves — Milwaukee that is —were in a pulsating pennant race that would decide who would take on Mantle and Maris, and the mighty New York Yankees in the World Series.
Israel was all of 12 years old, and so were Saul Finkelstein and I. We didn’t have middle schools back then, so we were staring head-on into what seemed the eternity of six years at Allderdice High School. Therein lies the end of anything we had in common, or so I thought. Saul and I were never close friends; he was simply a classmate, yet today he occupies a space inside of me and goes with me everywhere I go.
At 12 years old, I was rapidly closing in on 6 feet tall. Saul was slight, tiny, bespectacled, south of 5 feet and frail at best. He seemed sickly, while I was blessed with a small amount of physical prowess. With a lot of help from a gym mat in back of the basket, I could already dunk a basketball at the old YMWHA on Bellefield Street, while Saul struggled to see, to hear, to feel and to befriend anyone who would indulge him. It was all so unfair and it was never lost on me, yet I never reached out to him. I guess 12-year-olds don’t do that sort of thing.
It seemed as if every advantage I was blessed with, Saul was cursed with the opposite handicap. I could fend for myself while Saul was exposed and vulnerable to the unkindness of high school halls when you’re not like everyone else. He was ridiculed, heckled, teased, ostracized and excluded, and it never seemed to change much as those six years unraveled. One day, one of the Greenfield “toughs” placed Saul inside one of those large circular trash receptacles and rolled him all the way down the second floor annex. I’m not sure, but I think that was the day Saul moved into that unoccupied space inside of me.
Life then got in the way, and I did not see Saul for a number of years. I thought of him often and hoped that things had evened out for him, compensating for his difficult beginnings. Later, I would run into him at Pirates games at both Three Rivers Stadium and PNC Park, at least a dozen times. He was usually alone. We said hello, exchanged greetings and got on with the one thing that we did have in common, a genuine love for our cherished national pastime. Still, I didn’t embrace him, befriend him or reach out to him. I only wish I could have had one more chance. I would not.
Saul died in 2004 at the age of 56, but not before earning a degree at Penn State where he joined a fraternity, graduated and went on to enjoy a successful career as a social worker and a court servicer. He was also a devoted volunteer. One of our classmates, the renowned author and physician Dr. David Sobel, wrote nearly a decade after Saul’s passing that Saul was volunteering for organizations such as the Red Cross “when many of us were more interested in looking at ourselves in the mirror.”
Perhaps Saul Finkelstein’s greatest legacy is that he conceived and founded the yearly Oct. 13 commemoration of the 1960 Game 7 World Series victory over the New York Yankees. Over the years, thousands have gathered in Schenley Park on that day to listen to the actual radio call of the entire game, and to exalt in the greatest sports moment in Pittsburgh history.
I don’t suppose City Council will be proclaiming Oct.13 as Saul Finkelstein Day in Pittsburgh any time soon. After all, Saul would have to bump names like Maz, Groat, Hoak, Virdon, Clemente and Murtaugh, not to mention a little known back-up catcher by the name of Hal Smith. But then again, why would Saul’s legacy be any different than his life, always struggling to overcome his unfair burden. Life was an uphill battle for Saul Finkelstein, but be persevered like a game boxer: He fought hard, gave it all he had and truly fought the good fight.
I’ve heard it said that the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates were “Destiny’s Darlings.” No doubt they are among the great underdogs in the history of sport, no less than the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team or the 1968 New York Jets. Oct. 13, 1960, had many twists, turns, plots and subplots, but for me there is one thing certain: The most beloved underdog on that historic day was not the Pittsburgh Pirates.
It was Saul Finkelstein. PJC
Josh L. Sivitz lives in Pittsburgh’s South Hills. He is a past president of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, and a 10-time banquet emcee.