Herb Soltman, a renowned gang leader, presides over one of baseball’s most unique rituals.
Every October 13, the anniversary of the home run of 1960 World Series winner Bill Mazeroski, Pirates fans flock to a part of the outfield wall untouched when the wrecking ball brought down Forbes Field, near Los Angeles. a plaque designating where the ball left the park and listen to a game 7 radio show.
Fans who make this quirky pilgrimage come from across the region – across the country, really – to relive the magical moment when Mazeroski’s explosion down the ninth capped a dramatic 10-9 victory over the mighty Yankees. of New York and sent the Pittsburghers on a celebratory frenzy.
“My wife thinks I’m crazy and my son thinks I smoke something,” said Dale Hains, longtime Pirates fan, who traveled from Florida to join in the festivities in leafy Schenley Park, along Roberto Clemente Drive. “My son said, ‘Daddy, why would you go up against a wall and listen to an old radio show you’ve heard a hundred times?’ My answer is, “I could listen to it a hundred more times.”
The late Saul Finkelstein started this annual celebration in 1985. Soltman, an 86-year-old retiree from the South Hills of Pittsburgh who watched Game 7 from a reserved seat behind the dugout at First Base, now runs the show as chairman. of the Game 7 Gang, half a dozen passionate Pirates fans dedicated to upholding the tradition.
Soltman will welcome fans to the wall on Wednesday for the first time in two years. The 2020 event has been canceled due to the pandemic.
“I just sat at home on my couch and listened to the game on my recorder. And the pirates always won, ”he said with a chuckle.
SOLTMAN PREMIER heard of the Wall Celebration in 1993 while working as a salesperson for a Pittsburgh paper company.
“I was on the road in the Fox Chapel area making sales calls and had my car stereo turned on,” he recalls. “The disc jockey said, ‘Before I play my next act, I have to tell you that people are gathering at the wall at Forbes Field to listen to a broadcast of Game 7 of the 1960 series.’ Well I turned around and walked right towards the wall. I had a great time and decided to go back next year. And I’ve been back every year since, except last year.
The wall would never have beckoned Soltman if Finkelstein, a staunch Squirrel Hill Pirates fan, hadn’t decided, on a whim, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Pittsburgh’s World Series victory by visiting the place where Mazeroski had decided.
“Saul Finkelstein, the story goes, was having a bad day at home because his cat was dead,” says Soltman. “He figured that to feel better he would walk up to the old wall at Forbes Field, sit at the base of the pole and listen to Game 7 on his portable tape recorder. He started doing it every year.
Finkelstein would follow the broadcast of the match on Chuck Thompson’s NBC radio so that the first pitch was delivered at 1 p.m. sharp, like in 1960. Small crowds joined him in the early years, but the numbers rose after the author. from Pittsburgh Sports, Jim O’Brien. wrote about the event. O’Brien ran the program for a while, but his one-year absence spawned the Game 7 Gang.
Soltman and five other devoted Pirate fans he had known from previous visits to the Wall – John Urso, George Skornickel, Joe Landolina, Steve Neumeyer and Dan Schultz – took over in 2006.
“Jim O’Brien coordinated the thing,” says Soltman, “but if it was a weekend, it was always the weekend they had Fort Ligonier Days, and he was going to Ligonier to sell his books, because there were more people there. We was just standing against the wall talking, and one of us said, well, we should organize this.
The other five heads nodded. They first decided on a name for their band. The next order of the day was to choose a leader.
“Someone said, ‘We have to have somebody running the organization. Herb, be president, ”Soltman recalls with a laugh. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll be your gang leader, but the only turf I’m going to protect is the turf on the wall at Forbes Field. “”
He’s been the man in charge ever since.
SOLTMAN AND his Game 7 Gang essentially sets the time back a few hours every October 13 in what many Pirate fans consider a sacred site.
“I always say it’s like old school nostalgic baseball,” Soltman says. “Everyone is sitting in a chair on a beautiful afternoon listening to a football game on the radio. When we started we had the show on a cassette player and we just turned up the volume. Then someone bought a boom box, and it gave us better volume. And then it was available on CD, so we put it on a CD player and the [Pittsburgh] Parks Conservancy installed two big loudspeakers for us. Now it’s on an iPod and we’re listening to it through these speakers.
Most years, several hundred fans show up at the wall; about 1,500 turned out to be the 50th anniversary. Those present cling to each pitch, as if the outcome were truly uncertain.
“It’s fascinating because the crowd reacts to what’s going on on the show exactly the way they would if they were in the game,” says Soltman. “If something bad happens, they moan, and they’re happy when something good happens. We all get up and sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh round. Everyone is excited when the Pirates take the lead in the bottom of the eighth and worried when the Yankees tie him in the top of the ninth. Then when Maz hits the home run there is a huge cheer and you would think the game was won for the first time.
Members of the 1960 Pirates sometimes participated in the festivities. A highlight of the 40th anniversary celebration was the appearance of the hero himself. Mazeroski attended for the first time and was in disbelief that a home run he had hit four decades earlier continues to resonate with Pirates fans.
“I never dreamed when I hit him that people would still be talking about it so many years later, or that they would listen to it in front of the outfield wall,” Mazeroski said. “It’s amazing, really amazing.”