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Guest post by Ted Anthony: Rennie Stennett

August 21, 2012

Today on Cardboard Gods guest writer Ted Anthony marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of a bad day for Rennie Stennett. Anthony, a journalist for The Associated Press, has been a national and foreign correspondent and has covered, among other things, China, Iraq, Afghanistan and how American culture is changing in the 21st century. He is the author of the cultural history Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song (Simon & Schuster, 2007). A Pittsburgh native, he was deeply traumatized as a boy when his parents dragged him off by the hair to Asia in 1979, the year the Pirates won the World Series. They have not done so since.

Rennie Stennett

by Ted Anthony 

He looks off camera, to the side, as if distracted by something coming toward him. And something was.

Rennie Stennett was one of the best second basemen of the 1970s. That’s saying something, given that Rod Carew spent half of the 1970s at second base and names like Willie Randolph and Joe Morgan were also occupying the bag in those years. 

Stennett could run, he could field, and oh — could he hit in the clutch. On Sept. 16, 1975, as his card trumpets on the back, he went 7 for 7 in a nine-inning game. What it doesn’t say is that his hits were part of one of the most lopsided games in baseball history: The Pirates beat the Cubs, 22-0. We in Pittsburgh don’t have games like that anymore. It would be a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Stennett was a thrilling part of the 1976 Pirates, a team that, in retrospect, I loved even more than the 1979 “Fam-a-lee.” This was “The Lumber Company,” a team full of Stargells and Hebners and Zisks and Candelarias and Mooses and Robinsons and a young rightfielder named Dave Parker whose days as a battery throwee were still in the future. We even had Mario Mendoza, he of the now-famous line. I can still hear Milo Hamilton saying our second baseman’s name in a deep voice: “And RENN-ie STENN-ett pulls into third with a standup triple.”

Yet Rennie Stennett is mostly forgotten, because of what happened 35 years ago today.

It was August of 1977, and we had embarked upon the first major cross-country trip of my childhood. The Pirates were well en route to a respectable five-games-out finish in the NL East behind their rival of the time, the Phillies, when my parents poured me into the back of my mother’s powder-blue Maverick. With my father driving, we set out from Pittsburgh to Jacksonville Fla., to see my uncle and many cousins. 

We largely bypassed the interstates and pointed our car toward Plains, Georgia. You’ll recall, of course, Plains, Georgia — home to the freshly minted president, peanut farmer Jimmy Carter, and, perhaps more famously, home to the gas station belonging to his brother, the indefatigable Billy. (Wikipedia enshrines Billy this way: “Carter’s name was occasionally used as a gag answer for a Washington, D.C. trouble-maker on 1970s episodes of The Match Game.”)

Pre-iPod, pre-XM, AM radio was our constant companion. Local stations faded in and out as we passed through West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina. Various iterations of Stuckey’s appeared at the side of the road, then receded. We stopped only if my mother wanted some pecan clusters or if I needed a new pack of Colorforms or a bag of pork rinds. On the morning of Aug. 17, I remember hearing some Southern-accented announcer cut in on a song — was it Alan O’Day’s “Undercover Angel”? — to tell us that someone named Elvis Presley had died the previous day. “The King is dead,” I remember the announcer saying. My mother, generally progressive when it came to the arts, had this to say: “I didn’t much like his music.” I made a mental note to find some and prove her wrong.

And so we proceeded to Plains. We stopped at Billy’s gas station, and he wasn’t there, but we came away with a lot of peanut memorabilia and a few 7-ounce Pabst Blue Ribbons etched with “Billy” and the date in an electric pencil by some forgotten attendant. These would be great traders to build my beer can collection. We vacationed in Florida, saw cousins, went to beaches, sweated. And then, a few days later, we drove back. 

On the way home, an announcer came on during some South Carolina sportscast and told us that Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Rennie Stennett had broken his right leg while sliding into, of all things, second base. He was batting .336 at the time. He was gone for the season and, though we didn’t know it at the time, for good.

We kept hurtling north, back to Pittsburgh. The summer of 1977, fading, was hurtling equally fast toward fourth grade. Rennie Stennett’s ankle was broken, and he would not become the Hall of Fame second baseman I was certain he was destined to be. He would leave the Pirates quietly at the end of 1979, their year of triumph. His career, an asterisk to Pirates history, would peter out early in Reagan’s first term. 

Somehow things weren’t what they should be anymore. Elvis was dead, and I knew that mattered, but I wasn’t quite certain why. I certainly couldn’t drink the PBR from Billy’s gas station, and I didn’t even want to yet. Disco was rotting my brain. And there was Rennie Stennett on his baseball card, gazing off camera a bit warily as if something was hurtling toward him. And something was.

7 comments

  1. Ted, I enjoyed that. The dates hit pretty close to home for me, as, just as you were traumatized in 1979 by moving to Asia, I was traumatized by an incident that happened to me on the day that Elvis died (August 16th, 1977, and it was totally unrelated to Elvis’ dying, although Elvis’ dying did make the whole thing seem somewhat more surreal.) Since that day, I’ve had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and my life has never really been the same. I was 16 years old at the time.

    That’s interesting how you thought that Rennie Stennett was going to make it to the Hall of Fame. I never really thought of him as that great, and neither did a lot of people. Do you still feel that he would have been that great, or was that childhood hopes? My favorite Met player when I was a kid was Don Hahn, and, while I tried to prove to my friends that he was really good (and I had hopes that he would get better. He didn’t.), I never really thought of him as “Hall of Fame” material.

    Glen


  2. Damn it. That was supposed to link to my new blog (actually the same blog but re-named) “Foot In The Bucket”. http://footinthebucket.wordpress.com/

    Glen


  3. Good question. I probably was overreaching. But I do think that he would have had a good shot at the Hall of Fame if his career had played out as we all expected it to. To see him at second base was something else. Of course, as with all things, memories of youth are printed in indelible ink.


  4. I enjoyed reading your homage to Rennie, Ted. But the mere mention of Richie Hebner is enough to ruin my night, my week and perhaps the rest of this just-started month. You see, Ted, I’m a Mets fan, and have been since 1976-77. I vividly remember when the Mets traded for Hebner, a player I admired and thought would help tranform my miserable team into contenders. And if not contenders, a team that would at least finish less than 40 games out of first place.

    Not surprisingly, Hebner wasn’t thrilled to be coming to the hapless Mets. OK, but he’s a pro, we thought. He’ll suck it up, play hard and prove the Pirates punks for trading him. Not exactly. Instead, this malcontent, who worked as a grave digger in the off-season (there’s a great metaphor waiting to be discovered here) would show his disdain for the Mets and their fans by waving at balls and generally giving little or no effort.

    Thanks for triggering that wonderful memory, Ted. And all because you had to reminisce about Ren and Stim, er, Rennie Stennet.


  5. Great stuff, Ted. Next to my Phillies teams the Lumber Company-era Pirates were and still are my second-favorite team. I still remember the period when Stennett made the transition from good-hitting super-sub to starter, after my team acquired Dave Cash and his “Yes We Can!” spirit. I forgot the reason Stennett’s career went downhill so fast.


  6. Belatedly, thanks to Jeff and frankenslade for your comments!


  7. And yes, Hebner was not the most … enthusiastic Met. For that we collectively apologize.



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