Clutch Shot Clinches Fall Classic

George Silk
George Silk Wikimedia Commons

New York Yankee Ralph Terry has just thrown the last pitch of the 1960 World Series. Pittsburgh Pirate Bill Mazeroski has just hit it. Far above them, on the roof of the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, is George Silk. He does not like crowds. He is a sports photographer almost by default. "I hated stadiums and I couldn’t work with all that noise in my ears," he once said.

On the roof he finds young men and women who are about to witness the most dramatic conclusion to a World Series in baseball history. It is the seventh and deciding game, the bottom of the ninth inning. The score is tied 9 to 9 when Mazeroski comes to bat. He takes Terry’s first pitch for a ball. Later, Terry would say that he was not sure what kind of pitch he threw next, only that it was the "wrong" one. Mazeroski meets it flush. Yogi Berra, playing left field, hurries to the fence, but that only affords him a closer view of Mazeroski’s championship-clinching home run.

Other photographers capture Mazeroski circling the bases, hands raised in triumph, or his Pirate teammates waiting for him at home. Silk’s interest lies elsewhere. He is not looking at the action. He is not even looking at faces. The photograph, published in Life and a popular poster to this day, instead documents a quintessentially American moment—baseball, youth, sun and joy—though Silk is an immigrant with only scant knowledge of baseball.

Silk had made his reputation as a combat photographer. Born in Levin, New Zealand, in 1916, he had been taking pictures for the Australian government when, in 1942, he photographed a blinded Australian soldier being led by a villager in New Guinea. Officials censored the picture, but a Time correspondent sent it to New York and Life published it—an image that Australians recognize as one of the most important photographs of the war. Silk went on to take many combat photographs for Life, and grew so used to the front lines, he later said, that he felt "lost" when the war ended.

Silk, who has lived in the United States since 1947, is retired in Westport, Connecticut. (For their parts, ex-Yankee Terry left baseball in 1967, became a golf-club professional and lives in Kansas. Mazeroski stopped playing for the Pirates in 1972 and coached for many years. He lives in Pittsburgh.) Silk recalled to John Loengard, author of the 1998 book National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, which in 2000 exhibited Silk’s work. His photographs, Newton adds, often have "layers of meaning beneath their élan and...technical novelty."

Silk does not recall what, precisely, drew him to the top of the Cathedral of Learning on October 13, 1960. It just seemed the best place to be, he says. He could not have anticipated the enduring power of the image. For here is a picture that baseball has, in a sense, been feeding on for two generations. Forbes Field sits in the distance, so hazy that it could be a dream. In the foreground are fans who, in their sport coats and dresses, project the cleanliness and propriety that baseball has always tried to cultivate if only as a counterweight to the rougher reputation of the men who played the game. Something about the image remains alluring, even haunting: Is it the idea that things in America, as typified by the national pastime, were better then?

In the midst of America’s move from the cities to the suburbs, downtown stadiums like Forbes Field succumbed to the wrecker’s ball, dismissed as too old and too cramped. By 1971, the next time the Pirates were in a World Series, they had relocated to Three Rivers Stadium, one of the new, vast modern arenas that would become the rage.

The Pirates, however, no longer play at Three Rivers but in yet another new stadium, PNC Park. Like other ballparks built in recent years, it was designed to evoke the feel of places like Forbes Field. The smaller parks bring spectators close to the action. They create an intimacy seldom felt in the stadiums they replaced. They try to re-create a time that George Silk captured one October day 42 years ago.

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