Buried Treasure: Tony Bartirome’s three-man lift


Former Pirate player and trainer Tony Bartirome died in Bradenton, Fla. last Friday.

He grew up in the Hill District and signed with the Pirates. Bartirome played for the Bucs in 1952 as their starting first baseman at age 20, appearing in 124 games and putting up a less-than-impressive slash line of .220/.273/.265, including no home runs. He then joined the army, drove tanks in Berlin for two years and rejoined the organization after he came back. Unfortunately, Bartirome tore a hamstring in 1955 spring training, and kicked around the minors after that until 1963.

That November, he went to the minor league meetings in San Diego to look for a job. Columbus Jets general manager Harold Cooper asked, “Doing anything next year?”

“I’m looking,” answered Bartirome, who’d been a player/coach during the season.

“I need a trainer,” Cooper said about the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate.

“A trainer?” Bartirome replied, loudly. “What do I know about being a trainer? I’m a ball player and I’ve never seen a trainer’s room 10 times in all the years I’ve played baseball.”

“You don’t need to know anything about training,” Cooper said. “We have a good doctor in Columbus. He will teach you everything you have to know.”

Bartirome gave it some thought and eventually agreed to try training. After three years in Columbus, he came back to Pittsburgh when Danny Whelan left the Pirates to go with the New York Knicks.

One of the most famous Bartirome stories is his legendary “three-man lift.” There are many similar versions of the exploit, but we’ll go with Phil Musick‘s in the March 6, 1979 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

In the vast clubhouse, the Pirates, truly an untrammeled crew, celebrate one of the rites of spring. The newest Pirate, Lee Lacy, is being led to a sticky slaughter.

“Hey, listen, man, Tony can do it,” Bill Robinson says forcefully. “You don’t want to risk your money, that’s cool … but the man can do what he says he can.”

There is an old Pirate tradition with which Lacy is unfamiliar. Trainer Tony Bartirome, as Lacy will note later, has “been setting us up for this since the day I got here.”

An unsuspecting Lacy has been informed that the average-sized [5-10, 165] Bartirome can lift three players from the floor at once. He is a disbeliever … almost. “How you do it?”

A scenario quickly unravels around Lacy. Bruce Kison airily assumes the role of bookmaker for a betting operation. The ruse is complex, the actors consummate. Bets on Baritrome’s process are loudly offered and accepted, the wad of money in Kison’s hand growing by the second as he scribbles wagers furiously on a piece of paper. Lacy is obviously intrigued.

Lacy has taken the bait offered earlier by Robinson. He is stretched on the floor outside (Chuck) Tanner‘s office between Robinson and Willie Stargell, their legs interlocked, his arms stretched taut behind their necks “to give Tony leverage.”

Most versions have a belt around the three participants, which Bartirome is supposed to use to lift them so there’s room to roll a baseball underneath.

Muscles strain and Lacy’s pants are summarily yanked to his knees, a dozen conspirators pouring every sort of liquid on him . . . shaving lotion, chocolate milk, shaving cream, a horrid looking purple medication for burns, crackers, ice water, sugar.

Lee Lacy is a Pirate. “We told him, welcome.” Manny Sanguillen grins hugely.

“That’s No. 350, career,” giggles Bartirome. “I’m going to retire.”

In fact, he will momentarily embark on No. 351 when chance and an alert ear provide another victim.

The extraordinary is at hand as the Pirates dress for the morning workout, chuckling over Lacy’s misfortune and Bartirome’s deft deceit. Sportscaster Myron Cope enters the clubhouse, innocent to the old gag. Various antennae wave.

“What’s going on?” Cope inquires, briefly catching a glimpse of Lacy, immediately hustled away by Stargell. “Bartirome was doing that trick of his, you know, picking up three guys at once,” yawns a writer. “Don’t see how he still does it, at his age.”

New bait is dangled, the conspirators alert. Voices are immediately raised in admiration of Bartirome’s strength and disparaging it. The trainer is implored to repeat his act for Cope’s benefit. Wagers are issued.

“Sure. I’d like to see it, but I’m not going to bet,” Cope says.

It is over in a moment, Cope helplessly strung between Robinson and young outfielder [Doe Boynton]. Parker applies a mixture of chocolate milk, crackers, sugar and ice water. Stargell barges through a dozen onlookers to apply a similar concoction.

“We tried to find some eggs,” Parker laments as Cope is led to the shower.

“Hey, Myron, you need a terrible towel now, right?” hollers Phil Garner.

Bartirome prances about the clubhouse, squeezing his biceps for the amusement of the veterans, for whom he is healer, confidant, jester.

“It’s an ice-breaker,” he says of the ploy he’s pulled “hundreds of times. It makes new players feel at home … a member of the team instead of an outsider.”

And that was part of what made the 1970s Pirates what they were. In Sports Illustrated, Roy Blount claimed that Bartirome got the idea from long-time Pittsburgh-based scout Socko McCarey, and that it dated back to the ’20s.

Bartirome remained Pirate trainer until Tanner was fired in 1985. He then went to Atlanta with Tanner as a coach, until they were fired in 1988. He retired to Bradenton, although he’d spend his summers loafing with friends in Pittsburgh.

In 1997, he was treated successfully for prostate cancer. Tony Bartirome died at the age of 86; no cause of death has been listed.

Players like Al Oliver and Bert Blyleven have tweeted their reactions.