The first World Series I ever remember watching was in 1979 where the We Are Family Pirates came back to beat the mighty Baltimore Orioles. It was a remarkably fun World Series and no player seemed to have more fun playing on it than Matt “The Scat” Alexander, pinch runner extraordinaire.
A native of Shreveport, Louisiana, Alexander attended Grambling State University on a baseball scholarship. In 1968, the Cubs drafted Alexander in the second round. The scout who recommended Alexander to the parent club was the legendary Buck O’Neil, who had an amazing eye for finding talent.
Throughout the 1970’s, he jumped between Cubs farm teams and serving his Military requirement with the Navy and playing winter ball in Mexico. In 1973, he made it to the Cubs if only for a 12 game cameo.
In 1974, he played 45 games with the Cubs but couldn’t hit a lick. He batted a poor .204 and did not drive in a single run. He did steal 8 bases in a limited role. He was the wrong fit in Chicago but in 1975 found an unlikely home in Oakland.
When he was traded to the 3 time defending World Champion A’s in 1975, he was on a crowded star studded squad. Any chance for him to get at bats were slim. In the end, that was kind of the point. Manager Alvin Dark but more importantly owner Charlie O. Finley loved the concept of pinch running. Alexander with his lightning speed was tailor made for the role.
He played in 61 games for the AL West champs but only 30 plate appearances. Along the way he stole 17 bases and scored 16 times. A late game weapon to cause havoc on the basepaths, Alexander used his time on the base to observe and learn pitchers tendencies to his advantage.
In 1976, he went 1 for 30 at the plate but stole 20 bases. He was a specialist and his new Oakland manager, Chuck Tanner, would remember him.
After one more year in Oakland, he found himself without a team in 1978 after coming down with hepatitis in Mexico. 24 days shy of being eligible for the MLB pension, he went home to Louisiana to learn how to be a barber.
His old Oakland manager, Chuck Tanner, was the new manager of the Pirates. He brought Alexander to Steel Town to once again steal bases. He played enough to earn the pension.
In 1979, he earned a lot more.
The image of harmony of the 1979 Pirates squad was palpable right through the TV screen. Willie Stargell was the emotional leader of the team, Dave Parker was the superstar and the combination of colorful pitchers like Bert Blyleven, John Candelaria and Kent Tekulve kept the score down. Omar Moreno, Phil Garner and Bill Madlock got big hits and Pirate favorites like Manny Sanguillen and Dock Ellis made their last hurrahs in the Family.
Alexander was a role player. He knew his place on the star studded squad… and that was a literal term in 1979. Willie Stargell would hand out stars to the most valuable players for each game to sew onto their caps. Alexander tried and many times succeeded in getting a star with a key steal or important run scored.
He would score and often run across the plate backwards, jumping up and down and endearing himself to the Pittsburgh faithful. And his teammates loved him, appreciating his embracing of his role and doing things like using his barber skills in the clubhouse, trimming players beards and hair.
He even batted .538 in limited at bats, tripling once and driving in a run. (He would drive in 4 in 374 career games.)
Alexander appeared in the playoffs and World Series in 1979. He was caught stealing in his lone World Series appearance but he earned his ring.
After playing 2 more seasons in Pittsburgh, he played in Mexico before retiring, with his pension, to Louisiana.
Pirate fans still remember Matt the Scat, a guy who won games with his legs rather than his bat or glove, and loved every minute of it.