The boy who caught (and lost) Maz's HR ball

It's like 'The Sandlot' come to life

October 26th, 2021
Illustration by Benjamin Marra

If you're a baseball fan, you've likely seen Bill Mazeroski's home run to win the 1960 World Series. It's replayed nearly every October and is just one of two (along with Toronto’s Joe Carter in 1993) Fall Classic-ending walk-off blasts. Pirates fans were so delirious they nearly tore Forbes Field to the ground.

But once the ball disappeared over the left-field wall, what happened to it? Who grabbed one of baseball's most famous souvenirs?

"It was getting late for me, I had to go home -- I had to help my mom put dinner on the table," Andy Jerpe told me during a recent phone call. "I was walking behind the wall in left field and I was looking up when I heard some kind of loud noise. I see a baseball coming right at me and land 10 feet in front of me. Last thing I expected to see, just a baseball dropping out of the sky like that."

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Andy Jerpe had been in school the day of Game 7, staring at the clock as the minute hands ticked by toward the final bell. A gigantic Pirates fan, and at 14 -- an age when a kid's baseball fandom might be at its most feverish -- Jerpe couldn't wait to get over to Pittsburgh's ballpark to see if he could catch some of the action.

"The Catholic high school in Pittsburgh was two blocks from Forbes Field," Jerpe, now in his 70s and still living in Pittsburgh, said. "As soon as the last class was over, I was really excited about the Pirates and I just walked as quickly as I could over to Forbes Field."

Jerpe got there in the middle innings and the park was filled to capacity, but, fortunately, the gate was left open. So, Jerpe did what most teenagers might do at a 1960s baseball game with lax security and rules: He walked right in and found a place to stand in right field.

The game was a back-and-forth classic between the heavily-favored Yankees and underdog Pirates. New York had won eight championships since 1947. Pittsburgh last won in 1925. But the contest started out in the Pirates' favor -- the Bucs were up 4-0 by the end of the second inning. Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and the Yankees stormed back to take a 5-4 lead, and then made it 7-4. The Pirates put up five in the eighth to take a 9-7 lead, but by the time the Bombers finished batting in the ninth inning, it was all square at nine apiece.

While fans at Forbes Field waited nervously for their Pirates to bat in the bottom of the ninth, hoping for just their third World Series win in the franchise's 73-year history, Jerpe realized he had run out of time. He had to go home and help his family with dinner.

"I needed to take the stress off my mom; she worked as a full-time elementary school teacher and ran a household full of seven kids, a husband and a cat," Jerpe laughed. "I honestly didn't expect anything monumental to happen. I was hoping we were gonna win, but I didn't know what was gonna happen."

So, Jerpe took off through a side entrance and made his way around the back side of the outfield wall. He turned the corner near the left-field fence, strolling alongside some cherry trees, when he heard a loud sound and saw it: a baseball soaring over his head. It landed right next to him. Jerpe stood frozen at first, but then, seeing nobody else was nearby, ran over to get it.

"I picked it up and I thought, 'Well, somebody just hit a home run,'" he said. "I didn't know whether it was Mickey Mantle or Yogi Berra or Clemente -- I had no idea. The last person I thought in the world would do that was Mazeroski." (Maz had just 11 home runs that regular season).

Jerpe walked over to a cop who was standing by the Forbes Field left-field gate to see what had happened. The eighth-grader suddenly began to realize this was very likely a momentous home run ball he'd found.

"There was this loud roar," Jerpe remembered. "It was like the earth was shaking, Matt, it was so cool. And I thought, 'Man, something good must've happened.'"

He was right.

The cop realized the importance of the ball the boy had brought to him and whisked him back into the stadium toward the clubhouse. He needed to get the game-winning hit to its rightful hitter.

Once there, teenage Andy Jerpe was in baseball heaven.

Just imagine: You're a gigantic fan of a baseball team, they win the World Series in the most dramatic fashion and you're standing right in the middle of the clubhouse as they celebrate. It couldn't be real. It had to be a dream.

"I got to see all my childhood heroes," Jerpe told me. "I saw Clemente, I saw Maz, I saw Hal Smith. ... These were guys I only heard about on the radio and occasionally on TV. I was amazed to meet them."

The postgame celebrations were, as you can guess, pretty chaotic. Champagne was shooting off everywhere, players were jumping up and down, reporters were trying to get interviews where they could. Jerpe got Mazeroski and Smith to sign the ball, and then, while Maz was talking on camera, the interviewer asked Jerpe if he'd give the ball back to Maz. It was hard to hear anything that was going on in the moment, but Jerpe thinks that Maz told him to hold onto it.

"There was so much hollering going on, but Maz said something back to me," Jerpe recalled. "I think what he said was, 'It's OK, kid, you can keep it.'"

After that, Jerpe snapped back to reality and began heading home. He left Forbes and arrived in his family's kitchen just as dinner was almost ready. Once there, he broke the news to his parents.

"I said, 'Hey, mom, I caught the home run,'" Jerpe told me. And she goes, 'Well, that's nice, Andy. Would you like to help us get ready for dinner?'"

Eventually, Jerpe's mom realized her son wasn't joking and his dad went wild with excitement -- thinking "it was the most wonderful thing in the world."

Andy became a mini-celebrity in his neighborhood -- mostly because his seven brothers and sisters told anybody and everybody they knew. He brought it into show around school, newspapers covered his ball-catching tale, he went on the local Paul Shannon Adventure Time show, even the nuns at a nearby convent asked Jerpe to bring them the prized possession.

"Yeah, Sister Mary and everybody got a chance to see the ball."

As fall turned to winter and winter to spring, the attention on Jerpe died down. He kept the ball in a special display case in his room. But when the first warm day of the year came around the next April, and Jerpe and his friends wanted to play some sandlot baseball, the group realized they were missing something pretty important: a baseball. So, Andy's friends asked the question of all questions.

"They said, 'Andy, we need you to use your ball because we don't have one,'" Jerpe recalled. "My first instinct was, 'I don't know, I might get in trouble.' But they were kind of persistent and I easily give in to peer pressure. So, I said, 'Yeah, OK.'"

Jerpe begrudgingly took the ball out to the field. He was hitting grounders and fly balls to the other kids when, one of his swings got a little bit away from him.

"I hit the ball off the tip of the bat and it kinda sliced off the first-base side and went into the weeds," Jerpe said. "And I never saw it again."

Kinda reminds you of a certain film, right?

The boys scoured the area, searching and searching, but never found any sign of it. It seemingly just disappeared. A legendary piece of baseball lore -- estimated recently to be worth somewhere around $1 million -- just gone.

"It's so hard to conjecture something that makes sense out of all of this," Jerpe told me. "We looked, we really looked hard."

Jerpe holds out hope that somebody found it and has it, but he knows it's unlikely. We probably would've heard about it at this point. The field where the game took place -- Sterrett Park -- is still around, but Jerpe says it's undergone lots of remodeling. The weeds where the ball was lost has now been paved over by a children's playground.

As far as what happened that fateful day at Sterrett, Jerpe decided not to tell anyone.

"The guys who were with me knew, but I didn't tell anybody," Jerpe said. "My family didn't know, my parents didn't know, my other friends didn't know. My dad never knew."

It wasn't until 50 years later, 10 years ago, when Jerpe's little-known (and still relatively little-known) story leaked out.

Still, even though he regrets taking Maz's ball out to the ball field, he'll always have the memories from that afternoon in the Pirates clubhouse -- a moment he describes as utter "glee." And even more significantly, that day brought him closer to someone he loved.

"The happiest memory I have about it was that my dad was so elated," Jerpe said. "He got me to come with him to work and I went with him to his office to see the people he worked with. I got my picture taken with my dad for the company yearbook. He was always a bit of a workaholic. ... Because we had that time together, we had some time together where we talked about baseball, that whole experience allowed me to be friends with my dad. That's the most important part of it to me."

Photo via Andy Jerpe