Pirates made history with all-minority lineup on Sept. 1, 1971
When he reported to Salem, Va., in 1966 for his first season of professional baseball, Gene Clines lived with seven other black Pirates minor leaguers in a house owned by a black woman known simply as Mrs. Johnson. The white players stayed in a hotel.
Only five years later, Clines played center field for the Pirates in a game against Philadelphia at Three Rivers Stadium. Every Pirates' starter, including Clines, was black or Latino. Such an event had never been recorded in Major League Baseball.
This was 40 years ago today, Sept. 1, 1971. The Pirates were en route to winning the World Series, and the world was changing. Fast.
”You feel proud of being part of it,” Clines said. “But it wasn't until a couple of years later you could sit back and think about what really, really happened.”
Among Clines' young teammates sharing Mrs. Johnson's house was Dave Cash, who started at third base in that game.
”It was something for the ages,” he said.
First baseman Bob Robertson hit 26 home runs during the Pirates' championship season and would have been the only white starter. But he was unexpectedly benched by manager Danny Murtaugh.
Robertson's initial disappointment would be superseded by the larger moment.
”I thought it was good for baseball. I thought it was good for the Pirates and something for the black and Latin players to be very proud of,” he said.
Another everyday white starter, third baseman Richie Hebner, missed the game because of injury. Most of the Pirates pitchers were white, but not the starter that day, Dock Ellis. The rest of the lineup included catcher Manny Sanguillen, shortstop Jackie Hernandez and Pirates' legends Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell in right and left fields.
”At the time I don't think it drew a lot of attention, and people didn't make much of it,” said local historian and author Rob Ruck, whose latest book, “Raceball,” explores the issues inherent in the title. “Looking back, it was one of those watershed moments.”
The Latino presence in professional baseball has since soared, but participation by blacks has dwindled. At the start of the 2011 season, blacks comprised 8.5 percent of big league rosters compared to 27 percent in 1975.
The historic outcome hinged on Robertson's benching. He was replaced at first base by Al Oliver, who played mostly in center field, and it didn't quite make sense. Robertson hit right-handed. The Phillies' pitcher, ex-Pirate Woodie Fryman, was a lefty. Oliver was a left-handed swinger who hit .227 against Fryman during his career.
But it made sense to Murtaugh. “Danny managed by his gut,” former pitcher Steve Blass said.
Sure enough, Oliver doubled in the first inning during a five-run outburst, sending Fryman to an early exit in what would be a 10-7 Pirates victory. Ellis, meanwhile, lasted just 1 1⁄3 innings.
Robertson laughed at past speculation that Murtaugh might have been sending him a “message.” Accounts of the game are scant because the two major local newspapers were on strike. No one but Murtaugh, who died in 1976, seemed to know why Oliver started at first base.
”I have no clue,” Oliver said.
”I never asked Danny,” Robertson said. “I had a wonderful relationship with him, and I never questioned him.”
They could all play
It was no surprise or accident the Pirates made this kind of history. Their general manager in the early 1950s, Branch Rickey, became a towering figure for signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Under Rickey, the Pirates got Clemente in the 1954 Rule 5 draft. Joe L. Brown replaced Rickey the next year and added more minorities.
In 1967, the Pirates started eight minorities, but the pitcher, Dennis Ribant, was white.
”(Joe) signed the best players he could possibly find, regardless of what color they were,” said Oliver, who is from Portsmouth, Ohio, the same hometown as Rickey. “My first spring in 1965, there were four or five fields, and it was unbelievable to me how many black and Latin players were in our organization. And they could all play. I could have got lost in the shuffle myself.”
Before playing the Phillies, some of the players noticed what was going on from the posted lineup card. Oliver said he had no idea until early in the game, when he turned to Cash and said something to the effect of, “Hey, we got all brothers out here!” (The line is attributed to Cash in some accounts, but Cash said it was Oliver's).
Clines said he heard a batboy say, “The Homestead Grays are playing tonight,” referring to the famous Negro League team. He said he was thinking about the statement when it finally struck him while standing in the outfield. “Oh, wow,” he thought.
By game's end, everyone was aware. Murtaugh was quoted as insisting he was not aware of starting nine minorities, nor did he care.
”He was a very intelligent man, and on some level he probably realized there weren't any white guys out there, but it didn't matter,” said his son, Tim Murtaugh. “He was trying to do what was best for the team to win the game that day.”
This was no gimmick: The Pirates had talented stars and solid role players, and race mattered little, if at all. The loud, unruly and supremely confident clubhouse was ruled mainly by future Hall of Famers Clemente and Stargell, a Puerto Rican and a black American. The Pirates beat San Francisco in the playoffs and defeated Baltimore in seven games in the World Series.
In a time of wrenching social, cultural and political change and just two years after man first walked on the moon, Sept. 1, 1971 provided a giant leap for sport but one small step for a ballclub with a single agenda.
”The objective centered on winning,” Cash said. “It wasn't the color of your skin. It was your productivity.”