Every April when Major League Baseball celebrates the anniversary of Jackie Robinson joining the Dodgers in 1947, the conversation inevitably turns to the question about the percentage of black players in the game being in decline. Everyone seems to have a different opinion and there is probably some validity to each point of view. The Old Duck subscribes to the theory that due to the increase in popularity of basketball and football, young black athletes in this country have many more options compared to 40 or 50 years ago. Even beyond the NBA and NFL, College sports is a booming business and High School programs are feeding those universities the players they need. No longer do youngsters become “dual sports” stars because the competition in each endeavor in so fierce, they must devote 100% of their time and training to a chosen sport.
The anecdotal evidence is very clear if you’ve watched a group of major league players over the last few years. Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Abreu & Aroldis Chapman are all from Cuba and fans have been blown away by their skills and athleticism. These four average 6’2″ & 230 lbs. and some fans wondered out loud why we never see baseball players like this anymore. The answer seems obvious if you think it through. In Cuba, baseball is the national game with essentially no competition. A spectacular young athlete like Puig would be drawn to the baseball field with the dream of traveling the world as a member of the national team and then, hopefully, finding a way off the island to play in the major leagues. If Cespedes had attended the local High School in your community, he never would have made it to the baseball field. The basketball coach would have wanted him to play small forward and might still have lost out to the football coach who had him slotted as a Linebacker or a devastating Running Back.
Another aspect of this topic interestingly came up a few years back on the golf course. One of my golfing buddies and I were doing our usual damage to the course when the subject of baseball came up during a lull between hooks and slices. Over the years, he’s learned about my affinity for the game but indicated that he’s really not much of a baseball fan. It certainly wasn’t an aversion to sports in general because he has a Pittsburgh Steelers golf bag on his cart. On this particular day, I casually asked why he wasn’t also into baseball. Embarrassingly, he told me that his Father gave up his season tickets to the Pirates the year the team fielded an all-black line-up and while my friend was already a young adult at that point, baseball became an afterthought. Of course, none of us should be shocked that this type of attitude prevailed in the early 1970’s but a real-life story really crystallizes the significance. My friend’s Dad was born in 1922 and while it’s easy to be critical in retrospect, is it really possible for us to completely understand the society that was prevalent while he was being raised? Think about the fact that for the first 25 years of his life, major league baseball was all-white. Ironically, the City of Pittsburgh has a rich tradition in black baseball as both the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro Leagues called the steel city their home.
From a historical perspective, the date in question was September 1, 1971 and the Pirates, managed by Danny Murtuagh, were on their way to the National League pennant and an eventual World Series victory over the Baltimore Orioles. With the help of a wonderful article by George Skornickel in a 2011 SABR Research Journal titled “Characters with Character”, let’s take a closer look at this moment in the game’s archives.
One caveat to the story is that the first all-black line-up isn’t defined as an all-African American line-up, as the Pirates has numerous Latin players on the team who represented Panama, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Cuba. The Bucs outstanding 1B Al Oliver was interviewed for the article and indicated that it’s doubtful that Murtaugh was even aware of the unique moment because his goal was to put the best available players on the field. Even Oliver didn’t notice the situation until the third or fourth inning and also pointed out that the line-up was configured with as many right-handed hitters as possible because the opposing Phillies had LH Woodie Fryman on the mound. Murtaugh’s quote after the game was, “I put the best athletes out there. The best nine tonight happen to be black. No big deal. Next question.”
In 1971, the Pirates were baseball’s most integrated team, with Black & Latino players making up almost half of the roster. Let’s take a look at that famous line-up card from 9/1/71…
> Rennie Stennett, 2B – This Panamanian was only 20 years old and didn’t become a regular player until the following season…he hit .353 in 153 AB’s in ’71.
> Gene Clines, CF – In his first full season, he was one of the Bucs back-up OF’s and hit .308 in 273 AB’s.
> Roberto Clemente, RF – The Puerto Rican legend was 36 but played like someone 10 years younger by hitting .341 and winning a Gold Glove.
> Willie Stargell, LF – “Pops” was the glue that held the team together…he hit 48 HR’s and finished 2nd in the MVP balloting.
> Manny Sanguillen, C – This All-Star was in his prime at age 27 and hit .319 while throwing out 50% of baserunners attempting to steal.
> Dave Cash, 3B – Normally the starting 2B, he was giving Richie Hebner the day off against a LH Pitcher.
> Al Oliver, 1B – Another versatile player, the team’s regular CF was playing 1B to give Bob Robertson a breather…he was a 7-time All Star.
> Jackie Hernandez, SS – This native Cuban was another role player, as Gene Alley was the everyday SS.
> Dock Ellis, P – The team’s ace with 19 Wins, he had appeared in the All-Star game a few months earlier where he gave up a famous home run to Reggie Jackson that cleared the right-field pavilion in Tiger Stadium.
How did the game turn out? The line-up strategy worked as Fryman gave up six runs in the 1st inning and the Pirates went on to win 10-7. Sanguillen hit a home run while Clemente & Stargell each had two hits and two RBI’s. A white Pitcher named Luke Walker came in to relieve early in the game and pitched the final six innings for the victory.
The curiosity 45+ years later is what the reaction was in Pittsburgh at the time. One local sportswriter looked back in 1997 and said, “Baseball at that time, in my opinion, had a whole lot of racial division and I think it went on inside baseball and angered some people. There was also some hostility in the city. Pittsburgh is a conservative city and there were a lot of snide remarks made privately. I’m sure there wasn’t a major reaction in the media other than to observe that it had taken place and it was a first.”
Another writer’s 1997 recollection was much more telling…”It’s always been a problem of management. How many blacks will the fans take? I went down to the GM’s office not long after that game and he had a stack of mail and told me I could take out any letter I want and it will be negative.”
GM Joe L. Brown defended the team he put together and said, “I was always proud of the fact that we never paid attention to color in our organization. I don’t think any club in the history of baseball had as many blacks on their roster at one time and consistently over the years.”
In 2011, Dave Cash remembered Danny Murtaugh with this quote…”I remember him saying that he didn’t realize who was out there, he just wanted to put the best team on the field and with the Pirate family, it didn’t matter what color you were. We were about winning. That was the most important thing. In 1970, when we got into the play-offs and lost, we tasted that defeat and didn’t want it to happen the next year. So in ’71, we took care of business!”
Clemente was the MVP of the Fall Classic, as he hit .414 with a 1.210 OPS.