Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Arts, Sports & Culture

Pittsburgh Pirates Mark 50 Years Since Historic All-Black And -Latino Lineup

In American sport, few dates rival April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking a Major League Baseball color line that had stood for decades. A generation later came Sept. 1, 1971 — the day the Pittsburgh Pirates fielded the first starting nine to consist of all Black and Latino players.

Oliver, Al Pittsburgh Pirates 1971
AP
Al Oliver started at first base for the Pirates that night .

That 1971 game is typically noted in the context of Robinson’s achievement. But while the Dodger great’s debut immediately registered as national news, reaction to the Pirates’ milestone was relatively muted and delayed — even though the club went on to win the World Series that year.

The game was on a Wednesday night, at Three Rivers Stadium, with the first-place Pirates facing the last-place Philadelphia Phillies. Veteran manager Danny Murtaugh — who had guided the Bucs to a World Series win 11 years earlier — made out the historic lineup, but it seems no one noticed until the game was a few innings old.

Starting first-baseman Al Oliver said he was sitting on the bench next to third-baseman Dave Cash.

“I said, ‘Dave, you know, we got all brothers out there on the field,’” Oliver said in a recent phone interview.

Stargell, Willie, Pittsburgh Pirates player
Hall of Famer Willie Stargell helped lead the Pirates to a World Series win that year.

From rookie second-baseman Rennie Stennett to All-Star pitcher Dock Ellis, all nine Pirates were either African-American or Latino. But Oliver notes that the Pirates — led by future Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente, who was born in Puerto Rico, and Black slugger Willie Stargell — typically had at least six Black or Latino starters in any given game anyway. It was days before Oliver learned the line-up was unprecedented.

“It had to be in the newspaper or something like that,” said Oliver. “I know no one called and told me.”

The other starters that day were catcher Manny Sanguillen, shortstop Jackie Hernandez, and center-fielder Gene Clines.

Media attention was light partly because both of Pittsburgh’s daily newspapers, the Press and the Post-Gazette, were on strike. National outlets, however, soon took notice, with short articles in Sports Illustrated (headlined “The All-Blacks”) and The Sporting News. Jet magazine called the line-up a first for the Pirates, but didn’t acknowledge it as a Major League milestone.

Pittsburgh Pirates 1971 Championship 50th Anniversary Baseball
Gene J. Puskar
Catcher Manny Sanguillen, a member of the 1971 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates, takes part in a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the championship season before a baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Mets in Pittsburgh, Saturday, July 17, 2021.

Word spread quickly among Black baseball fans. In 1971, playwright and theater director Mark Clayton Southers was a 9-year-old Little Leaguer in the Hill District, playing on a team his father coached.

Southers and his friends “talked about it, yeah, we definitely talked about it,” he said. “It was like Obama getting elected in our young minds, back then. It was something that you never thought would happen, you know.”

“We thought it was a big deal and we all wished we would have been there,” added Southers, who went on to coach Little League himself. He remembers the celebration being intergenerational enough to include Whitey Turner, an older neighbor who decades earlier had played Negro League baseball. “He was excited about it. He lived two doors up from my grandmother.”

The jubilation went beyond Pittsburgh, and even beyond supporters of the Pirates. In Ohio, a young Cincinnati Reds fan named Samuel Black experienced the Bucs’ groundbreaking lineup in the context of nascent Black pride and the ongoing civil-rights movement.

“Although I lived in Cincinnati and I loved the Reds, that still drew me closer to the Pirates,” said Black, who’s now head of African-American programs at Pittsburgh’s Heinz History Center. “And it drew African-Americans across the country, [who] became Pirates fans because of that.”

Pittsburgh Pirates 1971 Championship 50th Anniversary Baseball
Gene J. Puskar
Dave Cash, a member of the 1971 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates, takes part in a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the championship season before a baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Mets in Pittsburgh, Saturday, July 17, 2021.

Oliver, one of only four survivors of that starting lineup, said the players themselves shrugged off the achievement.

“It was no big deal to us, minority or majority,” he said. “We were just a team, and we knew whoever was put on the field, we were going to do the job.”

To understand why that lineup was momentous, remember that racial progress since Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut had been slow. In 1971 — 24 years later — Black and Latino players still made up just 25 percent of all major-league players. Despite long-time Black stars like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Bob Gibson, the game could still seem very white. In 1968, the Detroit Tigers had won the World Series with just one Black everyday player, and no Latinos on the squad at all.

On the ’71 Pirates, though, half the players were either Black or Latino — double the Major League average.

And it didn’t just happen that way.

“They were an organization that was very aggressive scouting and signing players in the Caribbean,” said Bruce Markusen, an author and baseball historian who works at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, N.Y. “They signed a lot of African-American players in the 1960s, early 1970s.”

The Pirates were far enough ahead of the curve that they had very nearly registered the historic lineup four years earlier: In a game in June 1967, they’d fielded eight Black starters, everyone but the pitcher.

Markusen said the Pirates were notably better than most teams at developing Black pitchers and catchers. And in fact on Sept. 1, 1971, they actually fielded two distinct all-Black and –Latino lineups. That happened when pitcher Bob Veale, who was Black, entered the game in relief.

Murtaugh, Danny, Pittsburgh Pirates manager
Manager Danny Murtaugh made out the historic lineup card.

Markusen’s 2006 book on the ’71 Pirates is titled “The Team That Changed Baseball.” He gives Murtaugh credit for his managing style in the days when Jim Crow was still a recent memory, especially for Black players who had to endure verbal abuse from minor-league audiences in the South.

“Murtaugh had a reputation for treating Black players with fairness and treating them the same as white players and Latino players,” said Markusen. “I think that’s one of the reasons why that team was so successful, because they really had the right guy in Murtaugh leading the way.”

In game 7 of that year’s World Series, seven of the eight Pirates starting behind pitcher Steve Blass were Black or Latino. The Pirates defeated the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles. The series MVP was Clemente — the first-ever Latino to receive that honor.

Clemente drove the moment home, so to speak, in the locker room after game 7. In what his biographer David Maraniss called “one of the most memorable acts of his life,” Clemente chose to speak his first post-Series words to the media in Spanish: “En el dia mas grande de mi vida, para los nenes la benedición mia and ques mi padres, me echen la benedición.”

Clemente was greeting his sons and parents. But in terms of messages about Latinos’ still-growing prominence in baseball, it was one for the ages.

One mystery does remain about the Pirates’ Sept. 1, 1971, team: Was Danny Murtaugh actually making a statement, or merely filling out a lineup card?

Murtaugh himself seemed a bit coy on the matter, said Markusen: “When he was asked about it after the game, you know, ‘Did you know you had nine Blacks out there?’ he made a remark along the lines, ‘Well, I thought we had nine Pirates out there.’”

Pittsburgh Pirates 1971 Championship 50th Anniversary Baseball
Gene J. Puskar
Gene Clines, a member of the 1971 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates, takes part in a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the championship season before a baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Mets in Pittsburgh, Saturday, July 17, 2021.

Players like first-baseman Al Oliver agree — even though the biggest anomaly in that night’s lineup was that Oliver, a left-handed hitter, started against Phillies left-handed starter Woody Fryman, a role that usually would have gone to right-handed-hitting first-baseman Bob Robertson, who was white. (Another white player, regular third-baseman Richie Hebner, was also out sick.) Oliver said he doesn’t know why Murtaugh chose him that night, only that it was simply about winning the game.

“I’m quite sure when he made the lineup he wasn’t looking at color,” Oliver said. “I think he was looking at talent, and we had a team full of talent.” (The Pirates, by the way, won, 10-7.)

Murtaugh retired as manager after that season, and died in 1976. By then, his 1971 lineup seemed a harbinger. For instance, six of the eight starters on the Cincinnati Reds teams that won consecutive World Series, in 1975 and ’76, were Black or Latino.

“I think what [the Pirates] did was they showed other teams what could be done if you fully integrated your club,” said author Bruce Markusen. “If you scouted and signed players in Latin America. If you were willing not only to sign Black players, but to use them at positions they traditionally have not been reserved for black players — catchers, pitchers.”

The game echoed especially in Pittsburgh, said Rob Ruck, a locally based author and educator whose writing about race and sport include “Raceball: How the Major League Colonized the Black and Latin Game” and “Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh.”

“That 1971 team kicks off the decade in Pittsburgh history when we become the City of Champions. And unlike the 1960 Pirates, which were largely all white, or even Steelers squads before that, the teams at Pitt, the Pirates, the Steelers, were thoroughly integrated ball clubs” in the ’70s,” Ruck said. “We can see how what once would have been two separate stories of African Americans and whites in Pittsburgh had come together in the ’70s. And that 1971 team, and that night, September 1st, has a lot to do with it.”

That era, as it turned out, proved a near-peak of Black participation in the Major Leagues. In 1981, nearly one in five MLB players (18.7 percent) was Black, and one in nine was Latino. In the mid-’90s, however, the proportion of Black players began to drop fast. “As far as I know there has never been another all-Black lineup in baseball history,” said Markusen.

Ruck said that Black participation in youth baseball in the U.S. was undermined by the increasing cost of playing for traveling teams, the rise of personalized training for elite prospects, and the lure of full college scholarships in sports like football and basketball.

Meanwhile, baseball clubs looked increasingly to the Caribbean, where young talent was cheaper to scout, sign and develop. Today, about 7 percent of Major Leaguers are Black, while the percentage of Latinos approaches 30 percent.

90.5 WESA’s Katie Blackley contributed to this story.