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1971 Pirates Reflect On Historic All-Black Lineup

Gene J. Puskar
Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame second baseman Bill Mazeroski, left, joins 1971 Pirates teammates Al Oliver, center, and Bob Robertson during a celebration of their 1971 World Series win over the Baltimore Orioles.

The 2016 Major League Baseball season has reached the playoff stage and for the first time in four years, the Pirates will not be part of it. But, at this time 45 years ago, the Pirates were on their way to winning the World Series with a diverse group of players that made history in a way that rivaled Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball.

On Sept. 1, 1971, 24 seasons after Robinson’s debut, the Pirates became the first team in Major League Baseball history to field an all-black starting lineup when they took on the Philadelphia Phillies at Three Rivers Stadium. And though it was a groundbreaking event, few people noticed right away what was happening, including the players, such as Pittsburgh first baseman Al Oliver.

“Probably in the third or fourth inning is when I noticed it,” Oliver said. “Because normally we had six out there anyway if Dock Ellis pitched. So, add just a couple more and it wasn’t that noticeable. But I did notice it in the fourth inning and I said to Dave Cash, ‘You know Dave, we got all brothers out here.’ And he said ‘yes we do.’ And evidently Willie Stargell said after the game ‘We just decided to give the white players a rest.’”

One of those white players was the Pirates’ regular first baseman Bob Robertson, a right-handed hitter who expected to see his name on the starting lineup card because Philadelphia’s starting pitcher was left-handed Woodie Fryman.

“It was a day of history and I was fortunate enough to be there to see this,” Robertson said. “And those guys I think they were down about two or three runs in the first or second inning but they finally got together. It was their moment and they finally went out and won that ballgame. So that was a time in history where you just said ‘Amen.’”

At a recent reunion of the players from that 1971 team, Robertson said he sees the historic game as something that could inspire current and future generations of Americans.

“And maybe someday in this country of ours, we can get together as a unit,” he said. “And I’m sure at that time it affected a lot of people to see all nine black players out there playing … against another team. But as the Pirates, they played as one. And that was real exciting for me. ”  

The Pirates went on to win the game, beating the Phillies 10-7. Afterward, Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh said he wasn’t trying to make a statement by starting nine black players.

“When it comes to making out the lineup, I’m color blind and my athletes know it,” Murtaugh told the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. “They don't know it because I told them, but they know it because they are familiar with the way I operate."

Oliver said that same color blind attitude carried over to the players in the clubhouse.

“The fact that we were able to unite together with great cohesion with Latin players, with black players, with white players, we all came together for one common cause and that was to bring a world championship back to Pittsburgh,” Oliver said. “And that’s rare on a baseball team, especially back in the early ‘70s.”

Four-and-a-half decades later, Oliver said he’s proud to have been a part of Major League Baseball’s first all-black starting line-up. “You know I tell people wherever I go that I was proud to be a part of history,” he said. “And it was kind of appropriate for it to happen in Pittsburgh because they had two Negro League teams here. And it was just meant to be done in Pittsburgh probably more so than any other city. We fit the Pittsburgh mode of hard working people. We had that kind of team.”

It was a team that brought home the franchise’s fourth world championship, rallying from a two games to none deficit to defeat the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in seven games in the World Series. But perhaps more important than winning, these Pirates players are better remembered for how they won.