Forty years ago, the Pirates brought Jackie Robinson’s dream full circle with an all-minority lineup
The game took place late in the regular season four decades ago, unremarkable in many respects except for one ultimately uniquely historical fact: The lineup card for one of the teams involved contained for the first time in big league history a starting nine made up entirely of minority players.
The matchup between Pennsylvania rivals Pittsburgh Pirates and visiting Philadelphia Phillies at Three Rivers Stadium was held on a Wednesday night, Sept. 1, 1971. The third of a three-game series, the home team began the day on a three-game winning streak and with a 4 ½-game National League East Division lead over the St. Louis Cardinals. But while the contest was certainly important to the Bucs as they chased their second straight division title, its wider significance has not been lost on those involved.
"It was a day that a lot of us were very proud of," said Willie Stargell, elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988 and Pittsburgh's cleanup hitter this game. "It seemed to be just a few years prior that blacks and Latins were barred from baseball. From that to a point where nine were on the field at one time. It was a significant day in baseball history."
Pittsburgh's starting lineup that day, split between African Americans and Latin Americans, included: Rennie Stennett, 2B (Panama) ; Gene Clines, CF; Roberto Clemente, RF (Puerto Rico); Willie Stargell, LF; Manny Sanguillen, C (Panama); Dave Cash, 3B; Al Oliver, 1B; Jackie Hernandez, SS (Cuba); Dock Ellis, P.
Philadelphia starting tough lefty Woodie Fryman on the mound necessitated Pittsburgh manager Danny Murtaugh moving to a right-handed hitting lineup except for Stargell and Oliver. The skipper gave regulars like Richie Hebner, Gene Alley and Bob Robertson the night off.
Because of the diverse makeup of the Pittsburgh team, it's likely that when the game began most of the 11,278 fans in attendance had no idea they were witnessing history in the making.
Pirates broadcaster Nellie King would later claim that neither he nor partner Bob Prince ever mentioned the all-minority team on the air. "We were so used to seeing seven or eight minorities on the field at a time for the Pirates, neither Bob or I took any notice."
From all accounts Murtaugh didn't realize the significance when he made out the game's lineup card. But he was asked about it by the media afterwards.
"When it comes to making out the lineup," Murtaugh said, "I'm color blind and my athletes know it.
"I put the best nine athletes out there. The best nine I put out there tonight happened to be black. No big deal. Next question."
Year's later, Murtaugh's players would agree with the assessment.
"I remember sitting on the bench and nobody even realized it at the time," said Cash, born and raised near Cooperstown in Utica, N.Y. "I was sitting next to Gene Clines and I mentioned, 'Hey, we got nine blacks out there.' Murtaugh, though, didn't think of it that way."
"When he sent the all-minority team out there," Oliver said, "I don't think he was back in his office making out his lineup and saying, 'I'm going to send nine brothers out there tonight.' He was just looking at which nine players could win that night."
The game itself was a back-and-forth affair, with both starting pitchers getting knocked out early before the Pirates came away with a 10-7 win. Fryman lasted only a third of an inning, giving up six hits and five runs, while Ellis would be taken out after one out in the top of the second having surrendered two hits, four walks and five runs (three earned). Luke Walker picked up the win with six innings of one-run relief.
Ellis, who would end up leading the 1971 Pirates with 19 victories and a fourth-place finish in the NL Cy Young Award voting, suspected a racial bias against his team was being taken out on him. He was so upset by the game he flew to Los Angeles the next day, an off day for the team, but after talking to a friend flew back to Pittsburgh the next morning in time for that night's contest, no one knowing he had flown 6,000 miles between games.
"The umpire knew who he had on the field, and he was trying to get me out of there," Ellis said. "I was throwing the ball down the middle of the plate and he was calling balls. After I was taken out of the game I got on a plane and got out of Pittsburgh because I was going to kill that umpire. I was really going to kill him, that's how deluded I was. I could not understand why he was doing that other than he wanted me out of the game."
Though some intolerant fans would tag this Pirates squad "The Nairobi Nine," the area had embraced such renowned Negro leagues teams as the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, the Pirates were the 10th big league club to enlist a black ballplayer, with Curt Roberts making his big league debut in 1954.
Bill Nunn, who worked for the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential black publication, said, "It's always been a problem of management, 'How many blacks will the fans take?' I went down to (general manager) Joe Brown's office not long after the game and he had a stack of mail, and Joe said, 'You can take out any letter you want and it will be negative.' Some of the most derogatory letters, and he had stacks of them, were from the white fans."
Brown would later recall speaking at a banquet and afterwards an audience member said, "The reason you're not drawing better is that you have too many blacks on the club."
"I said, 'All right. Who do you want to get rid of? Clemente?'
"'Oh no, no, no. Not Clemente,' they said of the future Hall of Famer.
"I went down and named all the black men on our team. This guy didn't want to get rid of any of them. When he took them as individuals, as people, as we should, and as people of ability and not color, then he could understand why they were on the roster."
The 1971 Pirates would finish the season with a 97-65 record, capture their division by seven games, defeat the San Francisco Giants three games to one in the National League Championship Series, and win its first World Series title in 11 years after a tightly fought seven-game battle with the Baltimore Orioles. But it was on the first day of September that the team knocked down a wall.
"I'm proud of that day," Cash said. "We accomplished something that may never be done again."
Bill Francis is a Library associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. This story originally appeared in the 2011 Hall of Fame Yearbook. To purchase a copy of the Yearbook, please visit shop.baseballhall.org.