Clemente’s teamwork helped make historic Pirates 1971 lineup a reality
Roberto Clemente was not the first Latino to play in the major leagues. Nor was he the first Latino who happened to be dark-skinned. Those honors belonged to other players.
While being the first in those categories might have brought him even more recognition, they don’t diminish Clemente’s status as a crucial component to the game’s racial and ethnic history.
Those aforementioned milestones also involved accomplishments by a singular player. But another milestone, one that is perhaps even more significant, did not escape Clemente. It was a team milestone, something accomplished by the Pittsburgh Pirates 50 years ago. On Sept. 1, 1971, the Pirates became the first AL or NL team to field an all-black, or all-minority lineup. Clemente was part of the lineup that day, a fitting inclusion for a player who willingly spoke up about issues affecting Latino players of his era.
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“The thing I remember about it, when he was interviewed afterwards, Murtaugh said, ‘I put the nine best athletes out there. The best nine I put out there tonight happened to be black. No big deal. Next question.’ ”
In subsequent years, most Pirate players interviewed on the subject have expressed the belief that Murtaugh, from the beginning, was fully aware that all nine Pirates were black, but did not want to bring more attention to himself. In their opinion, Murtaugh did not intentionally include nine black players and was not trying to make any kind of social statement; rather, the manager was simply putting out the lineup that he felt was best suited to win that day.
Unfortunately, there are no published comments from Clemente about the all-black lineup. The lack of a Clemente reaction is likely attributable to the newspaper strike going on in the city of Pittsburgh at the time. There was no local newspaper coverage of the game, only radio and TV reporting.
If someone had asked Clemente about the all-black lineup, what might he have said? Perhaps he would have given that all-knowing look of his and curtly told reporters, “It’s about time.” It’s also likely Clemente would have expressed pride over the situation, knowing the incredibly important role the Black and Latino members of the Pirates were playing on a first-place team.
Six weeks later, Clemente would have much more to say, as the Pirates took on the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. That’s when essentially this same group of Pirates, albeit without an actual all-black starting lineup, but with a team featuring an unprecedented level of integration in 1971, would make another meaningful statement.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum