Thirty Years Ago... The First All-Black Lineup - 2001
The events of September 1, 1971 have never received much media attention, paling in comparison to the coverage of Jackie Robinson’s historic entrance into the major leagues. Yet, the happenings in Pittsburgh on that date constitute one of the most significant milestones in the racial history of major league baseball.
That afternoon, while sitting in his office at Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh Pirates’ manager Danny Murtaugh prepared to oppose the Philadelphia Phillies and left-handed pitcher Woodie Fryman. Murtaugh filled out the following names on his lineup card:
Rennie Stennett, 2B Gene Clines, CF Roberto Clemente, RF Willie Stargell, LF Manny Sanguillen, C Dave Cash, 3B Al Oliver, 1B Jackie Hernandez, SS Dock Ellis, P
At first glance, Murtaugh’s lineup seemed to represent nothing particularly out of the ordinary. In fact, the lineup appeared typical of ones that he would use against left-handed starters like Fryman, with the exception of the lefty-swinging Al Oliver at first base in place of the right-handed batting Bob Robertson. Upon further review, however, observers in the press box noticed that the lineup consisted exclusively of African-American and dark-skinned Latin American players. Baseball experts surmised that for the first time in the history of baseball, and 24 years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier, a major league team was employing an all-black lineup.
Gene Clines, one of the players in the lineup that evening, initially believed that the Pirates had used an all-black lineup several years earlier. Willie Stargell, one of the senior members of the 1971 Pirates, corrected Clines’ speculation. “No, this is the first time,” said Stargell, the Hall of Fame outfielder-first baseman who died earlier this year. “Back in 1967, in Philadelphia, [former Pirate manager] Harry Walker started eight of us, but the pitcher, Denny Ribant, was white.”
Although Murtaugh’s decision to write out an all-black lineup drew relatively little attention from the fans and media, it was immediately noticed by some Pirate players in the clubhouse prior to the game. “We saw the lineup on the [clubhouse] wall...Oh yeah, we were aware,” recalls pitcher Steve Blass, the eventual winner in Game Seven of the 1971 World Series.
In 1971, the Pirates represented baseball’s most heavily integrated team, with black and Latino players accounting for nearly fifty percent of the club’s roster. The Pirates also featured one of baseball’s most harmonious teams, with friendships and gatherings often crossing racial lines. White players often socialized with black and Latino players, either at bars and restaurants after games, or at barbecues and parties organized by one of the team’s leaders, Willie Stargell. Considering the unity of the team, the players’ reaction to the all-black lineup was not surprising. “We had a loose group, [so] we were all laughing and hollering about it and teasing each other,” says Blass. “I thought that was a great reaction.”
Third baseman Richie Hebner, who sat out the game with an injury, says the players’ pre-game reaction to the lineup typified the kind of good-natured racial humor that was prevalent with the Pirates. Hebner says such humor was doled out purely for fun, and not intended to be taken seriously. “Some of the guys joked around the clubhouse, saying, ‘Hey, you white guys, you can take a rest tonight’... Back then, Ellis and Stargell would get on us [white players] and we’d get on them. You could do that,” Hebner recalls.
Other players, like Al Oliver, didn’t realize that the Pirates were actually using an all-black lineup until the middle of the game. “I had no clue,” Oliver says, “Because as a rule we had at least five or six [black and Latino players] out there anyway. So, two or three more was no big thing. I didn’t know until about the third or fourth inning. Dave Cash mentioned to me, he says, ‘Hey, Scoop, we got all brothers out here.’” Oliver pauses for a moment and laughs. “You know, I thought about it, and I said, ‘We sure do!’ ”
The fact that Oliver even started the game was strange for several reasons. Why was Oliver, primarily a center fielder in 1971, playing at first base instead of usual starter Bob Robertson? Even more strangely, why was Oliver starting against a left-hander, when Murtaugh had benched him against most southpaws that summer? “That’s a good question,” Oliver replies with a laugh. “That’s a good question, because to this day when people ask me who was the toughest pitcher I ever faced, it was Woodie Fryman.” One article indicated that Robertson sat out the game with a minor injury, but didn’t specify what the injury was. According to Oliver, Murtaugh may have been looking to light a fire under a slumping Robertson, who had gone 2-for-14 in his previous four games. “Bob Robertson normally would have played that day, but Dave Cash had told me within the last [few] years, and I never knew this, that Murtaugh was kind of disappointed in Bob for whatever reason. I don’t know what the exact reason was, but he was disappointed in Bob, so he sat him down. He played me that night at first base.”
Popular and patriarchal, Murtaugh had become a comforting, father-like figure for almost all of the Pirate players, regardless of skin color or nationality. In the past, he had not hesitated in giving significant amounts of playing time to black and Latino players, and now seemed to be showing pioneering courage in making out the first all-black lineup when he was under no pressure to do so. So why did Murtaugh write out the lineup the way he did on September 1, 1971? Given the decision to start Oliver over Robertson, was it possible that Murtaugh was looking for a way to put an all-black lineup on the field? Oliver doesn’t think so. “In my estimation, I think Danny was just putting the best team on the field, and he probably didn’t notice [the all-black lineup] until later. I didn’t know until the third or fourth inning.”
Steve Blass says Murtaugh was concerned with winning games—not with making social statements. “No, this was not a statement, nor a device,” Blass says. “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.’ ” Blass says Murtaugh handled the matter with the proper attitude and perspective. “He was aware of the repercussions that might come out of it,” says Blass. “But he didn’t have a problem with it.”
So, for the first time since the demise of the Negro Leagues in the early 1960s, a professional major league-caliber baseball team fielded a starting nine consisting exclusively of blacks. The results? The Phillies scored two runs against Dock Ellis in the first, but the Bucs countered with six hits and five runs in the bottom half of the inning. The Phillies added four more runs in the second, knocking out Ellis, who was replaced by long reliever Bob Moose. Down 6-5, the Pirates rallied for three runs in the second. Gene Clines singled and Roberto Clemente walked. After Clines stole third, Willie Stargell produced one run with a sac fly, and Manny Sanguillen added two more on a home run.
Bob Veale, also a black player, relieved Bob Moose in the third inning, and struck out the one batter he faced. Ironically, Luke Walker, a white pitcher from Texas, relieved in the fourth and emerged as the Pirate pitching star of the day. Walker held the Phillies to one run over six innings and picked up the win in a 10-7 victory for the Bucs. On offense, Clines, Clemente, Stargell, Sanguillen, Oliver, and Rennie Stennett each collected two base hits, and Clines and Cash each stole a base. The all-black lineup had produced a win in its very first major league go-round. Unfortunately, only 11,278 fans were on hand at Three Rivers Stadium to witness this intriguing piece of baseball history.
At the time, most of the Pirates’ players and fans didn’t grasp the historical relevance of the first all-black lineup, but they have grown to appreciate its importance. “[In 1971], I didn’t even think anything about it,” Oliver says. “Nothing about it at all.” Once his playing career ended in 1985, Oliver took a step back and emerged with a different perspective about the night of September 1, 1971. “But now, of course, it means something. Once you’re out of the game, you look back and [you realize] you could be a part of baseball history. To me, that’s something that I feel good about, being part of baseball history.”
Bob Robertson never did make an appearance in the game, but like Oliver, has a similar perspective on its importance. “I think it’s a great thing that really happened there,” Robby says. “That was the type of ballclub that we had. It didn’t make a difference if you were black, yellow, green, purple, whatever. We enjoyed each other’s company. We got along fine. We had a lot of respect for one another. I thought that was a great evening, to see that.”
According to some baseball historians, the all-black lineup of September 1,1971, remains significant because it exhibited how progressive the Pirate organization was in drafting and signing blacks and Latinos at all positions. In the past, major league teams had shown a willingness to sign many black infielders and outfielders, but had tended to avoid developing minority pitchers and catchers. Oliver agrees that the all-black lineup demonstrated the Pirates’ belief that blacks and Latinos could play the “thinking man’s” game behind the plate or on the mound. “I signed with the Pirates in 1964,” Oliver recalls. “In 1965, it was really my first spring training in Daytona Beach. The Pirates had signed, if you look at the catcher’s position, they had many [black] catchers. If you looked at the pitchers, there were many black pitchers that they had signed or drafted... I think what it came down to was that the Pirates were not afraid to draft black and Latin players because they were interested in one thing, in my opinion,” Oliver says, “And that was winning.”
Although the first all-black lineup has received some media attention over the years, it has generally been overlooked, a sentiment that frustrates Oliver. “Oh, by far it’s been underrated,” Oliver maintains. “I haven’t heard much talk about it. I’ll be honest with you. Only two writers have talked to me [about it], and you are one of them... No one talks about it for some reason. I don’t know why.”
Perhaps more people will start talking about it now.
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