This past week, MLBbro icon Roberto Clemente celebrated his 88th birthday. His career is more known for his individual accomplishments, but what gets lost in a career and life that was taken from us far, far too soon is the historical movements of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1970s.
With the declining numbers of African-American players in Major League Baseball, history teaches that the Pirates foreshadowed the future of the international game that is all the rage of professional baseball today. In the 1971 season, Pittsburgh had two players from Panama, one from Cuba and another from Puerto Rico.
But what stands out to MLBbro.com is the five iconic MLBbros that were on that 1971 team that featured left fielder Willie Stargell, pitcher Dock Ellis, second baseman Dave Cash, center fielder Gene Clines and fill-in outfielder/first baseman Al Oliver.
While most MLB fans would remember the lightning fast St. Louis Cardinals trio in the 1980’s with Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee and Vince Coleman who dazzled opponents with the skill and lightning speed that brought the franchise a World Series back in 1982 and two other National League titles in 1985 and 1987.
But that pales in comparison to the events that took place on September 1st, 1971 when the Pirates filled their roster which was believed to be the first all-minority lineup in history. An event that at the time received no attention in the media due to an ongoing strike from the top two newspapers in Pittsburgh. The miniscule amount of attendance with little mention from the radio broadcast team, it rivals the Wilt Chamberlain 100 point game where the feat lives in infamy and folklore instead of the coverage it deserved.
Pirates broadcaster Nellie King talked about the day later on in 1986 to the Pittsburgh Press via History.com.
“I don’t think we even realized it until the second inning,” broadcaster Nellie King told the Pittsburgh Press in 1986 about the all-Black lineup. In its game coverage, United Press International highlighted the milestone, which came 24 years after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.”
It was easy for the broadcasters to miss this slice of history due to starting pitcher Dock Ellis only last 1⅓ innings before being replaced. But that did not stop the Pirates from defeating the Philadelphia Phillies from winning 10-7 in Three Rivers Stadium.
With players out due to injuries and illness, Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh looked past color to playing the best players available. Something that Roberto Clemente Jr. mentioned to The New York Times.
“Murtaugh was a man that wanted to win, and it didn’t matter what formula he had to come up with, he was just looking at who was the best fit for that particularly,” said Roberto Clemente Jr., who was six years old at the time. “Obviously it was a historic moment, but I don’t think he really even thought about it. He just wanted to have the best lineup to win that game.”
While this page in history was mostly overlooked, it was hard to overlook the history the Pirates made in the 1971 World Series when they won the championship beating the Baltimore Orioles in seven games. In the series clinching game on the road, the Pirates played six of the eight position players who were considered black including all of the outfielders.
Roberto Clemente: Right Field
One of the greatest players ever in baseball history and easily in Pirates franchise history. He was a right field magician whose cannon right arm landed him 12 consecutive Gold Glove awards spanning from 1961-1972. But in the World Series, Clemente was just on another level that not many could achieve in postseason history, much less the World Series.
Pittsburgh #Pirates legend Roberto Clemente hits a HR in Game 7 of the 1971 World Series vs. Baltimore Orioles pitcher Mike Cuellar! He hit .414 for the Series and was named MVP! #MLB #Baseball #History pic.twitter.com/WNHWpAnpua
— Baseball by BSmile (@BSmile) August 18, 2022
With a batting average of .414 along with his Gold Glove, the only question was which game did the MLBbro icon lock up the MVP award.
Gene Clines: Center Field
This MLBbro’s playing situation shows how deep this Pittsburgh Pirates team was in 1971. Gene Clines only played in three games in the World Series but was the starter in Game 7. How good was he? He earned MVP votes the next year by batting .334 with 104 hits in only 107 games. While others seemingly did not see the magnitude of history, Clines did.
“I got to the ballpark and one of our batboys made the comment, ‘The Homestead Grays are playing tonight,’” Clines told George Castle for his book, “When the Game Changed.” “That thought stayed in my mind, and didn’t dawn on me until they were playing the National Anthem. I looked to my left and I saw Stargell and I looked to my right and I saw [Roberto] Clemente. I turned around and I started looking at all the positions. I said, ‘Now, I understand what the batboy said earlier that afternoon.'”
He passed away in January of this year at the age of 75.
Willie Stargell: Left Field
The player fans famously knew as Pops achieved superstar status in 1971 by edging fellow MLBbro icon Hank Aaron for the home run title 48 to 47. He also won two NL Player of the Month awards as well. Even though he struggled at the plate in the NLCS and the World Series, he drew seven walks to still make an impact at the plate. In Game 7, Stargell scored the winning run in the series clinching 2-1 victory. His single in the 8th inning got him on base to score off a Jose Pagan double.
RIP to the most iconic MLBbro outfield trio in Major League Baseball history.