Thursday, September 2, 2010

Remembering The [1st] All-Black Lineup

Yesterday, September 1st, 39 years ago to the day, my favorite team as a pre-teen kid, put nine black players in the starting lineup of a major league baseball game. here's a great story about it that was sent to me via these guys working on the Dock Ellis "No-No Dockumentary" from the MLBlogs Network.
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, 35 years ago, 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 in 2001. "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," recalled 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," said Blass. "I thought that was a great reaction."

Third baseman Richie Hebner, who sat out the game with an injury, said the players' pre-game reaction to the lineup typified the kind of good-natured racial humor that was prevalent with the Pirates. Hebner said 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 recalled.

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 said, "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 many southpaws that summer? "That's a good question," Oliver replied. "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."
read the rest of the story here.

from Bruce Markusen's Cooperstown Confidential

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