For 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Desire to Win Trumped Skin Color and Ethnicity

Harold FriendChief Writer ISeptember 19, 2011

Roberto Clemente Statue
Roberto Clemente StatueDoug Pensinger/Getty Images

Joe L. Brown, the Pittsburgh Pirates' general manager from November 1955 through 1976, built the 1971 World Championship team differently from the way teams had been put together in the past.

Brown drafted and developed players based solely on ability.

Until that time, no team had ever had a roster assembled on the basis of talent while ignoring skin color as well as ethnicity.

Baseball historian Luis Mayoral wrote, "Back then, the mentality was: Latinos are equipped to play defense—predominantly the infield. Latinos cannot be catchers or pitchers because they're not smart enough. Teams didn't come out in the open with it, but they had their quotas."

The Pirates' management assumed that the players' diverse backgrounds would not prevent them from getting along on the field and in the clubhouse. It was a valid assumption.

Pitcher Steve Blass, who was instrumental in the Pirates' defeating the Baltimore Orioles—a team that had four 20-game winners—in the 1971 World Series, summed it up this past May 21 at the Pirates' 40th reunion.

"Nothing was sacred," says Blass. "A stranger who wandered into that clubhouse by mistake would have assumed these were the most racist, insensitive people in the world, but it was just a very open atmosphere.

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"And what it created was a room full of friends. You could say anything to anybody. And when we went out on the ball field, we were brothers."

Richie Hebner, who spent the offseason as a grave digger and later coached in the Orioles organization, backed up Blass.

"You went in that clubhouse, you expected to get your balls busted," said Hebner, "I've been in big league spring training camps the last few years and some of these clubhouses remind me of the funeral home." With the Pirates, he says, "There was never a dull moment."

Al Oliver, the Pirates' hard-hitting center fielder, thought that the games were won in the clubhouse because the clubhouse banter loosened up already talented players.

On September 1st, 1971, in a game against the Phillies, Oliver, who was playing first base that night, made a significant observation as he surveyed the Pirates in the field. He turned to third baseman David Cash and shouted across the diamond, "You know what? We got all brothers out here."

Every Pirate in manager Danny Murtaugh's lineup was either black or Hispanic.

Murtaugh knew he was making history—but he wasn't attempting to make history.  Murtaugh used his best lineup because the Pirates were trying to win the division.

The World Series against the favored Orioles started out badly. Dave McNally held the Buccos to three hits in the opener and Jim Palmer and the Orioles led the second game, 11-0 before the Pirates scored three times in the eighth inning.

One Baltimore reporter wrote, "It may be Baltimore in three!" Murtaugh posted the article on the team's bulletin board.

The third game, at Pittsburgh—a game the Pirates had to win—graphically illustrated how the game was managed then, compared to today.

Ahead 2-1 in the seventh inning, Roberto Clemente was on second and Willie Stargell was on first, with no outs. Bob Robertson, who had 26 home runs in the regular season, was facing left-hander Mike Cuellar.

Robertson thought to himself, "We're down two games, going against a 20-game winner. I gotta hit this ball as hard as I can, 'cause we gotta get something going."

Murtaugh put on the sacrifice, which upset Robertson.

"I'd never bunted. I'd hit 26 home runs that season, and now they want me to square around? I don't even know how to hold the ****ing bat! So I looked down at [the third base coach], and I didn't see [the bunt sign.] You figure it out."

Robertson hit an Earl Weaver special to increase the lead to 5-1.

The next game was the first night game in World Series history. The Pirates won to tie the series at two games each, and then completed the three-game sweep at home when Nelson Briles shut out the Birds.

Back at Memorial Stadium, the Orioles extended the match by winning the sixth game, but Steve Blass and Roberto Clemente combined to win the seventh game, 2-1.

What made the Pirates great was that no one on the 1971 World Champion Pirates cared how much melanin—skin pigment—his teammate had, or what language he spoke.

All they cared about was winning.