By WILL GRAVES, AP sports writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) – At the moment, it wasn’t a big deal. Just another midweek game in the middle of a pennant race.
The top nine players available raced onto the field at Three Rivers Stadium for the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 1, 1971.
The fact that all nine – Rennie Stennett, Gene Clines, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Manny Sanguillen, Dave Cash, Al Oliver, Jackie Hernandez and Dock Ellis – were black or of Latin descent didn’t even occur to them. until after.
Oliver has always found it curious as to why he was not celebrated as Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Yet in recent years he has come to regard it as a kind of compliment, a nod to him. eye for the color blind approach that Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh has taken to his job.
“We didn’t go out on the court, you know, to make history,” Oliver said Wednesday night as he honored the 50th anniversary of a 10-7 win over Philadelphia. “But it turned out that was history. And the thing that I feel good about is that it proved the unity we had in our team and that we had a manager who really (n ‘was not) concerned about the race.
Oliver, a seven-time All-Star in his 18-year career, believes the sea of black and brown faces with the gold “P” on their caps was simply a byproduct of how GM Joe Brown has builds a team.
“(He said) ‘What we did, we hired players because they can play, not the church they went to,” said Oliver, who played first that night. “And every time I hear that quote I have to laugh because it’s true. It doesn’t matter which church you go to as long as you can play ball.
Something that was never a problem in the days of the Lumber Company in Pittsburgh. The win over Philadelphia that night came in an 18-5 streak that saw the Pirates win the NL East. Pittsburgh beat San Francisco in four games in the NL Championship Series before making up from a two-game deficit to beat Baltimore in the World Series.
“You can never underestimate what we thought we could do as a team because we could beat anyone,” Cash said. “Baltimore beat everyone, but they didn’t beat us.”
Not with Hall of Famers like Clemente in right field and Stargell in left and Oliver generally in between. It’s telling that the only thing Oliver noticed about the lineup wasn’t its racial makeup but its place in it: seventh.
“I thought I was a pretty good hitter,” said Oliver, a 0.303 lifelong hitter, laughed. “But when I looked at the map, I got to seventh place, and I said, ‘Hey, that must be a great team.'”
It was. As Oliver remembers the day greeted with a shrug of sorts, in five decades it has taken on new meaning for the grandfather of four.
“It is important for (my children and grandchildren) to know that their people are a part of baseball history,” he said. “I think that’s the key. You know, it’s something that can be passed on, something that can’t be taken away. And I just feel good that they are aware of that fact.
Although it is a moment that can be difficult to reproduce. Surviving members of the 1971 squad believe it’s more likely that one team will feature an all-Latin lineup before one made up of all Black and Latin players. Black baseball participation has plummeted across the board, and black players currently make up less than 10% of Major League rosters.
“African American kids turned to basketball, they turned to football,” Oliver said. “And the reason they did that is that’s all they really see on TV, in the commercials, all the football players and basketball players. But you really don’t see a lot of baseball players doing commercials in baseball. And, you know, as an African American individual you tend to do things that are just like you.
This is in stark contrast to how Oliver grew up in Ohio in the 1950s and 1960s, when he idolized Jackie Robinson and Frank Robinson.
“I knew Clemente was playing, and (Willie) Mays and (Hank) Aaron,” Oliver said. “We used to get their gum cards all the time. So we had something to watch that looked like us. And until we get back to it, we might not see another mix of these types of players together. “
During one night, anyway, Oliver and his teammates played a part in something that grew far bigger than them. For 2 hours and 44 minutes in front of 11,278 fans, the Pirates became the ideal of what civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King preached.
“He was trying to explain to our society that when we come together, good things can happen,” Oliver said. “And as a result of that, on September the 1st, 1971, he proved that when we come together good things can happen.”
It also brought Clemente’s iconic career full circle. His son, Roberto Clemente Jr., said his father felt he represented all minorities when he broke into the majors with Pittsburgh in 1955. In what became the penultimate season of his career, proof of his influence stood beside him in the clubhouse and on the pitch.
“I know it was a special day to have all of your brothers on that team that day,” Clemente Jr. said. “And I knew it was a special time because it meant (the players minority) had arrived. “
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