Remembering the ’71 Pirates, ‘the team that changed baseball’

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Editor’s note: Sporting News senior writer and proud Pittsburgh native Mike DeCourcy was 11 in October 1971. The Sporting News was 85. The Pirates hadn’t been to a World Series in 11 years, and it would be almost 40 more before author Bruce Markusen would call Roberto Clemente and the ’71 Pittsburgh Pirates “the team that changed baseball.” Fielding a predominantly Black and Latino everyday lineup, that Pirates team beat the Orioles in seven games, winning the World Series 50 years ago this weekend.

Do we know when we’re witnessing history? Frequently, yes, though not always. Sometimes it takes years before, in retrospect, we can say, definitively, “That was historic.”

It can take time to to assert with authority, as Bruce Markusen did in his 2009 book “The Team that Changed Baseball, Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates,” that this team was unique in its impact on Major League Baseball in the years, even decades, that ensued.

And yet, how would an 11-year-old in Pittsburgh have any sense of that, let alone care about it? His favorite team was on the verge of a world championship.

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DeCourcy: “I remember the day the Pirates started an all-Black lineup. They made a big deal of it on the TV news. I hadn’t been around long enough to appreciate the significance. Roberto Clemente was my hero. I loved Manny Sanguillen and Willie Stargell. I didn’t understand why race would be an issue for anyone.”

MORE: TSN Archives: Champ Bucs batting 1.000 as seers

History tiptoed in on MLB “in the middle of the week in the middle of a pennant race,” The Associated Press noted 50 years after the fact:

“The best nine players available ran onto the field at Three Rivers Stadium for the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sept. 1, 1971.

“The fact 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 really occur to them until afterward.”

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“Not since the peak of the Negro Leagues,” Markusen wrote in his book, “had a team like this taken to the field.”

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The Sporting News dated Sept. 18, 1971, noted in a brief story that Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh’s lineup of Blacks and Latinos pounded out 13 hits. In the story, slugger Willie Stargell recalled Pittsburgh fielding a lineup of eight position players of color in 1967 in Philadelphia, but the starting pitcher in that game was white, he said.

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“We didn’t take the field, you know, to make history,” Al Oliver said last month while honoring the 50th anniversary of a 10-7 Wednesday win over the Phillies in September 1971. “But as it turned out, it was history.”

For years, Oliver, a seven-time All-Star, found it curious that the Pirates lineup on Sept. 1 wasn’t celebrated the way Jackie Robinson was for breaking the color barrier in 1947.

In recent years, he said, he has come to take it as a nod, a compliment of sorts, to Murtaugh’s color-blind approach to his job.

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Murtaugh was asked by a local reporter after that Sept. 1, 1971, game if he realized all nine starters were Black or Latino, according to Markusen’s book.

“Did I have nine Blacks in there?” Murtaugh said, feigning surprise. “I thought I had nine Pirates out there on the field. Once a man puts on a Pirate uniform, I don’t notice the color of his skin.”

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The Pirates would win the NL East and beat the NL West champion Giants in the NLCS. They would face the defending champion Orioles, who swept the A’s in the ALCS. It was the Pirates’ first World Series appearance since 1960, the year after Mike DeCourcy was born.

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DeCourcy: I was in sixth grade in 1971, my first year at Greenock School after finally being allowed to leave Catholic school and go to public school with all the kids from my neighborhood. That was a huge victory for me. We were only a month in when Mrs. Bunson rolled a television into the room a little after lunchtime on Monday. We were going to watch Game 2 of the World Series in school! I do remember wondering if the kids at St. Denis were getting to watch the game. I don’t ever remember seeing a TV on the premises in five years there.

What I remember about that afternoon is the television was black-and-white, that Richie Hebner hit a home run that didn’t really matter, the Pirates lost to go down 0-2 and we watched much of it on TV before the final bell rang and we hopped on the school bus for home. I wasn’t really worried that they were in such a hole. Both those games had been at Baltimore. I figured there was a chance the Pirates could come home and win three straight.

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The Pirates did exactly that, including Game 4, obviously historic at the time as the first night game in World Series history. Clemente, hitting .417 in Games 3-5, made good on his assurances to teammates after Game 2, noted in The Sporting News: “Don’t worry, I’ll pick you up when we get to Pittsburgh.” The series went back to Baltimore, with the Pirates up, three games to two, and a chance to win it in Game 6.

MORE: First World Series night game was ‘success with a capital S

DeCourcy: I was only 11 years old during the 1971 World Series, but I had my priorities straight. Game 6 was on a Saturday afternoon in Baltimore. Elizabeth Forward High School was playing a home football game that afternoon; we were one of the only schools that didn’t have lights for our field so all our home games were Saturday afternoons at 1:30.

The game was against our rival Thomas Jefferson, and neither team had lost yet. I hated to miss it, but there was no way I was going to the game. Every other kid in our neighborhood chose to attend the football game, including my brother Pat. My dad took a bunch of them.

But miss Game 6 for a high school football game? Not a chance. The Pirates could win the World Series that day, and I’d miss it. I was not going to allow that to happen. So I stayed home with my mother, and I watched more or less alone as the Pirates loaded the bases in the top of the 10th inning of a 2-2 game. They failed to get the lead run home. The Orioles won it in the bottom of the inning. Even though it was agonizing, I didn’t regret my choice.

I think EF lost 48-6, something like that.

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The Pirates’ Game 7 lineup in Baltimore: Dave Cash, 2B; Gene Clines, CF; Roberto Clemente, RF; Bob Robertson, 1B; Manny Sanguillen, C; Willie Stargell, LF; Jose Pagan, 3B; Jackie Hernandez, SS; Steve Blass, P.

Final score: Pirates 2, Orioles 1.

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DeCourcy: There was a knock on my door not long after Pirates first baseman Bob Robertson caught the throw at first base to officially record the final out of the Series. To have visitors at that moment was not a surprise, because why wouldn’t the entire Old Hills Road neighborhood be celebrating this championship together?

And yet it was, because my friend Dave Plum announced that his father was offering to take us downtown to join in the festivities there. It wasn’t a long trip home from Baltimore, so the Pirates were expected to arrive at Greater Pittsburgh International Airport in the early evening and then greet their fans as the team caravan drove a slow route through the downtown streets.

Arnie Plum was an attorney with offices in the Oliver Building. There was a church a block over on Sixth Street that had a small grassy area in front of what I’m pretty sure was a graveyard. We all set up there: me, Dave, my brother Pat, Dave’s sister Linda and Mr. Plum.

We were there for hours, and the atmosphere was festive. People lined Sixth Avenue and shared the joy and probably had some beers. And we all waited. The Pirates were supposed to show up, and what a sight that would be! Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Manny Sanguillen — all of our favorites would be right there on the biggest night of their professional lives.

Occasionally a car would round the corner and start driving toward us and the crowd would grow excited. This is it! They’e here! But it never was them, just some guys hanging out of a convertible. Eventually — I’ve no idea what time we gave up — we went home.

The parade we’d been promised never happened. But we still had that championship. And that night, even if it wasn’t as planned. It was a night I’ve remembered for 50 years and plan to treasure for the rest of my life.

MORE: Why did the ’71 Pirates’ homecoming parade not happen?

History? From The Sporting News’ recap in the immediate aftermath of Game 7: “In the Orioles’ quiet dressing room, Brooks and Frank Robinson were answering questions patiently. ‘They did everything a little better than we did. That’s all,’ said Brooks Robinson.”

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Some four decades later, Markusen — noting that the ’71 Pirates’ success moved other future champions to be more color-blind — closed his retrospective account of the season and the Series:

“(T)he 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates proved conclusively, and really for the first time, that a pool of athletes, representing a variety of backgrounds and nationalities, could work together effectively and win a World Series championship. For that reason, they deserve to be called The Team That Changed Baseball.”

Senior editorial consultant Bob Hille has worked for or with Sporting News for more than 25 years.



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