As Pittsburgh Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh made out the lineup for the game on September 1, 1971, he wasn't thinking about anything in particular. It was to be a night game vs. the Philadelphia Phillies at home for the Pirates, in their new ballpark, Three Rivers Stadium.
The historical significance of the evening was apparently apparent to no one. Perhaps that fact in itself was a tribute to the progress Major League Baseball had made over the past 24 years.
Jackie Robinson had broken major league baseball's color line and become its first African-American player of the 20th century in 1947. The Pirates own team integration occurred when Curt Roberts came aboard to join them in 1950. Each and every big league club had had at least one player of color by 1959, when the Boston Red Sox stopped being the last hold out by putting Elijah “Pumpsie” Green on their roster in 1959.
On this soon-to-be-historic night, every player of the nine Pirates was black. As Murtaugh penciled in the night's starters, the lineup was written to be:
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
Five African-Americans, two Panamanians, one Puerto Rican, and one Cuban. Pirates third baseman Richie Hebner and shortstop Gene Alley (both white) would probably have been in the lineup that evening, but both were hurt.
When the game began and the Pirates took the field, maybe a few noticed, but not many. Around the third or fourth inning, first baseman Al Oliver recalled third baseman Dave Cash stopping him with a news flash. In a cross between pride and amazement, Cash told him, “Hey scoop, we got all brothers out there.” (“Scoop" being Oliver's nickname because of his ability to scoop relayed throws out of the dirt.)
The Pirates were to go on to win the game by a final score of 10-7.
When asked about the historic significance of that night's game, manager Murtaugh replied that he had made up a lineup of "the nine best athletes....the best nine I happened to put out there tonight happened to be black. No big deal. Next question.”
Did Murtaugh realize the historical significance of the breakthrough game? If he did, he never let on, maintaining his inattention to color to his grave. Murtaugh was to pass on at the age of 59 in 1976, and he never wavered from his story that he simply put "the best nine athletes" on the field.
It all fits together fine and make sense, but for one player, the one player who shifted the scales all the way. The one player not in the lineup was the white Bob Robertson at first base.
Robertson was the Pirates regular first baseman that season, starting 126 games. He ended the year with 26 home runs and a respectable .271 batting average. Yet for whatever reason, Murtaugh decided to bench him and replace him at first with Al Oliver, normally the team's center fielder.
Oliver did have experience at first base earlier in his career, but why put him in at first that night? Only Murtaugh was ever to know his reasoning, and he never strayed from his earlier comments.
The Pirates 25-man roster that season consisted of 14 whites, six African-Americans and seven Latinos. When asked about the game, Robertson replied, “It didn't make a difference if you were black, yellow, green, purple, whatever. We enjoyed each other's company. We got along fine.”
Richie Hebner recalled: “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.”
The game went largely unnoticed the next day, mainly due to the fact that Pittsburgh's two main daily newspapers were both out on strike. (The strike was to last that year from May 25th to September 19th.)
In an interview 40 years later, all Oliver said, “In the '30s, it would have been totally impossible in most people's minds to believe what happened in 1971. If you were living in the '40s, you wouldn't have believed it.”
The Pirates were to go on to win the 1971 World Series vs. the Baltimore Orioles in seven games the following October. It was to be their first world championship in 11 years.