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The Story Behind The MLB's First Starting Lineup Of All Black And Latino Players

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In October 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates won baseball's World Series. But just weeks earlier, the club recorded another milestone, one that still resonates 50 years later. WESA's Essay's Bill O'Driscoll has the story of the Major League's first starting lineup of all Black and Latino players.

BILL O'DRISCOLL, BYLINE: It was the night of September 1, 1971, and the Pirates were playing the Philadelphia Phillies in Pittsburgh. After a few innings, starting first baseman Al Oliver was sitting on the bench when he noticed something about his team. He turned to third baseman Dave Cash.

AL OLIVER: I said, Dave, you know, we got all brothers out there on the field.

O'DRISCOLL: He was right. From rookie second baseman to all-star pitcher Dock Ellis, all nine Pirates were either African American or Latino. At the time, no one on the Pirates knew it was a first. Oliver says he didn't learn for days. And the game itself didn't matter in the standings. The Pirates, led by future Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente, who was born in Puerto Rico, and a Black slugger...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: As Willie Stargell stands in...

O'DRISCOLL: ...Were atop their division and headed for the playoffs. But word about the lineup created a buzz in Pittsburgh's Black community.

MARK SOUTHERS: We talked about it, yeah. We definitely talked about it.

O'DRISCOLL: Playwright and director Mark Southers was then a 9-year-old Little Leaguer living in Pittsburgh's Hill District.

SOUTHERS: It was like Obama getting elected in our young minds, you know? Back then it was something that you never thought would happen.

O'DRISCOLL: First baseman Al Oliver says Pirates players shrugged it off.

OLIVER: It was no big deal to us, minority or majority. We were just a team, and we knew whoever was put on the field was going to do the job.

O'DRISCOLL: To understand why that lineup was momentous, remember that while Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line in 1947, racial progress was slow. Twenty-four years later, Black and Latino players still made up just 25% of all Major Leaguers. On the Pirates, though, that figure was twice as high - half the team. But one mystery remains. Why that lineup that night? True, the Pirates' starting eight routinely included six Black or Latino players, anyway. The key was that against the left-handed Phillies pitcher, the Pirates manager would normally have started a right-handed hitter at first base. Instead, that day, he penciled in lefty Al Oliver. Author Bruce Markusen says the late Danny Murtaugh was coy about why.

BRUCE MARKUSEN: When he was asked about it after the game - you know, did you know you had nine Blacks out there? - and he made a remark along the lines, well, I thought we had nine Pirates out there.

O'DRISCOLL: The game, of course, also proved a landmark for Latino players. That point was driven home just six weeks later when the Pirates beat the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles to win the World Series. Roberto Clemente was named series MVP. And in what his biographer David Maraniss called one of the most memorable acts of his life, Clemente chose to speak his first post-series words to the media in Spanish.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERTO CLEMENTE: (Speaking Spanish).

O'DRISCOLL: Clemente was greeting his sons and parents. But in terms of messages about Latinos' new prominence in baseball, it was one for the ages. First baseman Al Oliver feels similarly about being on that groundbreaking team.

OLIVER: I feel great about it, to have been part of that history - September 1 in Pittsburgh.

O'DRISCOLL: For NPR News, I'm Bill O'Driscoll in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOUDCHORD AND OATMELLO'S "CARDINAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.