Good morning, it's Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. Yesterday, Joe Biden spoke in Pittsburgh about the social unrest testing this country. The president offered a rebuttal a few hours later, and we have coverage below.
Forty-nine years ago today, also in the Steel City, Pittsburgh Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh quietly sent out a lineup consisting of nine African American and Latino players. It was the first time this had happened in professional baseball outside of the Negro Leagues. When I say Murtaugh did it "quietly," I mean that literally: The old-school skipper never explained why he did what he did, then or later.
The milestone attracted little media coverage, which seems curious now, but remember: ESPN did not exist. In addition, both major Pittsburgh newspapers were on strike on Sept. 1, 1971. That seems a quaint concept in this era of shrinking news operations, although both the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review tried to make up for it on the 40th anniversary of the 1971 game that foreshadowed so much progress.
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In the ensuing four decades, African Americans and Hispanics have run big city newsrooms and TV networks, managed major league baseball teams, and served as studio heads. We have had a black attorney general, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, secretary of state, president of the National League -- and president of the United States.
The stated aim of the civil rights movement, the Rev. Martin Luther King told his fellow Americans in 1963, was a land where everyone would be judged by the content of their character. Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey had extended that logic to the baseball diamond 16 years earlier -- and won the point: On Sept. 1, 1971, Danny Murtaugh was mainly trying to win a baseball game against the Phillies.
Two of the Pirates' eight starting position players that season were white, as were most of their starting pitchers. But third baseman Richie Hebner was hurt, and was replaced by 23-year-old Dave Cash, then in his first full season in the big leagues. The other white starter, slugging first baseman Bob Robertson, was inexplicably benched that night in favor of Al Oliver, who usually played centerfield. Going by the book, Murtaugh's strategy was baffling: Phillies pitcher Woodie Fryman was left-handed, as was Oliver, and Oliver didn't hit him well. Bob Robertson batted right-handed, which should have given him the advantage.
But in those days before "advanced metrics," baseball lifer Murtaugh sometimes managed by instinct. In this case his gut feeling was right: Al Oliver doubled off Fryman in the first inning as the Pirates erupted for five runs in a game they would eventually win.
But who was on the mound for the home team? History hinged on it. That night it was Los Angeles-born African American Dock Ellis, one of the two aces on the Pirates' pitching staff. Ellis, who would finish the year with a 19-9 win-loss record, had started the All-Star game that year. On this night, he didn't get out of the second inning. But by then, a historic barrier had fallen.
"Hey, we got all brothers over here," Dave Cash recalled Al Oliver telling him. Gene Clines, who played center that game, remembers overhearing a batboy saying, "The Homestead Grays are playing tonight." He meant it respectfully. The Grays were the iconic Negro League team of the 1930s and 1940s. Standing in centerfield that night, Clines thought about that comparison and just said to himself, "Oh, wow!"
Led by two great stars -- 37-year-old Roberto Clemente and 31-year-old Willie Stargell -- Murtaugh's Pirates would win the World Series that year over the Baltimore Orioles. The Pirates would duplicate that achievement at the end of the decade, again beating the Orioles, although by then the great Clemente had died tragically and Murtaugh had retired.
But the spirit that began on this date in 1971 was rekindled eight seasons later as Stargell and the other polyester-clad Pirates adopted Sister Sledge's disco hit "We Are Family!" as their theme song and competed like they meant it. Yes, the Washington Nationals danced in their dugout after home runs last season, and it was glorious to watch. But in 1979, the Pirates pranced, too, and were joined by the fans in the stands at Three Rivers Stadium, and eventually all across the city of Pittsburgh and the suburbs, too. These guys didn't just unite a baseball team, they united all of western Pennsylvania and it was a beautiful thing to see.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.