Fifty years ago today, the Pittsburgh Pirates quietly made racial history. That night, without fanfare, manager Danny Murtaugh sent onto the field a major league baseball team consisting of nine African American and Latino players.
When I say that Pittsburgh Pirates skipper made baseball history quietly, I mean that literally: Danny Murtaugh never explained why he did what he did on Sept. 1, 1971, then or later. The event garnered little media attention. ESPN wouldn't launch for another eight years, so there was no "Baseball Tonight," let alone a dedicated MLB channel. Also, both of Pittsburgh's daily newspapers were on strike, which restricted coverage. That seems a quaint concept in this era of shrinking or dying newspapers, although the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review made up for it over the years with nice anniversary stories on the 1971 game that foreshadowed so much racial progress.
In the ensuing five decades, African Americans and Latinos have run big city newsrooms and managed major league baseball teams, served as attorney general, secretary of state, secretary of defense -- and been elected president and vice president of the United States.
The goal, as the Rev. Martin Luther King had told his fellow Americans, was a country where everyone would be judged by their individual strengths and virtues -- "the content of their character," was his evocative phrase. And on Sept. 1, 1971, Danny Murtaugh did just that, while trying, primarily, to win a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Three Rivers Stadium.
That season, two of the Pirates' eight starting position players were white. But third baseman Richie Hebner was injured 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. Robertson hit right-handed, which should have given him the advantage.
But Danny Murtaugh sometimes managed by instinct -- Woodie Fryman had previously played for the Pirates -- and in this case his gut feeling was proven right: Al Oliver doubled off Fryman in the first inning as the Pirates erupted for five runs.
So who was on the mound for the home team? History hinged on it. Most of the Pittsburgh pitchers where white, but Los Angeles-born African American Dock Ellis, one of the two aces on the Pirates' pitching staff, was the starter. Ellis, who would finish the year with a 19-9 won-loss record, had also started the 1971 All-Star game. On this night, he wouldn't get out of the second inning. Yet a barrier had been broken.
"Hey, we got all brothers over here," Dave Cash recalls Oliver telling him. Gene Clines, who played in center that game, remembers overhearing a batboy saying, "The Homestead Grays are playing tonight," a reference to the iconic Negro League team of the 1930s and 1940s. Standing in centerfield, Clines thought about that observation and said to himself, "Oh, wow!"
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.