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Archive for June, 2009

How the 1971 Pirates rocked Baseball

Posted by athomeatfenway on June 24, 2009

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The Team that Changed Baseball.  Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates.   By Bruce Markusen.  Westhole Yardley. 2006. 213 pages.

Willie Stargell was in 1971 to the Pirates what David Ortiz was to the Red Sox in 2004.

Bob Robertson hit three home runs in one NLCS game — off 3 different Giant lefties !!!

The Orioles won 14 in a row heading into the Series, and were a 7-5 Vegas favorite to repeat as Kings of the MLB, but instead we had a Series to remember.

All of this was long since forgotten by me.  Old memories wrapped in the shroud of one man who died when his humane mission ended in a crash at sea.

I saw him play at Shea in 1970.  His base running shocked me.  His outfield arm amazed me.  He was put together differently, and did things no one could do as well.

Clemente was so well rounded and unique, and his passing so sorrowful, I forgot about the joy that occurred in Pittsburgh 15 months before he died.

The author does a nice job with the context and telling of the season, another  tale of civil rights and team work.


Markuson paints a still life of civil rights progress.  Few blacks made the majors in the first 8 seasons after Jackie broke the color line.  In 1955, 12 Blacks were in the Majors, including Clemente.  A small, limited number was allowed. 

The progress was uneven. 

The 1960 New York Yankees had Ellie Howard, Jesse Gonder, Hector Lopez and Luis Arroyo. 

The ’60 Pirates had Clemente, Gene Baker, Roman Meijas, R.C. Stevens, Joe Christopher, Bernie Daniels and Diomedes Olivo, which was more color than the Yankee team they would beat on Mazeroski’s stunning World Series walk off HR that year, but about average for major league baseball.

The Bucs looked quite different by 1970.  The Pirate played 15 minorities alongside 21 whites over the course of that long season.  Sanguillen, Stargell, Matty Alou and Clemente, all men of color, were the stars.

The only thing they lacked was color in the infield.  GM Joe L. Brown, the son of famed comedic actor Joe E. Brown, would change that as well with a couple of all stars-to-be, like Cash in the bank.


The opening day starting lineup/batting order on was:  Mazeroski, 2B; Richie Hebner, 3B; Roberto Clemente, RF;  Manny Sanguillen, C; Bob Robertson, 1B, Willie Stargell, LF; Al Oliver, CF; Jackie Hernandez, SS and Dock Ellis, P.

Dave Cash would soon replace Mazeroski. There were other changes.

Stargell, long criticized for not living up to his potential and failing to control his weight, would move up in the batting order.

By May 1, he was firmly embedded as the clean up hitter.  A remarkable April has placed him there.  Wilver Dornel Stargell, the product of Oakland’s Alemeda tenements, had been denied in years past by Forbes Field’s 406 ft. power alleys. 

The friendlier confines of Three Rivers Stadium had replaced those of Forbes in July 1970. 

Having never hit more than 33 HR’s in a season before, Stargell’s MLB record 11 HR’s in April foreshadowed a leap to 48 taters in 1971.  He would go on to average 42 HR’s from 1971 to 1973, the power pinnacle of his HOF career.

He finished April with 11 HR’s, a .347 BA overall, and a .300 BA against lefthanders.  He had become the complete hitter, a man who could hit for average and power against anyone.

He was now the clean up hitter, a maker of moon shots, no matter  the opposing starter.  You could no longer walk Clemente, the #3 batter, and then bring in a lefty for Stargell to end the inning.  That wasn’t going to work anymore.


Why did Clemente become a Pirate ?  Because Pittsburgh discovered that Brooklyn was hiding him in the minors, pulling him from games early, limiting his p.t. with their Montreal affiliate. The rule then was that if you signed a player for $4,000 or more, you had to bring him to the big club, or else he could be drafted by another team. 

Markusen inaccurately claims that Brooklyn already had a great outfield in 1953 (Robinson, Furillo, Snyder), and that if they had brought Clemente to Brooklyn in 1954, he would have rotted on the bench.

Markusen was wrong.  The Brooklyn outfield solidified.  Between ’53 and ’56, the 3rd outfield spot was played by 3 players with none of them exceeding 76 games in any of those seasons.  Meanwhile, Roberto debuted in ’55, with his new team in Pittsburgh, averaging 128 games in his first two years.

Dude, the Dodgers should have promoted Clemente.  There are no excuses.


The 1971 Pirates ate together, drank together, went to bars and to each others homes. 

There was lots of good natured racial jousting.

“That’s the problem with the world today.”, said Al Oliver, “That’s why racism is going on in the world today.  People don’t sit down and learn and take the time to get to know people.  After all, hey, we’re all God’s children.  That’s the way we approached it in 1971.”.


The ’71 Pirates began the year by going 14-11 in April, carried by Stargell’s 11 HR’s, overcoming injuries to Clemente and Cash.

In May, Clemente got hot, lifting his B.A. by 50 points to .295.  He still could do it all.  In a May 19 game at Riverfront in Cinn., he had 4 hits including a triple and an inside-the–park HR, a rather stunning accomplishment for a 36 year old.  Pittburgh beat the Reds, 6-1.

On May 20, Murtaugh had chest and arm pains, leaving the team in the hands of Bill Virdon until June 6.  While Murtaugh was away, Bucs pitching excelled.  Blass established himself as the clear #2 behind Ellis with an 11 K, 2-0 shutout in Cinn..  Then Bob Moose throttled the Cubs with a complete game 3-hitter.  Grant and Giusti helped the Bucs win nearly every game they led after 6 innings, and Bob Veale quietly emerged as a bullpen favorite.

The Pirates finished May with a 29-19 record, in second place, 2.5 games behind St. Louis.


On June 8, Cash’s BA stood at .356, tied with Joe Torre for 3rd place in the batting title race.

On June 10, with Walker, Johnson and Veale banged up, and Nelson and Moose away on Military Reserve leave, Pittsburgh had just 6 pitchers available  —-  and they still swept the Cardinals to solidify their lead on a 3-1 victory by Blass, the power of Al Oliver, and a come from behind 5-4 win over Steve Carlton with a top of the ninth rally.

Next, Clemente lifted the team, first with his glove.  He made a leaping catch on a gashed knee and bruised ankle, reaching over the HR line in the Astrodome to rob Bob Watson.  Then, with his bat, smacking a game winning 2 run HR the next night to win 6-4 in Houston.

Stargell’s hitting continued to drive victories.  His 23rd longball was a tape measure into the third deck at Three Rivers in a 7-1 win on June 20, in game 1 of a double header.  In the second game of that twin bill, Stargell hit a game winning grand slam to notch a 7-3 victory.  His 25th came the next night to defeat Koosman and the Mets 6-0 and lift Dock Ellis to an 11-3 record.

Stargell was a challenge.  As a young, fireballing Nolan Ryan said of Willie, “You’ve got to outguess Stargell…You can’t give him the same pitch twice in a row.”


Willie Stargell reached the July 4 weekend with 28 HR’s, and his team held a 2 game lead over the second place Mets in the NL East.

At the All Star break, Willie sat at 30 HR’s, his last coming in the 8th inning of a dramatic come-from-behind win over Phil Niekro and the Braves. (Guisti got his 19th save.)  And Stargell deflected the expected media inquiries about his chances to surpass Ruth and Maris.

The Pittsburgh Pirates on the 1971 All Star squad included Stargell, Ellis, who was then 14-3, Clemente and Sanguillen.  Dave Giusti, with his 19 saves, was a glaring omission.  Sparky Anderson had taken Clay Carroll over the Pirates stopper.

The loquacious Dock Ellis at the All Star break:  Dock told the media that Sparky Anderson would never start a brother in the All Star game.  But Sparky then surprised Doc, announcing that Ellis would indeed be his starter.  That caused a media and fan reaction.  When Dock received numerous letters criticizing his lack of faith in “the man”, and the media questioned his attitude, Dock stuck with his story that Baseball was still racially backward.  He made no apologies for saying that Baseball would never showcase a brother in the biggest game of the year.  In Doc’s opinion, black players received Less.  Less attention.  Less endorsements.  Less promotion.

Ellis squared off with Vida Blue in the 1971 All Star game.  Leading 3-0 in the bottom of the 3rd, Doc yielded a single to Aparicio, followed by a 520 ft. HR to Reginald Martinez Jackson under the glaring lights of national television.  The worse was yet to come.  Frank Robinson snapped a 14 at bat All Star Game hitless streak by taking an Ellis fastball into the rightfield stands, blazing the way to a 4-3 AL win and an All Star MVP Award for Frank, an L for Doc.


The 1971 Pirates simply tore it up after the break.   At least for a while.

As they coasted into August, they had ridden Willie Stargell’s career year, great pitching and fielding, and Murtaugh’s uncanny ability to make the right moves.

They met August with an 8 game lead over second-place St. Louis.

And then, the inevitable losing streak that follows a hot streak occurred.  The Pirates lost 11 of 15 games.  A perfect storm of injuries and poor play cut their lead over St. Louis to 5 games.

On Sept. 1, they were 26 games over .500, playing .594 ball with a 5.5 game lead.  Murtaugh looked over the players available, and made his line up card out with the best nine starters he had:

Stennett 2b

Clines CF

Clemente RF

Stargell RF

Sanguillen C

Cash 3b

Oliver 1b

Hernandez SS

Ellis P

That lineup represented, for the first time in MLB history, a starting lineup made entirely of men of color.


The Bucs turned on the power, speed and pitching now.  They were up 9.5 games on Sept. 15.

On 9-22, they clinched the division vs. Bob Gibson, with Giusti recording his 29th save, closing out his former team, and closing out the division winning game for the second year w his palm ball.

The team was multi-talented and multi-racial.

They were led not by a black, white or Hispanic guy, but rather by all THREE. 

Mazeroski, Clemente and Stargell.

Stargell would finish with a 295 B.A., 28 dingers and 125 RBI.  Clemente batted .341 with 86 RBI.  Robertson chipped in 26 HR’s, Clines hit .308, Blass notched 15 wins,  Giusti had 30 saves and 58 appearances.

Pittsburgh led the NL in Hits, Total Bases, HR, Slugging, and Runs.  They were 5th  with a 3.31 team ERA, 3rd in shut outs, and first in Saves.

Mazeroski:  “This (1971) is the strongest Pittsburgh team in my 16 years with the club.”

They finished at 97-65, the best in the N.L.  Their NLCS opponent was a 90-72 Giant team with four future hall of Famers:  Perry, Marichal, Mays and McCovey  — not to mention Bobby Bonds.  The Pirates were headed to the NLCS with a bashing outfield of Clemente, Stargell and Oliver, and 3 pitching headliners in Blass, Briles and Ellis.


The Giants took game 1 by a score of 5-4, as an unnerved Blass allowed two 2-run HR’s to McCovey & Fuentes in the bottom of the 3rd.

Pittsburgh triumphed 9-4 in game 2, as Bob Robertson smashed 3 home runs off three different lefties (Cumberland, Bryant & Hamilton), and middle reliever Bob Miller picks up a faltering Ellis.

The Bucs won Game 3, 2-1, when emergency starter Bob Johnson shuts down the Giants. Intended starter Briles pulls a hamstring in the bullpen minutes before the start.

The Pirates close out the NLCS, 9-5, as Kison tosses 6.2 IP’s of scoreless ball after Blass can’t get through the 3rd.  Giusti locks down the victory getting the last 7 outs of the game.

The 1971 Bucs won the NLCS on the power of Robertson & Hebner, and the strength of a strong pitching staff.  They won despite an 0-for-14 from Stargell, and zero extra base hits from Clemente.

Now they would move on to face 7-5 World Series Favorite Baltimore Orioles, a 4-armed, slugging monster that ended the regular season with an 11-game winning streak and a 101-57 record.


In Baltimore —

WS Game 1:  Baltimore wins 5-3 as McNally bounces back from a 3-run deficit, and Dock Ellis eats his boastful words.

WS Game 2: Baltimore wins 11-3, This Monday afternoon game goes off after the first rained out Series game since 1962 is postponed on Sunday.   The O’s are led in the field and at the plate by Brooks Robinson, as the Weaver Men throttle surprise starter Bob Robertson.

In Pittsburgh –

WS Game 3: Pittsburgh wins 5-1 as Blass and Sanguillen take a no-hitter into the 5th, and a shut out into the 7th , whereupon Frank Robinson homers.   The Bucs scratch out 2 runs in the first six innings.  Then, Robertson misses a bunt sign in the bottom of the 7th and whacks a 3-run homer off Cuellar.  The Pirate victory ends a 16 game winning streak for the Orioles.

WS Game 4: Pittsburgh wins 4-3.  In the first night game in World Series history, middle reliever Kison picks up starter Luke Walker, who is driven out in the 1st.  Kison’s 6.3 innings of scoreless relief gave way to pinch hitter Milt May, who unties the game in the bottom of the 7th with an RBI single he smacks from his Carl Yastrzemski style batting stance.

WS Game 5: Pittsburgh wins 4-0.  Nellie Briles cried in the batter’s box hearing a loud &  long ovation from Buc fans late in the game.  He had pinpoint control all night.  He pitched a complete game, 2-hit shutout, facing just 29 O’s.  Nellie’s performance ranks only behind Don Larsen’s perfect game in efficiency.  The Orioles have now failed to score a run in 17 innings.

Now, down 3-2 in games, the Orioles golden defense has committed 9 errors and yielded 5 unearned runs.  Unthinkable.


In Baltimore –

WS Game 6: Baltimore wins 3-2.  Johnson, Giusti and Miller pitch to a 2-2 draw against  Dobson and McNally.  Frank Robinson walks, steals, and gets sac flied home in the 10th to force a game 7.

WS Game 7: Pittsburgh wins 2-1.  Clemente’s tape measure HR and Jose Pagan’s RBI single are all Steve Blass needs to win a complete game, 4-hit victory against Cuellar.

Clemente was voted the World Series MVP, with twelve hits in twenty-nine at-bats and a .414 average.


Markusen admirably balances the banal with the dramatic. 

He helps the reader breathe some of that deliciosly warm air from the summer of 1971.

Certain passages in this book, notably Robertson’s 3-HR playoff game, reverberate with the profoundness of an oft forgotten, powerful moment in baseball history.

I always suspected that Reggie’s 3-HR game in the ’78 Series was over ballyhooed.  He’s not the only guy who did it in the post season.  Just the most puffed-up one. Hey, I’m a working man and I root for the journeyman. Hats off to Bob Robertson. 

Pirate announcer Bob Prince once said of him, “Robertson could hit a ball out of any park—including Yellowstone.”

Don’t miss this book.

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