Pirates and Orioles were powerhouses in an era of firsts
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, June 19, 2011
Charles Manson got the death penalty that spring, though it was later deemed unconstitutional.
The Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles played six World Series games in broad daylight that fall, though daylight in the World Series was later deemed unconstitutional, at least effectively.
Seven thousand people were arrested in one day in one city protesting the Vietnam War that summer, just as the Constitution's 26th amendment was ready to give 18-year-olds the vote.
Forty years may have cobwebbed all of it amid drifts of mental dust, but a lot went down in 1971.
"It did; oh, it did," Al Oliver was saying the other day. "I didn't think much about it at the time, but I do now. I feel fortunate to have been part of history."
The Pirates first baseman/centerfielder, who was delivering line drives the whole summer, was talking specifically about the first day of September 1971, when manager Danny Murtaugh wrote the first all-minority lineup in Major League Baseball history. But he could have been appreciating the entirety of a season when cultural turbulence was little else but America's day-to-day backlighting, and when America's baseball was little short of divine.
The three-game series that starts here Monday night not only brings the Baltimore Orioles back to Pittsburgh for the dubious modern curiosity known as interleague play, it provides a homecoming for some 20 staff and players from that championship Pirates season.
Looking back through the prism of 40 years, the boys of lumber only grow fonder of its memories.
"When I think about it now, it's like I didn't realize how good we were," said Richie Hebner, the third baseman, now 63. "We had good pitching, but people looking back at the Lumber Company don't think about pitchers. Without pitching, it's a long, hot summer. You have to win a lot of games 2-1 and 3-2 to get to October, and we did, even if people came out to see us score 10 runs."
That was probably because Willie Stargell hit 48 home runs, because Roberto Clemente hit .341, and because those Bucs were offensively dangerous from one end of the dugout to the other. But Hebner is right. The pitchers were nearly as frightening. Dock Ellis was 14-3 at the All-Star break, and he started for the National League that July in Detroit. Steve Blass was on his way to 15 wins with a luminous 2.85 earned run average. Dave Giusti would be Fireman of the Year, with 30 saves.
And still with lumber and lightning and enviable depth, those Pirates were considerably overshadowed in that era by those Orioles, who were not only the defending world champions, who had not only followed that up with 105 wins in 1971, who not only had Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson and Paul Blair, but had four 20-game winners.
"Now you can look around some years and there aren't four 20-game winners on the 30 teams in the big leagues," Hebner said.
As recently as 2009, you could look around and not find even one anywhere.
"The Orioles were a machine," Blass said. "Sixteen in a row!"
That's a stat rarely unearthed in the 40 years since. When Blass pitched a complete game to beat Baltimore in Game 3 of the 1971 World Series, dragging Pittsburgh back to life, the Orioles had just run off 16 consecutive victories -- the last 11 games of the regular season, three in a row against the Oakland A's in the American League Championship Series, and the first two games of the Series by a combined 16-6.
"We were not in any danger of being overconfident," said Orioles ace Jim Palmer on the phone the other day. "I don't think you ever go into the World Series overconfident, but sure, we thought we could win. We had a formula for success on those teams and it had been long established."
That illustrates a particularly delicious aspect of baseball's 1971 climax. It matched two teams with a kind of confidence that could only have been equaled by the other.
"I don't know if we were cocky, but we knew we were good," Hebner said. "A lot of teams go to spring training and they know their last game is right there on the schedule. OK, we're here until, what is it, Oct. 2, yeah. But I remember when I went to spring training that yeah, I told my father, 'I won't be back here helping you dig graves that first week in October.' I used to tell a lot of people, you put that TV on in October and watch the Pirates. They're going to play a lot of games in October. I guess maybe that does sound a little cocky."
The Orioles assumed as much, as they'd been an October television staple in 1966, 1969 and 1970, all of which introduces the almost unimaginable counterpoint to this week's circumstance: Pittsburgh and Baltimore arrive at this series having combined for 31 consecutive summers of losing baseball. The Pirates, maybe you've heard, haven't had a winning season since 1992. The Orioles, even with a consistently robust payroll, haven't won since 1997. Not since 1983 has either team been to the World Series.
But baseball history, just like real history, comes with all manner of potential pratfalls, most without warning. In 1971, the Pirates and Orioles avoided all of them while the country continued the traumatic transition out of '60s culture and its attendant political upheaval. In March, 1st Lt. William Calley was found guilty at court martial of the murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians. In late June, officiating at the end of one of the most notorious intersections of sports and society, the Supreme Court cleared the one and only Muhammad Ali of all charges related to draft dodging. In another landmark ruling that year, the Court upheld the legality of busing and redistricting as tools for integrating schools. Integration might have been an issue best left to the top legal minds of the day, but it was no big deal in the office of the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
So here it is again for the record, Pittsburgh's starting lineup vs. Philadelphia, Sept. 1, 1971, or 24 years, 4 1/2 months after Jackie Robinson cracked the game's color barrier:
The first big league lineup ever without a single white face. Cash said to Oliver, "Look, it's all brothers out here."
"We always started five minority players," Oliver remembered. "If Dock [Ellis] pitched, then it was six, so just three being added, it seemed normal. The Pirates were long known as an organization that went after black and Latin players. But I'll tell you, I didn't even know it at game time. What was tricky about it that night is that, when I look at it it's ironic, but Murtaugh did not start Bob Robertson [a white first baseman] against [Philadelphia's] Woody Fryman, which he normally would have been against a left-handed pitcher."
Danny Murtaugh shrugged everything off. They were the nine who gave him the best chance to win when he sat down to fill out the lineup card. The historians would have to take it from there.
The '71 Pirates were loud progressives in that area as a team could be in that era. The whites accepted the blacks, who accepted the Latins, who accepted the whites, all of which you knew because they all teased the snot out of each other. Ellis called Robertson Archie Bunker.
No one grew terribly serious until that postseason, when Robertson's three-homer performance in San Francisco in the National League Championship Series catapulted those Pirates to the World Series, and the ultimate measurement of their worthiness against a team that moved one press box wag to predict -- "Baltimore in three."
So after three games, the first two won by the Orioles in Baltimore, history came knocking again, or at least baseball history. On Oct. 13, 1971, the Pirates and Orioles played the first night game ever in the World Series.
Blass remembers it as pretty much the end of civilization.
"Do you believe the Pirates had a hand in starting that crap?" he said. "The World Series in the day was part of our autumn as kids. Part of October. It was running home from school to watch it. They're always trying to market the game to kids, but that night, they started stealing the game from kids."
NBC was the real culprit, but the promise of a larger TV audience was real. Sixty-one million people watched Game 4, which the Pirates won 4-3 to even the series two games apiece. No World Series game has been played in the day time since 1987.
"I can't stay up and watch a World Series game," said Hebner. "There are six freaking commercials between every half inning. I mean I'm no different than anybody else. It's too late. I think the playoffs are much more interesting. At least in the playoffs, you still get a couple of afternoon games. That to me is the best of baseball."
The best of baseball in 1971 came down to a best-of-three, with the Pirates winning Game 5 in Pittsburgh behind the late Nellie Briles, then the Orioles winning Game 6 in Baltimore in extra innings, the second time they won when Palmer started.
For Game 7, the tension in both cities bordered on the unbearable, and the players weren't holding up all that well either. Blass got out of bed a good nine hours before his starting assignment against the O's Mike Cuellar and started walking the streets of Baltimore. He wanted to win, but failing that, he wanted it to be over. He wanted to be on the other side of it.
In the fourth inning, Clemente homered to make it 1-0, and no matter how many times the story of that World Series is retold, his performance remains its most indelible.
Decorated baseball author Roger Angell would eventually write this of Roberto Clemente's play in his book, "The Summer Game":
"[It was] a kind of baseball that none of us had ever seen before -- throwing and running and hitting at something close to the level of absolute perfection, play to win but also playing the game almost as if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field."
Clemente's punishing numbers, when it was over, were a .414 batting average, or 12 for 29 including two doubles, a triple, two home runs, four runs batted in and two throws from the distant edges of right field that left eyewitnesses speechless.
"The first thing that comes to mind today is just how Roberto refused to let us lose," said Oliver. "He didn't do a whole lot of talking unless someone pushed his buttons, and some guys know what buttons to push and then he was just hilarious. But to see him put on that kind of show, I was just elated for him. We knew how great he was, and every day when I put on this World Series ring, I can't help but think of him."
Willie Stargell singled to start the eighth, only his fifth hit of the postseason, and scored on a double by Jose Pagan, who missed this week's reunion by less than two weeks. He died of Alzheimer's complications June 7. Baltimore finally nicked the indomitable Blass in the eighth on a pair of singles and an RBI groundout by Don Buford.
"There was never one visit to the mound in Game 7," Blass said. "It's still vivid when I choose to think about it, but the farther away it gets, the more I don't believe I did that stuff. I mean all those people, the enormity of that situation. Couldn't have been me."
As it ended, no one seems to remember anything other than Steve Blass.
"That's what I remember, just how good Steve Blass was," said Palmer. "You always think you have a chance, but sometimes you don't."
"Steve was pitching so well and I just remember thinking, 'Keep it up, big guy, because I'm not sure I want to get into a game like this,' " Giusti said. "He was so focused. He just had one great Series."
Hebner remembers thinking there would be a long bottom of the ninth.
"I just watching Steve Blass and thinking how tough it was going to be to get through an inning like that," he said. "Boog Powell was up there, then another stud on deck [Frank Robinson], and all of a sudden, Blass throws like 10 pitches and it's all over."
Merv Rettunmund slashed the last pitch of a 1-2-3 ninth into the dirt to Blass' right, but as Palmer said, "every ball we hit up the middle seemed to go right to where [shortstop] Jackie Hernandez was playing."
And so did that one, right into Hernandez's glove, and on to Robertson to end the Series, the season, and maybe even the last time baseball was absolutely everything it is supposed to be.
Except for that night game.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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