Pittsburgh Pirates Make a Case for Equality With MLB’s First All-Minority Lineup

In the annals of MLB history, few players hold as monumental a place as Jackie Robinson. On April 15, 1947, he broke baseball’s color barrier, becoming the first African-American to play baseball at the major league level. Yet as historically significant as it was, it was only the beginning of the fight for equality on the diamond.

Another important moment came 24 years later when the MLB’s first all-minority lineup hit the field. Unlike Robinson’s achievement, this Pittsburgh Pirates team doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves. Let’s look at the players on that team and what they achieved together.

The MLB’s first all-minority lineup

The Pirates’ 1971 roster included 14 white players, seven Latinos, and six African-Americans. For most of the year, the team fielded a starting lineup of players from all three demographics. On September 1, however, starters Richie Hebner and Gene Alley happened to be out with injuries.

Both of those players were white. And their replacements, Dave Cash and Jackie Hernandez, were men of color. As a result, the Pirates became the first team to ever field an all-minority starting nine. Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh claimed he didn’t realize it at the time, saying only that he had fielded the best possible group.

Nonetheless, the Pirates changed baseball history on that day. The event went largely unnoticed, perhaps because those nine players spent less than two innings on the field together. As for the game itself, Pittsburgh beat the Philadelphia Phillies, 10-7. At the time, it was simply one more win in what became a very successful season.

The Pirates’ success in 1971

Outfielder Roberto Clemente of Pittsburgh Pirates stands at home plate
Outfielder Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1971 | Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The Pirates ultimately compiled a 97-65 record, finishing first place in the NL East. In the National League Championship Series, they defeated the San Francisco Giants 3-1 to advance to the World Series. There, Pittsburgh prevailed in a hard-fought series against the Baltimore Orioles. They finished with a 4-3 victory and championship trophy.

As you can guess, the Pirates had a significant amount of talent on the roster. Three of their players, Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente, and Bill Mazeroski, entered the Hall of Fame after their careers. Catcher Manny Sanguillen and pitcher Dock Ellis served All-Stars with formidable amounts of talent, too.

The Pirates’ philosophy toward roster equality

The 1971 Pirates’ success makes some wonder whether roster equality and inclusiveness naturally lend themselves to winning baseball. At the time, the answer was a resounding yes. For most of MLB history, franchises had assembled rosters based on racial stereotypes about what positions certain ethnicities could and could not play.

Assumptions like those often made it harder for talented players to get the chances they deserved. Those kinds of mentalities also made it more difficult for teams to field competitive rosters. The Pirates’ general manager at the time, Joe L. Brown, took a different approach. Instead of relying on racial assumptions, he based what became the MLB’s first all-minority lineup solely on talent.

This attitude not only allowed the Pirates to build a solid roster, but it also allowed those players to bond in a special way. Pitcher Steve Blass later referred to the Pirates’ locker room as a “room full of friends,” as Bleacher Report explains. The connections fostered between those players ultimately helped them defeat the favored Orioles for a World Series victory. Teams today would be well-served to keep the Pirates’ example in mind.