The Team that Changed Baseball – Review

Bruce Markusen. The Team that Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates. Yardley PA: Westholme, 2009. Print.

The Team that Changed Baseball is a baseball history book for baseball fans. It is direct, clear, and well written, but it mostly summarizes the 1971 season of the Pittsburgh Pirates which culminated in an exciting seven-game World Series.

There is a chapter devoted to each month of the season; then, a chapter for the National League Championship Series—back then each league had two divisions and no wild cards. The winner of each division played for the league pennant. Then there are four chapters devoted to the World Series. The last chapter is entitled “The Legacy” which actually deals with the thesis of the subtitle, why the 1971 Pirates were significant.

As has been mentioned elsewhere in this blog, this reviewer is a Pirates fan. I recall being in New England during the 1971 season, but I followed the playoffs and World Series as best I could when I could find an available television. Also, as boy, my baseball hero was Roberto Clemente. I always felt he was overlooked because Pittsburgh is a small market city. Markusen writes that after the 1971 World Series Clemente felt for the first time that he got the respect he deserved.

Markusen also tells of Clemente’s reputation as a hypochondriac. He quotes a few people who criticized Clemente for that, though he also explains that Clemente injured his back in a serious auto accident in 1954 and lived the rest of his life with three damaged spinal disks. Perhaps because I was a kid, I remembered it differently (I never knew about the car accident till I read this book). I recall people saying that Clemente only played well when he did not feel good. It was more like, “Clemente’s sick today—wink, wink, nod, nod—thank goodness!”

The Team that Changed Baseball also notes that the then Brooklyn Dodgers first signed Clemente and then tried to hide his talent. They were afraid their rivals the New York Giants would sign him. Even then, though the Dodgers were the first team in the modern era to sign a black player, they also had a quota which limited themselves to four minority players on their roster of 25.

By the mid-fifties Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ general manager who had signed Jackie Robinson was working for the Pirates. When a Pirate scout visited the Montreal minor league Dodgers’ affiliate to watch Clemente, the Montreal manager pulled Clemente from the lineup. Still, the scout saw Clemente throw a baseball nearly 400 feet and knew he was looking at some real talent.

The reason that the 1971 Pirates changed baseball was that it was a truly color blind team. For most of the season a majority of its starters were African American or black Hispanic. Even a couple of its starting pitchers were. For the first time in major league history for any team, on September 1, 1971, every starting player for Pirates was black.

I recall Sports Illustrated pointing this out, but no one on the Pirates made a big deal of it. It was not done to make a statement or prove a point like, for example, the Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King tennis match. It happened to be the best lineup of healthy players available for that game and situation. Manager Danny Murtagh downplayed it. It was only about the third or fourth inning that third baseman Dave Cash noticed it and pointed it out to the others. Murtagh just said, “I had nine Pirates out there on the field.” (109)

Markusen notes that as early as 1967 the Pirates had fielded a starting lineup that had eight black position players with the pitcher as the only Caucasian. Markusen also states that most teams would have black starters but their bench players would be all white. Minority players had to be exceptional to make it to a major league roster.

Markusen had apparently overlooked earlier Pirates teams. Indeed, their previous world champion team from 1960 had only one black player as a regular starter, namely Clemete; but they had seven black bench players: Bennie Daniels, Earl Francis, Diomedes Olivo, Gene Baker, R. C. Stevens, Joe Christopher, and Roman Mejias. Joe Christopher pinch ran in game seven of the World Series and scored a run. R. C. was Stevens’ given name, just the initials. Even a decade earlier the Pirates were filling their roster against type.

Markusen tells us “the 1971 Pirates proved conclusively, and really for the first time, that a pool of athletes representing a variety of backgrounds and nationalities could work together effectively and win a World Series championship.” (189) By the end of the decade other championship teams, notably the Oakland Athletics and the New York Yankees, would be following the same pattern. “There was no pendulum swing back and forth.” (188)

There is something else Markusen notes. Like the 1960 and 1979 World Series which featured the Pirates, the 1971 World Series had some exciting games. That is why the author devotes whole chapters to games six and seven. They were close nail-biters. Willie Stargell said of the underrated Pirates, “When it [the World Series] began you would have thought the Pittsburgh Pirates were nothing more than the invited guests at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.” (181) It did not turn out that way, but it was no cakewalk, either.

The Team that Changed Baseball reminds us that baseball is exciting. A column in the New York Daily News said, “The 1971 World Series renewed for most people the assurance that baseball is indeed an exciting game, something, for some reason, they had been brainwashed into doubting.” (186) Even this year (2015) the ALDS between Texas and Toronto reminded us of this. As longtime Pirate broadcaster Bob Prince would say of the 1960 Series: “It makes baseball unmatched in the world of sports.”

P.S. As a kind of postscript there is an interesting appendix, a kind of “Where are they now?” which lists the subsequent careers of many of the 1971 Pirates and what they were doing as of the time the book was published. The Team that Changed Baseball could also be a companion to Color Blind, about a pioneering integrated minor league team from the 1930s.

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