- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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Hebner confirms that after digging graves for 35 years ("I been around stiffs my whole life"), he's now putting on a dress shirt and tie and driving the hearse for a funeral home.
At my table, former pinch hitter Vic Davalillo catches good-natured grief for having fallen off a barstool one night in Chicago.
"Maybe it was the wind," suggests shortstop Jackie Hernández.
"It is the windy city," notes pitcher Bob Johnson.
A few tables over, former fireballer Bob Veale is needled for his resemblance to Osama Bin Laden. When the cowboy-hatted Robertson is introduced by the master of ceremonies, someone yells, "Take your hat off—you're bald just like the rest of us!" He does, and he is.
What they're doing is picking up where they left off in '71. "You went in that clubhouse, you expected to get your balls busted," says Hebner, who has coached in the Orioles' organization. "I've been in big league spring training camps the last few years and some of these clubhouses remind me of the funeral home." With the Pirates, he says, "there was never a dull moment."
In a room full of characters, none was more outrageous, or outspoken, than Dock Ellis, a supremely talented pitcher who marched to the beat of his own psychedelic drummer. It was Ellis who no-hit the Padres in 1970 while, as he later said, he was on acid; Ellis who sometimes arrived at the ballpark with curlers in his hair. As the NL's starting pitcher in the '71 All-Star Game, Ellis used that stage to complain to reporters about the lack of endorsements for black players.
"Dock liked to stir things up," recalls Hebner of his old teammate, who died of a liver ailment in 2008. "He was a good guy, though. He just wanted to be different."
The Pirates were different—looked different—from most other teams, thanks to the courage and vision of general manager Joe L. Brown. Even as an 11-year-old it was obvious to me that the team's roster was markedly more diverse than, say, the membership at the Fox Chapel Golf Club, where I later caddied. But I had no idea Brown was a pioneer, one of the first executives in major league history to draft, sign and develop players based on ability alone.
Two decades after Jackie Robinson had integrated the big leagues in 1947, baseball had yet to embrace equal opportunity employment. "Back then," says Luis Mayoral, a baseball historian, "the mentality was: Latinos are equipped to play defense—predominantly the infield. Latinos cannot be catchers or pitchers because they're not smart enough. Teams didn't come out in the open with it, but they had their quotas."