Before these Bucs, Bruce Markusen points out in his book The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, no major league club "had ever fielded a team assembled purely on available talent with no consideration of skin color."
The Pirates, Markusen wrote, "worked on the presumption that players would be chosen regardless of ethnic group and would get along on the field and in the clubhouse."
And get along they did—famously, although not in a way in which that other Pittsburgh institution, Mister Rogers, might have approved. "Nothing was sacred," says Blass. A stranger who wandered into that clubhouse by mistake would have assumed "these were the most racist, insensitive people in the world," he adds, "but it was just a very open atmosphere. And what it created was a room full of friends. You could say anything to anybody. And when we went out on the ball field, we were brothers."
Oliver, now a motivational speaker, believes "most of our games were won in the clubhouse." How so? "We were already talented," he says. "And now"—after yucking it up in the room—"we were loose."
On Sept. 1, 1971, early in a weeknight game against the mediocre Phillies, Oliver, playing first that day, remarked to Cash, "You know what? We got all brothers out here."
For the first time in major league history a manager had filled out a lineup card consisting solely of black and Latino players. While manager Danny Murtaugh claimed after that game that he was simply putting the best nine guys on the field, it's unlikely he didn't know he was making history. Still, as Markusen writes, that lineup was "not merely a symbolic event.... The Pirates were in the midst of a still-undecided divisional pennant race."
They beat the Phillies 10--7 that night and clinched the division three weeks later. After losing Game 1 of the NLCS to the Giants, the Bucs took three straight from the NL West champs. The man most responsible for turning the tide was Robertson, the ginger-haired first baseman who clubbed three home runs in Game 2.
And it was Robertson, along with Blass, who shifted the momentum of what had begun as a disastrous World Series for the Bucs. "We went down to Baltimore," says Hebner, "and got our asses kicked." After scratching out just three hits against McNally in a 5--3 loss, the Pirates were routed 11--3. Giusti recalls one Baltimore newspaper writing, "It may be Baltimore in three!" Murtaugh made sure to post the clipping in the clubhouse.
Despite coming off a 15-win season, Blass had been rocked in the NLCS. But he was masterly in Game 3, pitching a three-hit complete game. Going into the bottom of the seventh, however, the Bucs held only a slender 2--1 lead. With Clemente on second and Stargell on first and no outs, Robertson remembers thinking, "We're down two games, going against a 20-game winner"—the lefty Cuellar. "I gotta hit this ball as hard as I can 'cause we gotta get something going."
Murtaugh felt differently, calling instead for a sacrifice bunt, a decision that vexes Robertson to this day. "I'd never bunted. I'd hit 26 home runs that season, and now they want me to square around? I don't even know how to hold the f---ing bat! So I looked down at [the third base coach], and I didn't see [the bunt sign.] You figure it out." Robertson promptly launched a Cuellar screwball over the fence in right center. The Pirates won 5--1. They were back in the Series.