Cooperstown Confidential: MLK and MLB in 1968

Forty five years ago, the Pirates prepared to open the season with 11 African-American and Latino players, more than any of the 20 major league teams. The players on the 1968 team included the following: first baseman Donn Clendenon, third baseman Maury Wills, star outfielders Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente, center fielder Matty Alou, utility infielder Jose Pagan, backup outfielder and pinch-hitter Manny Mota, starting pitchers Bob Veale and a href=”” target=”_blank” class=”player”>Al McBean, and relief pitchers Dock Ellis and Juan Pizarro.

These were not bit players; they represented the core of the Pittsburgh roster. Clendenon, Stargell and Clemente were the Bucs’ three top power hitters, Wills and Alou two of their best table-setting speedsters, and Veale and McBean two of their three most frequently used starting pitchers.

Given the composition of the Pirates’ roster, it’s not surprising that the Pirates, as much as any major league team, were hit hard by the news that came on April 4, 1968: Renowned civil rights leader Martin Luther King lost his life that day, assassinated James Earl Ray’s bullet on a second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.

Though King had no direct ties to Organized Baseball, he did have connections to some notable players, both retired and active. King and Jackie Robinson, the man who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, simultaneously received honorary doctorates from Howard University in 1957. The two men worked together repeatedly as part of the civil rights movement. (When I worked in the Hall of Fame’s research department, I used to walk by a framed photograph of King and Robinson every day.)

King also knew Don Newcombe, one of Robinson’s teammates. According to Newcombe, King came to his house and had dinner with his family just one month before his assassination. Newcombe said that King thanked him and Robinson for their efforts in integrating the Brooklyn Dodgers and the National League.

King also developed a friendship with one of the Pirates, none other than Roberto Clemente. “Something interesting happened that not too many in the states know,” revealed Luis Mayoral, a longtime personal friend of Clemente. “Somewhere along the road in his major league career, he befriended Martin Luther King. I think that was also a key relationship, in relation to the development of Roberto Clemente, the fighter for social equality.”

Clemente and King held their first meeting in 1964. “They met in Puerto Rico,” said Mayoral, “when Martin Luther King went down there to a little farm that Roberto had in the outskirts of Carolina. In that little farm, Roberto would build a restaurant and recreational area for families, called ‘El Carretero’ (which means ‘Man of the Road’). In that little farm, that’s where they had that meeting.”

Although one was African American and the other Latino, the two men found common interest. “They became friends,” said Mayoral. “I do remember that around 1970 there was an all-star game—it could have been ‘69—in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium, where blacks and Latinos played to raise funds for the Martin Luther King Foundation. And one of the most prized possessions or awards that Roberto got was a Martin Luther King medallion for playing in that game.” In later years, Vera Clemente lent the medallion to Mayoral, who in turn passed it on to the Texas Rangers’ museum at the Ballpark in Arlington.

With the 11 black players on the Opening Day roster, no team was statistically more emblematic of the work of King than the Pirates. The Pirates’ black players, including Clemente, held two team meetings to discuss their response to the tragedy. The Pirates were facing the start of their regular season, on April 8 and 9, a Monday and Tuesday, but there was sentiment among the players to postpone the games.

After the meetings, Maury Wills, the team’s player representative, announced that the players preferred not to play Sunday’s final spring training game, which was scheduled for April 7 against the Yankees. More significantly, Wills said that the players, out of respect for the slain activist, did not want to play the Opening Day game against the Astros, scheduled for Monday in Houston. When the players learned that King would be buried on Tuesday, and not Monday as originally scheduled, they asked Pirates management to postpone the season’s second game as well. Several players simply wanted no part of playing on the day of King’s funeral.

“We feel we cannot play these games out of respect to Dr. King,” Donn Clendenon said to The Sporting News, “since we have the largest representation of Negroes in baseball on the Pirates.”

Pirates general manager Joe Brown agreed to cancel the final spring training game against the Yankees, scheduled to be played in Richmond, but said he could not postpone the first two regular season games against Houston without the permission of Astros management. As the home team, the Astros had the final call.

Two other teams, the Reds (who were hosting the Cubs) and Washington Senators (hosting the Twins), quickly announced the postponement of their Opening Day home games on Monday. But the Astros hesitated.

The Pirates players did not like the noncommittal response from either their front office or the Astros, and voted to hold firm on their decision not to play the first two games on Monday and Tuesday. After discussions with Astros officials, Brown offered a compromise: The team would not play on either Monday or Tuesday, but would play on Wednesday, April 10, which had been scheduled as a travel date. At a clubhouse meeting, all of the Pirates players—blacks, Latinos and whites—voted to accept Brown’s plan.

Clemente, representing the team’s black and Latin players, and right-hander Dave Wickersham, one of the team’s white players, released a joint statement to the media. “We are doing this because we white and black players respect what Dr. King has done for mankind.”

As it turned out, no major league teams played on either Monday (which was supposed to be the official Opening Day of the season) or Tuesday (the day of King’s funeral). All 20 teams, including the Pirates, opened the season on Wednesday.

The Pirates’ opening lineup featured Wills in the leadoff slot, the trio of Clemente, Stargell and Clendenon in the middle, and Alou in the seventh spot. The Astros, though not as heavily integrated as the Pirates, still had five minority players in their opening lineup: center fielder Brock Davis, second baseman Joe Morgan, catcher Hal King, left fielder Jimmy Wynn and shortstop Hector Torres.

The Pirates took an early lead on Clemente’s first inning home run and then scored two runs in the top of the ninth to take a 4-2 lead, but Ron Kline gave up a two-out, two-run triple to Bob Aspromonte, saddling Pizarro with the loss in the bottom of the ninth.

A year after the assassination and the postponement of games, Clemente expressed disappointment over the indecisive response of some to the King tragedy. “When Martin Luther King died, they come and ask the Negro players if we should play,” Clemente told Phil Musick of the Pittsburgh Press. “I say, ‘If you have to ask Negro players, then we do not have a great country.’ ”

In 1972, Clemente’s words showed his continuing support for King, a man who had fought principally for African-Americans, but also for other groups of minorities. “I believe that this man not only changed the style of the American black, he changed the life of everybody,” Clemente said in an interview with Sam Nover of WIIC-TV.

Research into Clemente shows that King unquestionably had an impact on him, both on a broader and more personal level. The Pirates of the late 1960s clearly felt enough for the slain civil rights pioneer that they were willing to sacrifice early season games, likely to the point of forfeiture. King mattered to them, mattered to baseball. So when some folks tell you that baseball has no connection to the real world, no legitimate tie-in to the civil rights movement, tell them that they are wrong. Without question, the history of the game is interwoven with civil rights, and inexorably tied to the work of Martin Luther King.

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  1. David P Stokes said...

    I greatly admire both Robinson and Rickey.  I don’t consider them just among the greatest men in baseball history, but among the greatest men in U.S. history.  That said, I find the idea that they essentially started the civil rights movement appalling.  They may have won the first victory in the struggle since the abolition of slavery, but they certainly weren’t the ones who started the struggle.

    Scott’s comment is a reflection of the poor job our education systmem does in teaching history.

  2. allan peakes said...

    Nice piece. I believe a research project would show that there was a high correlation between winning percentage and integration.Could the Red Sox have used Willie Mays or Jackie Robinson?

  3. scott said...

    I agree fully with that last paragraph.  Although I’m sure there could have been a nascent movement beforehand, Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey essentially started the civil rights movement when Jackie signed with the Dodgers.

  4. dennis Bedard said...

    This article raises an interesting issue.  In the mid to late 50’s, black players began to appear in lineups more frequently.  It was all inevitable.  Call it Adam Smith meets The American Pastime.  But some teams, i.e., the Reds, Cardinal, Giant, and Pirates, made a more aggressive push.  The motivations were purely selfish but that is the free market at work.  Some teams like the Yankees and Red Sox did not do so and paid a big price.  The Yankees were so loaded with talent that it did not manifest itself until the 1965-1974 period.  This issue was discussed at length in David Halberstam’s excellent book “1964.”  The composition of the Pirate lineup in 1968 may have been a testament to their scouting efforts ten years before than any concern for civil rights or equality.

  5. Bruce Markusen said...

    The Cardinals, Pirates and Giants definitely led the charge of integration in the 1960s. Not surprisingly, all three franchises had success that decade. The Pirates, in particular, showed a willingness to sign minorities as catchers and pitchers, two positions that traditionally were occupied by white players.

  6. Marc Schneider said...

    It’s interesting that the teams you would have expected to integrate quickly-given the cities they played in-did not, such as the Yankees and Red Sox. Conversely,  St. Louis and Cincinnati were both considered almost southern cities.  John McGraw wanted to sign black players long before Jackie Robinson but, of course, was not allowed to.

    However, I think for Clemente to criticize the teams for “indecisiveness” was a bit unfair given that the NFL played the weekend of President Kennedy’s assassination.

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