The last two weeks have been especially rough for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization—and the circumstances have nothing to do with Pittsburgh’s continuing on-field struggles. Rather, I’m referring to the deaths of two of the most beloved men in the history of a once-proud franchise. Last week, former Pirates pitcher and broadcaster Nellie King died at the age of 82 after a long a battle with Parkinson’s disease. The consummate gentleman, King made countless friends in baseball, including this author for his willingness to share his knowledge and his assistance on two different book projects. Earlier this week, another Pirates alumnus, former general manager Joe L. Brown, passed away at 91. Like King, Brown was most helpful to me in putting together a biography of Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente.
But Joe Brown was much more than that. While he meant something to me on a personal level, he was a highly skilled and progressive general manager who assembled the rosters of two world championship teams in Pittsburgh. As the architect of the 1960 Pirates, he had the foresight to hire Danny Murtaugh as manager and deftly acquired key players like Smoky Burgess, Don Hoak, Bill Virdon, Harvey Haddix, and Vinegar Bend Mizell in a series of sage deals. Even more significantly, Brown followed a distinctive plan in putting together his later world championship club, the 1971 Pirates. Unlike most general managers of his day, Brown took a color blind approach to finding the best available players. He aggressively pursued African-American and Latino talent, both in terms of the free market and then through the amateur draft, first introduced to baseball in 1965.
Under Brown’s leadership, the Pirates signed African-American players like Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, Dock Ellis and Bob Veale, all as amateur free agents. He later drafted Dave Cash, who succeeded Bill Mazeroski at second base. With Brown calling the shots, the Pirates directed scouts like Howie Haak and Herb Raybourn to venture into the Caribbean, where they signed talents like Manny Sanguillen, Rennie Stennett, and Ramon Hernandez. (We can’t give Brown credit for the acquisition of Clemente, which occurred under the Branch Rickey regime.) And then there were the trades that Brown engineered, deals that netted minority contributors like Matty Alou, Vic Davalillo, and Jim “Mudcat” Grant.
Brown’s color-blind approach culminated in the 1971 season, when the Pirates made history by fielding the major leagues’ first all-black, all-minority lineup. The lineup unveiled by Murtaugh on September 1 of that season, just six weeks before the Pirates won the World Series, showed how progressive the organization had become in terms of recruiting, drafting, and signing African-American and Latino talent at all positions. In the past, teams had signed or drafted black players to play the so-called “athletic” positions in the outfield, and had acquired Latino players to play the middle infield positions, where quickness and agility were required. In contrast, the Pirates, since the early 1960s, had signed black and Latino talent to play not only the infield and outfield positions, but also to play the “thinking man’s” positions of pitcher and catcher.
Several years ago, I talked to Al Oliver about the Pirates’ mode of operation under Brown. Oliver’s answers to my questions confirmed the Pirates’ “all-in” philosophy. “I signed with the Pirates in 1964,” said Oliver. “In 1965, it was really my first big spring training in Daytona Beach. The Pirates had signed, if you look at the catcher’s position, they had many [black] catchers. If you looked at the pitchers, there were many black pitchers that they had signed or drafted. It was just incredible. Outfielders, you know, you kind of expect that, because we could run, and there were lots of first baseman and third basemen [who were black]. But they did have a lot of black pitchers and a lot of black catchers.
“I think what it came down to was that the Pirates were not afraid to draft black and Latino players because they were interested in one thing, in my opinion, and that was winning.” Oliver says the Pirates’ premise began with the belief that African Americans and Latinos possessed as much talent as whites in playing the game. Once a minority player proved his talents, the organization acknowledged his intelligence and willingness to learn the game and understand its nuances.
Brown took the progressive approach even further, by making sure that minority players integrated the roster at all levels, not just in the starting lineup. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, most major league teams funneled their black and Latino players into starting roles, while ignoring their potential contributions as backup and bench players. The Pirates, with Brown and Murtaugh at the helm, operated under a different party line. By 1971, many of their best reserve and part-time players were minorities: Davalillo, Stennett, Gene Clines, Jackie Hernandez, and Jose Pagan. Brown, along with an open-minded manager like Murtaugh, exhibited little interest in having mostly white players on the bench, just for the sake of maintaining a higher number of whites on the roster. If the Pirates felt that an African-American or Latino was even slightly better than a white player competing for the same utility or backup job, they awarded the minority player the position. Murtaugh and Brown operated on the merit system, not the color or token system.
As an organization, the Pirates were not exceptionally progressive in terms of their development of black pitchers, but they did fare better than most major league teams of the sixties. During the world championship season of 1971, Dock Ellis and Bob Veale spent the entire season in Pittsburgh. Mudcat Grant pitched the first half of the summer with the Pirates before a mid-season slump prompted a trade to Oakland. Ramon Hernandez earned an in-season promotion from Triple-A Charleston and become an important member of the bullpen during the September stretch run. In total, four minority pitchers worked for the Pirates in 1971. That number did not represent a remarkable level of integration, but was better than average compared to other progressive organizations of the sixties—the Dodgers, Giants, and Cardinals—and comparable to such contemporaries as the ‘71 A’s, whose pitching staff featured Grant, Vida Blue, Blue Moon Odom, and Diego Segui.
Quite clearly, the racial mix of the Pirates occurred as a product of the organization’s aggressive approach to seeking winning talent of any color, a philosophy first instilled by Rickey and then underscored by Brown. “Obviously, we were looking for talent,” said Brown in an article that appeared in Baseball Digest in 1995. “We didn’t care where they came from or what color they were. If they happened to be black, so be it.” In so doing, the Pirates did away with the quota system. Unlike the Dodgers of the early fifties, the Pirates did not impose a limit of four black players in their starting lineup. While other organizations had made progress in integrating parts of their major league rosters, the Pirates had taken a comprehensive, no-holds barred approach in populating their entire roster with both African Americans and Latinos, top to bottom. The Pirates’ philosophy not only helped the team win the World Championship in 1971, but also sent a subtle message to other major league organizations: expand the available talent pool to include black and Latin American players, select the best players at each position regardless of color, and you will increase your chances of winning.
Prominent players from other teams took note of the composition of the Pirates’ roster. Frank Robinson, who would later become the first black manager in major league history, offered some admiring comments about the Pirates in a 1972 interview with Sport magazine. “Last year the Pirates may have had more black players than any team in baseball,” Robinson told Sport in 1972. “They became the first team to start an all-black lineup in a game. And they won a world title.” Robinson described a direct connection between winning and the presence of minorities on a team’s roster. “Color shouldn’t matter anymore,” said Robinson, “except it’s clear if you have most of the top black players, you have a lot of top players, which gives you an edge in talent.”
That sounds like a simple approach, especially in the context of today’s baseball, where it is mostly a foregone conclusion that all teams have become color blind with regard to the acquisition of talent. Yet, it was not an approach that teams universally followed in the late fifties and throughout the sixties. Not even close. Joe Brown, along with a few others, broke free from the trends of stereotyping and quotas. The lasting evidence of his wisdom can still be found in 1971.