The roar of the crowd is one of two things that got Al Oliver going before a game.
It’s what pops into his mind immediately when he thinks about the 1971 World Series — when he and his Pittsburgh Pirate teammates took the field, at home, in Game 3. It’s what he remembers most when he was introduced at the 1982 All-Star game in Montreal as a member of the then hometown Expos — a moment that still gives him goosebumps.
The other pregame sound that played a part in getting Oliver’s juices going was the national anthem.
“I’ve always been patriotic anyway, because I did serve, and that always moved me. Someone who could really sing the national anthem — the way it should be sung — that always moved me,” Oliver told The Sporting News. “And it still does, even to this day.
“When I’m watching a sports event — someone who can really sing it — and then after that, I’m up and ready to go.”
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Outside of that, Oliver didn’t need much motivation, he had raw talent that led him to more than 2,700 hits, more than 1,300 RBIs and a career .303 batting average. Oliver collected three Silver Slugger awards, was a seven-time All-Star and helped the Pirates claim their fourth World Series title in 1971. He spent 18 years in the majors, and his resume is that of a fringe Hall of Famer. And while Oliver hasn’t gotten the call from Cooperstown, he’ll always be remembered as a part of baseball history — and, deeper than that, Black history. Not because of his All-Star appearances or World Series ring, but because of his name on the lineup sheet in game No. 138 in September.
Sept. 1, 1971, to be exact. A day that Oliver will never forget.
Twenty-four years after Jackie Robinson broke MLB’s color barrier, the Pirates fielded the first all-minority starting lineup in the league’s history. Spots one through nine on the lineup card were either filled by a Black player or a Latino player. Oliver can sit back and appreciate the moment now, and the historical context, but at the time it never really dawned on him that history was being made.
“Ironically, it was just another game to me,” Oliver said. “I really wasn’t that much aware of us starting an all minority team and the reason why is the fact that we used to have six (minorities) out there anyway.
“Maybe if we had two or three on the team it would be something different. But you know, if Dock Ellis was pitching, we had six minorities out there on the field — of course, the whole outfield was always minority.
“So we pretty much had a majority out there, to begin with, so I really wasn’t all that aware of it.”
The only thing that was strange to Oliver that night was that he was set to start at first base instead of his normal slot in the outfield.
It wouldn’t have been weird for Oliver to see his name on the lineup card as a first baseman. In fact, he started at first 25 times that season, but Bob Robertson was the everyday first basemen for the Pirates in ’71, appearing in 131 games that season, and as a right-handed hitter was sure to start most matchups against left-handed pitching.
Except for this night, Oliver, who was a left-handed bat, found it stranger that he would get the call over Robertson, especially against the left-handed starter for the Phillies, Woodie Fryman.
“I would’ve played centerfield or Gene Clines would’ve played in center field, and if Gene would’ve started at center, I wouldn’t have played that night,” Oliver said. “But for some reason or another, which Bob and I still don’t know until this day — why he didn’t play against Woodie Fryman — and that was the key to have made that night, baseball history. By Bob Robertson not playing first base against a left-handed pitcher.”
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Oliver was geared mentally and physically to play all 162 games throughout his career. He still takes pride in saying that all these years later, but when his name wasn’t on the lineup card he never questioned his manager.
This night he was a little confused but, even with the call to start his lefty bat against a lefty pitcher, he certainly didn’t question manager Danny Murtaugh.
When you hear stories about the ’71 Pirates, it always seems that the storytellers deliver the tales with a certain fondness for the cast of characters assembled in Pittsburgh that year.
It helps that they will always be remembered as the first team in MLB history to field an all-minority team. It helps that they were able to win a World Series championship. It helps that the team wasn’t just filled with talented ballplayers, but with larger-than-life characters who would capture the imagination of baseball fans country-wide. From Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell to the enigmatic Dock Ellis, it was an eclectic group.
But what Oliver holds dear is that the team came together, from all walks of life, in an era when segregation was still entrenched in the country’s identity — and was able to bond over their differences on their way to a championship.
“The thing that I feel good about is that we had players on that team that was from all over the world. From different faiths, different beliefs about life, but we all came together for one common cause and that was to win championships,” Oliver said.
“It does have to start in the clubhouse, and even before that, it has to start growing up in your home training. Some people forget to think about that. How you were raised, that’s the most important thing. Because if you were raised to think differently about a certain religion, a certain race, then there could be problems.
“We were players who were playing baseball and that didn’t have anything to do with how we hit, ran, field and threw.
“And to have a combination of a lot of players from different cultures come together and laugh and crack and joke — it was very unique. It was a very unique team, (that) was probably the best way that you could sum our team up.”
It’s hard to put into context what Oliver and his teammates would’ve meant for many young Black baseball fans growing up watching them break barriers in that era. In the same way, it might be difficult for some of the game’s legends to comprehend the disconnect between the game they love and the Black community now.
There was a time when baseball featured countless Black stars for young fans to see and want to emulate. Nowadays, there are fewer Black players for young Black fans to see and try to connect with. There was a time when two-sport athletes would choose baseball over the other sports like Jackie Robinson and Bob Gibson did. Or go out of their way to play it like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders. Today, star quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Kyler Murray might’ve been looked at as insane had they chosen baseball over the NFL.
In Oliver’s mind, the lack of interest in the game in the Black community has a lot to do with baseball’s current lack of Black stars.
“When I was growing up, we had a lot of people of color that were stars that we can easily look at and easily identify with and I think that is what made us gravitate toward baseball,” Oliver said. “Everybody played baseball when I was coming up — everybody!
“When I was coming up, (it was) because of Jackie Robinson. Then you look at the Cincinnati Reds, especially when they had Vada Pinson and Frank Robinson. You know, being from southern Ohio, that was the team, the Cincinnati Reds.
“And so, we knew about Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, and we just knew about the great minority players. So that made us look at them because they looked like us.
“So it was so much easier for us to identify.”
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Oliver holds out hope that baseball can find a way to reconnect with the Black community and re-engage the youth so that they’re introduced to the game. He hopes that more kids can find a way to play multiple sports with baseball at least being the summer option for them.
And while there aren’t as many Black stars as there might have been in years past, the league does have a relative handful who minority fans can identify with. Aaron Judge is the face of the league’s most famous team. Marcus Semien is coming off an MVP-caliber season. Mookie Betts and Tim Anderson play with a flare that reminds fans that the game could be fun, and Cedric Mullins is one of the game’s brightest young stars.
The ingredients are there for baseball to re-engage the Black community.
Along with the present-day representation, there’s the history of the game. The stories of Jackie Robinson, the ’71 Pirates and other great Black baseball players should continue to be told and celebrated.
It’s worth shining a light on the past so that future generations can be illuminated.