Peterson: On Willie Stargell and racial discrimination in the minor leagues

From SABR member Richard “Pete” Peterson at The PostGame on July 9, 2013:

The careers of Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell span the entire Civil Rights Movement, but their approach to the political and racial turmoil of that time was as different as their personalities. Clemente, with his fierce pride, was closer in disposition and conduct to Jackie Robinson. The more successful he became, the more Clemente felt the need and responsibility to speak out for black athletes, both African American and Latin American.

In the 1960s, Clemente also became a role model for the Pirates’ younger black players, ranging from Willie Stargell and Manny Sanguillen to Al Oliver and Dock Ellis. When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, Clemente played a pivotal role in the Pirates’ refusal to play its season opener in Houston and the team’s eloquent public pronouncement that the Pirates, who had 11 black players, more than any other team in the major leagues, were acting out of respect for “what Dr. King has done for mankind.” Baseball responded to the Pirates’ action by delaying the opening of the 1968 season until after Martin Luther King’s funeral.

Stargell, with his engaging and infectious personality, was closer, in his approach to racial issues, to Willie Mays, who charmed rather than defied the public and the press. He’d spent his teenage years in the 1950s growing up in Alameda, California, just across the bay from Oakland, where he lived in the projects with his mother, stepfather, and half sister, and attended the racially-mixed Encinal High School. He didn’t experience any racial threats or confrontations in the projects or at school, but, in an interview in the early 1970s, he recalled, “I was exposed to everything any black kid gets to see. Pimps and con men, dope pushers, and gamblers. I could easily have taken the wrong road, but I always wanted to be a baseball player.”


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Originally published: July 9, 2013. Last Updated: July 9, 2013.