MLB

Fifty years ago, baseball’s All-Star Game showcased an unspoken Black arms race

The 1971 contest was the first to feature two Black starting pitchers, Vida Blue and Dock Ellis

When Vida Blue of the Oakland Athletics faced off against the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Dock Ellis in the 1971 All-Star Game 50 years ago, it was the first time two Black pitchers started in the Midsummer Classic. But that fact was barely noted in the media at the time – in part because the big leagues were full of Black stars back then. This was especially true in the National League. From 1953 to 1959, every National League MVP was Black. This was also the case from 1965 to 1969. Indeed, seven of the NL MVP awards in the 1960s were won by Black or Afro Latino players.

The American League didn’t have a Black MVP until 1963, the New York Yankees’ Elston Howard. He was quickly followed by Zoilo Versalles in 1965 and Frank Robinson in 1966 (five years after he had been the National League MVP).

At the 1971 game in Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, both dugouts boasted plentiful Black talent among rosters and coaching staffs that featured 25 eventual Hall of Famers. The starting outfield for the National League was Willie Mays, Willie Stargell and Henry Aaron. Besides Ellis, the pitching staff of the senior circuit featured Ferguson Jenkins and Don Wilson. Bobby Bonds, Lou Brock, Willie Davis and Roberto Clemente were reserve outfielders. Both starting first baseman Willie McCovey and backup Nate Colbert were Black. Manny Sanguillen was the substitute catcher.

Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench (right) hits a home run against Oakland Athletics pitcher Vida Blue (left) to put the National League ahead 2-0 in the second inning of the MLB All-Star Game on July 13, 1971, in Detroit.

AP Photo

In the opposite dugout, the AL was starting Rod Carew at second and Robinson in right field. Cuban Mike Cuellar was part of the pitching rotation. Amos Otis, Don Buford, Tony Oliva and Reggie Jackson were reserve outfielders.

“The All-Star Game itself was pretty special: Al Kaline, [Harmon] Killebrew, Reggie, [Jim] Palmer, Carew, Mays, Clemente, McCovey. For a kid from Mansfield, Louisiana, it was a thrill,” Blue told The Undefeated. Of the starting Black pitchers, he said, “No one talked about the historical significance of it.” The bigger story in the lead-up to the game was Blue, who was still a couple of weeks shy of his 22nd birthday. Blue had come up to the majors in late 1970 and thrown a one-hitter and no-hitter in succession. His 17-3 record at the midseason break in 1971 earned him the cover of Time magazine and segments on national TV news. Fans and sportswriters speculated whether the lefty could win 30 games.

Detroit was still scarred from the violent nights of unrest that had occurred four summers earlier. Blue had just finished his senior year in high school when the riots happened. While an outstanding pitcher in high school, he had also thrown 35 touchdowns his senior season and was seriously considering playing football at either Southern University or Grambling.

“The deciding factor was, I am the oldest of six kids, and my senior year of high school, my father passed,” he said. “I took it upon myself to save the day. My dad worked in a steel mill. I talked to my mom about a chance for an immediate source of income. I helped put my twin sisters through Grambling, and Annette, the fourth child, through Northwest Louisiana. I had a brother who went to Grambling on a football-track scholarship.”

Blue pitched for the A’s Burlington, Iowa, team in the Midwest League and then for their Birmingham, Alabama, affiliate.

“I threw a fastball, a curve and a change. Mostly you throw as hard as you can, as long as you can when you’re 21. The key to my AAA season – my manager was Sherm Lollar – was a former big league catcher. [Two-time All-Star] Juan Pizarro was on our team. He showed me a lefty curveball grip.

“I was one of the top prospects in our farm system. I went into the Army Reserves. I did basic training at Fort Bragg – boots, backpack. Maybe that helped me get stronger.”

In September 1970, the A’s brought Blue up to the big club. In his first outing, he one-hit the Kansas City Royals. In his second, on Sept. 21, 1970, he no-hit the eventual West Division champ Minnesota Twins.

Fast-forward to 1971: “We got a new manager, Dick Williams,” said Blue. “In camp, I was still in awe of all those guys. I pitched Opening Day 1971 against Washington – they had Ed Stroud and Curt Flood. I pitched against Denny McLain. Facing some of these lineups, guys you read about, collected your bubble gum card. Blue Moon Odom, Catfish Hunter told me how they got certain hitters out, but I was left-handed. I was constantly adjusting, a little here and there.”

The other starter in the ’71 All-Star Game, the 26-year-old Ellis, had more experience. But his route to baseball stardom was just as unconventional.

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Dock Ellis delivers a pitch during the MLB All-Star Game on July 13, 1971, at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. The American League beat the National League 6-4.

Diamond Images/Getty Images

Ellis grew up in Los Angeles and his youth coach was former Negro Leagues pitcher Chet Brewer, who later became a scout for the Pirates. Ellis’ teen teammates included future big leaguers Willie Crawford, Billy Rohr, Tom Harrison, Bobby Tolan, Roy White, Ron Woods, Reggie Smith, Wilson, Dave Nelson and Bob Watson. Ellis quit the Gardena High School squad when a white teammate called him a “spearchucker.” When Ellis was found smoking marijuana in his high school restroom, Gardena High agreed not to expel him if he would play on the baseball team. He made all-league. His first minor league season with the Pirates was at Batavia in the New York-Penn League in 1964. By 1966, he was pitching AA ball for the Asheville Tourists. He was 10-9.

Ellis once chased a heckling minor league fan with a baseball bat. On June 12, 1970, he no-hit the expansion San Diego Padres. The day before the game, he visited a friend in LA, whom he used LSD with two or three times. (Blue’s 1970 no-hitter came three months later.)

In the end, it was hitting, not pitching, that was the story of the 1971 All-Star matchup. Blue surrendered a first-inning two-run homer to Johnny Bench, and a solo blast in the top of the third to Aaron. It was Aaron’s first extra-base hit in 58 career All-Star at-bats.

In the bottom of the third, Luis Aparicio singled for the AL and Jackson went in as a pinch hitter for his A’s teammate, Blue. Ellis worked the count against Jackson to 1-2. When Ellis delivered again, Jackson smashed a towering two-run homer, which, after silencing the stadium crowd, caromed off the top of the light tower above the right-center field roof. It hit the transformer box. Blue remembers it well: “That sucker was on its way up, I can visualize him swinging and throwing the bat.”

As the fans still buzzed, Ellis walked Carew, retired Bobby Murcer on an infield fly, then got Carl Yastrzemski to fly out to left when his pop was held up long enough by the wind to be snared by shortstop Bud Harrelson. With two outs, Robinson drove a two-run homer to right, giving the AL a 4-3 edge. Ellis then caught Norm Cash looking at a third strike.

In the bottom of the sixth, Jenkins surrendered a single to hometown hero Al Kaline, setting up a two-run homer by Harmon Killebrew (the third such shot by the underdogs). In the NL half of the eighth, the Detroit Tigers’ Mickey Lolich gave up a one-run home run to Clemente, which the Pirates superstar lashed into the upper deck.

Lolich went on to retire the side in order in the ninth, securing a 6-4 American League victory. It was the AL’s first win since 1962, ending a decade of frustration against Mays, Clemente and their teammates.

By game’s end, six home runs had been hit by six players, all of whom made it to the Hall of Fame: Bench, Aaron, Jackson, Robinson, Killebrew and Clemente. Home runs accounted for all the scoring in the contest. The six clouts by six players tied an All-Star record set in the 1951 game, also at Tiger Stadium (then known as Briggs Stadium). Robinson’s blast was especially noteworthy, as it made him the first player to hit a home run for both leagues in All-Star competition.

Blue never again reached the heights he did in 1971, when he finished 24-8, with eight shutouts, an ERA of 1.82 and finished first in the Cy Young voting for the American League. But he did win 20 or more games in both 1973 and 1975 (and 18 as late as 1978, when he was a San Francisco Giant). He was a six-time All-Star in his 17 years in the majors and he helped the A’s win three straight World Series.

Ellis finished the season 19-9, and helped the Pirates win the World Series that year. His next best season came in 1976, when he was 17-8 for the Yankees. He never made another All-Star team and retired in 1979. The former tripping no-hit hurler underwent successful rehabilitation treatment and later worked as a drug treatment counselor for 20 years. He died of a liver ailment in 2008 at age 63.

Today, there are far fewer Black superstars in MLB, especially U.S. natives such as Ellis and Blue. Blue recalls, “Back then, Ebony still published a season preview of Black players. There were so many. Today, are there any Black scouts? Are teams sending people into the neighborhoods? And you have the Jordan factor. The LeBron, the Curry factor. And amateur baseball – you gotta be Rockefellers to have a kid on a travel team.”

Both pitchers were influenced by the Willie Mays factor, the Hank Aaron factor and the Josh Gibson factor. Representation matters.

Bijan C. Bayne is producing a docuseries about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He is the author of 'Elgin Baylor: The Man Who Changed Basketball.'