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The only MLB All-Star Game that featured two African American starting pitchers

In 1971, Vida Blue and Dock Ellis made history at the Midsummer Classic

CLEVELAND — Major League Baseball will celebrate the career of New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia before Tuesday’s All-Star Game. Sabathia, who will retire at the end of the year after 19 seasons, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

The pitch is symbolic in many ways. It honors Sabathia, who began his career with Cleveland, and it’s rare for an African American pitcher to start in this game. Only seven African American pitchers have started in the Midsummer Classic’s 90-year history. Sabathia, despite a Hall of Fame career with six All-Star appearances and more than 250 wins and 3,000 strikeouts, isn’t one of them.

But Sabathia had a chance in 2007. He was 12-4 at the break.

“I had a chance to start in San Francisco, but I kind of turned it down,” Sabathia said before Monday’s Home Run Derby. “I wanted to hang out with my family.”

Looking back, Sabathia wishes he had a do-over.

“I didn’t know at that time about the lack of African Americans starting. If I would’ve known, I would’ve pitched,” Sabathia said. “It would’ve been special. There’s not a lot of us, but we make a lot of the history and it would’ve been cool to be a part of that.”

Sabathia’s dance with history would have begun with the 1971 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, which took place across Lake Erie, in Detroit’s Tiger Stadium. A record 27 men of color (17 African Americans and 10 Latinos) were on the American and National League rosters for the All-Star Game, including future Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Juan Marichal and Roberto Clemente.

But ’71 was about Oakland A’s lefty Vida Blue becoming the first African American pitcher to start an All-Star Game. It was also the first, and only, time that two African American pitchers started the game. Dock Ellis of the Pittsburgh Pirates represented the NL.

Vida Blue became the first African American pitcher to start an All-Star Game in 1971.

AP Photo

“I don’t know what [that game] did for baseball, but it gave the black community a chance to be proud of having two black pitchers start an All-Star Game,” Blue said. “It’s hard for me to believe that guys like Bob Gibson, Fergie Jenkins and Don Newcombe never started before me.”

That’s right, the great black pitchers of the 1960s did not start in the All-Star Game. Gibson, who started the 1972 All-Star Game, didn’t get the nod in his incredible year with a 1.12 ERA in 1968. Don Drysdale started that season.

The starting pitcher in the All-Star Game is considered the best pitcher in the first half of the season. And there was no denying Blue was the top American League pitcher going into the Midsummer Classic in ’71. Blue was 17-3 before the break and was named the starter by AL and Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver. Blue would go on to win the Cy Young and MVP awards at the end of the season. These honors all came in his first full season in the majors.

“I was just happy to be named to the All-Star team,” Blue said. “This was the age of great pitchers like Catfish Hunter and Jim Palmer. … I walked into the All-Star clubhouse like a kid in a candy store, seeing all of those stars I grew up reading about.”

Blue’s selection may have been easy. But it wasn’t as obvious for NL manager Sparky Anderson, who had a slew of pitchers to choose from, including future Hall of Famers Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Jenkins and Marichal.

But Ellis, who was 14-3 at the break, used every opportunity to make his claim that he was the rightful choice to start. And he did it in unconventional fashion, telling reporters: “Ain’t no way they gonna start two brothers against each other in the All-Star Game … when it comes to black players, baseball is backwards and everyone knows it.”

This was the same Ellis who said he was high on LSD when he threw a no-hitter and wore pink curlers when baseball brass complained about his haircut. But this also was the same Ellis who remained outspoken (he would eventually kick his habit and become a successful drug and alcohol counselor) when it came to rights for African American players.

“There was a perception that Dock was crazy, but he was very intelligent,” said former teammate Dave Parker. “He calculated everything he did.”

As expected, Ellis’ efforts were attacked by the media, but he was praised in a letter by Jackie Robinson.

“I read your comments in our paper the last few days,” it read, “and wanted you to know how much I appreciate your honesty. The news media, while knowing full well you are right and honest, will use every means to get back at you. Honors that should be yours will bypass you and the pressures will be great — try not to be left alone. There will be times when you ask yourself if it’s worth it all. I can only say, Dock, it is.”

Anderson either succumbed to Ellis’ pressure or figured a 14-3 record was good enough to name him the starter.

On July 13, 1971, Blue began the All-Star Game against a dream lineup that included Mays, Aaron, Willie Stargell, Willie McCovey and Johnny Bench.

“I was so taken in by the surroundings, but I had to remind myself that I couldn’t play in a dream state against guys who were my heroes,” Blue said.

The NL got to Blue early behind home runs by Bench and Aaron for a 3-0 lead. But the AL made its move in the bottom of the third when Reggie Jackson pinch hit for Blue and hit a home run that struck the light tower atop the roof in right field. The shot unraveled Ellis, who also gave up a two-run homer to Frank Robinson before he left the game.

From left to right: Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew and Reggie Jackson each hit home runs to lead the American League to victory in the 1971 Midsummer Classic.

AP Photo

The AL won 6-4. Robinson was named MVP. Blue got the win. Ellis suffered the loss.

“The game was a big deal, and Dock was really up for it,” Parker said. “He really wanted to do well. Then Reggie hit that ball on top of the transformer and that kind of put a damper on what Dock wanted to do.”

It was the only victory by the AL in the ’70s. The NL dominated the decade with rosters loaded with African Americans.

“We were better than the American League because of African American players,” said Pete Rose, baseball’s all-time hit king. “The American League didn’t have the amount of good players that we had.”

Following the ’71 game, the list of African American pitchers to start an All-Star Game grew to include Gibson (1972), Blue (1975, ’78), J.R. Richard (1980), Dwight Gooden (1986, ’88), Dave Stewart (1989) and David Price (2010). Since ’71, the largest gap between black starters was 24 years between Stewart and Price.

Not only will Tuesday’s All-Star Game extend the current streak without an African American starting pitcher to nine years, but Marcus Stroman of the Toronto Blue Jays, who will not pitch in the game because of a pectoral injury, is the only black pitcher on either roster. And there are only four African American players among the total of 64 All-Stars.

There is a correlation between the recent lack of African American starting pitchers in the All-Star Game and the drop in black participation in the game. And the limited number of black stars are not on the mound.

Blue said African American kids are focused on other sports, such as basketball and football.

“I don’t even know if kids are playing ‘Strikeout’ against the wall or garage door anymore,” Blue said. “And kids are more into their electronics.”

Until changes are made to increase African American participation, the ’71 game will remain an anomaly.

“We don’t even have many black starting pitchers, so the numbers won’t dictate starting in the All-Star Game,” said Stewart, the former ace of the Oakland Athletics who was also Sabathia’s idol growing up.

“And for two to start again, good luck with that.”

Branson Wright is a multimedia sports reporter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. He is co-host of The Sports Brothers radio show and a documentary film director and producer.