How The 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates Won The NL East

The 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates were coming off a season where they won a division title and reached the National League Championship Series. In this ’71 season, the Pirates were even better—they again reached the postseason. This time, they won the NLCS. And at World Series time, the great Roberto Clemente secured his baseball legacy in leading Pittsburgh to a championship.

Clemente, now 36-years-old, was not slowing down in rightfield. He hit .341, and his slugging percentage was up over. 500. Clemente finished fifth in the National League MVP voting. But he wasn’t the best player in the Pirate lineup this season. That honor belonged to the man on the opposite corner of the outfield.

Thirty-one-year old Willie Stargell had a spectacular season in 1971. Stargell hit 48 homers, drove in 125 runs, scored 104 runs, slugged an astonishing .628 and posted an excellent on-base percentage of .398. This, along with playing on a division winner, would normally have made Stargell a slam-dunk pick for MVP. But with Joe Torre, then playing third base in St. Louis, having a spectacular season of his own, Stargell had to settle for runner-up in the final MVP tally.

Stargell and Clemente were the keys to the lineup, but a team that scored more runs than anyone else in the National League had other weapons. Bob Robertson played first base and finished with a stat line of .356 OBP/.484 slugging, while popping 26 home runs. Dave Cash played second base, hit leadoff and posted an OBP of .349. Manny Sanguillen was behind the plate and his stat line was a respectable .345/.426. Al Oliver slugged .446 in centerfield. Richie Hebner played third base and slugged .487.

Pittsburgh’s pitching staff was led by Steve Blass and Dock Ellis, who combined to make 64 starts. Blass’ 2.85 ERA was the best among staff regulars and he won 15 games. Ellis went 19-9 and finished with a solid 3.06 ERA.

Bob Johnson and Luke Walker had ERAs in the mid-3s. Bob Moose and 21-year-old Bruce Kison were adequate at the back end of the rotation. Dave Giusti saved 30 games and finished with 2.93 ERA. Nelson Briles shuffled between the rotation and the pen, finishing with an ERA of 3.04.

All in all, it added up to a staff that was in the “good but not great” category, finishing fifth in a 12-team National League for ERA. But that was more than good enough to win, given the bats Pittsburgh had.

After a month of mediocre play, the Pirates started to pick it up in May. They went 6-5 against the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, the teams who would battle it out to the final day in the NL West. Pittsburgh took three of five from Cincinnati, the defending NL pennant winner, but headed for a rough year in 1971. On the down side, the Pirates dropped four of seven games to the New York Mets.

All in all though, Pittsburgh was consistent enough to reach Memorial Day with a record of 28-19. They were in third place, 2 ½ games back of St. Louis, with New York nestled in between.

It’s worth noting for younger readers that the concept of divisional play was only in its third season and each league had just an East and a West. Pittsburgh—along with St. Louis and the Chicago Cubs—were in the NL East. They were joined by the Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals). Only the first-place finisher would reach the postseason, going directly to the NLCS.

So, while the start was pretty good, it was still a big series when St. Louis came into Pittsburgh on June 1. Cash got the party started in Tuesday night’s opener with a leadoff double, the first of his three hits, and it keyed a five-run outburst that included a two-out, two-run single from Ellis. Dock wasn’t too bad on the mound either, tossing a three-hitter and winning 9-0.

It was more of the same on Wednesday night, with Cash getting three more hits. Vic Davalillo, a reserve outfielder with great bat control, had three hits in the 2-spot of the order. Stargell drove in three runs and Pittsburgh won 10-1 behind six good innings from Walker. Even though Bob Johnson had a rough night and lost the finale to Cardinal ace Steve Carlton 7-1, the series got the Pirates moving in the right direction.

The return visit to St. Louis came on June 10 for a sort-of weekend series that would go on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Blass took the ball for the opener and won 3-1, with the key hit being a two-run single in the sixth from Sanguillen. Friday night was another offensive party. Sanguillen had three more hits. Stargell homered. Ellis did it again with his bat, driving in three runs. And the Dock did it again on the mound, winning 11-4 for his ninth win of the year.

Saturday night’s finale was a good baseball game and a taut affair. With two hits and two RBIs from Stargell, Pittsburgh was tied 3-3. With two outs in the top of the ninth, Oliver homered. Pirate reliever Mudcat Grant closed it, getting Torre to ground out to end the game.

The sweep was complete. Beating the Cardinals five times in six tries had moved Pittsburgh into first place in the NL West. Then they went 18-9 up until the All-Star break. Their record was a sparkling 57-31 and their division lead was a healthy 9 ½ on the Cubs, 10 on the Mets and 11 on the badly slumping Cardinals.

The latter part of the summer saw the Pirates slump. They went 9-10 in a home-and-home sequence against the three West Coast teams, the Giants, Dodgers and Padres. Pittsburgh’s lead was big enough for that not to be a big deal, but it combined with a disastrous four-game set at home with St. Louis. The Pirates only scored six total runs, lost all four games and the Cardinals surged to within 3 ½ games.

Then Pittsburgh lost three of four in Cincinnati. Facing the possibility of a collapse, the Pirates planted their feet and won 10 of the next 13. By Labor Day, the Pirates were still 84-57 and their margin on the Cardinals was 5 ½ games. No one else was in the race. Pittsburgh was in control, but still had five head-to-head games with St. Louis in September.

They responded like a battle-tested team would, immediately winning five straight. The lead was pushed to 7 ½ in mid-September. St. Louis came to old (then new) Three Rivers Stadium for two games. Even one win would all but finish off this race.

Actually, the Pirates won both. Ellis beat Carlton 4-1 with help from a two-run shot by Oliver. On Wednesday night, Walker pitched well, while the Cardinals beat themselves with walks and errors. Pittsburgh won 6-1.

It was the following Wednesday night—appropriately enough on the return trip to St. Louis—that the division was clinched. Facing the great veteran, Cardinal Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, the Pirates won 5-1 behind good work from Walker and Giusti out of the bullpen. When the closer induced Joe Hague to hit a ground ball to Robertson and the first baseman took it himself, the champagne could flow.

There was more champagne to be uncorked in the Steel City this October. Pittsburgh faced San Francisco in the 1971 NLCS. After losing the first game on the road and then falling behind early in the second game, the Pirates were in trouble in what was then a best-of-five series. Until Robertson homered three times to lead a Game 2 rally. Pittsburgh came back home and won two more, with Robertson, along with Hebner hitting more clutch home runs. The Pirates had their first National League pennant since the magical championship year of 1960.

The 1971 World Series would be one of baseball’s memorable Fall Classics, but it didn’t start that way. Pittsburgh started on the road with two losses to the defending champion Baltimore Orioles. But Blass got things turned around with a win back home in Game 3. Meanwhile, Clemente was hitting and he was making plays in the field. Pittsburgh won two more at home. Back in Baltimore, a 10-inning loss in Game 6 set up a decisive seventh game.

It was Blass and Clemente who did the job. The pitcher had his second brilliant outing of the Series. A Clemente homer started the scoring and Pittsburgh won a 2-1 nailbiter. They were champs.

More winning was coming in a decade that already saw the Pirates 2-for-2 in winning the NL East. They won the division again in 1972 before losing a crushing NLCS to the Reds. Pittsburgh won division titles in 1974 and 1975. After three years of running behind Philadelphia, the Pirates returned to the top of the NL East in 1979. And they ended the decade the way it had opened, with another pennant, and another seven-game World Series victory over Baltimore.