Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were the dominant baseball players of the 1960s. They overshadowed other stars of that era, including Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente.
Robinson came out of the shadows with his Triple Crown season in 1966. Clemente didn’t get his due until the 1971 World Series. It was only then that America got to see the full range of his talents. Curt Gowdy, NBC’s lead announcer in this Series, made sure America noticed.
Robinson and Clemente were the key players in Game Six of the Series, played on October 16. This was a must-win game for the Orioles. After jumping out to a two games to none lead playing in Baltimore, they had lost three straight in Pittsburgh. The O’s managed only nine hits and four runs in the three games.
Now, they were back home and with the great Jim Palmer on the mound. The Pirates turned to spot-starter Bob Moose, pressed into service because Dock Ellis, ineffective in Game One, had fallen by the wayside with a bad elbow and Bob Johnson hadn’t made it past the third inning in Game Two.
Moose had pitched rather poorly throughout the 1971 season and had been absolutely shelled in Game Two of the World Series. But Danny Murtaugh apparently trusted him more than he trusted Johnson.
Moose rewarded that trust on this day, shutting out the desperate Orioles through five innings. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh built a two-run lead off of Palmer.
In the second inning, they produced their first run on a double by Al Oliver and singles by Bob Robertson and Manny Sanguillen. In the third, they added another on a solo home run by Clemente, who had tripled earlier in the game.
The Orioles finally got to Moose in the bottom of the sixth. Don Buford led off the inning with a home run. After Davey Johnson reached on an error by Richie Hebner and Boog Powell singled him to third, Murtaugh went to the bullpen. On came Bob Johnson whom the Orioles had mistreated in Game Two.
Johnson had to face Frank Robinson, Merv Rettenmund, and Brooks Robinson in the heart of the O’s batting order. No problem. He got Frank on a pop-up, struck out Merv, and retired Brooks on a grounder.
In the seventh, however, the Orioles tied the game at Johnson’s expense. With one out, Mark Belanger singled. Johnson struck out Palmer but Belanger stole second base.
That brought the hot-hitting Buford to the plate. When Johnson fell behind in the count, Murtaugh replaced him with his relief ace, Dave Giusti.
The Pirates’ skipper was hoping for a seven-out save to clinch the World Series, but it was not to be. Giusi completed the walk to Buford. Davey Johnson then tied the game with a bloop single to left field.
Palmer had settled down and, in fact, been cruising since falling behind in the third inning. Since then, he had blanked Pittsburgh and given up just two hits and a walk.
He continued to dominate the Bucs in the top of the eighth, setting down their biggest guns — Clemente, Stargell, and Oliver — one-two-three.
Giusti equaled that feat in the bottom of the inning. Down went Frank Robinson, Rettenmund, and Brooks Robinson in order.
In the top of the ninth, Sanguillen singled with one out but was thrown out by Buford trying to stretch it to a double. The Pirates did no further damage in that frame.
The Orioles nearly won it in the bottom of the ninth. They would have but for Clemente.
Giusti walked Belanger with one out. Tom Shopay batted for Palmer, ending the big right-hander’s heroic outing. Shopay flied out to center.
That brought up the troublesome Buford again. Sure enough, he doubled down the right field line and into the corner.
Normally, Buford’s two-out blow would have won the game. But not with Clemente, possessor of one of the best arms ever, in right field. He raced to the corner and fielded the ball on a hop off the right field wall.
Belanger didn’t dare test Clemente. He stopped at third. Wisely. Clemente unleashed a fantastic one-bounce throw to the plate that would have gunned Belanger down.
Johnson then grounded out to send the game into extra innings.
The Pirates threatened big-time in the top of tenth. With 20-game winner Pat Dobson on the mound in place of Palmer, Murtaugh sent up Vic Davalillo to bat for Giusti. Dobson got him on a line drive to second, but Dave Cash singled. Richie Hebner struck out, but Cash stole second on that pitch.
Now Clemente was up with the go-ahead run in scoring position. Weaver played it smart. He had Dobson walked Clemente intentionally, and then brought in 21-game winning southpaw Dave McNally to pitch to Stargell, the left-handed hitting slugger.
McNally hadn’t pitched relief for more than two years. It showed. He couldn’t get his best pitch — his curve ball — over. Stargell walked to load the bases. But McNally found enough form to retire Oliver on a fly ball to center field.
Murtaugh made a double-switch for the bottom of the tenth. Davalillo stayed on to play center field. Bob Miller came on to pitch, taking Oliver’s spot in the batting order.
Miller had debuted in the major leagues way back in 1957, at the age of 18. The Pirates were his ninth big league team (and not his last). The veteran right-hander was something of a baseball Zelig figure.
He pitched for the “Amazing” 1962 Mets, for whom he went 1-12. He landed with the Dodgers for whom he pitched in two World Series (giving up no runs). After that, he was a solid relief/spot starter pitcher for the American League West champion Minnesota Twins in 1969.
Following an atrocious 1970 campaign with three different clubs, he excelled for San Diego in the first half of the 1971 and for the Pirates in the second half.
Now he was coming on in the tenth inning of a crucial World Series game.
Miller retired Boog Powell on a ground ball. Frank Robinson was next.
Frank was having a miserable game — 0-4 with two strike outs. This, after going 0-5 in the two previous games.
Against Miller in this at-bat, he drew a walk, laying off some close pitches on the outside corner. The ball-four call drew protests from the Pirates’ dugout, but the call was correct. Close doesn’t count in baseball.
That brought Rettenmund to the plate. He singled through the infield to shallow center field.
For the 36-year-old Robinson to go from first to third seemed unlikely. But Robinson never hesitated. Rolling back the years, he made an exquisite dash and made it to third just ahead of a pretty good throw by Davalillo.
Now, Robbie could score on a well-hit fly ball. However, he appeared to tweak something as he slide into third.
Brooks Robinson’s fly ball to center field wasn’t well hit. But Frank, tweaked muscle or not, dashed for home anyway.
Davalillos’s throw was more or less on the money. However, it took a high hop off of the concrete-like playing surface (Clemente had complained about it). Sanguillen left his feet to catch the ball. Frank slide under those feet as the ball arrived, and was safe at home.
Clemente had nearly defeated the Orioles with his bat and his arm. Robinson defeated the Pirates with legs and his baserunning savvy. And guts.
The two sweetest words in baseball are “Game Seven.” There would be one in 1971.
You can watch the tenth inning of Game Six below. Below that is Clemente’s incredible throw in the ninth inning.