The next chapter of Pittsburgh sports was ready to be written, and these people helped to bring change to the three professional franchises in the City of Bridges. Let’s review who helped the Pirates, Steelers, and Penguins to move forward.
Pirates: Second baseman Curt Roberts entered into baseball history as the ninth player to cross the color-line in Major League Baseball when he made his debut Tuesday, April 13, 1954, at Forbes Field. The native of Pineland, Texas spent four seasons with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues and had been an All-Star in the Single-A Western League.
The 5-foot-8, 165-pound infielder participated in 134 contests his rookie campaign, hitting .232 with 36 RBI’s and six stolen bases in 496 at-bats. He did hit a triple to right field off future Philly Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts and helped the Pirates to plunder a 4-2 victory over the Phillies. Curt Roberts was better known for his glove as he put together a .969 fielding percentage in 1954 and turned 82 double plays.
He saw action in just 37 more games over the 1955 and 1956 seasons with the crew of the Jolly Roger. He finished his career in the minors in the Yankees and Athletics farm systems.
However, Roberts gave to the Pirates in another way that did not appear in the box score. Per Tom Singer at MLB.com Roberts, who spoke Spanish, helped in the transition of outfield prospect Roberto Clemente to the majors. The future “Great One” had been selected by Pittsburgh in the December 1954 Rule 5 draft for $4,000 from the Dodgers.
For older Pirates fans, it was manager Danny Murtaugh and his players who became part of MLB history Wednesday, Sept. 1, 1971, at Three Rivers Stadium against the Philadelphia Phillies. The native of Chester, Pennsylvania, who was known as the “Whistling Irishman,” had his lineup card filled out with nine African-American or Latino players.
The mid-week lineup was 2B – Rennie Stennett, CF – Gene Clines, RF – Roberto Clemente, LF – Willie Stargell, C – Manny Sanguillén, 3B – Dave Cash, 1B – Al Oliver, SS – Jackie Hernández, and righty Dock Ellis starting on the hill. They downed the Boys from the City of Brotherly Love 10-7. Murtaugh told the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin about the game, “When it comes to making out the lineup, I’m colorblind and my athletes know it.”
Steelers: Ray Kemp was a 6-foot-1, 215-pound tackle for five contests for Art Rooney, Sr.’s 1933 Pittsburgh Pirates National Football League squad. The former Duquesne Duke was the first African-American player in team history. The NFL had just two black players in 1933, Kemp and Chicago Cardinals running back Joe Lillard. They would also be the last till Kenny Washington and Woody Strode signed with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946.
Ed Bouchette wrote about Kemp’s life for the Post-Gazette. The Pro Football Hall of Fame honored the native of Cecil, Pennsylvania as “one of the black pioneers in the game.” He received membership to both the Duquesne University Sports Hall of Fame and the Western Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.
Art Rooney, Sr. changed the sidelines in 1957 when he made Lowell W. Perry the first African-American assistant coach since Fritz Pollard was a player-coach with the Hammond Pros in 1925. He served as the Steelers’ receivers coach.
Perry was an eighth-round draft pick by the Steelers in the 1953 NFL Draft. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound offensive end from the University of Michigan did not join the Black and Gold until 1956 because of service to our country in the Army. The native of Ypsilanti, Michigan recorded 14 receptions over six contests and averaged 23.9 yards-per-catch along with a pair of touchdowns when tragedy struck his promising career.
Pittsburgh was battling the New York Giants in Week 6. On a reverse play, Giant defenders Rosey Grier and Dick Nolan tackled Perry out-of-bounds. His body collided with one of the steel yard-markers, and he suffered a fractured pelvis and a dislocated hip. The former Wolverine spent 13 weeks in the hospital. Perry told Richard Goldstein of the New York Times in 2001 that Rooney visited him in the hospital and said, “Lowell, as long as I own the Pittsburgh Steelers, you have a job in my organization.”
The story did not end there as Perry obtained a degree from the Detroit College of Law and in 1966 became the first African-American to serve as an analyst for CBS on an NFL broadcast. President Gerald Ford asked him to run the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in May 1975.
Penguins: For Darren Lowe, it was an opportunity to be part of the National Hockey League after playing for Team Canada at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Yugoslavia. Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Eddie Johnston brought the 5-foot-10, 187-pound right-wing in as a free agent during the 1983-1984 campaign. The Toronto, Ontario native contributed one goal and two assists in his eight contests for the Pens. Per Joe Pelletier, he was the 11th black player in NHL history.
Lowe left the City of Bridges and played the 1986-1987 season in Austria with WEV Wien and Jokerit Helsinki of the Finnish League. He spent time with the Maine Mariners of the American Hockey League and the International Hockey League’s Flint Spirits and San Diego Gulls before retiring after the 1990-1991 season. He landed as an assistant coach at his alma mater, the University of Toronto Varsity Blues, for the 1992–93 season. He became the head coach of the program beginning with the 1995–96 season. Lowe returned to Pittsburgh Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, when his Toronto squad lost a 2-0 exhibition matchup against Derek Schooley’s RMU men’s hockey team.
Last June, many sports fans were touched when they found out Sidney Crosby gave the Stanley Cup to Trevor Daley to hoist over his head, so his Mom, who was battling cancer, could see him do it.
Daley took his place in NHL history by becoming the sixth black player to have his name on the trophy. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound defenseman joined Edmonton Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990), Edmonton netminder Eldon Reddick (1990), Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (2010), Chicago goaltender Ray Emery (2013), and Chicago defenseman Johnny Oduya (2013 and 2015).
Change is what helps a nation and society to grow and become better for everyone. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” When we respect each other and cheer each other, then we are moving forward.