Roberto Clemente spent his entire Major League Baseball career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But he didn’t start out with the Bucs. In early 1954, Clemente, a native of Carolina, Puerto Rico, was signed as an unprotected bonus baby by the Brooklyn Dodgers. During the 1954 season, Clemente played for the Dodgers’ Triple-A farm team in Montreal. However, the youngster saw little action. The Pirates had an interest in Clemente. The Dodger brass knew it and Clemente played sparingly. He hit in batting practice with the pitchers and Dodger coaches ran down Clemente’s prospects when in conversation with scouts from rival teams. It didn’t work. Pirates scouts had already seen Clemente play in fielding drills. They made him their first pick in the November 1954 rookie draft.
From 1955-72, Clemente played in more games in a Pirate uniform than any player in that team’s history. He was a 12-time All Star, the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1966 and a four-time batting champion. In the field, Clemente won 12 consecutive Gold Glove awards. His achievements were even more impressive in that they took place during an era when such pitchers as Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton dominated the game.
Clemente played on the 1960 “Beat ‘Em Bucs” squad, which upset the New York Yankees in that year’s World Series, thanks to the dramatic game seven, ninth-inning home run by Bill Mazeroski. It would be another 11 years before the Pirates made it back into the Fall Classic. In the meantime, Clemente emerged as one of the game’s stars, complementing a star-studded field that included Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Harmon Killebrew and Al Kaline. The man was often injured and all around the Pirates clubhouse, players joked on how “the old man” was doing on game day. In his recent autobiography, Pete Rose told a humorous story.
“Roberto Clemente…loved to talk hitting,” Rose recalled. “At old Forbes Field, we had to walk…through the Pittsburgh dugout to get to the visitors’ dugout. Underneath…were benches and Roberto would sit there and put on a clinic. ‘Bobby, how you are feeling today?’ I’d always ask him. ‘Pete, let me tell you one thing, every bone in my body hurts.’ Then he’d go out and hit the ball all over the park, going 3-for-5. The next day, I’d ask him again and he’d say he felt great—then finish 0-for-4. Roberto Clemente helped me more than any player who wasn’t my teammate. You had to listen closely to everything he was saying, because his English wasn’t the greatest. So you paid more attention.”
The zenith of Clemente’s career was reached in 1971. That year, the Pirates won the National League pennant. In the World Series, they were underdogs against the Baltimore Orioles, the defending World Champions, who boasted a starting rotation with four 20-game winners. At 37, Clemente batted 0.414, knocking out 12 hits in seven games and homering in the decisive 2-1 game seven win at Baltimore over the Birds. Clemente was named Series MVP, accepting the award in a nationally-televised interview.
The next year, Clemente would cap his Hall of Fame career by belting his 3,000th hit, a double, on the last day of the regular season. Shockingly, it would be the man’s last hurrah. On New Year Eve’s 1972, Clemente organized a relief program for Nicaraguan residents victimized by an earthquake. Tragically, the cargo plane carrying Clemente crashed and a stunned Western Hemisphere mourned the passing of a baseball great.
Following his untimely death, Clemente was immediately voted into the Hall of Fame as the directors bypassed the five-year waiting period rule. An annual Roberto Clemente Award is given to the big leaguer who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.” Pittsburgh has a bridge named for Clemente and a monument to the man outside of PNC Stadium.
Clemente was about more than statistics. No one who saw Clemente play could ever forget it. During his career, the Pirates played home games at Forbes Field and later, Three Rivers Stadium, both of which were pitcher’s parks. Clemente compensated by being a line drive hitter, slashing outside pitches to right field and pulling inside pitches down the line. He hit the balls in the gaps. For his career, he had 440 doubles and 166 triples. Four times he had over 200 hits in a season. In 1967, general managers rated Clemente as the game’s top player, beating out Yastrzemski in an informal poll. Clemente was a terror on the base paths, stretching singles into doubles and galloping from first to third on base hits. Clemente had a cannon for an arm and he often snagged fly balls, basket-catch style, a la Willie Mays. Watching Clemente round the bases and patrol right field was as much fun as his batting exploits. In this respect, he was an old-fashioned player.