Roberto Clemente Position Outfielder Born 8/18/1934 Carolina, Puerto Rico Died 12/31/1972 San Juan, Puerto Rico Debut April 1955 Pittsburgh Pirates Bats Right Throws Right Ht 511 Wt 175 Roberto Clemente may be one of the only true heroes American baseball has produced. His dedication on the field was unequaled, and his concern for his fellow human beings was that of a saint. In today’s world, where a visit to a hospital by an athlete is usually a photo opportunity, Clemente’s day-in, day-out commitment to helping needy people seems unbelievable. More than once, filmmakers have tried to tell his story and have given up. The way Clemente lived and played was grander, more touching, and more passionate than any screen treatment could convey. At Clemente’s posthumous Hall of Fame induction, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said, “He had about him a touch of royalty.” Filmmaker John Sayles noted, “Most of what I know about style I learned from Roberto Clemente.” Clemente played the game as if it were his and his alone.
His haughty stance at the plate, the way he snared fly balls, and the way he used his marvelous arm were all unique. Next to Clemente, any other batter would look uncomfortable, any other outfielder would appear clumsy, and anyone else trying to throw as he did would seem ineffectual; but that was the only way that Clemente knew how to play. He won four batting titles and holds the NL record for most years leading the league in outfield assists, with five. He won 12 Gold Gloves, tying him with Willie Mays for the most awarded an outfielder, and remains first in the Pirates record books in games played, at bats, hits, singles, and total bases. As a youth in Puerto Rico, Clemente sneaked peeks through the outfield fence at his favorite player, Monte Irvin.
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By age 14 he was playing against Negro Leaguers and major leaguers. As a teenager Clemente played in the same Puerto Rico winter league outfield with Willie Mays, an experience he never forgot. It was his first brush with greatness. The Dodgers signed him for $10, 000, although he received offers nearly three times that after agreeing to the Dodger contract. A rule at the time stated that because he was signed to a minor league contract, he was eligible to be drafted by any team for $4, 000 if he wasn’t brought up to the majors. The Dodgers could have signed him to a major league contract and optioned him back to the minors, but they didn’t.
Playing his first professional season with the Dodgers’ farm club in Montreal, Clemente felt he was treated oddly. The Dodgers were trying to hide him from the Giants, but this was never explained to him, and he was so hurt and confused by the way he was handled that he thought of quitting. He recalled, “If I struck out I stayed in the lineup. If I played well I was benched. One day I hit three triples and was benched the next day.
Another game I was taken out for a pinch hitter in the first inning with the bases loaded.” After this disappointing first season Clemente returned to Puerto Rico. While he was visiting his brother, who was dying of a brain tumor, a drunk driver plowed into his car. The crash damaged three spinal discs, an injury that would plague Clemente for the rest of his career. When the last-place Pirates met after the 1954 season to discuss who they should draft first, Clyde Sukeforth said to Pittsburgh General Manager Branch Rickey, who had also been his boss in Brooklyn, “You will never live long enough to draft a boy with this kind of ability for $4, 000 again.” During his first two seasons as the Pirates’ right fielder Roberto Clemente gunned down 18 and 20 runners, respectively, on the bases. In his second year he hit.
311 but wouldn’t top. 300 again until 1960. Because he was a free swinger, according to Bucs batting coach George Sister, Clemente’s head “bobbed when he swung.” In 1958 he led the league in outfield assists for the first time with 22. Clemente, and all of Pittsburgh, had a terrific year in 1960. He hit 16 homers and batted. 314, and his 94 RBIs led the team as they won the NL pennant and shocked baseball by upsetting the powerful Yankees in the World Series.
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Clemente hit. 310 for the Series, batting safely in all seven games and driving in three runs. One play in Game 7 epitomized his inimitable style. The Pirates were down 7-5 and batting in the bottom of the eighth when Clemente came to the plate with runners on second and third and two out. He hit a feeble bouncer toward first baseman Bill Skowron. Yankee hurler Jim Coates dawdled over to the bag, but Clemente hustled.
He beat Coates to first base, another run scored, and Hal Smith followed Clemente with a three-run homer that gave the Pirates the lead. Always a proud man, Clemente took it hard when he got the news that he had only finished eighth in the 1960 Most Valuable Player voting. It pushed him to try even harder. The next season Clemente changed his bat. To avoid over swinging on bad balls he began to use heavier lumber and went on to enjoy 11. 300-plus seasons in the next 12 years.
He won his first batting title in 1961, hitting. 351 with 23 homers, 10 triples, and 89 RBIs. Clemente put on a show in that season’s first All-Star Game, too. He tripled for the first hit off Whitey Ford in the second inning and later scored the game’s first run. He drove in the second run with a sacrifice fly, and in the bottom of the tenth his single brought home Mays with the winning run. From then on he wore his 1961 All-Star Game ring, not his 1960 World Series ring.
That year Clemente missed the last five games of the season because a Don Drysdale fastball had chipped a bone in his right elbow, requiring off-season surgery. Because of the aggressive way he played, he suffered numerous injuries. Unlike other players who declined to speak about their physical problems, Clemente discussed his aches and pains with anyone who asked. (“My bad shoulder feels good, but my good shoulder feels bad,” he once said.
) According to a biographer, he suffered from “backaches (due to his neck injury in the 1954 auto accident), flu attacks, a nervous stomach, spasms of diarrhea, infected tonsils, headaches, and bone chips in his throwing elbow.” He even contracted malaria in 1965. To deal with his physical problems Clemente relied on a Puerto Rican chiropractor, Arturo Garcia, who “rubs on a potent orange ointment called Atomic Balm, ‘cauterizes’ tendons with a black plastic cylinder that emits crackling blue sparks, and heats aching muscles with a small infrared lamp.” Several times Clemente infuriated Pirates management by shunning medical experts in Pittsburgh, instead relying on the slightly unusual methods of Dr. Garcia. Clemente learned how to crack his troublesome neck by himself and gave chiropractic and massage treatments to teammates, friends, and acquaintances. His constant complaining about aches and pains didn’t sit well with Pittsburgh sportswriters, who accused him of being a hypochondriac, overlooking the fact that Clemente played more than 140 games for eight seasons in a row, including years of 152 (twice), 154, and 155. In 1964 and 1965 he won batting titles again, but the Pirates felt he wasn’t providing as much power as he could.
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Manager Harry “the Hat” Walker asked him to swing for the fences more often. Clemente responded by belting 29 homers and driving in 119 runs in 1966, although his batting average fell a dozen points to. 317. That year he had 15-game and 17-game hitting streaks and four four-hit games. His defensive abilities never suffered. In one game, in a bases-loaded situation, a batter lined an apparent single to right.
The runner on third didn’t see any need to hustle home; Clemente fired a strike to the catcher for a stunning force out. Clemente won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1966, and he felt that the injustice of 1960 had been rectified. A new Clemente emerged during the 1965-66 season. He suddenly became more open, eagerly taking the reins of leadership in the clubhouse. If a young Pirate had a problem, Clemente discussed it quietly. When Manager Harry Walker failed to get new Pirate Matty Alou to quit pulling every pitch, to use a heavier bat, and to hit down on the ball, Clemente spoke to Alou.
The newcomer responded with a 111-point increase in his batting average and won the league batting title. Clemente hit. 357 in 1967 to win his fourth batting title, adding 23 homers and 110 RBIs for good measure. When he hit three homers and drove in all seven Buc runs in an 8-7 loss to Cincinnati that year, he agreed it was his “biggest” game ever. “But not my best. My best game is when I drive in the winning run.
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I don’t count this one. We lost.” An off-field incident gave a clue to his fierce pride. While the Pirates were playing the Mets in Shea Stadium, filmmakers were shooting the movie The Odd Couple. Clemente was asked to be in it and was offered $100 under the impression that it was an instructional film for children. When he found out that it was a commercial venture, he became upset at how little money he had been offered; later he refused to participate at all when he found out that the script called for him to hit into a triple play.
With the arrival of rookies Manny San guillen, Richie He bner, and Al Oliver in 1969, Clemente’s role as a leader became even more valuable. From 1969 through 1971 Clemente hit. 345, . 352, and. 341. The Pirates honored him in 1970 at their new Three Rivers Stadium.
Puerto Rican fans, who by now viewed him as a demigod, delivered a scroll signed by 300, 000 people in Puerto Rico (roughly 10 percent of the island’s population).
More than 43, 000 fans showed up for the festivities and game, which the Bucs won 11-0. Clemente obligingly had two hits and made a great catch of a Joe Morgan line drive. He also made a running, diving grab of a foul popup by Dennis Men ke that meant absolutely nothing to the outcome of the game and tore his knee open in the process. “It’s the only way I know how to play baseball,” he explained. His intensity and skill received their finest showcase in 1971.
The Pirates knocked off the Giants in the 1971 NLCS, with Clemente hitting. 333 and driving in four runs. As the team prepared for the World Series, the consensus was that the young Bucs, despite their great hitting, would be no match for the pitching-rich Orioles, who were armed with Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, and Mike Cuellar. Cuellar and Clemente also had a more personal score to settle. In the previous off-season Cuellar had quit a winter league team that Clemente was managing.
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The pitcher grandly announced, “I’ve pitched too long now for Clemente to be telling me how.” Cuellar’s haughtiness reflected Baltimore’s overconfidence. The Orioles had won their last 11 games in the regular season and had swept Oakland in the ALCS. In Clemente’s first at bat in the Series, he doubled off McNally; he added another single, and had two hits in Game 2, but the Bucs lost both. Events would show that the Series turned on a single play in Game 3, and Clemente’s hustle against Cuellar made the difference. Clemente had driven in the first Pirate run, and the Bucs were ahead 2-1 as he led off the seventh and topped a pitch back to the mound. Cuellar prepared for a leisurely toss to first, but when he saw Clemente running full speed, he reacted with a wild throw that pulled Book Powell off the bag.
Rattled, Cuellar then walked Willie Star gell, and Bob Robertson sealed the issue with a three-run homer, destroying the Orioles’ conceits of invincibility. Clemente had four hits as the Pirates won Games 4 and 5. In Game 6 he tripled and homered, and his heroic throw from deep right held Mark Belanger at third in the ninth inning to keep the game tied. But the Orioles won in 10 innings on Brooks Robinson’s sacrifice fly.
Game 7 began with Cuellar pitching against Steve Blass, and the Oriole hurler retired the first 11 Pirates he faced. When Clemente went to the plate against him in the fourth, however, he jumped on Cuellar’s first pitch and homered deep over the left field wall. The Pirates went on to win, 2-1, on Blass’s stellar pitching performance, and Clemente was the Series MVP. When a writer told Pirates General Manager Joe L.
Brown that Clemente was overachieving, Brown explained, “You don’t understand. He always plays this way.” For the Series, Clemente hit in all seven games (giving him the record of batting safely in every World Series game in which he played), batting. 414 and slugging. 759. Roger Angell said, “Clemente played a kind of baseball that none of us had ever seen before-throwing and running and hitting at something close to the level of absolute perfection.” Clemente would never scale such heights again. Injuries allowed him to play in only 102 games in 1972, but he still hit.
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312. His double off the Mets’ Jon Matlock on September 30 was his 3, 000 th hit. The Pirates again made it to the NLCS but lost on Bob Moose’s wild pitch in the ninth inning of the final game. In late December of that year a devastating earthquake struck Nicaragua.
More than 6, 000 people were killed, 20, 000 injured, and tens of thousands left homeless. Clemente actively took part in soliciting funds and donations to help the survivors. As always, he was tireless, pleading for donations personally, negotiating discounts with airlines for transporting the materials, and packing and loading boxes for shipment. While all of Puerto Rico celebrated the holidays, Clemente was working 16-hour days to see that the earthquake victims received what they needed.
After hearing that some of the supplies they had sent to Nicaragua were not getting to the right people, Clemente decided to take matters into his own hands. He would fly to Nicaragua in a cargo plane and make sure that distribution was carried out properly. On New Year’s Eve he boarded an overloaded DC-7 that he had rented for $4, 000 to fly to Nicaragua. The plane crashed into the ocean shortly after takeoff. New Year’s Day was to have been a day of great celebration in Puerto Rico, with a new governor being inaugurated.
Instead, the inaugural festivities were canceled, and the entire Pirates team flew to Puerto Rico for the funeral. The Hall of Fame waived the five-year wait between last playing appearance and eligibility for Clemente, as it had done earlier for Lou Gehrig. Ninety-three percent of the votes favored Clemente’s induction; those who voted against it explained that they felt the five-year rule should be adhered to despite the tragedy. The first Latin player so honored, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame on the same day as his boyhood idol, Monte Irvin.
The Hall instituted the Roberto Clemente Award for good citizenship as an annual honor. More than 20 years after his death, a video about Clemente on the Three Rivers Stadium scoreboard produced instant, awestruck silence, followed by respectful applause and cheers touched with sadness. A statue of him will be unveiled at Three Rivers Stadium at the 1994 All-Star Game, and his dream of a Sports City in Puerto Rico for poor youngsters is now coming to fruition. He said in the late 1960 s, “If you have an opportunity to make things better and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on this earth.”.