Roberto Clemente

From BR Bullpen


Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker [1][2]
(Momen [3]; The Great One)

  • Bats Right, Throws Right
  • Height 5' 11", Weight 175 lb.

Inducted into Hall of Fame in 1973

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"His marvelous playing skills rank him among the truly elite... Somehow, Roberto transcended superstardom. He had about him the touch of royalty." – Bowie Kuhn [4]

Roberto Clemente is one of the most beloved figures in baseball history. He is the "Jackie Robinson" of Latin players and an icon in Pittsburgh, where he spent his entire major league career; Puerto Rico, where he was born and raised; and Nicaragua, where he was taking relief supplies when he died. To this day, many Latin American players [5] and others [6] wear number 21 in his honor.

During his career with the Pirates, Clemente amassed 3,000 hits and four batting titles. He helped make the Bucs World Champs twice, in 1960 and 1971, dominating the latter Series. Clemente was considered one of the greatest defensive right fielders in baseball history due in large part to his very strong and exceptionally accurate throwing arm. He was recognized for his ability, winning 12 consecutive Gold Gloves. This period of – perhaps belatedly recognized – preeminence would begin in 1961 and end only with Clemente's premature demise.

He was largely underappreciated throughout his career – especially prior to being named National League MVP, but even to some extent up to the 1971 World Series MVP and beyond. This was due, in large part, to nagging injuries that both 1) caused his career to proceed in fits and starts [especially the devastating pre-season injuries in 1955, 1957, 1965, and 1968], and 2) caused him to be unfairly branded a hypochondriac, a somewhat specious diagnosis which neither his near-suicidal attraction to outfield fences [7] nor, for that matter, his very death itself could do much to dispel. Equally injurious to his pre-and-posthumous ranking is simply the matter of playing the bulk of his career amidst the vast expanse of Forbes Field which, in conjunction with the approach advocated by his batting coach George Sisler, kept his power numbers down – which, in turn, kept him from being viewed as the true five-tool, elite player he was. Finally, lest we forget, Clemente was a dark-skinned Hispanic at a time when American society had not yet fully accepted minorities in the major leagues. This prejudice – or, at the very least, provincialism plus insensitivity – was reflected in his Topps baseball cards, which for much of his career referred to him as "Bob Clemente", as well as in the persistent practice of even some highly sympathetic sportswriters to quote Clemente's heavily accented English utterances phonetically.

Biographical Information

Momen: the early years_aka_pre-Columbian Clemente

Roberto Clemente4.jpg

Roberto's mom, Luisa, spoke at length with Kal Wagenheim in 1973:

“Roberto was the youngest of my seven children. He was very strong, with hands that were different from the others. When he was about five years old, if he got hold of a quarter, he would say, ‘I’m going to have my picture taken!’ There were coin machines where you could take your picture. His older brothers would laugh and say, ‘This muchacho must think he’s handsome!’ He was born with that instinct, and it must have been his destiny because people took pictures of him all his life.” [8]

Nonetheless, posing for pictures was hardly his primary occupation. Luisa continues:

"Even as a young child, Roberto loved to play ball. He would lie down in bed and throw a rubber ball against the wall – back and forth, back and forth. As he grew, he would look for other children in the barrio to play with. Sometimes I’d dress him up nice and clean, and he’d come home full of dust and mud! I’d send him to the store on an errand, and he’d be gone for hours! I would say to him, ‘When you leave here, you have to tell us where you’re going!’ I raised my children at home, in a different epoch, not like nowadays. When I sent them on an errand to someone’s house, I would tell them, ‘You say buenos dias, give them what I sent with you, and don’t you dare enter unless they invite you.’ In those days, a child was raised to be very humble, not like today. He would ask for la benedicion of his parents. ‘Your blessing, papa. Your blessing, mama.’" [9]

This can't help but conjure up the image of the 37-year-old Clemente, immediately following game seven of the 1971 World Series, insisting on prefacing his comments to Bob Prince and the U.S. television audience with comments in Spanish to his fellow Puerto Ricans as a whole and to his parents in particular, once again asking for their blessing.

Clemente's latter-life friend, attorney – and avid baseball buff – Efren Bernier, looks back fondly at the family which provided Clemente's foundation:

“In a certain sense, Roberto was a man from another century. Although his family was very poor and had little schooling, it was a very ‘cultured’ family in the sense of values. They had a scale of priorities, and he was that way too." [10]

"Roberto thought very well of the Jibaros. They are a quiet people… very close to their families. They give to each other. He was like that." [11]

As Roberto himself recalled:

"When I was a boy, I realized what lovely people my mother and father were. I was treated real good. I learned the right way to live. I never heard any hate in my house. Not for anybody. I never heard my mother say a bad word to my father, or my father to my mother." [12] "During the war, when food was hard to get, my parents fed their children first and they ate what was left. They always thought of us.” [13] “My mother have to really work. My mother used to get up at one o’clock in the morning. She had to work and make lunches for these people that used to work in the sugar cane plantations. Now, my mother never went to a show. My mother, she didn’t know how to dance." [14] "But even the way we used to live, we were happy. We would sit down to eat and make jokes and talk and eat whatever there was. That was something wonderful... to grow up with people who had to struggle to eat.” [15]

His mom continues:

"Don Melchor was a strict father, but he was very affectionate with his children. For more than twenty years Melchor worked with the Victoria mill in Carolina as foreman of the brigades of canecutters. He had a paso fino horse that he rode to the fields, and sometimes one of the employees would mount Roberto on the horse and ride him back and forth, from the house to the highway. He loved that. When Roberto was a little older, Melchor had some trucks which he used for hauling sand and gravel for the construction trade. All the boys would help their papa, loading the trucks with shovels. Outside of family work, Roberto’s first real money was earned playing baseball.” [16]

Manuel Maldonado Denis, a friend of the Clementes who would later play pro ball on the island and, eventually, would go on to become professor of political science at the University of Puerto Rico, recalls the pre-teen prodigy:

Momen, as we childhood friends called him, had the combative fury of very few athletes. I recall very well the day that his older brothers took him to play in the kids’ league at the Barrio San Anton School. He couldn’t have been older than ten and was probably younger. Some of us were much older. For example, there was his brother Matino, whose catches at first base were the sensation of the barrio. And Lorenzo, another brother, who gripped the bat cross-handed and whose line drives shook the zinc roof of the schoolhouse. And Andres, who threw underhand style. They were the Clemente brothers: Matino, Lorenzo, Andres, and Momen. All you had to do was look at Momen to know that he had been born to play baseball.” [17]

Matino, speaking in 1974, recalls his younger brother:

“Roberto was a very mature boy, even when he was ten or so. Basically, he was a good kid. He did two things, played ball and stayed home. He never got into trouble. We called him ‘Momen’ from the time he was little. When he had grown up and become a star, no one could remember what the name meant. He was always quiet, never got whipped. We used to kid him about that.” [18]

Moreover, even at this early age, both his desire to help others and the leadership qualities/organizational skills so obvious later in life were easily discerned by Matino:

"If anybody needed help with advice or money, he would give it. Once, when he was about 11, there was an automobile accident. The car caught fire, and he crossed the highway and took the driver out so he wouldn’t burn. In school he was a leader. When they needed to build a fence to protect the school, he organized a group of boys and, through various activities, they raised money to help build the fence.” [19]

Maria Isabel Caceres, Clemente's high school history teacher and, forever thereafter, his lifelong friend, here recalls her early impressions. As fate would have it, it was Caceres' ex-husband, Roberto Marin, who would later engineer Clemente’s entry into and early progress within organized ball, first softball, then baseball. As we shall see, Caceres' first RC sighting would prove remarkably similar to Marin's:

“My first recollection of Roberto was a skinny youngster hitting tin cans with a broomstick along Carolina’s dusty streets. His father worked on a sugar plantation outside town. [20] He did not make much money. But then there are no rich children here. There never have been. Roberto was typical. I knew him when he was a small boy because his mother used to shop in my father's grocery store." [21] "Roberto and his brothers grew up playing ball. I remember especially well the first day he enrolled in the local high school, where I taught history and physical education." [22] "Each year, I let my students choose the seat they want. The first day Roberto came to my class he was very shy. He went straight to the back of the room and chose the last seat. Most of the time he would sit with his eyes down." [23] "When I called on him, he would answer quietly without looking up. Despite his shyness and the sadness around his eyes, there was something poignantly appealing about him." [24]

"After class he was very different. We would talk for hours." [25] "Later on, he’d come to visit me at home sometimes, and we would play records on the phonograph. He particularly loved to listen to danzas, Puerto Rico’s traditional music." [26] "[Roberto] never got into trouble like boys will. And I teased him about girls because he was so good-looking, even then. He was an average student – intelligent but not a scholar. I gave him a B in history.” [27]

Of course, even during this period (the mid to late 1940's), prior to his own participation in any kind of organized ball, Momen was intensely focused on baseball... and on one particular baseball player – Monte Irvin. Years later, his memories of Monte remained vivid as well as fond:

“The first hero that I have … I would say was Monte Irvin, when I was a kid.” [28] “I think he had the best eye, best stance and sharpest cut of all the big leaguers playing in Puerto Rico. He also field real good and throw like a bullet.” [29]

"I used to wait in front of the ballpark just for him to pass by so I could see him.” [30] "I never had enough nerve, I didn't want to even look him straight in the face. But when he passed by, I would turn around and look at him because I idolized him." [31]

Fortunately for the young Irvin admirer, the ice was eventually broken – perhaps because his even younger friend and fellow baseball enthusiast (not to mention fellow future HOFer) Orlando Cepeda was considerably more outgoing and proactive than the shy and retiring Roberto. In any case, Momen was ultimately afforded the opportunity not just to meet and greet but to hang with his hero. Irvin recalls:

“There’d be youngsters hanging around, and we’d let the kids carry our bags to get in the park for free. Roberto and Orlando Cepeda, they were always there together. When he got into the majors, we renewed our friendship. We used to reminisce about the good old days in Puerto Rico.” [32]

But now we're getting ahead of ourselves. Back in 1948, a fateful encounter with his history teacher's ex, Roberto Marin, would bring about Momen's own long overdue entry into organized ball.

Speaking with Bruce Markusen in 1996, Luis Mayoral, who got to know both Robertos later in life, gives his impressions of Marin and, more important, of the man's immense influence on Clemente's development – from 'Momen' to 'The Great One':

"Marin was a salesman; he sold rice for the Sello Rojo Company. And as a salesman for Sello Rojo, he would travel to different parts of the island. In 1948, Roberto was driving around Barrio San Anton, and he told me many times that he saw a group of kids playing baseball, with guava tree limbs as bats. Guava tree limbs are very hard; that’s what they used to play with – also with broomsticks. And they used cans – like for spachetti or other foods – as baseballs. The kids would crush them, and that would be the ball. One day driving around San Anton, he stopped to take a look at the kids. He saw this one kid in particular – who turned out to be Roberto – and just by watching him for a few minutes, he saw the athletic abilities that Roberto had. And that led Marin to contact Roberto and ask him to play softball on the team sponsored by Sello Rojo Rice.I think that overall, along the road of Roberto’s baseball career, he appreciated Marin’s friendship plus the fact that [Marin] was the one who really gave him the opportunity to leave his surroundings in barrio San Anton and start playing [organized ball].” [33]

Speaking with Phil Musick in 1974, Marin recalled that first glimpse of the tree-limb-wielding youngster:

"The way they would play – one player bats, the rest field. I see this one kid – he never strikes out. Bam! Bam! Bam! Tin cans all over the field! I say, 'Who are you?' He say, "I am Momen.' I told him to come to Carolina to try out for the softball team.” [34]

Needless to say Momen made the team, and over the next few years, Marin would usher the young prodigy through slow pitch softball, then fast pitch, then amateur baseball. If it took a couple of years for the youngster's offensive game to blossom, his defensive prowess was immediately apparent, as noted by Marin's colleague Juan Perez:

"He was an outstanding shortstop, but we always batted him eighth. He didn't hit well, but he made sensational plays in the field. His cap would always fall off and the people loved him.” [35]

Apparently, Marin did not entirely share these sentiments. After a couple of years, he decided Momen needed a change of scenery:

"I made him an outfielder. He was too slow for shortstop." [36]

Now, that's a bit odd to say the least. As we shall see shortly, starting with Dodger scout Al Campanis and continuing through Pittsburgh's Clyde Sukeforth and Howie Haak, speed was possibly the second most consistently lauded of Clemente's five tools throughout his career. Moreover, Marin himself had cited Clemente's speed in his account one year earlier to Kal Wagenheim. [See below.] Perhaps with Musick, Marin was referring to Roberto not getting a quick break on balls to either side. In any case, his decision to move Momen would prove possibly more momentous than had been the happy accident of simply finding him in the first place. What's more, the success which had eluded Clemente at the plate in the early going seems to have emerged in time to accompany his arrival in the defensive position which, in the eyes of many longtime observers, he would make his own. Here's Marin in 1973:

"Slowly, his name became known for his long hits to right field, and for his sensational catches. Everyone had their eyes on him. He was competing against top softball players, and as you know, a good softball pitcher is as about as hard to hit as a professional baseball pitcher. After the softball tournament, some teams in the Double A amateur baseball league became interested in Roberto. He was like an unpolished gem. he had a strong arm, speed; he was a complete athlete. So he began to play with the Juncos team in the Double A amateur baseball league.” [37]

In July of 1952, Marin decided his young discovery was ready to go pro:

“I told him that to me, he looked better than the professional outfielders here in the winter league. I told him I was going to take him to a tryout that a Brooklyn Dodger scout was going to hold in Santurce.” [38]

Discovered by Dodgers, Signed by SanturceMo Goes Pro (1952–1953)

The scout in question was one Al Campanis:

“I had done one of those camps a year or two before down in Aguadilla. Nothing. Then in ’52, I held one in Santurce at Sixto Escobar Stadium. Maybe seventy kids … seventy-two, I think." [39]

“We started with the outfielders. They lined up in center field and we hit fungoes to them, about 270 feet from home plate. The first outfielder threw, the second – below-average arms. The third man – I didn’t know his name yet – threw a dart on one bounce to third base. Threw the hell out of the ball. Then he threw another. I said, ‘That’s enough.’ Then we had the timed races – 60 yards. Everybody’s running about 7.2, 7.3, which is average major league time. Then Clemente came and ran a 6.4-plus. That’s a track man’s time! And in a baseball uniform!" [40] "Hell, the world’s record then was only 6.1. I couldn’t believe it." [41] "I asked him to run again, and he was even a little faster. He could fly!" [42] "We sent the other seventy-one players home.

“The only one I asked to hit was Roberto Clemente. He hit for 20, 25 minutes. I’m behind the cage, and I’m saying to myself, ‘We gotta sign this guy if he can just hold the bat in his hands.’ [43] “He got up to the plate, and he was hitting nothing but ropes – over the left-field fence, over the right-field fence… line drives!" [44] "I notice the way he’s standing in the box, and I figure there’s no way he can reach the outside of the plate. So I tell the pitcher to pitch him outside, and the kid swings with both feet off the ground and hits line drives to right and sharp ground balls up the middle.

“How could I miss him? He was the greatest natural athlete I have ever seen as a free agent." [45]

What with all these recollections coming considerably after the fact, the home run references in particular, one might reasonably speculate as to whether these assessments have been retroactively revised. Fortunately, however, David Maraniss has provided rather compelling contemporary confirmation for all the retrospective raves. A reproduction of the original scouting report from the 1952 Campanis-conducted Dodger tryout gives RC high marks across the board: + for speed, A for fielding, A for hitting [though with accompanying note, "turns head but improving," a flaw which would not be eradicated – nor perhaps even readdressed – until Bucs batting coach George Sisler's intensive 1956 one-on-one spring training tutorial], A plus for arm strength and A plus for power. [46]

Still, one cannot help but notice that, both contemporary and post hoc proclamations notwithstanding, Clemente clearly had "held the bat in his hands" and then some, and yet was not signed. This has been attributed to various causes by the various biographies down through the years, all pretty much variations on a theme, i.e. that Campanis was legally prohibited from signing Clemente, either because he was under 18 or because he was still attending high school, or perhaps both?... In fact, Hano's 1967 Roberto Clemente, Batting King, which, by virtue of being the only biography of Clemente published during his lifetime and, thus, the only one benefitting from its subject's direct input, suggests that

  • 1) Campanis was indeed ready and willing to sign the young phenom,
  • 2) the legal difficulty presented by Roberto's age resided solely in the requisite requirement for parental consent:

"When the one-man show ended, Campanis suggested the boy join the Dodger farm system. Clemente's father turned down the idea. He wanted Roberto to finish high school." [47]

Whatever the explanation, Clemente was not signed; the flurry of major league signing offers would not come until early 1954, when Clemente had reached the ripe old age of 19 and a half [ruling out, one would think, the strictly age-based rationale]. As had the Dodgers, the Santurce Cangrejeros, co-sponsors of the '52 tryout, likewise took a rain check on Clemente. Marin, however, was not so easily deterred. Shortly thereafter, he would take matters into his own hands:

“Every Tuesday my job took me to the town of Manati. Pedrín Zorrilla – [owner of] one of the [winter league] clubs and a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers – had a country house on the beach there. Roberto and I drove out to see Pedrín. Roberto was very quiet, didn’t say a word. Pedrín took a look at him and said, ‘Caramba, what a pair of hands!’ The truth is, Roberto had huge hands. I always used to kid him that he was one of the few persons I knew who could wash his face and his head at the same time with just one hand! ‘He’s an unpolished gem,’ I told Pedrín. They didn’t offer much to young players in those days and Roberto had no record to show. ‘I’d like to see him on the field,’ Pedrín said, so I wrote down Roberto’s name on a piece of paper, gave it to him, and said he could use it whenever he liked. The next weekend, Juncos was going to play an exhibition game in Manati. Zorrilla was there." [48]

Zorrilla, speaking with Phil Musick in 1974, recalls that day and the events leading up to it:

“In 1952 the Dodgers and our Santurce club organized a tryout camp for young players in Sixto Escobar Stadium. The park was filled with young men, and among them was Roberto Clemente. We saw that he had a strong arm, hit hard, but we never imagined what he would do later. He was still just a boy, and we lost track of him. Some months later, a good friend of mine, Roberto Marin, reminded me that I should see Roberto Clemente, who was playing with Juncos in the Double A Amateur League. [49]

“I’d forgotten all about him [when] I see this amateur-league kid wallop a 400-foot triple, two long doubles, and throw a man out at third from deep center field with as perfect a throw as anyone could ask for. ‘Who is that boy?’ I asked. 'Clemente,’ someone said. ‘Why, that’s the one I’ve been hearing so much about,' I said.” [50]

“Not long after that, on October 9, 1952, we signed Roberto to a contract on the Santurce Crabbers for a $400 bonus and $40 per week.” [51]

Marin recalls Momen's rookie season:

“The Winter League lasted about four months, seventy-two games; they played about four times a week. There were so many black American stars that the natives had to be darned good to play. In those days, the blacks played for little money. Right after Roberto signed, they put him on the bench. I would drive him back and forth to the park, and after several weeks he still hadn’t played. His team, Santurce, was the best in the league, and it was tough to break in.

"One day, in the car, he says to me, ‘You’ve got to talk to the manager, because if he doesn’t play me I’m quitting.’ We got to the park early. Roberto stayed outside, holding his little suitcase, completely silent. I went to Pedrín and told him, 'El negro tells me he wants a chance.’ I never mentioned Roberto’s threat about quitting. Pedrín says, ‘Remember when I signed him I said I wanted him to first learn how to put a uniform on, that’s all. It’s just his first year.’ 'But the boy is desperate!’ I said." [52]

In the 1974 conversation with Musick, Zorrilla would give the rationale for his stingy deployment of Clemente that first season:

“I never let the young ones play much. We had great pitchers here in the winter league – Satchel Paige, pitchers like that. The ball comes to the plate looking like an aspirin tablet. A young boy like Clemente strikes out three, four times in a row, he starts asking questions of himself: ‘Can I hit? Can I really play?' It is important he does not give himself the wrong answers.” [53]

Responding to Marin in 1952, however, Zorrilla simply passed the buck, as Marin recounts:

"He told me to go talk to the manager Buster Clarkson. ‘Look,’ I said to the manager, el negro is a bit upset, because we haven't given him a chance.’ ‘Well, Marin, I’ll put him in when I think it’s time. I’m the manager around here.’ I go back to Roberto and tell him, ‘He said he’ll give you a chance as soon as he can.’" [54]

Clarkson recalls the frustrated rookie:

“The main thing I had to do was keep his spirits up. He didn’t realize how good he was. But I could see his potential. I had three good outfielders, but he broke into the lineup during the first season I managed in Santurce." [55]

Marin recounts the particulars regarding Clemente's eventual promotion:

“Not much later, in Caguas, there were three men on base and it was Bob Thurman’s turn to hit. He was a terrific batter, who played in the majors for a while, although he never got a chance in his prime because he was black. But he was pretty weak against lefty pitchers, and that’s what Caguas had on the mound. So the time came. Clemente went in for Thurman and hit a long double to right field. That won the game, and Roberto got more chances from then on.” [56]

Predictably, Roberto's inevitable upgrade was not uniformly embraced. Clarkson again:

“Some of the old pros didn’t take too kindly to a kid breaking into the lineup, but Clemente was too good to keep out. He had a few rough spots, but he never made the same mistake twice. He had baseball savvy and he listened. He listened to what he was told and he did it. I told him he’d be as good as Willie Mays some day – and he was." [57]

Ironically, Momen would not yet have been in a position to appreciate the full extent of Clarkson's compliment at the time it was uttered, since his first-hand knowledge of big-leaguers was restricted to participants in Puerto Rican winter ball. Of course, in the fall of 1954 he would get a concentrated dose of such knowledge vis-a-vis Mays when the latter joined not only his league but his team.

Another of Clemente's future Santurce teammates, Luis Olmo, who – according to Clemente – was the actual source of the latter's basket catch (as opposed to Mays), first encountered the young five-tool phenom in the role of opposing manager:

"I was managing the other team. They had a man on base and this skinny kid comes out and well, we had never seen him, so we didn’t really know how to pitch to him. I decided to throw him a few bad balls and see if he’d bite. “He hit the first pitch. It was an outside fastball and he never should have been able to reach it. But he hit it down the line for a double. He was the best bad ball hitter I have ever seen, and if you ask major-league pitchers who are pitching today, they will tell you the same thing. After a while it got so that I just told my pitchers to throw the ball down the middle because he was going to hit it no matter where they put it, and at least if he decided not to swing, we’d have a strike on him." [58]

In his years managing and playing alongside Clemente, Clarkson would be left with one overriding impression:

“The big thing about Clemente was that he played hard and went all-out in every game. He did that when he was just a kid, and he did that all the way through his last season. He always had that aggressiveness. I saw that from the first. Maybe it was the thing about him as a ballplayer that people will remember most.” [59]

Getting back to 1953, the decision to play Clemente every day in his second season with Santurce was rewarded with a dramatically improved performance, his final .288 batting average good enough for 6th place in Puerto Rico and, evidently, good enough to generate renewed interest in North America.

Brooklyn Bound?... Preemptive Purchase Ends Big Apple Bidding 'War' (1954)

On February 19, 1954, Clemente finally did sign with Brooklyn for a $10,000 bonus. The Dodgers beat out a number of other clubs in the Clemente sweepstakes. They outspent the prior two entrants (their cross-river rivals in Manhattan and the Bronx) and simply beat the Milwaukee Braves to the punch. By far the biggest spenders of the bunch, by all accounts exceeding Brooklyn's offer by at least 150%, the Braves were just a tad tardy, Clemente having already accepted the Dodgers' terms.*

* In fact, while accepting their terms in principle, he had not yet actually signed a contract. Still, quaint though it may seem to us today, this was another era and so, in conjunction with his greater familiarity with Brooklyn and New York (the team of Jackie Robinson and a city, after all, already home to a significant Spanish-speaking population), integrity – helped along by a little nudge from Luisa, Roberto’s mom – would ultimately prevail as the verbal agreement was honored. [60]

The stingiest of RC's prospective employers, the Yankees of New York, had apparently placed all their bonus 'eggs' in the Frank Leja 'basket'. While unprepared to offer the free-swinging Clemente more than $3,000 ($4,000 being the maximum signing bonus a club was allowed to pay without being required to keep the recipient on its major league roster for his first two seasons), the men in pinstripes had no problem biting that particular bullet on behalf of the next 'Lou Gehrig,' landing the left-handed Leja – in evident anticipation of massive quantities of dingers being deposited onto the short porch in right – with a sum fifty times that offered RC. The Monday morning quarterbacks among us may regard with some relish the modest returns (one hit in two years, three if you count Leja's non-Yankee 1962 0-for-16 'comeback' in LaLa land) realized on this two-year, $150,000 investment.

The Giants, while similarly unwilling to tie up a big-league roster spot for two years on a raw, untested rookie, no matter how talented, did at least bump up against the aforementioned four-thousand-dollar ceiling, thus forcing the Dodgers' hand. Shortly thereafter, the Brooklyn contingent would indeed come across with the best offer by far, thus far, and not a moment too soon to beat out the big-spending Braves.

So now the Dodgers had him. Now came the hard part – what to do with him. By exceeding the $4,000-limit (as they would do again the following year with Sandy Koufax), they’d obliged themselves to do one of two things: either keep Clemente on the major league roster for the entire season – probably as a fourth outfielder – or send him to one of their minor league affiliates, thus exposing him to the draft in November and, by so doing, almost certainly lose him. The Dodgers opted for the latter. Why? For many years, Dodger GM Buzzie Bavasi claimed that there had simply been no room for Roberto on the roster and that the Dodgers had in fact only signed Clemente as a preemptive measure to keep the Giants from having Willie Mays and Clemente in the same outfield. *

* Ironically, had the Dodgers simply sat on their hands and let the Giants’ lowball offer stand, they would have had nothing to worry about – at least in terms of their battle for NY news ink and box office receipts – what with the Braves blowing into town, blowing the preceding offers out of the water, and removing Momen from the Greater Metropolitan Area altogether. On the other hand, if the Dodgers were in fact just as worried about winning as about the bottom line, then they should have been even more relieved about having preempted the Braves. As tantalizing and frustrating as the image of Clemente and Mays or, for that matter, Clemente and Mantle patrolling the outfield side by side may have been to Giants and Yankees fans, respectively (to say nothing of fans of the Great One himself), sticking Clemente in the middle of Aaron, Adcock and Mathews could have resulted in the grisliest 'murderers’ row' in the history of the game; minus the daunting dimensions of Forbes Field and the pre-Ruth-era-orientation of Pirate batting coach George Sisler**, Clemente would probably have been delivering not just massive home runs, but massive quantities of same. One could easily see Milwaukee’s two-year run expanding into something more closely resembling a dynasty.

** I am aware that Ruth started his career a year earlier than did Sisler. However, while Sisler was quickly establishing himself as a premier offensive player, Ruth was still primarily a pitcher. Thus, the latter's dramatically innovative approach to batting had not yet had a chance to take hold and gather adherents.

In a number of interviews conducted between the years 2003 and 2005, very near the end of his life, Bavasi finally fessed up regarding Clemente’s banishment to Montreal; as had been rumored for the intervening half-century, it was not just a matter of too much talent at the top, but rather too much black talent. According to Bavasi’s belated bombshell, Dodger owner Walter O’Malley was the source of these concerns, apparently opposing both Bavasi and Dodger scout Al Campanis – Campanis being the one who’d first ‘discovered’ Clemente in 1952 at a tryout/clinic in Puerto Rico jointly sponsored by the Dodgers and the Santurce Cangrejeros, with whom RC would sign shortly thereafter. Both Campanis [61] and Bavasi (in the aforementioned revelations) claimed in retrospect to have lobbied on behalf of keeping Clemente on the big league roster. As Bavasi recalled it, O’Malley’s concerns appear to have been twofold. First of all, there was the anticipated backlash directed towards the new arrival by fans, possibly, but primarily by his Dodger teammates. In addition, there were the concerns expressed to O’Malley by two of his partners who feared that were the Dodgers to boost their level of minority representation beyond a certain point, it would somehow result in pressure being brought to bear on them to do likewise in their own companies.

Momen in Montreal – mixed signals (1954)

In any case, long before he came clean on Clemente’s exclusion, Bavasi would spill the beans regarding Clemente’s concealment. Speaking to Sports Illustrated in 1967, Bavasi said:

"We ordered Montreal to keep him under wraps any way they could. Up there he was eligible for the baseball draft, and we didn’t want to lose anybody as promising as this kid. On the other hand, we didn’t realize how great he was, or we’d have put him on the big club right away and protected him from the draft regardless of who we’d have to unload.

"At Montreal, to keep Clemente from looking too good, our manager, Max Macon, kept moving him in and out of the lineup. Poor Roberto! He’d strike out and Max would let him play the whole game. If he hit a home run, Max would get him out of there quick. He was benched one game because he had hit three triples the day before. He was taken out for a pinch hitter with the bases loaded in the first inning of another game. You can imagine how this must have puzzled the kid. The net effect was to hold his batting average down to .257, and we figured he was safe from the draft." [62]

Twenty years later, in his autobiography, Bavasi writes:

“So we attempted to hide him at Montreal. We did everything in our power to ensure that Clemente would not shine. We did not play him against left-handed pitchers, we played him only against the best right-handed pitchers; he was benched the day after hitting three triples in a game. It worked to an extent – we kept his average down to .257.” [63]

In a sense, the ‘revelation’ embodied in these two accounts is largely semantic since, on the matter of what actually happened that season in Montreal, as opposed to how Bavasi was prepared to describe what happened, the Dodger GM had actually been pretty consistent. Back in May of 1955, after Clemente – then one month into his freshman season – had been tearing up National League pitching in a Pirates uniform, Bavasi was telling TSN that everything was fine, that things had gone exactly according to plan vis-à-vis Clemente.

“That’s right. We didn’t want the Giants to have Clemente and a fellow like Willie Mays in the same outfield. It was a cheap deal for us.” [64]

Readers may recognize that excerpt from Stew Thornley’s 2006 study critiquing the existing scholarship re Clemente's season in Montreal. The following excerpt from that same TSN article did not find its way into Thornley's piece but, I would maintain, is even more telling:

“So we knew we were going to lose him in the draft, so why should we spend time developing him for another team? We used the players who would belong to us and Clemente played defense in the late innings or went up as a pinch hitter [sic *]. [65]

* In fact, Clemente’s pinch-hitting appearances were relatively infrequent, significantly outnumbered by his pinch-running stints. However, the most common mode of entry into a game for Clemente was, indeed, as a late-inning defensive replacement.

So just what exactly is Bavasi up to here? Well, aside from wiping egg off the collective face of the Dodger front office, he is covering his butt and theirs vis-a-vis the Commissioner who, understandably, might be a bit peeved to find the Dodgers flouting the recently imposed rule designed to prevent exactly what the Dodgers went ahead and tried to do anyway – i.e. hoarding a hot prospect in the minors.

Note, though, Bavasi’s contemporary rationale for not playing Clemente: not that he wasn’t good enough (as per Thornley), but that, in effect, he was too good. As would both Al Campanis and Montreal manager Max Macon (the not-altogether-on-board participant in and ultimate scapegoat for Bavasi's failed attempt to keep Clemente under wraps), Bavasi expresses the belief that there was no way to hide the rifle-armed rookie who, in Macon's words, "just radiated ability." [66] Since it was inevitable he’d be drafted, reasons Bavasi, why play him just to develop him for another club? Of course, when you think about it, Bavasi’s conveniently circular rationale is a veritable Catch Twenty-Two, a more complete and less discreet version of which might go something like this:

‘Of course, since he’s DEFINITELY going to be drafted, we’d be IDIOTS to play him and develop him for someone else. On the other hand, as long as we’re not playing him, maybe we get lucky, and he doesn't get drafted... But OH NO, Mr. Commissioner! We’re CERTAINLY not hiding him. Perish the thought!!’

By this point, recent – or at least retentive – readers of the aforementioned Thornley piece may be a bit puzzled.

On the one hand, we have Montreal manager Max Macon, who would go to his grave (in 1989) denying that he'd hidden – or, at least, had been ordered to hide – Clemente, being contradicted by his boss in no uncertain terms on two separate occasions, the first time four years before Macon is first interviewed on this matter, the last time two year before Macon's death, 13 years after the feisty player-manager's final word on the subject.

On the other, one cannot help but notice that much like the authors whose assertions are challenged by Thornley, Bavasi is, by and large, incorrect in the particulars with which he fleshes out his 'confession.'

Perhaps 'incorrect' is a bit of a misnomer. Many of the challenges by Thornley are made not on the basis of innaccurate reporting of events, but rather misinterpretation of those events: i.e. the fact that the seemingly arbitrary – or even Machiavellian – manipulation of Clemente's playing time could usually be explained by Macon's strict adherence to platooning. To be sure, Clemente did not start a single game that season against a right-handed starter. On the other hand, he didn't start the majority of games opposite left-handers either, only managing to be even the right-handed – i.e. lesser-used platoon participant for approximately half the season [the first 3 weeks, the final 6 weeks, plus the playoffs; in all, starting 42 of 172 Royals contests that year, finishing only 26 of those].

In addition, it's interesting to note that Macon, the otherwise compulsive platooner, actually sends the ostensibly overmatched right-handed rookie up to pinch-hit against right-handers more often than not, an anomaly never addressed by Thornley. Moreover, the rationale for restricting Clemente to a platoon role in the first place seems shaky at best, seeing as how the prodigious July 25 game-winning blast which triggered Clemente's return to the lineup was hit off a right-hander, as would be his only other home run that year on September 5 aginst Syracuse, likewise an extra-inning, walkoff shot. Similarly unaddressed by Thornley, this seeming anomaly begins to make sense when seen as Macon's attempt to walk a fine line – i.e. balancing both the Montreal fans' and his own desire to see more of Clemente against the desperate desire of his employer to somehow stave off the inevitable, the loss of Clemente.

Now Macon was certainly one of the most competitive – and combative – figures to ever play the game, ot to manage it for that matter. It certainly wouldn't be a shocker to see him chafing under the restrictions placed upon him by Bavasi. Moreover, the untenability of Macon's position was hard to miss:

"I knew it was a mistake to sign a player this good to a triple-A contract. We couldn’t protect him, and some team was bound to grab him." [67]

Even while denying having either hidden or being ordered to hide Clemente, the utter futility of that particular fool's errand was not lost on Macon.

"Hell, there was no way you could hide him even if you wanted to. Don’t play him at all, then everybody gets suspicious anyway.." [68]

Trying to reconcile that realization with an attempt to do it anyway called for something a tad subtler than the approach outlined in Bavasi's previously cited quotes. And indeed, something subtle is exactly what was put into place – perhaps too subtle for Bavasi’s taste, as even Macon’s minimalist presentation gave Clemente the opportunity he would ultimately seize on 7/25, the resulting fan frenzy either forcing or freeing Macon – depending on how you read his motivation – to increase Clemente’s playing time significantly.

Whether Macon’s apparent deviation from Bavasi’s game plan was simply a tactical difference of opinion [as the above quote might suggest] or actually a kind of rebellion – not fully realized or even necessarily conscious on Macon’s part – against the restrictions on whom he could or could not play is something we will likely never know. Certainly Macon was a fierce competitor who – as a player-manager – led his respective teams in at least three of the previous four years to monster seasons, having a monster season of his own in at least one of them. Nonetheless, the mere title of this 1954 Baseball Digest article, "Macon Has the Makin's: New Montreal Pilot Destined For Bums," makes it plain to see that even Macon, ornery cuss that he was, would be reluctant to burn his bridges, as it were, before reaching his destination.

This reticence would continue long after Macon had parted ways with Bavasi and the Dodgers, long after any realistic prospects of managing in the majors had vanished. In fact, by the time Frank Eck's 1971 AP story, "Macon Denies Hiding Clemente," appeared, Macon had been employed for years as, of all things, a scout by, of all possible employers, the Pittsburgh Pirates. This situation produced numerous opportunities for Macon to protest his innocence to a disbelieving Clemente.

The aforementioned AP story in fact offers the closest thing we have to an example of Macon throwing his former employers under the bus:

"'I never had any orders not to play Clemente,' said Macon, now a Pirate scout, at his new condominium in West Palm Beach. 'I was told Roberto was only 18 when he was actually 19' [emphasis added], but I had three proven Triple A outfielders in Sandy Amoros, Gino Cimoli and Dick Whitman. When the Dodgers took Amoros to Brooklyn, I had Jack Cassini and Don Thompson. I was told to win at Montreal and simply had to play more experienced men.." [69]

While Macon continues to deny being party to any Clemente concealment conspiracy, his minor revelation certainly invites the reader to speculate as to whether the assumption under which Macon had been operating – and which he'd been feeding to the Montreal sportswriters [i.e. "Macon said that he didn’t expect Clemente to prove much help to the club. He was too young and inexperienced" [70]] – wasn't at least in part a creation of the Dodger front office and whether, by extension, Macon might not have utilized Clemente quite differently had he been in full possession of the facts.

Getting back to 1954, however, here's a contemporary account of Momen's aforementioned 7/25 walkoff blast, as relayed by Lloyd McGowan of the Montreal Star:

"The man getting on the tram outside the park was Harry Simmons of the International League office. The Royals had won two games from the Havana Sugar Kings, 7-6 and 4-1. Homeward bound, the 4,252 customers were satisfied, chatty and cheerful.

"'They have a new idol, a new star,' Harry Simmons said. 'Roberto Clemente.' No truer words were spoken on the weekend. Clemente’s clout over the left field wall yesterday, his first homer of the campaign, won the opening game, Hollywood style in the tenth inning.

"Clemente is a player with potential greatness. He is what they call 'showboat' in diamond dialect. But yesterday he delivered in very surprising style, indeed. At the start of the season Max Macon said that he didn’t expect Clemente to prove much help to the club. He was too young and inexperienced, the manager had said. It was noted, though, that yesterday Macon sent the colored speedboy back into the second game. He smashed a double on his first try in that event. The rain-defying throng hooted derisively when they walked him intentionally on his next trip." [71]

Macon was clearly caught between the proverbial 'rock' and 'hard place.' The best compromise he could come up with was the ostensibly illogical 'promotion' of Clemente to the right-handed – i.e. lesser-used – component of a righty-lefty platoon.

Less than a month after RC's pivotal late-inning heroics, he would provide a walk-off moment of the sort more familiar to the casual Clemente fan. Once again we hear from Lloyd McGowan, this time reporting for TSN:

"Roberto Clemente, rookie Puerto Rican outfielder, turned in the key defensive play that enabled the Royals to edge Toronto, 8 to 7, August 18. With two out in the ninth, Clemente uncorked a perfect throw to cut down the Leafs’ potential tying run at the plate and end the game." [72]

Reporting on this game for the Star, McGowan expanded on his earlier account of RC's 7/25 game-winner:

"Not long ago Clemente won an extra-inning contest for the Royals here with a home run over the left field fence. Few players have achieved that feat at Delorimier Stadium." [73]

What went unnoted by McGowan, and apparently unnoticed by latterday Clemente biographers David Maraniss [74] and Stew Thornley [75], was the fact that the game-ending outfield assist – a prototypical Clemente climax if ever there was one – occurred on his twentieth birthday. It's just one of life's many ironies that this biggest baseball birthday of Clemente's career would dot the arid landscape that was his largely God-forsaken '54 season.

Nonetheless, what a nice coming-out party for Clemente, however ill-documented:

  • On his birthday, he gets the rare opportunity to show off his arm in a most meaningful context.
  • The following day he gets the rare outpouring of ink from McGowan [76] acknowledging not only Clemente’s ‘birthday bash’ but revisiting the young bonus orphan’s three-and-a-half-week-old heroics (minus the charming “colored speedboy” designation employed by McGowan in the earlier article), underlining the exceptionally prodigious nature of Clemente’s 7/25 blast.

Of course, whether Clemente ever actually received the 'press clippings' portion of this present is highly questionable. To make it so, Clemente's command of English - or lack thereof - circa 1954 would probably have necessitated a heads-up from one of his few bilingual buddies in Montreal - i.e. Joe Black or Chico Fernandez.

For all his tortured machinations (and those of his boss Buzzy Bavasi), Macon's maneuvering would prove academic in the end. Clemente's performance in limited playing time had not escaped the attention of Pirate scouts Clyde Sukeforth and Howie Haak. Sukeforth was the first to spy the young phenom, having been dispatched to Richmond, VA on June 1 to scout veteran pitcher Joe Black, then newly demoted from Brooklyn. As 'Sukey' himself would later tell TSN:

"I saw Clemente and forgot all about Black." [77] "I arrived at the Richmond ball park just in time to see the pre-game workout. I saw Clemente throwing from the outfield and I couldn't take my eyes off him. Later in the game he was used as a pinch-hitter and I liked his swing. I started asking questions and learned he was a bonus player and would be eligible for the draft." [78] "Since the Pirates had first choice, I knew this would be our man." [79] "In fact, I told manager Max Macon to take good care of 'our boy' and see that he didn't get hurt." [80]

Shortly thereafter came the Clemente clampdown, an extended period of almost utter inactivity which would only be ended – or at least lessened – by popular demand following the aforementioned 7/25 game-winning blast. After the season ended, Haak would follow Clemente to Puerto Rico and witness the prospective Pirate's much-improved performance when allowed to play every day. Armed with Sukeforth's and Haak's most emphatic recommendations, Pirate GM Branch Rickey selected Clemente, sight unseen, with the first pick in the 1954 Rule V Draft on November 22, 1954. Little more than a month later, though still having yet to witness his new acquisition first-hand, Rickey would receive yet another rave review from Clemente's manager in Puerto Rico, Herman Franks, whose letter to Rickey – excerpted in TSN (1/12/55), p. 18 – called Clemente "the best player in the league, except for Willie Mays."

Franks had sound basis for such a comparison: not only was he Mays' coach during the regular season, Mays was now patrolling centerfield alongside Clemente on the Cangrejeros, having quickly assumed the roles of mentor, role model and rival to his young colleague.

SAY HEY CLEMENTE: Momen Meets Mays in Santurce (1954 – 1955)

So, thanks to the Montreal manager's necessarily compromised late-season boost to Clemente's playing time with the Royals, the youngster had gotten at least a sort of 'spring training' for the upcoming '54-55 season in Santurce. As we will see, he would make the most of it. As Santurce owner Pedrín Zorrilla recalled in 1973:

“Roberto went to Montreal for the 1954 season, but what I think helped him most is when he played that winter with Santurce, and Willie Mays joined the club. Willie was the batting champion of the National League that year with a .345 average, and it was really something to see Clemente and Mays in the outfield. Mays had to go all out, and Clemente was right at his heels! Even with Mays there, he was one of the team’s stars. So he saw he could compete, even against the best.” [81]

Just how the Giants' franchise player happened to end up playing in Puerto Rico that winter is a bit of a story unto itself, recounted here by Clemente's friend and confidant Luis Mayoral:

“He had befriended Mr. Stoneham, the owner then of the Giants. It was during a party in New York prior to that 1954-55 winter season that they were having drinks. And Pete would always say laughing that he got Mr. Stoneham drunk, and that’s the only way Stoneham gave him permission to have Willie Mays go and play in Puerto Rico.” [82]

Mays would not only usurp Monte Irvin's place in Momen's personal pantheon, but would also become something of a mentor to his impressive but inexperienced teammate. As Roberto Marin recalls:

“The best thing that ever happened to Roberto came the next season when he played next to Willie Mays, who was about five years older and was already a major league star. Roberto played left field and Mays was in center. They got along very well together, a young boy with a young star. Mays was a very good guy... I think it was the inspiration of playing next to a star like Mays, and doing a good job, that was most important. Anyway, that year Roberto became a first class ball player. From then on, he went up and up.” [83]

“[Mays] told him how to charge a ball, told him not to worry about gambling on a catch at his ankles because in the major leagues other outfielders would back him up.” [84]

Note: The aforementioned usurpation of Irvin's 'throne' by the young Mays was not quite so abrupt a transition as it might first appear since at least some small portion of the knowledge being passed down to Clemente was originally acquired by Mays from none other than Irvin himself who, by a coincidence whose irony can only be described as exquisite, was something of a mentor to Mays during the latter's rookie season in 1951. In 1972, Mays himself recalled that fateful '54-55 season in Santurce:

“[The chance to earn some additional income in the off-season] took me to Puerto Rico, where Herman Franks was managing the Santurce team in the winter league there. It was fun, even though they take their baseball more seriously down there.* We had a good club, and everybody wanted to win – and when you’ve got people like Gomez and Roberto Clemente on your side in the Puerto Rican league, you’ve got a chance to win, and we did win.” [85]

* To see just how seriously, see Saul Pelt's contemporary mid-term report on Willie's season in Santurce, "Fans Don't Enjoy baseball in Puerto Rico, They Suffer With It".

In fact, not only did Mays, Gomez, Clemente and company win, they won it all, steamrolling their way to the 1955 Caribbean Championship. Again, Pedrín Zorrilla remembers:

“One of my favorite memories of Roberto is that year when Santurce, with Clemente and Mays, went to Caracas, Venezuela, to play in the Caribbean Series – representing Puerto Rico against Cuba, Panama, and the host country. There were many major leaguers on the rosters. In the deciding game, Clemente was on first in the final inning and Mays hits one to right, where the outfielder [86] bobbled the ball for just a second. Clemente took off like a shot the moment that Mays connected and flew around third, although the coach tried to stop him. Gus Triandos was the catcher for the other team. The ball arrived at the same time as Clemente slid, spikes in the air, and we won the game. That exhibition of Clemente’s great speed and spirit was one of the most emotional moments in my life. He made many fine plays in the United States, but to win a game for Puerto Rico for our club in the Caribbean Series was a great moment. In fact, not long ago in Pittsburgh someone asked Clemente if he had ever played on a team with the slugging power of the 1971 Pirates. He said yes – the Santurce Crabbers, when they won the Caribbean Series!” [87]

With his teammate and newfound role model setting the standard, as their team clobbered its way to a second Caribbean championship in three years, memories of Momen's solid sophomore season – to say nothing of his nightmarish interlude in 'Siberia,' aka Montreal – soon gave way to the reality of a budding superstar's emergence. Round about mid-season, Mays and his protégé took time out from leading Santurce to the promised land in order to partake in the relatively relaxing annual all-star exhibition, the charitable underpinnings of which made it just that much more congenial for the like-minded Clemente. Sporting News correspondent Pita Alvarez De La Vega gives the exuberant young duo's exploits some national exposure:

“The league took a break from its pennant battle, December 12, to stage the annual 'Three Kings' all-star game at Mayaguez. All proceeds went into a YMCA fund to buy gifts for the island's poor children in keeping with the old Latin tradition of the Three Kings bringing gifts on January 6...The All-Star North team, made up of players from the Santurce and Mayaguez clubs, won the game, 7 to 5. Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente hit home runs for the winners." [88]

Unfortunately, Momen's mid-season intermission was not confined to this pleasant diversion. Even as Mays and his promising protégé were leading the North to victory, Clemente's oldest brother was in a bad way – and in a hospital bed. On New Year's Eve 1954, less than 20 days after M and M's exhibition romp, Luis Clemente would succumb to an inoperable brain tumor, thus providing an eerily well-timed foreshadowing of Momen's own eventual, all-too-well documented New Year's Eve demise, circa 1972. Moreover, these two tragedies together would make for particularly stark bookends to Clemente's storied big-league career.

As if this wasn't a sad enough preamble to Clemente's rookie season in Pittsburgh, fate conspired to pile more misfortune onto his already heaping plate. Shortly before his brother's death, on his way back from a hospital visit, Clemente was blindsided by a drunk driver, resulting in three displaced spinal discs that would cause him varying degrees of pain for the rest of his career/life.

One more extra-curricular event of note would take place before Santurce completed its Caribbean Championship run, namely Rickey finally surveying his new acquisition firsthand.

Missing In Action?... the first five seasons (1955 – 1959)

Clemente in the US Marines, September 1958.

Had Fred Haney been a Hollywood screenwriter, he'd have been hard pressed to improve upon the timing of Roberto Clemente's Major League debut. Who better to go up against than the 'parents' who'd abandoned him. At Forbes Field, the Pirates' 20-year-old rookie makes his first appearance, playing both ends of a doubleheader, ironically but fittingly, against the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team that should in fact be his team and, were it not for the sorry state of mid-20th Century U.S. race relations, would be. Instead, it's simply the team that's jerked him around for the better part of the last year and then let him go. So, just in case Roberto needed any extra motivation for his career curtain-raiser, it's certainly there. In his first at-bat, the future Hall of Famer rifles one back through the originator, Johnny Podres, and off the glove of shortstop Pee Wee Reese, thus acquiring the first of his 3,000 career hits.

And, while the 'Bums' would in fact sweep the Bucs to stretch the latter's losing streak to six, the Pirates' highly touted prospect was far from done for the day. He would also make, in the words of Jack Hernon of the Post Gazette, "a heart-stopping catch of Gilliam's long fly in the fourth inning of the opener, leaping high to grab the ball." [89]

In the much more competitive nightcap, Clemente was stranded after notching his first big league extra-base hit, a one-out, 6th-inning double. But two innings later, his aggressive base-running would wreak havoc and reap rewards. With one on and none out:

"Clemente's short fly fell safely in center and when the kid rounded first and had to come back in a hurry, Don Zimmer's throw hit him on the leg and went into the dugout. That put Smith over and Clemente on third. Dick Cole scored him with a single." [90]

This narrowed the Dodgers' lead to one but, one inning later, the game would end with Clemente in the on-deck circle and the tying and winning runs on base.

While the Corsairs' next contest would extend to seven their season-opening drought, Roberto's storybook start continued. Clemente's first big league homer – a 440-to-450-foot IPHR off Giants southpaw Don Liddle – arrived three games into his big league career and it's just his luck that it occurred in the one stadium that, due to its bizarre configuration, could possibly have contained this blast, namely the Polo Grounds, that semi-rectangular oddity where 279- and 257-foot foul lines coexist with 455- and 449-foot power alleys. This first New York visit also has a deeper significance for Clemente since, in his third ML game, he's playing on the same field with both his new mentor and role model, Willie Mays (alongside whom he was playing just two months earlier in Santurce) and his boyhood hero, Monte Irvin, whose winter ball career Clemente had monitored so religiously in the late forties and who, in the interim, has himself become something of a mentor to Mays.

Coming of Age: finally healthy (1960 – 1961)

The Doldrums: Robby heats up, Buccos going nowhere (1962 – 1964)

Transition: Bye-bye, Danny; Hello, Harry (1965)

The Pinnacle (1966 and 1967)

Sports Expert:
"No Record of Any 'Tape-Measure Jobs' on Roberto Clemente" [91]

This cluelessly confident pronouncement by syndicated, self-proclaimed 'sports expert' Fred Imhof would be embarassing were it not all too typical of pundits across the board, both then and now. Sports-Talk franchise Mike Francesa and Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss are just two of today's more celebrated 'authorities', both, sad to say, scarcely better informed than their significantly less celebrated predecessor. In order to shed some small particle of light on this sadly neglected subject, let's flash back to 1966.

  • March 14450-Foot Grapefruit Game-Winner [92]
  • March 24500-Foot G G-W [93]
  • May 1 – "The Hardest Ball I Ever Saw Hit" [94]: Fifth-inning line drive high off wall above 436-foot mark makes big impression on young Ron Swoboda.
  • May 13Tape-Measure Triple: 440-to-450-footer off Forbes Field's distant left-center wall leads to deciding run.
  • June 5Five Hundred-Footer
  • June 9And That Makes a Thousand: Four days later, hit to almost the identical spot.
  • September 24Gargantuan Game-Winner: "tremendous 440-foot drive over the right-center field fence." [95]

Doldrums, Pt 2: Larry Shepard -- and injuries -- Take Over (1968 – 1969)

New Wine/Old Bottle? Bye-bye, Larry; Hello, Danny (1970 – 1971)

During the 1970-71 winter, Clemente served in a second stint as manager of the Senadores de San Juan -- the first time from the beginning of the season.  The plan was for Clemente to serve only as manager, not a player, but the team did include Mike Cuellar, Ken Singleton, Dave Cash, Manny Sanguillen and Ken Brett.  The Senadores finished 37-30, with Clemente beginning to play in the last weeks of the season. In the playoffs against Frank Robinson's Cangrejeros de Santurce, however, San Juan lost 4 games to 2.

When 1971 and Roberto Clemente are found in the same sentence, it’s almost invariably regarding Clemente’s dominant 1971 World Series performance. While understandable, this obscures some remarkable mid-season moments, in a season admittedly dominated by Willie Stargell’s team-carrying performance.

One of the most memorable of these is the entertaining eighth-inning All-Star encounter between Clemente and Mickey Lolich, one which the latter obviously wants no part of. Lolich starts him off with two pitches waaayy high and outside, provoking amusingly disgusted and demonstrative reactions from Clemente, by way of a request for something remotely reachable. And – wouldn’t you know it – Lolich obliges with just such a marginally palatable offering: once again up around Roberto's eyes but this time thoughtfully left no more than a foot off the plate. Clemente, seizing the moment, once again proves himself a true magician with the bat – transforming the small, white sphere from something remotely reachable into something unreachably remote, as it lands in the upper deck, just a tad to the right of dead center. [96]

Apart from the unfortunate Clemente hiccup, Lolich would close out the game quietly, pitching an otherwise perfect eighth and ninth.

As was so often the case in Clemente's career – and as, in fact, was the case with his career as a whole – so it was that this seemingly unforgettable moment has gone largely unremembered, overshadowed as it was in this case by Reggie Jackson’s majestic third inning blast.

The regular-season highlight of Clemente’s 1971 season, and one of a handful of highlights of his – or any – career, occurred about a month earlier in the Astrodome in Houston. There was no relaxed comic banter or interplay here, no lull before the python strike of Clemente’s swing. This was Clemente the ballhawk – supreme effort, athleticism and skill, bolstered by fearlessness (some would say foolishness – pacing himself was certainly never part of Clemente’s repertoire). I’m speaking of the legendary June 15 game-saving catch – a play, BTW, which dwarfs the celebrated 5/10/06 Aaron Rowand catch against the Mets (and even Clemente’s own 8/5/60 catch against Willie Mays which Rowand’s play most closely resembles). As is the case with the vast majority of great plays occurring prior to the relatively recent past, the only visual record resides in the fading memories of the surviving witnesses among the 16,000 or so present at the Astrodome that evening - a medium-sized but generous-hearted bunch who rewarded Roberto Clemente for robbing their team of a dramatic come-from-behind victory with repeated standing ovations. Fortunately for the rest of us, a number of eyewitness accounts do exist.

Less than two weeks later, Clemente twelve hundredth RBI would help Pittsburgh salvage a split of a June 27 twin bill vs. their cross-state rivals. Personal milestone aside, this pinch-hit, game-winning upper deck shot to center field at Philly's recently opened Veterans Stadium is pretty monumental in its own right. It's recalled 32 years later by Gene Collier on the eve of the Vet's retirement:

"In those earliest years, there was an enormous mock Liberty Bell mounted on the facing of the upper deck in dead center, maybe 40 feet above and behind the fence, which was and is 408 feet from the plate. Roberto Clemente lined a homer off that bell that afternoon, which was, pretty clearly, unforgettable.” [97]

Paul Giordano's contemporary account is vivid if somewhat vaguer:

"The breeze had nothing to do with Clemente’s center field shot. The only ballparks the ball wouldn’t have carried out of would have been the old Polo Grounds and the current Yankee Stadium." [98]

Clemente may or may not have 'rung' the 'Liberty Bell,' but he certainly had the distance. That this blast reached at least the facing of the Vet's upper deck – where the 'Bell' was then situated – is confirmed by the 2003 Philadelpia Phillies Media Guide (p. 24), which, in commemoration of the closing of Veterans Stadium after 32 years, lists every documented upper-deck home run. Incidentally, much like Lolich's All-Star mishap, Clemente here presents the sole speed bump, with Phillie reliever Joe Hoerner striking out the side, including Willie Stargell before and Gene Clines and Al Oliver after.

As I said, Clemente's '71 World Series performance was and is justly celebrated – the vicious line drives, a single stretched into a double, a double stretched into a triple, the big home runs in games six and seven, and of course, the Throws.

Ironically, neither of the two throws retired anybody. Clemente had zero assists in the Series as few baserunners were still foolish enough to challenge his arm. Merv Rettenmund certainly didn't think of himself as challenging Clemente when he tried to take third on Frank Robinson's fly ball in game two – he'd just assumed it was a routine, automatic sac fly. An ever-so-faint 'whoops' started to register as he noticed the third base coach frantically signalling for him to slide, this sensory input closely followed by the unwelcome adrenaline rush of Hebner slapping a tag on him just after his foot hit the bag.

Clemente's game six throw, while also a thing of beauty in and of itself, came in a crucial spot. It robbed Don Buford of a game-winning walk-off RBI on his double into the right field corner, as the third base coach was at his attention-getting best in flagging down Mark Belanger, running on contact from first base. Vindication for this decision was immediately forthcoming as Sanguillen received a one-hop strike from the right field corner, eventually sending the game into extra innings, where it was won an inning later by the Orioles, thanks to Frank Robinson's aggressive baserunning – taking advantage of center fielder Vic Davalillo's more human-scaled throwing arm on consecutive plays.

For all of Clemente's brilliance on both sides of the ball, arguably the biggest play he made in this Series, as it was in 1960, was a simple hustle play, the act of running as hard as possible to first base on a routine grounder. In 1960, it had kept Pittsburgh's eighth-inning rally, and in effect, their season, alive. In 1971, it generated a decisive rally in a game the Pirates had to have, down two games to none and already pronounced DOA by the physicians of the fourth estate.

Nonetheless, the neat 1960/1971 parallel notwithstanding, I would suggest that the seemingly academic Game Six heave was actually monumental in significance, placing the already hobbled Robinson in the position of having to win the game with his legs, not only aggravating his damaged right Achilles tendon but tearing his left hamstring in the process. Thus, in a well-pitched and tightly contested Game Seven, the O's would have the services of their best player in name only.

A sad irony in all this was that Clemente, his MVP Series performance notwithstanding, was physically not close to the Clemente of ten – or even four – years earlier. The two throws, called respectively by Andy Etchebarren and Davey Johnson the greatest each had ever seen, were far from prime RC – that rifle-armed right fielder who, year after year, thrilled fans and colleagues alike with absolute ropes from all parts of the outfield to all parts of the infield. As his friend Sanguillen recalls, "Here he was, thirty-seven years old, and they said he had to have a great World Series or else people would not know how great he was. He was so ashamed. He’d tell me, ‘Oh, when I was younger, I was so much better.’” [99] While Clemente ultimately could – and did – look back with pride at his performance in the '71 Series, he also regretted - and resented - the lack of acknowledgment and documentation of his extraordinary day-to-day achievements over the course of the previous seventeen seasons.

Roberto Reaches 3000: Pirates come up short (1972)

Papers recently declassified by the FBI in 2003 after a Freedom of Information Request reveal that Mr. Clemente received a death threat in a letter postmarked 09/26/72. The typewritten letter threatened his life during a game to be played at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh on 09/29/72. The letter was received at the Pirates front office, to the care of Mr. Clemente. Due to the volume of fan mail received by the Pirates, the letter was not opened until November 1972. Since the game had come and gone withouth incident, and since there were no further threats or possible suspects, the FBI felt that the matter was closed and warranted no further investigation.

The letter makes reference to a disgruntled Mets fan who promised to shoot Clemente while he was playing right field during the top of the second inning. The declassified FBI file can be seen at [1] including a copy of the letter. [100]

Final Chapter – October 12 thru December 31, 1972

On December 23, 1972, a massive earthquake struck the Central American country of Nicaragua. The quake pushed the famed 'Immaculate Reception' off the front page in Pittsburgh; tragically, it would prove to be the more important moment in Pittsburgh sports.

Clemente, himself only weeks removed from a month in Nicaragua managing Puerto Rico in the Amateur World Series, was recruited by television personality Luis Vigoraux and entertainer/activist Ruth Fernandez to help organize the relief effort in Puerto Rico. Clemente, already a hero on the island, instantly became the face of this project and, in customary hands-on style, quickly became its de facto leader as well. As Vigoraux recalls:

"He did not just lend his name to the fund-raising activities the way some famous personalities do. He took over the entire thing, arranging for collection points, publicity and the transportation to Nicaragua." [101]

On Wednesday the 27th, in the midst of his round-the-clock activity, Roberto took time out to honor a prior commitment which combined two of his favorite activities, i.e. playing – and talking about – baseball and being with kids. Clemente's fellow Pirate and fellow Puerto Rican, Fernando Gonzalez, was also on hand and his recollections would later be recorded by Clemente biographer Kal Wagenheim:

“That day in Aguadilla, he spent the whole afternoon under the sun – giving a clinic for the kids. At one point he was giving batting pointers, and there was a kid – about eighteen years old – pitching to him. The people in the stands kept yelling, ‘Roberto, bet you can’t hit a homer!’ Finally, on the last pitch, he smacked the ball right out of the stadium. He gave the kid the bat as a souvenir, and somebody else got the ball. Afterward, they erected a small monument to mark the spot where the ball fell. I think that was the last time Roberto swung a bat, and he hit a home run.” [102]

Between Thursday, December 28, and Saturday, December 30, four shipments were sent, three by air and one by sea. On Saturday, however, Roberto received troubling news from Nicaragua: while self-directed Venezuelan and Mexican relief operations were proceeding without a hitch, supplies from P.R. and the U.S. were being handled by Somoza's national guard and, not surprisingly, not finding their way to their intended recipients.

This was the last straw. Clemente, initially inclined to accompany the first flight, had been dissuaded by Vigoreaux, but now he would brook no argument. He resolved to accompany the fourth and final shipment, Sunday night, New Year's Eve.

On December 31, Clemente died when the plane he was riding crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico, en route to deliver relief supplies to victims of the disaster.

PostScript: The Legacy

On January 24, 1973, Clemente was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America. He is one of three Hall of Fame players to be inducted without the mandatory five year wait, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig being the others.

Clemente's posthumous acclaim, however, did not end there nor was it confined to Cooperstown. On May 13 that same year, he would receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the first baseball player so honored. The very next day, he became the first individual of any description to receive the Presidential Citizens Medal, an award newly minted in his honor by then President Richard M. Nixon. Following are the latter's comments on that occasion:

"We are here for the presentation of the first Presidential Citizens Medal, and I am very honored, and this office is honored that that first medal – which we know will be awarded in the future to distinguished Americans for their service – that first medal goes to Roberto Clemente.

“I would like to read the citation, because it is better than any speech I could make, I think, with regard to Roberto Clemente:

“Citizens Medal Citation, Roberto Clemente: ‘All who saw Roberto Clemente in action, whether on the diamond or on the front lines of charitable endeavor, are richer for the experience. He stands with that handful of men whose brilliance has transformed the game of baseball into a showcase of skill and spirit, giving universal delight and inspiration. More than that, his selfless dedication to helping those with two strikes against them in life blessed thousands and set an example for millions. As long as athletes and humanitarians are honored, Roberto Clemente’s memory will live; as long as Citizens Medals are presented, each will mean a little more because this first one went to him." [103]

On Monday, August 6, came the formal HOF induction ceremonies. Clemente would enter the Hall in the company of two equally worthy candidates. For Warren Spahn, this was a richly deserved and, no doubt, infinitely gratifying honor. For Clemente's other co-inductee, however, the moment was bittersweet at best. On the one hand, Monte Irvin would enter the Hall alongside his greatest admirer and greatest protégé; on the other, this exquisite and poetic synchronicity had – and indeed could – only come to pass thanks to Momen's untimely end.

Clemente had always felt a strong sense of loyalty to his team and especially its fans. During the 1972 strike, which came at a time when free agency was becoming an issue, Clemente wrote a letter to Pirates management stating that he would never have taken advantage of free agency had it been available. The letter was made public by the team in 1994 at the unveiling of the Clemente statue outside Three Rivers Stadium.

The Clemente family name lived on in the 1980s as Clemente's eldest son Roberto Clemente Jr. played in the minor leagues for the Philadelphia Phillies, San Diego Padres, and Baltimore Orioles from 1984 to 1990. His second son Luis Clemente was selected by the Pirates in the 1984 amateur draft. He is also the uncle of Edgard Clemente.

Among the things named for Clemente are the Roberto Clemente Museum, Roberto Clemente Memorial Park and Roberto Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh, Estadio Roberto Clemente Walker and Avenida Roberto Clemente in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Coliseo Roberto Clemente in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Estadio Roberto Clemente in Nicaragua, Roberto Clemente Field in Mannheim, Germany (so named by members of the German team at the 1972 Amateur World Baseball Championship, in honor of the manager of the Puerto Rican team, who'd so impressed all of them), a state park in the Bronx, NY, a city park in Cleveland, and schools in Rochester, NY, New Haven, CT, Milford, CT, Chicago, IL, Allentown, PA, Germantown, MD, Philadelphia, PA, Paterson, NJ, and Ypsilanti, MI.

The newly named parks and schools would no doubt have pleased Momen no end, given his lifelong affinity for children. Even more immediately relevant, though, to the way he lived – and died – was the Roberto Clemente Award [quickly renamed thus in 1973 after a brief existence as the Commissioner's Award], presented annually to the player who best embodied Clemente's admonition to make good on every "opportunity... to make things better for someone coming behind you," the alternative being clearly stated – i.e. "wasting your time on this earth." [104] *

* The speech from which this quote is excerpted was delivered at the annual Houston baseball dinner held on January 29, 1971.[105] Clemente, there to receive the Tris Speaker Award, brought down the house with his acceptance speech, judged by many attendees as "the best talk any baseball player ever made," according to John Wilson's informal survey of those present. Morris Frank, the evening's MC, was even moved to issue the following injunction to the Rev. Tom Bagby [106], himself saddled with the suddenly thankless task of delivering the evening's invocation:

"Tom, you'd better learn to play right field. This guy has taken your field." [107]

Of course the institution which would bear Clemente's name and bring together his love of sports and of children was the Ciudad Eportiva Roberto Clemente (aka Sports City).

On the playing field, we've already noted the proud multi-generational tradition of paying tribute to The Great One by wearing number 21. Of course, wearing that number was much like being a parent: that is to say, becoming one is the easiest thing in the world, while it's the effort you put in from that point on that determines whether you'll be one worthy of the name. Candy Maldonado recalls a case in point:

"The people that knew Clemente always said, ‘If you want to wear that number, this is the way you do things.’ I was playing in 1978 in Arecibo (in winter ball) and Jack McKeon was my manager. I didn’t run hard on a ground ball. One-hopper to short, I didn’t bust my tail. I went to first base and instead of taking my helmet, the first base coach said, ‘You’re wanted in the dugout.’ Jack says to me, ‘It seems you’re tired. You sit here.’ Then after a while he said to me, ‘If you’re going to play in the big leagues and wear that number, you always go hard." [108]

Clemente's onfield legacy, however, was also handed down in less obvious ways. Stargell elaborates:

“I learned how to play the game from him, and it was kinda like he passed a baton or torch to me, like how to win. There are certain things you must do to win. It’s a big thing. Guys come in every year who have talent. But it’s more than just talent. It’s not something that’s easy to define, or to find. But we did it. We knew how to win. First of all, he’d teach us and show us how to do little things, like to be aggressive going into the corner after a ball. In order to do that, he’d take me out in the field, and show me the mechanics. He’d walk through the motions and talk about the right steps and when to start bending – the positioning, how to maintain your balance, all that stuff. There was always a backup system, too, depending on what the baserunners did. And he’d talk about how to catch a fly ball and how to throw the ball. It’s what I teach young kids today. I’d challenge anyone to go against his theory. Dave Parker was very accurate and I was very accurate. Clemente taught us how to do it right.” [109]

Parker readily concurs:

“When I first signed with the Pirates, I signed on as a catcher. I had a technique of throwing the ball, but it was a catcher’s throw, not an outfielder’s throw." [110] "I short-armed the ball." [111] "Robby first made me aware of the difference. ‘You can get a lot more on that throw if you stretch your arm out.’ He showed me how to throw the ball from the outfield. Robby also showed me how to properly grip the ball before throwing it, and how you grab the ball out of your glove with that same grip each time. By gripping the ball a certain way with your fingers across the strings, you could keep it from slicing. It had to be a routine.

“When you’re getting this advice from a guy as great as Clemente, it sinks in immediately." [112]"He was a huge influence on me." [113] “His work ethic was impeccable. He went out and worked hard every day.” [114]

Jerry Morales, an outstanding defensive outfielder best remembered for his mid-seventies stint with the Chicago Cubs, was but a star-struck kid when first he met RC. Ah, but what a fruitful meeting it was:

“When I was 15, he came to my hometown for a clinic. I remember everything, particularly the things he taught me about playing the outfield. It helped me my whole career. He showed me the way to throw the ball, and the way to catch it, and the best way to hit the cutoff man, and he taught me how to learn to anticipate where the ball would come. [When Clemente selected me as a member of the Puerto Rican all-star team he was managing], I was playing center field, right next to him in right field. It was a thrill. Everything he taught me helped me my whole career, and I try to teach the kids the same way.” [115]

Of course, Clemente's classroom was not confined to kids. One of his advanced seminars was audited by a somewhat aging Pirate prospect, the 24-year-old Kent Tekulve. A soon-to-be staple of the Pirates' bullpen for many years to come, Tekulve would not soon forget the lessons learned in Bradenton, back in the spring of '71:

"Back then, most of the regular players would play two or three or four innings, then go out and do some running in the outfield. They’d go to the clubhouse from there; they’d take a shower and be out on the golf course by the time guys like me were even getting in the games. Not Clemente. He’d come down to the bullpen area in right field. The pitchers and catchers would fill the benches down there. There would be several Latin players too, because they wanted to catch Clemente when he’d come down. So Clemente would just plop down on the grass and hold court. He loved to talk about hitting.

"He’d be sitting there, talking to all these young kids. It wasn’t about mechanics, you know – like how to hold the bat, or where to stand, or stuff like that. It was more about theory, what he was trying to do as a hitter. It helps explain his unorthodox style. You’d never teach anyone to stand up at the plate like he did, or to hold the bat like he did, or to swing at some of the pitches he lashed at. He wanted to hit the ball with the bat going down through it. The ball would come off the bat with backspin. It will carry that way. I realized it more when I played golf because the same thing applies there. If you hit up at it, you get topspin, and the ball goes down. Most guys just want to make contact; they’re happy if they can put their bat on the ball. But Clemente was more precise in what he wanted to accomplish. He wanted to keep his hands back and hit down on the ball with that heavy bat he used. Hearing him talk, you knew he was somebody on a separate level. They say Ted Williams was like that. He’d sit there four or five innings a day, just talking about things. Like balance, things he was trying to accomplish at the plate …

“I’d go back to my room at Pirate City and figure out how I could counteract that. How could I keep batters off balance? How could I offset the sort of things good hitters like Clemente could do? I’d go over in my mind all the things he talked about. I’d sit around my room for hours. How could I keep hitters from doing what they wanted to do? He was so detailed. He wanted to talk to these kids. Everybody learned from him … I probably learned more about pitching to good major league batters from Clemente than I did from any pitching coaches.” [116]

It must also be noted that RC's Adult Ed matriculants were hardly confined to teammates. Bob Watson [117], Tony Taylor [118] and Lee May [119] could all attest to that. Bobby Bonds spoke with TSN a couple of months after Clemente's death, just prior to the 1973 season;

“I talked with Clemente a lot last season. I asked him his philosophy on hitting and playing. I learned some things. Roberto told me if you can’t give your best every time you hit a ball, why play? Then I asked myself, ‘When did Roberto ever loaf?’ The last time I saw Clemente, he said he’d talk with me more this year. Now he’s gone. But Roberto opened my eyes – a player should always give 100 percent or not play.” [120]

Bonds' young son, a frequent visitor to the ballpark in those days, still harbors vivid pre-teen memories of The Great One:

“I take more pride in my defense because I always admired Roberto Clemente and the way he had that spin move in right field. He could throw from the right field corner to third base.” [121] “When I’m done, I want people to say, ‘He’s the best.’ Right field belongs to Roberto Clemente, center field belongs to Willie Mays. I want left field to belong to me.” [122]

Another similarly configured father-son pair underwent somewhat more rigorous and detailed course work in the Clemente curriculum, if only indirectly, courtesy of an illustrious RCU alumnus then engaged as a coach by the Atlanta Braves. Ken Griffey, Jr., explains:

“I started out as a pitcher and first baseman. I went to the outfield when I was 14 and I had to learn to play center. Dad didn’t help me. He just told me ‘Go, get ’em.’ Willie taught me footwork, positioning, how to get a jump, how to read a ball.”

Junior was also in the unusual position that season of playing in the big leagues alongside his dad who, as he suggested, was equally in need of outfield tutoring. Griffey Sr. freely admits as much:

“And I learned right along with Junior. I could never tell Junior anything because we didn’t know exactly what to do. Coming up with Cincy, they did not coach us, they just told us, ‘Go catch it; if you can’t catch it, pick it up and hit the cutoff man with your throw.’ And Stargell knew his stuff. He had learned outfield from Roberto Clemente. Junior was 17 and I was 36, and there we were taking instruction together.” [123]

Momen, so long the ardent champion and defender of the family unit, would have been tickled to see that.

Clemente's memory was the center of attention before the 2006 All-Star Game. His widow and Bill Mazeroski, among others, attended in his honor. [124]

On Wednesday, August 22, 2007, four days after his 73rd birthday, Roberto was named to the Rawlings All-Time Gold Glove Team,[125] selected by fans from a fifty-player candidate pool nominated by former players, managers and reporters.[126]

Thus was Clemente's place in baseball history thrown into especially bold relief as he took his place in the all-time outfield alongside both his onetime mentor Willie Mays and his disciple once removed Ken Griffey Jr.


In 2020, Major League Baseball instituted Roberto Clemente Day to be celebrated each September in commemoration of Clemente's life and legacy, and to highlight contribution that players make off the field to worthwhile causes in their communities.

"I am convinced that God wanted me to be a baseball player. I was born to play baseball." - Roberto Clemente

Notable Achievements

  • 12-time NL All-Star (1960-1967 & 1969-1972)
  • NL MVP (1966)
  • 1971 World Series MVP
  • 12-time NL Gold Glove Winner (1961-1972)
  • 4-time NL Batting Average Leader (1961, 1964, 1965 & 1967)
  • 2-time NL Hits Leader (1964 & 1967)
  • NL Triples Leader (1969)
  • 20-Home Run Seasons: 3 (1961, 1966 & 1967)
  • 100 RBI Seasons: 2 (1966 & 1967)
  • 100 Runs Scored Seasons: 3 (1961, 1966 & 1967)
  • 200 Hits Seasons: 4 (1961, 1964, 1966 & 1967)
  • Won two World Series with the Pittsburgh Pirates (1960 & 1971)
  • Baseball Hall of Fame: Class of 1973

1965 1966 1967
Willie Mays Roberto Clemente Orlando Cepeda

Five-Tool Phenom first-hand reports

The Toolbox
The Arm__The Glove__The Legs___The Bat___The Club
The Total Package (The Great-est One?)

Timeline moonshots, milestones and more

Miscellaneous Career Highlights
__Minor Leagues__
1954 in Montreal
__Major Leagues__

Further Reading links to full text articles

__Newspapers and Periodicals__
The Sporting News Clemente Chronology
Miscellaneous Clemente Chronology

Related Sites

His Life

"I was born to play baseball."

  • "...Arriba Roberto," by Steve Wulf in Sports Illustrated (Volume 77, Issue 27, December 28, 1992), pp. 114-124
  • "ROBERTO CLEMENTE HAD POWERFUL THROWING ARM," sidebar story under "Jermaine Dye," by Joe Posnanski in Baseball Digest (Volume 60, Issue 7, July 2001), pp. 58-60
  • "Classic Clemente," in USA Today (April 2008), pp. 1, 8-9
  • "Saluting Pittsburgh's Finest," by Richard E. Vatz and Lee S. Weinberg in USA Today Magazine (July 2008), pp. 52-54

His Legacy

"To make things better for someone coming behind you." [127]

  • "Clemente's corn flakes played in Puerto Rico; what about Pittsburgh?," in Executive Report (Volume 12, Issue 5, January 1994), pp. 6-7
  • "READ FOR ROBERTO," in American Libraries (Volume 25, Issue 8, September 1994), p. 702
  • "The Legacy of Roberto Clemente," by Jerry W. Friedman in Policy and Practice (September 2003), p. 3
  • "Clemente Stands Tall in Pittsburgh Among Peers," by Jorge L. Ortiz in USA Today (July 12, 2006), p. 6
  • "Remembering my father’s face: Latino baseball, Roberto Clemente, and an ethics of hospitality," by Richard Perez in Centro (Volume XIX, No, 2, Fall 2007), pp. - 244-253


Clemente and his contemporaries



  1. Abrams, Al. "Sidelight on Sports: A Baseball Star is Born". The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. June 7, 1955. Retrieved 2015-07-19.
  2. O'Brien, Jim (1994). "Vera Clemente". Remember Roberto: Clemente Recalled by Teammates, Family, Friends and Fans. Pittsburgh, PA: James P. O'Brien Publishing. p. 55. ISBN 0-916114-14-7. Retrieved 2015-07-19.
  3. 'Momen' is a childhood nickname of uncertain provenance that appears to have stuck to some extent throughout Clemente's life, at least among Spanish speakers. In 1954, Lloyd McGowan of the Montreal Star would conclude his capsule [but rave] review of Clemente's minor league home field debut as follows: "They call him 'Momen' and I don't know why." David Maraniss' 2006 biography proposes a solution to this mystery; Maraniss maintains that the name was conferred upon Clemente by an older cousin and that it was an affectionate reference to the curious and frequently distracted Roberto's refrain, "Momentito, momentito," uttered when fending off his elders' attempts to bring him back to reality – or, at least, back to the particular task at hand. The Maraniss assertion notwithstanding, it would appear that, indeed, non-Spanish speakers did not have a monopoly on mystification regarding the meaning and derivation of 'Momen'. Roberto Clemente Jr., for example, speaking on WFAN in 2006, did not have a clue when queried on the matter by a listener. Moreover, Maraniss' sole source for his version, Roberto's older brother Matino, had been quoted to very different effect by Phil Musick some thirty-odd years earlier, as we shall see shortly. Ironically, had Maraniss actually bothered to read the 1974 Musick bio rather than simply pay it lip service in his bibliography, he would have been aware of the disconnect and thus prepared to intelligently – if tactfully – follow up the elderly Matino's radically revised 21st century account.
  4. United Press International: "Clemente had 'touch of royalty'," The Lexington Dispatch (Tuesday, January 2, 1973), p. 8
  5. Candy Maldonado, Ruben Sierra, Sammy Sosa and Carlos Delgado are just a few who immediately spring to mind.
  6. It should be noted that it's not just Latin Americans who've donned numero veinte y uno over the years. Readers may recall the minor controversy generated in 2008 when African American reliever LaTroy Hawkins, during his brief tenure with the Yankees, requested and received uniform # 21 in a clear nod to Clemente. This seemingly innocuous gesture provoked outrage among Paul O'Neill loyalists, O'Neill likewise having sported # 21 during both his Yankee and pre-Yankee career. Many of these disgruntled fans had long advocated retirement of O'Neill's number by the Yankees, in recognition of his crucial contributions to their end-of-century mini-dynasty. Aside from the fact that the erratic Hawkins was scarcely a threat to O'Neill's claim on the title of 'Greatest Yankee to Wear # 21,' the point seems to have been missed that Hawkins was simply replicating the gesture of affection and respect first made by [Irish?]-American O'Neill 23 years earlier in Cincinnati and reiterated 8 years later in New York, paying tribute to his boyhood hero and his father's favorite player.
  7. See in particular the following:
  8. Kal Wagenheim: Clemente! (New York, Praeger Publishers, 1973), pp. 13-14
  9. Wagenheim: Clemente!, p. 15
  10. Wagenheim, p. 21
  11. Phil Musick: Reflections on Roberto (Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Associates DBA, 1994), p. 39
  12. Arnold Hano: Roberto Clemente, Batting King (New York, G. B. Putnam's Sons, 1968, 1973), p. 16
  13. Les Biederman, "Clemente, 32, Pays Tribute to Parents," The Sporting News (September 3, 1966), p. 12
  14. Bruce Markusen:Roberto Clemente: The Great One (Champaign, Sports Publishing, Inc. 1998), p. 2
  15. Phil Musick: Who was Roberto? A Biography of Roberto Clemente (Garden City, Doubleday & Company, 1974), pp. 57-58
  16. Wagenheim, p. 15
  17. Wagenheim, p. 21
  18. Phil Musick: Who was Roberto, p. 59
  19. Jay Feldman, “Roberto Clemente Went to Bat for All Latino Ballplayers,” Smithsonian (September 1993), pp. 131-132
  20. Musick: Who was Roberto, p. 64
  21. Jerry Izenberg, “Roberto,” The Star-Ledger (Newark, Dec. 31, 1997)
  22. Maria Isabel Caceres, “Unforgettable Roberto Clemente,” Baseball Digest (July 1973), p. 114
  23. Izenberg
  24. Caceres, p. 114
  25. Izenberg, “Roberto”
  26. Caceres, p. 114
  27. Musick: Who was Roberto,' p. 64
  28. Markusen: Roberto Clemente: The Great One, p. 5
  29. Bill Nunn, “CHANGE OF PACE: Clemente: Forgotten Man of the Pirates,” The Pittsburgh Courier (February 25, 1961), p. 28
  30. Markusen: Roberto Clemente: The Great One, p. 5
  31. Sam Nover: "A Conversation With Roberto Clemente,"WIIC-TV (Sunday, October 8, 1972)
  32. Tom Singer ( [ _negro_leagues_story.jsp?story=clemente_roberto "A boy and his hero: Clemente, Irvin formed a friendship that lasted for decades,"] NEGRO LEAGUES LEGACY (2001)
  33. Markusen: Roberto Clemente: The Great One, pp. 6-7
  34. Musick: Who was Roberto, p. 62
  35. Musick: Reflections on Roberto, p. 39
  36. Musick: Who was Roberto? p. 62
  37. Wagenheim: Clemente!, p. 24
  38. Musick: Reflections on Roberto, p. 38
  39. Musick, Reflections on Roberto, p. 43
  40. Jay Feldman, “Roberto Clemente Went to Bat for All Latino Ballplayers,” Smithsonian (September 1993), p. 132-133
  41. Musick, p. 43
  42. Feldman, “Roberto Clemente Went to Bat for All Latino Ballplayers,” p.133
  43. Musick, p. 43
  44. Feldman, p.133
  45. Ira Miller, Roberto Clemente (New York, Grosset and Dunlap, 1973), p. 16
  46. Maraniss, Clemente, p. 27
  47. Hano, Roberto Clemente, Batting King, p. 20
  48. Wagenheim, Clemente!, pp. 24-25
  49. Wagenheim, Clemente!, pp. 45-46
  50. Howard Cohn, “Roberto Clemente’s Problem,” Sport (May 1962), p. 54
  51. Wagenheim, p. 46
  52. Wagenheim, p. 26
  53. Musick, Who Was Roberto, p. 73
  54. Wagenheim, Clemente!, p. 27
  55. Thomas W. Gilbert, Roberto Clemente (Langhorne, Chelsea House Publishers, 1991), pp. 41-42
  56. Wagenheim, p. 27
  57. Markusen, Roberto Clemente, p. 13
  58. Jerry Izenberg, "CLEMENTE: A BITTERSWEET MEMOIR," from Great Latin Sports Figures: The Proud People, p. 20
  59. Ira Miller, Roberto Clemente (New York, Grosset and Dunlap, 1973), p. 15
  60. Arnold Hano, Roberto Clemente: Batting King, p. 20
  61. Frank Eck, “Haak Recalls ‘Pirating’ of Roberto,” The Cumberland Evening Times {Friday, October 29, 1971}, p. 12
  62. Bavasi with Jack Olsen, "The Real Secret of Trading," Sports Illustrated (June 5, 1967), pp. 72-73
  63. Bavasi with John Strege, Off the Record (Chicago, Contemporary Books, 1987), pp. 72-73
  64. Les Biederman, "Dodgers Signed Clemente Just to Balk Giants," The Sporting News (May 25, 1955), p. 11
  65. Les Biederman, "Dodgers Signed Clemente..."
  66. Bill Christine: Roberto! The Man…The Player…The Humanitarian…The Life and Times of Roberto Clemente (New York, Stadia Sports Publishing, Inc. 1973), p. 63
  67. Bill Christine, Roberto! The Man…The Player…The Humanitarian…The Life and Times of Roberto Clemente (New York, Stadia Sports Publishing, Inc. 1973), p. 65
  68. Bill Christine, Roberto! The Man…The Player…The Humanitarian…The Life and Times of Roberto Clemente (New York, Stadia Sports Publishing, Inc. 1973), p. 65
  69. Frank Eck (AP): ["Macon Denies Hiding Clemente,” The Reading Eagle (Thursday, November 25, 1971), p. 121
  70. Lloyd McGowan, “Clemente’s Arrival’ Pleasant Surprise for Macon, Royals: Roberto’s Homer, Lasorda’s Win, Revive Hopes,” The Montreal Star (Thursday, July 26, 1954), p. 28
  71. Lloyd McGowan: “Clemente’s Arrival’ Pleasant Surprise for Macon, Royals: Roberto’s Homer, Lasorda’s Win, Revive Hopes,” The Montreal Star (Thursday, July 26, 1954), p. 28
  72. McGowan, “International League: Montreal,” TSN (September 1, 1954), p. 28
  73. McGowan, “Clemente, Surprising Rookie, Even to Manager Macon,” The Montreal Star (Thursday, August 19, 1954), p. 32
  74. David Maraniss: Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero (Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2006), pp. 53, 54
  75. Stew Thornley: "Roberto Clemente," Society for American Baseball Research - Baseball Biography Project, 2005
  76. This is not so much a comment on any perceived stinginess on McGowan’s part as it is on the Montreal manager’s minimalist deployment of his rookie right fielder, a strategy which afforded Clemente precious few moments in the sun.
  77. Les Biederman: “Hats Off,” TSN (June 20, 1956), p. 19
  78. Les Biederman: "Clemente, Early Buc Ace, Says He’s Better in Summer; Sukey First to Glimpse Clemente,", TSN (June 29, 1955), p. 19
  79. Les Biederman: “Hats Off,” TSN (June 20, 1956), p. 19
  80. Les Biederman: “Clemente, Early Buc Ace, Says He’s Better in Summer; Sukey First to Glimpse Clemente,” TSN (June 29, 1955), p. 19
  81. Wagenheim: Clemente, p. 46
  82. Bruce Markusen: Roberto Clemente, pp. 33-34
  83. Kal Wagenheim: Clemente, p. 27
  84. Phil Musick: Reflections on Roberto, p. 38
  85. Willie Mays and Charles Einstein: Willie Mays: My Life In and Out of Baseball, (New York, E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1972), p. 171
  86. "Lee Walls' bobble of Willie Mays' single allowed Clemente to score the game-winning run from first in game four of the 1954-55 Caribbean Series." -- Thomas E. Van Hyning: The Santurce Crabbers: sixty seasons of Puerto Rican Winter League baseball (Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland & Co., 1999), p. 70
  87. Kal Wagenheim: Clemente, pp. 46-47. Also, see Santurce Cangrejeros Photo Gallery.
  88. Pita Avarez Dé La Vega, "Mays, Gomez & Co. On Top in Puerto Rico; Puerto Rican Patter," TSN (December 22, 1954), p. 24
  89. Jack Hernon "Dodgers Cop Two More From Pirates; BUNTS AND BASE HITS," The Pittsburgh Post Gazette (Monday, April 18 , 1955), p. 20
  90. Jack Hernon "Dodgers Cop Two More From Pirates," The Pittsburgh Post Gazette (Monday, April 18 , 1955), p. 20
  91. Fred Imhof: “Sports Expert,” The Fresno Bee, p. 15A
  92. (AP), “Clemente Homers for Pirate Win,” The Syracuse Post-Standard (Tuesday, March 15, 1966), p. 26
  93. (UPI), "Pirates Regain Winning Ways," The Connellsville Daily Courier (Friday, March 25, 1966), p. 9
  94. Jim O'Brien, Remember Roberto, p. 270
  95. (AP), “Pirates Stay Alive, Edge Atlanta 8-6,” The Cumberland Times (Sunday, September 25, 1966), p. 31
  96. Rich Domich, director and Ouisie Shapiro, writer, Roberto: A Video Tribute to One of Baseball’s Greatest Players and a True Humanitarian [videorecording] (South Hackensack, Major League Baseball Productions, 1993). This tape, aside from offering interesting contributions from early teammates such as Dick Groat, Harvey Haddix and Bob Friend, contains the Clemente-Lolich All-Star encounter in its entirety.
  97. Gene Collier, "Of veterans: One spit on, the other knocked down," The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Friday, September 26, 2003)
  98. Paul Giordano, “Clemente Super,” The Bucks County Courier Times (Monday, June 28, 1971), p. 17
  99. Michael M.Oleksak and Mary Adams Oleksak, Beisbol: Latin Americans and the Grand Old Game (Grand Rapids, Masters Press, 1991), p. 98
  101. "Clemente Mourned On Island," The Berkshire Eagle (Tuesday, January 2 , 1973), p. 1
  102. Wagenheim, p. 240
  103. Richard Nixon, “Remarks at a Ceremony Honoring Roberto Clemente. May 14, 1973,” American Reference Library, 01/01/2001 – Source: Federal Register Division. National Archives and Records Service, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Richard Nixon, 1973 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1956-), p. 529. Also see:
  104. John Wilson, "Standing Cheer for Roberto," TSN (February 20, 1971), p. 44
  105. (AP), "Honor Clemente,", The Cedar Rapids Gazette (Wednesday, January 27, 1971), p. 1D
  106. Rev. James Thomas Bagby was Rector Emeritus of St. Martins' Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas. He was an author and wrote the book: "Windows: Reflections of a Life of Ministry".
  107. Wilson, "Standing Cheer for Roberto," TSN (February 20, 1971), p. 44
  108. T. J. Quinn, “The late Roberto Clemente remains symbol of Latin baseball,” The Daily News (New York, Sep 21, 2005)
  109. Jim O'Brien, Remember Roberto, p. 241
  110. Jim O’Brien: Maz and the ’60 Bucs, p. 272
  111. Bruce Markusen: Roberto Clemente, p.333
  112. O’Brien: Maz and the ’60 Bucs, p. 272
  113. Markusen: Roberto Clemente, p.333
  114. O’Brien, p. 272
  115. Pohla Smith, “Clemente Sons Choose Non-Baseball Careers,” The Los Angeles Times (Sunday, March 29, 1987), p. 15
  116. O’Brien, Remember Roberto, pp. 329-331
  117. Joe Heiling, “Astros Mourn Clemente’s Death,” The Houston Post (Wednesday, January 2, 1973), p. 3/D
  118. Maraniss, Clemente, p. 171. Also, see Rich Westcott, “Phils Alerted to Taylor Rebound; Swat Champ in Puerto Rico Loop,” TSN (March 2, 1968), p. 33.
  119. Earl Lawson, “Cincy’s May Shooting for 20 HR Total,” TSN (February 24, 1968), p. 25
  120. Pat Frizzell, “Bonds Predicts Stock Rise On Tip From Clemente,” TSN (March 31, 1973), p. 37
  121. William Ladson, “The Complete Ballplayer,” TSN (July 12, 1999), p.16
  122. Mike Florence, “Just Because You're Paranoid Doesn't Mean You're Wrong,” The Los Angeles Times (Saturday, September 5, 1992), p. 2
  123. Bob Finnigan and Bob Sherwin, “Center Field Of Dreams,” The Seattle Times (Thursday, March 31, 1994)
  124. From staff reports: "Commissioner salutes Clemente for 'historic achievement'," The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Wednesday, July 12, 2006), p. F-5
  125. Staff and wire reports: "Clemente picked for all-time Gold Glove team," The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Thursday, August 23, 2007)
  126. "Rawlings Unveils Ballot of Top 50 All-Time Rawlings Gold Glovers; Fans to Vote for Best at Each Position During 'Summer of Glove'," PR Newswire, posted 2/20/07
  127. John Wilson, "Standing Cheer for Roberto," TSN (February 20, 1971), p. 44
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