Roberto Clemente left his mark on baseball with a style of play rarely seen in modern ML competition. In a combination of brilliant scouting and luck, the Pirates claimed the Puerto Rican-born 20-year-old from the Dodgers’ Montreal farm club for $4,000 in the 1954 minor league draft.
Clemente came to a club that had suffered through three straight 100-loss seasons and was the laughingstock of baseball. He was not an immediate superstar, although his brilliant fielding ability and rifle arm were apparent from the beginning. He would eventually earn 12 Gold Gloves as a right fielder and set a ML record by leading the NL in assists five times.
In 1960 the righthanded hitter began a streak of eight consecutive seasons in which he batted no less than .312. He made the first of his 14 All-Star appearances in the two 1960 games. That year, Pittsburgh fielded its best team since Clemente’s arrival, winning the NL pennant. He hit safely in every game of the World Series against the Yankees, batting .310. In Game Seven, he kept an eighth-inning rally alive with a hustling infield single, setting up a go-ahead homer by Hal Smith. But Clemente never wore his 1960 Championship ring. He finished eighth in the NL MVP voting, though he’d led the Pirates with 94 RBI; feeling snubbed, he wore his 1961 All-Star ring instead.
Clemente won the first of four NL batting titles with a .351 mark in 1961. For the next several years, he was consistently brilliant. In the outfield, he would track down every ball in range, often making spectacular diving or leaping catches. He played caroms out of the tricky right field corner at Forbes Field faultlessly. On routine flies, he used the basket catch made famous by his contemporary, Willie Mays. At bat, Clemente seemed forever uncomfortable, always rolling his neck and stretching his back. Standing deep in the box, he would pounce on inside pitches, or wait and drive outside deliveries to right field. Playing in spacious Forbes Field reduced his home run totals. His baserunning style was marked by effort and determination, with arms and legs pumping and helmet often flying off.
Despite his all-out play, Clemente was unjustly considered a hypochondriac. When he hurt, he said so, an uncommon practice in his day. Despite a severe back injury in 1954, an arm injury in 1959, and an attack of malaria in 1965, the label stuck, even though he played 140 or more games in eight straight seasons, 1960-67.
Clemente won two more batting titles in 1964 (.339) and 1965 (.329). Long overdue recognition finally came in 1966; though the Pirates finished third, and Clemente did not lead the league in any major offensive category, his career-high 29 HR and 119 RBI helped him win the MVP award. In 1967 he captured his fourth batting crown with a .357 average, his best ever. By then, he was becoming the elder statesman on a young Pittsburgh team. Undisputably one of baseball’s greatest players, he still did not receive a great deal of national media attention until 1971, when Pittsburgh met Baltimore in the World Series. Clemente played like a man possessed, chasing down fly balls, unleashing great throws at every opportunity, batting .414 with 12 hits and two home runs, one in Pittsburgh’s climactic Game Seven victory, and winning the Series MVP award.
On September 30, 1972, Clemente drove a double off Met pitcher Jon Matlack at Three Rivers Stadium for his 3,000th career hit. His .312 average that year marked his 13th .300 season and he was at or near the top of every batting category in Pirate history.
On New Year’s Eve of 1972, Clemente boarded a DC-7 loaded with relief supplies for earthquake victims in Managua, Nicaragua. Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, a mile off the Puerto Rican coast. There were no survivors. The five-year mandatory waiting period for Hall of Fame eligibility was waived and Clemente was inducted in 1973. The Pirates retired his uniform number 21.