Roberto Clemente: Almost a Dodger, Always a Hero

Roberto Clemente retired with exactly 3,000 career hits.

Roberto Clemente retired with exactly 3,000 career hits.

(Roberto Clemente was born on this date in 1934. This post focuses on the Hall of Famer’s would-be career with the Dodgers. I’ll write a post in December about Clemente and the tragic accident that took his life.)

By Glen Sparks

Roberto Clemente was one of the greatest Dodgers of all time. The club called him up in 1955, the year Brooklyn won its first and only World Series. The slender 20-year-old outfielder from Carolina, Puerto Rico, sprinted around the bases and gunned down plenty of baserunners who dared to test his powerful arm. Brooklyn manager Walt Alston said, “This kid’s arm makes Carl Furillo’s (the Reading Rifle) look like a pop gun.”

Young Clemente didn’t hit much at first. That came later. He went with the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958 and within a few seasons began slashing line drives all over major league parks. He’d belt 15-25 home runs a season, bat .325 and collect about 200 hits almost every year. Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale loved to see Roberto Clemente batting in the middle of the Dodgers’ order.

Oh, wait. It didn’t happen that way. Clemente, born on this date in 1934, never played one game for the Dodgers. He played his entire, glorious 18-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Dodger fans can only lament over what might have been.

The Dodgers first saw Clemente play at a tryout camp in 1952. Al Campanis, a Brooklyn scout, rated Clemente’s arm as A+, gave his fielding an A and his hitting also an A (“turns head but improving”). He had “+” running speed, according to Campanis’ report. Campanis wrote down that the 18-year-old “has all the tools and likes to play. A real good looking prospect!”

But, Campanis didn’t sign him. Clemente was still going to high school. So, the Dodgers waited. They finally inked him to a deal on Feb. 19, 1954, supposedly for a $5,000 salary and a $10,000 bonus. That made Clemente a “bonus baby.”

According to the rules, the Dodgers were required to keep Clemente on the major league roster or risk losing him during an offseason draft. Most bonus babies just sat on the bench and rarely played. Brooklyn executive Buzzie Bavasi decided to chance it. He assigned his young player to the Montreal Royals of the International League. He hoped that other teams might forget about Clemente. (Some accounts insist that baseball had a quota system in place and that no team could keep more than five black players on the major league roster at any given team. This argument is still up for debate.)

The idea of the Dodgers trying to “hide” Clemente in Montreal is another point of conjecture. Certainly, other teams knew about him. The New York Giants were especially interested.

Montreal manager Max Macon didn’t play Clemente every day for one simple reason. Clemente swung at just about everything and struggled at the plate. (He continued that habit in the big leagues. He simply got better at hitting bad balls hard.) By the end of July, Clemente’s batting average stood at about .200. He finished the season at .257.

Baseball held its end-of-season draft in November. Bavazi crossed his fingers and hoped that Pittsburgh, choosing first, would pick a player other than Clemente. In fact, he went one step beyond that. He got on the telephone with Branch Rickey, the former Dodger president and now Pittsburgh executive. The two talked awhile. Bavasi thought he had a gentleman’s agreement that Rickey would select Montreal pitcher John Rutherford. Rickey, to the fury of Bavazi, chose Clemente.

“Thus, we lost Roberto,” Bavazi said years later.

Clemente went on to hit .317 during his Pirate career. He won four National League batting titles and the 1966 MVP award. One of the greatest right-fielders in baseball history collected 12 Gold Gloves and exactly 3,000 hits.

He died tragically on Dec. 31, 1972, at the age of 38, while on a mercy mission to Managua, Nicaragua, following a devastating earthquake in that capital city. Clemente was aboard a DC-7 overloaded with relief supplies. The jet crashed off the Puerto Rican coast. Clemente’s body was never recovered.

The Baseball Hall of Fame held a special election on March 30, 1973, and voted Clemente for induction that summer. Since 1973, baseball has given out the Roberto Clemente Award to one player each year for outstanding achievements both on and off the field.

“Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.” – Roberto Clemente

Sources:

Baseball Reference

SABR bio project

Roberto Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero

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