Glancing Back, and Remembering Roberto Clemente
Roberto Clemente was so good at every baseball skill, and so naturally fluid at everything he did, that sometimes you had to wonder whether he was truly human. His untimely death in a 1972 plane crash on his way to help survivors of a Nicaraguan earthquake proved that, regrettably, he was mortal. But so often it didn’t seem that way on the baseball field.
Signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952, Clemente was acquired by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1954 amateur draft. He spent the rest of his career as a member of the Pittsburgh organization. Clemente made his debut with the Pirates in 1955, and was a solid, though not spectacular, player through the rest of the 1950s.
It was during the 1960s that Clemente emerged as one of the game’s premier players. Beginning in 1960, he hit .300 or better every season for the rest of his career except for 1968 – the “Year of the Pitcher” in baseball – when Clemente’s batting average “slipped” to .291. Clemente won his first batting title in 1961 with a .351 average. He repeated as National League batting champion in 1964 (.339), 1965 (.329) and 1967 (.357), when he also led the majors with 209 hits. In 1965, Clemente played the full season and led the league in hitting despite have contracted malaria earlier that year.
Never considered among the league’s premier power hitters, Clemente hit 177 home runs during the 1960s to rank as number 26 among that decade’s sluggers. His highest single-season home run total came in 1966 when he belted 29 home runs and drove in 119 runs. He was voted National League Most Valuable Player that year. For his career, Clemente averaged 87 RBIs per season.
Hitting was only part of Clemente’s arsenal of baseball skills. He had great speed and was a tremendous, aggressive base runner, though he was never really concerned with stealing bases (his highest stolen base total was 12 in 1963).
Clemente’s forte was turning line drives into doubles and stretching doubles into triples. He led the majors in triples once, with 12 in 1969 (when he hit .345). His career total of 166 triples was the most by any right-handed hitter in the post-World War II era.
Clemente was the National League’s finest right fielder during the 1960s. His arm was strong and his throws extremely accurate. His 266 career assists as an outfielder remain unmatched in the modern era. He was the National League’s only Gold Glove right fielder throughout the 1960s, and won 12 Gold Glove awards over his career.
In post-season play, Clemente actually elevated his game. In the 1960 World Series against the New York Yankees, Clemente batted .310 with nine hits and three RBIs in the seven-game series. He hit safely in all seven games, a feat he repeated in the 1971 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles (when he batted .414 for the Series).
Clemente collected his 3,000th career hit in the last game of 1972, his last season. He was inducted posthumously into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.