Roberto Clemente Baseball at its Best
Photo courtesy of Hunt Auctions.
I grew up listening to Pittsburgh Pirate baseball on a transistor radio I received as a birthday gift. On hot, steamy steel-city afternoons I listened intently for right fielder Roberto Clemente to come to the batter’s box.
Even as a kid I somehow knew he was the best hitter and maybe the all-around best baseball player of the 1960s. And he played on my team.
“Running and throwing and hitting at something close to the level of absolute perfection, playing to win, but also playing as if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field,” said sportswriter Roger Angell.
Clemente was a national hero in his home country of Puerto Rico and opened the door for Latino players behind him. Talk about a “field of dreams.” He didn’t just play right field he owned right field. Bullet game-saving throws. Slamming into walls. Diving to the ground. Gunning down base runners.
And that was just in the outfield. At bat he was smacking home runs out of the park and stealing bases.
In the 1971 World Series Clemente batted .414 and was named the Most Valuable Player. Some sportswriter claimed he played a perfect series.
“He gave the term ‘complete’ new meaning,” said baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. “He made the word superstar seem inadequate. He had about him the touch of royalty.”
Clemente was never groomed from an early age to be a baseball superstar. He honed his skills practicing on muddy fields with a glove made from a coffee sack and a bat fashioned from a guava tree branch. He simply had a fever for the game and could hit empty soup cans farther than anyone else.
I only got to see him play in person one time at Forbes Field and even as a kid I knew I was witnessing pure art.
After 18 seasons in the majors Clemente also died a hero’s death.
It was New Year’s Eve 1972. Clemente was killed in a plane crash as he attempted to deliver food and medical supplies he purchased himself to Nicaraguans after an earthquake.
It was raining hard right before midnight as the baseball legend boarded the relief plane. One of the propellers buzzed loudly as the plane took off. The engines failed and the plane dove into the ocean.
It was all over.
“The day of the crash I was in Puerto Rico,” said Pirate catcher Manny Sanguillen. “I went with the divers out into the ocean. It was really rough. I said I’m gonna dive. They gave me a tank and scuba gear. I went down I saw barracuda and sharks. Big sharks. I got scared and pulled on the rope and they pulled me up.”
On July 10 and 11, the personal collection of Roberto Clemente went on the block at Hunt Auctions.
Souvenir Photo Sets; circa 1970-72; sealed classic photo set; $764.
Presentation Stadium Seat; Forbes Field; Clemente in decoupage along back slat; includes quotes and smaller images; $2,644.
Autograph Color Photo; by James McCarthy; 8 inches by 10 inches; circa 1960s; $3819.
Gold Glove Award; figural award as presented annually to the premier defensive players of the National and American League by position; dated 1962; $76,375.
Pittsburgh Pirate World Series Ring; World Series MVP; 1971; $381,875.
Game-worn Pittsburgh Pirate World Series Home Uniform; cream color flannel jersey; Clemente chain stitched strip tag; 1960; $411,250.