Roberto Clemente Baseball Playing Greatness

Roberto Clemente Baseball Playing Greatness  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Grey Flannel Auctions.

Pittsburgh Pirate legend Roberto Clemente opened the door of professional baseball in the United States for Latino players.  Growing up poor in Puerto Rico, Roberto started playing ball on muddy fields with a glove made out of a coffee sack and a bat fashioned out of wood from a guava plant. 

He loved the game and grew up to be pure grace on the baseball field. 

He had a touch of royalty about him.  Somehow he transcended superstardom.  His marvelous playing skills rank him among the truly elite.  And what a wonderful good man he was.
— Bowie Kuhn, Baseball Commissioner

During his 18 year career as a right fielder with the Pirates he won four batting titles, was awarded 12 Gold Glove Awards, played in 14 All-Star games, named the most valuable player, and helped lead the Pirates to championships in 1960 and 1971.  He ended his career with 3,000 hits.

“Clemente can catch a ball in New York and throw out a runner in Pennsylvania,” said one TV broadcaster.  And he was dead on accurate doing it.

But it was the drama of watching him catch balls with his “basket catch” that jolted fans like me out of their seats.  Fly balls came at him in the outfield and he caught them below his waist instead of above his shoulders. 

If ever a player was born to play baseball it was Roberto Clemente.  Even when he was hurt he could hit.  Once Roberto crashed into a brick wall as he caught a line drive off the bat of Willie Mays.  He ended up with eight stitches in his chin.  The doctor told him to take a week off but he was back on the field playing again in four days.

The Pirates signed Clemente at the end of the 1954 season.  The team had finished dead last for three years in a row and hadn’t won a World Championship in more than 30 years.  They needed juice.

Jumping up against walls, diving for catches, missile-like throws, scalding line drives, Clemente was exhilarating to watch.  Once he even scored an inside-the-park grand slam.

“Arriba!  Arriba!”, Spanish for “Let’s go!” fans yelled when Roberto came to bat.  Pittsburgh fans grew to love him.

''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 said.  How fortuitous his words turned out to be.    

Beyond being a world-class ballplayer Roberto was a humanitarian.  On a rainy New Year’s Eve in 1972 he sat in a San Juan airport waiting for mechanics to fix an old plane that would take him to Nicaragua.  The plane was full of food, medicine and supplies for earthquake survivors. 

The plane’s engines failed shortly after takeoff and crashed into the ocean.  No survivors.

People like me who grew up watching Roberto play will never forget him. 

“He had a touch of royalty about him.  Somehow he transcended superstardom.  His marvelous playing skills rank him among the truly elite.  And what a wonderful good man he was,” said commissioner of baseball Bowie Kuhn.

Roberto was the first Latin American player to be elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

"He's a shining star to many, many people.  He grows and grows over time. He doesn't diminish...The sad part is that there are not enough TV pictures of him.  He made so many great plays that people can only talk about. You could never capture the magnificence of the man," said Pirate General Manager Joe L. Brown.

On May 11, Grey Flannel Auctions in Westhampton, N.Y., featured a selection of Roberto Clemente items in its Summer Games auction.  

Roberto Clemente

Baseball; team autographed by 27 players including Clemente;  $1,272.

Baseball Bat; game-used; Adirondack Model; 129X; Clemente’s number 21 appears on the knob in black marker;  $7,788.

Flannel Vest; Pittsburgh Pirate game-used; player number 21 on back; across the front “Pirates”; $55,152.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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