On October 13 of every year, Pirates fans gather at the site of the old Forbes Field to celebrate the anniversary of Bill Mazeroski’s 1960 Series-winning home run.
On New Year’s Eve of every year, Pirates fans, wherever they are, probably shed a tear for a more somber anniversary, the death of Roberto Clemente.
This year is the 40th since Clemente’s death in a plane crash, on a mission to aid the victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. Clemente was preceded in death only nine weeks previously by Jackie Robinson in 1972; Robinson was the first African-American player, Clemente the first great Hispanic player.
Robinson was 52, retired for 16 years, his body compromised by diabetes. Clemente was 38, active, a .312 hitter in the year he died (and .341, .352 and .345 the three years previous to that).
We can only speculate on what might have been different had Clemente lived: perhaps he, and not Pete Rose, would have broken Stan Musial’s NL record of 3,630 hits; perhaps the 1973 Pirates would have made up the two-and-a-half games they finished behind the New York Mets in the NL East; perhaps Hispanics would have been quicker to manage teams and run them in the front office had Clemente been around to prod MLB, as Robinson did on behalf of African-Americans in his final public appearance.
What we do know is that Clemente’s talents aren’t typical of today’s best players — he walked and homered less, but hit for a higher average and doubled and tripled more. Only seven players had 2012 averages better than Clemente’s career .317; Clemente had six seasons better than Buster Posey’s MLB-best .336.
(There is no greater evidence of the dominance of pitchers in 1968 than that it was Clemente’s only sub-.300 season — .291 — in a 13-season span.)
Modern metrics like him no less for his skills: he ranks 38th all-time in WAR (89.8). To speculate again, it seems fair to say he might have ranked as high as 25th had he played three or four more years (to continue speculating, Clemente might have hit far more home runs had he played in today’s power-happy, small-park, expansion era, or simply somewhere other than Forbes Field; he hit 25 home runs in 135 games at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field and 26 in 159 games at Wrigley Field, but just 86 home runs in 1,070 games at Forbes Field).
Said biographer David Maraniss to Smithsonian Magazine: “To reduce Clemente to numbers is to do him a disservice. Clemente was art, not science. He was beauty in motion, If you saw Clemente play, you would never forget it . . . You can see someone hit a home run and you forget it. If you saw Clemente play right field, in particular that arm, that golden arm he had, it was an aesthetic experience unlike any other.”
Clemente may have been the most well-rounded of the greatest generation of right fielders (his NL contemporaries included two MVPs — Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson; Johnny Callison would have been another had the Phillies not blown a big lead in 1964).
Baseballreference.com’s JAWS, a Hall of fame indicator, ranks Clemente sixth all-time among rightfielders, right behind Robinson, but fourth in his best seven years (behind only Babe Ruth, Aaron and Stan Musial). Any Pirate fan can tell you how the 1971 Series — Clemente’s Pirates vs. Robinson’s Orioles — ended.
Clemente’s duel with Robinson seemed almost personal; the Pirates scored four runs in the final two games of the Series, half of them Clemente home runs. Steve Blass was dominant — a complete-game three-hitter and a Game 7 complete-game four-hitter — but Clemente was the Series MVP to no one’s protest.
Clemente’s pride was reportedly as powerful as his throwing arm — he wore his All-Star ring from 1960 instead of his World Series ring, according to ESPN.com’s Larry Schwartz, because he finished eighth in the MVP voting. But if it worked to his detriment at times, perhaps it also drove him in 1971.
Said sports writer Phil Musick, who covered Clemente and, like Maraniss, authored a book on him, according to sabr.org: “He was anything but perfect. He was vain, occasionally arrogant, often intolerant, unforgiving, and there were moments when I thought for sure he’d cornered the market on self-pity . . . I know that through all of his battles . . . there was about him an undeniable charisma. Perhaps that was his true essence — he won so much of your attention and affection that you demanded of him what no man can give, perfection.”
Perhaps he was more Incomparable than perfect, though he seemed the latter in 1971. It’s hard to think of a player today with Clemente’s skill set, or his mannerisms. Or even his advocacy — the deep diversity of MLB today seems, in part, a testament to Clemente.
“(Clemente) had a saying which was, ‘If a man has a chance to make a difference in life, but doesn’t, then he hasn’t really been here,’ ” musician Alki Steriopoulos, whose musical “21” is about Clemente, told mlb.com.
Here are 21 questions about No. 21, Roberto Clemente, to celebrate his being here:
1. In the 14 World Series games Clemente played (seven in 1960, seven in 1971), how many did he hit safely in?
2. Who was the Pirates’ general manager when they selected Clemente from the Dodgers in the offseason rookie draft in 1954?
3. Who was the Dodgers’ scout who signed Clemente?
4. Who was the only Pirate who was Clemente’s teammate on the 1960 and 1971 Series champions?
5. Clemente was the first player from Latin America inducted into the Hall of Fame. Name the six major leaguers who followed him.
6. Clemente was named to the All-Latino team picked by mlb.com in 2012 (American-born Hispanics were eligible). Who were the other 11 players picked, and the manager?
7. Which did Clemente have more of: home runs or outfield assists?
8. What was Clemente’s season-high in outfield assists?
9. Against which New York Met Rookie of the Year pitcher did Clemente get his 3,000th hit in 1972?
10. In how many of Clemente’s 18 seasons did he win Gold Gloves?
11. Which Hall of Fame pitcher’s leg did he break with a line drive in 1967?
12. How many runs did Clemente knock in an 8-7 loss at Cincinnati on May 15, 1967?
13. Name the seven managers Clemente played for.
14. The 1971 Pirates fielded the first all-minority starting lineup on Sept. 1. Name the eight starters other than Clemente.
15. How many letters are there in Clemente’s full name?
16. Against which Brooklyn Dodger did Clemente get his first career hit in 1955?
17. Who succeeded Clemente in right field for the Pirates in 1973?
18. Who was the Pirate right fielder before Clemente?
19. How long did it take Clemente to get his first postseason extra-base hit?
20. In his last 13 seasons, how many times did Clemente hit .300 or better?
21. How high is the right-field wall at PNC Park?
1. All of them.
2. Branch Rickey, who signed Jackie Robinson, was the Pirates’ GM when they drafted Clemente.
3. Al Campanis was the scout who signed Clemente.
4. Bill Mazeroski.
5. Roberto Alomar (Puerto Rico), Luis Aparicio (Venezuela), Rod Carew (Panama), Orlando Cepeda (Puerto Rico), Juan Marichal (Dominican Republic), Tony Perez (Cuba).
6. Ivan Rodriguez, catcher; Albert Pujols, first base; Roberto Alomar, second base; Luis Aparicio, shortstop; Alex Rodriguez, third base; Ted Williams, outfielder (Williams’ mother was Mexican); Reggie Jackson, outfielder (Jackson’s grandmother was Puerto Rican); Juan Marichal, pitcher; Fernando Valenzuela, pitcher; Mariano Rivera, closer; Edgar Martinez, DH; Felipe Alou, manager.
7. Outfield assists, 266-240.
8. 27 in 1961.
9. Jon Matlack.
10. The last 12 — from 1961-72.
11. Bob Gibson.
12. All seven, with three homers — the last with two outs in the ninth — and a double.
13. Fred Haney (1955), Bobby Bragan (1956-57), Danny Murtaugh (1957-64, 1967, 1970-71), Harry Walker (1965-67), Larry Shepherd (1968-69), Alex Grammas (1969) and Bill Virdon (1972).
14. Dock Ellis, pitcher; Manny Sanguillen, catcher; Al Oliver, first base; Rennie Stennett, second base; Jackie Hernandez, shortstop; Dave Cash, third base; Willie Stargell, left field; Gene Clines, center field.
15. 21, naturally, reportedly a reason he took that uniform number. Roberto Walker Clemente.
16. Johnny Podres.
17. Richie Zisk, who hit .324. He was succeeded in 1975 by Dave Parker. From 1969 through 1979, every starting Pirate right fielder hit at least .300.
18. Sid Gordon, who hit 202 career home runs, hit 12 and batted .306 for the 1954 Pirates.
19. It took Clemente 11 years and 61 at-bats to get his first postseason extra-base hit. He then had seven extra-base hits in his last 46 postseason at-bats.
21. 21 feet, naturally
Thanks to Mike Lowenstein, author of The Nineteenth Year: A Sweet Summer With The Pittsburgh Pirates, for his help with the trivia
sources: ESPN.com, sabr.org, baseballreference.com, mlb.com