“He played a kind of baseball that none of us had ever seen before… As if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field.” – Roger Angell
The numbers he assembled over 18 big league seasons tell the story of a complete ballplayer.
The story of Roberto Clemente, however, goes beyond mere numbers.
Born Aug. 18, 1934, in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Clemente excelled in athletics as a youngster – and at the age of 17 was playing for the Santurce Crabbers of the Puerto Rican Baseball League. The Dodgers signed him the following year, and by 1954 he was playing for their Triple-A team in Montreal.
“Well, I said to myself, there’s a boy who can do two things as well as any man who ever lived,” said Dodgers scout Clyde Sukeforth. “Nobody could throw any better than that, and nobody could run any better than that.”
Following the 1954 season, however, the Dodgers tried to slip Clemente through the offseason without putting him on the big league roster. He was taken by the Pirates in the Rule 5 draft for $4,000.
Clemente worked to find his stride during the next five seasons, battling injuries and a language barrier in a country where he was a citizen but had no home. But in 1960, the Pirates and Clemente came of age as the limber right fielder batted .312 with a team-high 94 RBI to lead the Pirates to the World Series. In the Fall Classic, Clemente hit .310 to help the Pirates defeat the Yankees in seven games.
During the next seven years, Clemente won four National League batting titles, the 1966 NL Most Valuable Player Award and began a string of 12 straight Gold Glove Award seasons in right field.
In 1971, the 37-year-old Clemente led the Pirates back to the World Series, where Clemente hit .414 to power Pittsburgh to another world title en route to the Series’ Most Valuable Player Award.
Clemente recorded his 3,000th career hit late in the 1972 season, becoming just the 11th player to reach the milestone. Clemente and the Pirates won the NL East that year, but lost to the Reds in five games in the National League Championship Series.
On Dec. 31, 1972, Clemente boarded a small plane en route from Puerto Rico to Nicaragua to assist with earthquake relief. The heavily loaded plane crashed just off the Puerto Rican coast, and Clemente’s body was never recovered.
He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1973 in a special election that waived the mandatory five-year waiting period.
“Baseball survives,” wrote columnist Jimmy Cannon of the New York Journal-American, “because guys like Clemente still play it.”