By In 100 Greatest

No. 37: Roberto Clemente

A duet with one of my heroes and friends, David Maraniss, who aside from winning Pulitzer Prizes and writing brilliant presidential biographies, wrote the magnificent book “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero.” David’s words are in italics.

* * *

There are baseball names with magic in them. DiMaggio. Koufax. Mickey Mantle. Clemente. This magic is not an easily quantifiable thing. Something about the syllables, the arrangement of consonants and vowels, the way the name sounds triggers a sensation, a consciousness that sparks beyond simple memory, a door opening. Certain songs do the same thing.

The funny thing is that the songs that open my memory are rarely my favorite songs or what I would consider the best songs. U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is an infinitely better song than John Cougar’s “Ain’t Even Done With The Night,” but when I hear the latter I am transported to 1981 and a crowded swimming pool with pretty girls wearing two-piece swimsuits and geeky guys trying to look tough. It is brilliantly sunny. The air smells like barbecue. This is a wonderful but entirely involuntary journey. I love the Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” so much more, but when I hear it, I only hear it.

Clemente, just those three syllables, inspires a whirl of grainy color images, a fierce right-handed swing at a neck-high pitch, a man running the bases as if he’s out of control, as if he’s running down a hill too steep, a man in the outfield chasing after a rolling baseball, gloving it, twirling, unleashing a throw with so much force that it garbles the mind for just an instant — something about the power of that throw just seems a little bit off, a little bit impossible.

The name Clemente opens a time portal. It launches us into the 1971 World Series, when no Baltimore pitcher could get him out. It transports us to 1961 when Clemente, furious about how unappreciated he was, decided to win a batting title and then, through sheer force of will, won a batting title. It transports us even to a time before memory, even for those of us too young to have seen him play.

* * *

David Maraniss:

I grew up in Wisconsin, rooting for the Milwaukee Braves, loving Aaron and Covington and Bruton and Spahnie and Mathews and Adcock, but nonetheless Clemente was my favorite player, with Vic Power a close second. I thought he was the coolest thing I had ever seen – the way he looked in a uniform, the way he walked to the plate, the way he rolled his neck, his looping underhand throws to second and his rifle shots to third and home. We all have someone in childhood, and not necessarily an athlete, that we connect to in some magical way, and for me it was Clemente. I even loved the fact that he was called a hypochondriac. I could identify with that; I am one.

But there are other athletes I loved that I would never write about. Lombardi was it for football; no interest in any other coach, and Clemente it for baseball. And the truth is I would not have written the Clemente book if it was only about his baseball abilities, which is, as it should be, the only thing that concerns your rankings. The story of a migrant worker, essentially, black and Latino, the greatest of the first wave, and someone who fought against his own pride and fears of mortality, and against the white sporting press establishment, and yet somehow emerged beloved, the fact that he was growing as a human being late in his career, the opposite trajectory of most athletes, and of course his dramatic death – those all compelled me to write the book, even as my childhood love of him drew me to him in the first place.

* * *

The Milwaukee Braves wanted Roberto Clemente most. The Braves were shrewd operators — in a seven-year span they signed Johnny Logan, Wes Covington, Del Crandall, Eddie Mathews and Henry Aaron and traded for Bob Buhl, Lew Burdette and Joe Adcock. Throw in Warren Spahn and this was the fantastic nucleus of a team that would win back-to-back pennants and, in retrospect, probably should have won a lot more.

In 1954, the Braves wanted Clemente, who was playing for Santurce in the Puerto Rican League. Well, three teams wanted him — the Braves, the Giants and the Dodgers. It is telling how only National League teams were actively trying to sign Clemente; this was a sign of the times. The Yankees were not only the dominant team in the American League, they were also the overwhelming power determining how baseball in the league was played … and in would still a be a full year before the Yankees had a black player. In fact, the Senators, Tigers and Red Sox had also not used a single black player. Clemente, as a dark-skinned player from Puerto Rico, was not a viable option for about half the teams in baseball.

Remember, this was SEVEN YEARS after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

The Braves were said to have offered the most money for Clemente, but he signed with the Dodgers for $15,000 — $5,000 of it salary, $10,000 a signing bonus. In later years, Clemente would say he signed with the Dodgers because he wanted to play in New York, where there was a large Puerto Rican population. There is clarity in this. There is less clarity, though, in why the Dodgers signed him and, quickly, lost him.

The baffling rules of the time made Clemente a bonus baby, meaning that because the Dodgers had signed him for so much money that they had to keep him on the Major League roster or risk losing him in an offseason draft the following year. The Dodgers were shrewd about Bonus Babies. Later that very year of 1954,  as reported in The Sporting News, the Dodgers signed “a big Brooklyn Jewish boy” for $20,000. They did keep Sandy Koufax on their major league roster.

But the Dodgers did not keep Clemente, exposing him to the following year’s draft. Why not? There have been numerous theories. One is that the Dodgers did not want Clemente as much as they just wanted to keep Clemente away from their rival Giants. Another is that they thought they could hide Clemente in Montreal and other teams would simply miss his talent. Clemente hit just .257 with no power his one year in Montreal … and because half of baseball wasn’t even watching, the Dodgers gamble might not have been as silly as it would later seem. As it turned out, though, Branch Rickey had the first pick in the draft as vice-president of the Pirates, and obviously he didn’t care about the color of Clemente’s skin.

“We know he can field, run and throw,” Rickey said happily after selecting Clemente in the draft. “He has power for sure.”

Sadly, it is likely that the Dodgers — the team that broke the color barrier — did not keep Clemente on the big-league roster PRECISELY because of the color of his skin. At the time, the Dodgers had four dark-skinned players who were more or less in the everyday lineup — Robinson, catcher Roy Campanella, second baseman Junior Gilliam and Cuban outfielder Sandy Amoros — and Don Newcombe was in their starting rotation. Even for the most progressive baseball team, this was pushing the very limits of 1950s desegregation. To keep Clemente would have meant releasing a white player, probably Shotgun Shuba, who had homered in his only at-bat in the 1953 World Series.

SABR’s Stew Thornley wrote that he got an email from former Dodgers Vice President Buzzie Bavasi ten years ago explaining that the team had asked Jackie Robinson  what to do. According to Bavasi, Robinson had said that replacing Shuba or any other white player with a young black Latin like Clemente would be “setting our program back five years.”

All of which makes it so much more interesting to think about what might have happened if Clemente had signed with the Braves instead of the Dodgers. That would have meant having Henry Aaron and Roberto Clemente in the same outfield. The mind boggles.

* * *

David Maraniss:

I have to be honest and say that when I am rooting for a team – the Brewers, the Packers, the Badgers in basketball –  the first thing I care about is the winning. If I happen to love the way they play, so much the better, but it does come second to winning, at least while the games are being played and the season is on.

But later, after it is over, and in all other cases where I am watching a sport outside of that temporal rooting interest, all I care about are the moments of uncommon beauty and skill and will. Those are the things that add meaning to life, and last so much longer in our memories than winning. Clemente won and he played a beautiful game. As a young player and an old one, he led his team to pennants and world championships. Overcoming race and language, he became the undisputed leader of the Pirates, something that WAR and all the other statistics utterly fail to measure, just as in the matter of joy and beauty they fail to measure the thrill of watching him go the wall and uncork a rope to third. If I had to pick a team, I would want Clemente in right. That is enough for me. I once spoke to Henry Aaron’s foundation for kids and he was there and I told him I loved him and the Braves but that if the Braves had signed Clemente, as they almost did, Mr. Aaron you would have been playing left. He laughed and shook his head in affirmation.

* * *

City Slickers:

Phil: Will you stop with Roberto Clemente? Henry Aaron was the greatest right fielder of our generation.

Ed: Could he run like Clemente? Could he throw like Clemente?

* * *

The wonder of Clemente is that, if you are being honest, his game was not elegant in the way that, say, DiMaggio’s game was elegant or the way Aaron’s game was elegant. He was a jarring cloud of angles — elbows, knees, shoulders, all of them going in different directions, an asterisk in motion. In the language of Hollywood, he was not conventionally beautiful. And, like Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn and Kathleen Turner and others in Hollywood, Clemente simply redefined what beauty means.

His beauty was in the passion with which he played. He ran the bases as if intending to swallow them whole. He threw with such power, people in the crowd would swear hearing the ball whistling through the air. He swung at every kind of pitch in every possible location; nothing would keep him from hitting baseballs.

Clemente’s passion was transparent in every move he made on the baseball diamond. So was his fury. His early years in the Major Leagues were peppered with misunderstanding and frustration and anger. In 1956 alone, he was fined $25 by manager Bobby Bragan for missing a sign. Several times, he was admonished for not running out fly balls. He ran through a third-base coach’s sign (scoring the winning run). sparking headlines. He was fined for missing a steal sign, though the fine was rescinded after a talk with Bragan. And so on.

And he complained. Lord, did Clemente complain. He complained about not feeling right. He complained about pain. He complained about playing when he wasn’t at his best. He complained about sportswriters mocking what they called his hypochondria. More than anything, he complained about the treatment of Latin players. Some of his complaints were well-founded and helped alter the landscape. And some … were just complaints.

“You writers are all the same,” he shouted at the Pittsburgh Press’ Phil Musick the first time they spoke and many times after that. “You don’t know a damn thing about me.”

“Anger for Roberto Clemente,”  Press columnist Roy McHugh wrote later, “is the fuel that makes the wheels turn in his never-ending pursuit of excellence. When the supply runs low, Clemente manufactures some more.”

Rage, of course, is the food of pioneers. It is what kept Jackie Robinson going when the death threats mounted. It is what spurred Jim Brown to get up no matter how hard he was hit. It was what kept Charlie Sifford coming to the golf course again and again and again even when people asked him to shine their shoes. Clemente was, of course, was an open heart, a generous spirit … his heroic final mission to bring supplies to Nicaragua after an earthquake defined the man’s true nature. But the ballplayer who found his English mocked, who was called a malingerer, who was ever aware of the cliche made of himself and other Latin ballplayers — that ballplayer fed on  rage so he could come back year after year to hit .300 and leg out doubles and triples, and unleash cannon balls from right field.

I deeply love what Phil Musick wrote after the end:

‘When I heard he died, I wished that sometime I told him I thought he was a hell of a guy. Because he was, and now it’s too late to tell him there were things he did on a ball field that made me wish I was Shakespeare.”

* * *

David Maraniss:

I think it is unproductive if not mindless to compare athletes from different generations. Everything is different. Diet, training, gene pool, equipment. People can only be assessed and judged in the context of the times in which they live and compete, in any walk of life, and perhaps sports more than most other realms. Statistics offer the illusion of an even way to judge and compare, but it is only an illusion.

Public figures who die young always have a special glow, from Marilyn Monroe to JFK. There is no afterlife, which in sports in particular can be dreary and disappointing. The fact that Clemente not only died young but died in such a heroic way certainly adds to his story and the way he is perceived, and as I said I would not have written a book about him if not for that. But I loved him long before, and it was for the way he played.

* * *

This top 100 began so long ago that, frankly, I barely remember why I started it. But I do remember that it was not because I have any faith in my rankings. I do not. If I started the 100 again tomorrow, the order would be very different and some players would probably be different. It is fun to argue about whether Eddie Collins belongs ahead of Pete Rose, or whether Albert Pujols should be in front of Jimmie Foxx. Silly fun.

But I think I began this because I wanted to write about the 100 or so greatest baseball players ever, wanted to take this journey through baseball history. The rankings are simply the machinery. I put a lot of thought into them, but only as a way to tell their stories.

Of all the players on the list, none defies a ranking more than Clemente. In a way, ranking him at all feels wrong, like caging a butterfly.  Bill James ranked him 74th on his Top 100. SABR and the Sporting News ranked him 20th. A few years ago, the fans (and a special committee) voted for baseball’s All-Century team; they voted for 10 outfielders. Clemente was not one of them. In looking over that fan list, I find several other outfielders who I think were bigger oversights.

But it brings us back to the point … Clemente did not walk much. He did not hit for great power. He did hit .317, and he played in an era that stifled offense. He played glorious defense that was left to the beholder to quantify. To rank him 37th, I place him too high. To rank him 37th, I place him too low. None of it matters. There were better players even in his time, but something about the way he played, something about his graceless gracefulness, something about his impossible right arm, something about his heroic ending, something about the music of his name — Cleh … MEN … tay — lifts him in memory. Clemente is a summer song that takes us all back.

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63 Responses to No. 37: Roberto Clemente

  1. PhilM says:

    Wow, Joe, one of your best. Thank you.

  2. otistaylor89 says:

    My favorite player of them all.
    Too much to say about him, but one thing is for sure – he had the greatest throwing arm in baseball history and it was great right up until the end.

  3. Doug says:

    An outstanding piece in a series that is consistently excellent. The praise for David Maraniss’ book is misplaced. While Maraniss is a fine writer, his biography has more errors in it than early Mets game.

  4. Josh Vest says:

    Beautifully written article. Can’t wait for No.37.

  5. David D says:

    In your last paragraph, you talk about ranking him at 38, but this is the article for the 37th. Just an FYI.

    Thanks for the beautiful post.

  6. Jim Freeman says:

    I was a boy in Pittsburgh when Mr. Clemente played. I was lucky enough to see him play many times. I loved him then and I love him now. Thanks for writing such an evocative piece…it certainly took me back.

  7. bullman says:

    watched game the ’71 series, for the most part, at my friend Don K’s house after leaving junior high after roll call each day. most people probably don’t remember that Roberto’s great throw from the corner to 3rd in game 2 was not good enough to beat the speedy (?) Merc Rettemund. Ha! wonder where RC ranks on a list of players who played after age 35

    • BobDD says:

      If we had had high definition slow-mo replay back then, Clemente’s throws would have been the number one subject. Not sure if there would’ve been a number two.

      You mentioned about his 7th season when everything changed for him. Those first six seasons when he averaged below a 100 OPS+ is why it was hard for Bill James to put him in his top 50. But for those of us of that era, it was the Clemente from his seventh season on that we find so memorable.

  8. David says:

    Wow, Joe. Just… wow. Probably my favorite so far, in a GREAT series. Thank you so much for this!

  9. With Clemente, it wasn’t so much the arm, which was terrific of course, it was the way he charged the ball and came up firing. The closest comp I can come up with him in right field is Ichiro, only Clemente played with a fury that Ichiro lacked.

    I remember seeing him get his 3000th hit, fittingly a line drive double off of Jon Matlack. Nobody had any idea that it would be his last, but there was something poetic about him finishing with 3000 hits on the nose.

  10. I love Joe and the way he writes, but this column kept bothering me in little ways. Like, when you’re talking about names with magic in them, how do you leave off Willie Mays? Or not observe that if the Giants had gotten Clemente, he would have played next to Mays? (Opponents would have hit everything to left.) And what woman in the world has ever been more conventionally beautiful than Audrey Hepburn? OK, Grace Kelly. But that’s it.

  11. JJ Jarzynka says:

    Article is very well done and a great read. However, to suggest there are 36 better players than Roberto Clemente is laughable at best.

  12. NevadaMark says:

    Was Clemente the best player in the National League in 1966? His statistics were very good, but not great, and his team did not win the pennant. He did, of course, win the MVP.

    How in the world did Roberto lead the league in grounded into double plays TWICE? Sure, he batted righty but my god, he was blazing fast.

    • In 1966 Clemente set personal highs in the glamour stats of HRs (29) and RBIs (119), plus the magic numbers of 105 Runs, 202 Hits and a .317 Avg. Willie Mays probably should have won the MVP in 1966, but people don’t like giving the award to the same guy every year. Clemente may have also benefited a bit from the animus directed at Dick Allen, who was clearly the best hitter in the NL that year. An MVP vote against the black one dimensional slugger (and jerk, per white sportswriters) in favor of the complete black ballplayer could not be perceived as racist, but it kept Dick Allen off the podium just the same.

      Clemente wasn’t blazing fast, averaging only 6 SB (and 3 CS) a year. What he did was run all out, so it appeared he was moving faster than he actually was. Clemente’s most telling stat was triples, as he averaged double digit triples for his career, leading the league in triples as a 34 year old, which is really all you need to know about Roberto Clemente.

      What it also meant is that he hit the ball hard on a line—not a lot of loft in his swing—and that he put the ball in play. Clemente neither struck out nor walked much. It helped make him compelling at the plate, but it also resulted in double plays when he hit it at somebody.

      • Not to take anything away from a great ballplayer but any gap hitter could lead the league in triples playing in Forbes Field.

      • Al says:

        As far as Dick Allen is concerned he was probably the best all-round hitter of the year in the NL 1966 and as you rightly point out that the writers did not like him– although Clemente was not a favorite of many writers either in those days.

        The difference that made Clemente the greater candidate over Allen is in part that Allen was not a good fielder. You have to remember that Clemente was as phenomenal in the field, if not more so, than he was as a hitter. MVP is not always all about offense, although for my money, it is too often.

        The other striking event for Clemente that year was that he was able to almost triple his home run total from the year before and almost doubled his rbi’s while only losing about 12 points on his average. This was pretty much an unheard of thing for a player to do, who was not known for hitting homers.

        The problem with Clemente was that as a right-handed batter he played in one of the two toughest ballparks to hit home runs in. The only player who hit home runs consistently for the Pirates when they played in Forbes Field was Ralph Kiner who benefited from the fact that the Pirates in Kiner’s second season brought the left and left center field fences in 30 feet from 364ft in left to 334ft and from 406ft in left center to 376. Note that Kiner’s home run totals went from 23 to 51 when the brought in the fences.

        The year before Clemente’s rookie season they brought the fences back out to their old dimensions. Keep in mind that Clemente’s 1966 home run total of 29 was no easy feat to accomplish when you played half of your games in Forbes Fied when it wasn’t in it’s shortened dimension 1908-1947 and 1954- June 28,1970. It was the second highest season total ever for a right handed Pittsburgh Pirate player. Even the great Willie Stargell never hit more than 33 homers while playing at Forbes Field. Once he moved to Three Rivers, Stargell when healthy had his greatest seasons.

        That all combined with a very tight pennant race was what led the writers to elect Clemente just barely over the amazing Sandy Koufax over Allen and Mays.

        As far as Clemente’s speed, you are right he ran all out all the time. He played hard and often injured himself because of that. But I have to disagree with you in that imho, Clemente was indeed very fast. Stolen bases are not always the mark of a player’s speed.

        I’ll let some experts and contemporaries who saw the man day and out, year after year clarify that for you, with all due respect, of course.

        “He was the best in so many aspects of the game. He could go from first to third as fast as any player I saw or played against, and that included some of the best – Lou Brock, Maury Wills and Willie Davis.” – Vern Law, teammate 1955-67

        “”People didn’t realize how fast he was. He only stole bases if it meant something…” [9] “He could fly. When he hit a ground ball to the infield, he was flying to first. That fielder better not be napping.” – Sparky Anderson

        “God, he could run. He could fly. Well, I said to myself, there’s a boy who can do two things as well as any man who ever lived. Nobody could throw any better than that, and nobody could run any better than that.” – Clyde Sukeforth

        “”Then we had the timed races – 60 yards. Everybody’s running about 7.2, 7.3, which is average major league time. Then Clemente came and ran a 6.4-plus. That’s a track man’s time! And in a baseball uniform! I asked him to run again, and he was even a little faster. He could fly! Hell, the world’s record then was only 6.1. I couldn’t believe it.” – Al Campanis, during his tryout in 1952 with the Dodgers.

    • Al says:

      It sounds odd for sure. You’d think it would be the slower runners who would lead in dp’s most often.
      But it can also have something to do with players who also are known to hit very hard line drives and ground balls. Clemente who although he didn’t go for home runs most seasons, was known to be a very powerful hitter as well as being “blazing fast” as you well said. Pete Rose often talked about how hard the balls were that Clemente would hit. A number of infielders would shudder when he was up at bat as they feared getting injured by a Clemente line drive.

      With that in mind, f you look at the all-time top 10 players who grounded into the most double plays in their career it is an interesting list of some very strong hitters a number of whom had pretty good to very good speed.

      There are odd exceptions too this theory though like Mickey Mantle, one of the fastest power hitters ever, who never hit into more than 11 dp’s in a season and only averaged hitting into about 6 per season.

  13. Lois Fundis says:

    I am a Pittbburgher ,”by the grace of God”, as a local radio station’s spot announcement puts it. As a young kid (a girl to boot) I did not really care for watching baseball, although my mom and dad did, and I enjoyed playing in pick-up games in our neighborhood.. But in the summer of 1960, when the Pirates, who had been bums all my llfe so far, were in an honest-to-God pennant race, I was 9. And I was converted like St. Paul on the road to Damascus. If the Bucs had lost that Series, I might have gone back to not caring about sports, my heart would have been so broken. But they won. And my heroes from that team were Mazeroski and Clemente. The few times I got to the ballpark, I found myself just watching him in right field. He was so graceful, so sleek and proud and awe-inspiring. And the way he died, trying to help poor people — I believe he is a saint in Heaven for that. I am disappointed that you only rank him 38 or 37, but thank you for a lovely article about a truly great man, on and off the field.

    (And thanks for quoting Phil Musick, too. He was one of my favorite local writers and he also left us way too young.)

  14. Looking at his objective stats, I was surprised that he only hit as many as 20 HRs three times. I was also surprised that he had as many as 50 Walks three times (though most years were much less than that). He also struck out over 100 times twice, which was a lot for the time (though certainly that wasn’t the norm for him). His lifetime OPS of 130 is not that high for an outfielder. He had a pretty decent dWar of 12. But he managed to compile a 94.4 career WAR. I was trying to figure out where that came from without doing manual calculations. He really didn’t steal a lot of bases. He didn’t hit a lot of HRs, though he did hit a lot of Triples. His dWAR contribution was decent, but he had a 70 oWAR, so his offense was a lot of it. Of course, he hit for a high average, and did have 3,000 career hits, though his OBP was not helped much by his relatively low Walk content. Definitely an enigma. But I definitely enjoyed watching him play, especially in that 1971 World Series. Back in the day when national games were only on TV once a week and the local teams played only 20, or so, televised games each year. Of course, the memories are of him wheeling and throwing from the rightfield corner to improbably nail a shocked runner at third. Or slashing a pitch out of the strike zone into the rightfield corner and thrashing, like the Tasmanian Devil, his way to a triple with a big slide. I’m sure that’s how everyone remembers him.

    • Jovins says:

      A big part of comparing historical players that goes ignored is the run environment of the time. Clemente played in a league where pitching was more dominant, so while his stats weren’t overwhelming at first glance, they were great compared to his peers.

  15. Zack says:

    Did Mike Piazza REALLY not make Joe’s top 100? If he didn’t that is just mind-boggling to me.

  16. dglnj says:

    16 spots too low…

    • Bucfan says:

      I see what you did there … nice. Very nice. I wore nothing but #21 growing up. My son played through college, and wore nothing but 21.

  17. invitro says:

    I admit I don’t know much about Clemente. This was a nice read, except that the Maraniss stuff added nothing. Hopefully it will be dumped in the book.

    He’s ranked too low here. Joe is pretty much just averaging James’ and ESPN rankings. Clemente’s WAR7 is ahead of Ott and FRobinson. He was still a great player when he died. Joe has been giving credit for phantom seasons for many players, and it seems Clemente should get that credit.

    • I don’t think it’s right to say he was still a great player when he died. He still had skills and was still producing, but the injury bug was increasingly getting to him. He only played about 100 games his final year, and that was a trend. He was missing about 30 games a year for several years leading up to his final year. No doubt that he was a very productive player late into his 30s, but even if he was able to pull together a couple of more productive seasons, he was just not able to stay on the field consistently. Either the talents erode or the injuries get you. One way or another, time always wins. It’s probably silly to speculate, but I don’t think he had more than two more decent years left in him. His numbers would not have been greatly impacted. He had 3,000 hits, maybe he adds another 200-250 hits to that total. He wasn’t going to make it to 300 HRs or any other major milestone, and his batting average was only going to go down.

      • invitro says:

        Yeah, “great” was too strong. I first typed “well above average” but didn’t think that was strong enough. His 4.8 WAR in 1972 was #28 among batters. I imagined what his WAR/PA would be and gave him the benefit of my doubt.

        He’s 12.8 WAR short of FRob and 13.4 short of Ott. I suppose it’s (very?) unlikely that he would’ve caught them.

        Your point on his steadily declining number of games is also well-taken.

        • His career arc reminded me a lot of Chipper Jones. Chipper hit .364, with 22 HRs, in 128 games and won a batting title at age 36. Clemente hit .341 , with 13 HRs & 8 Triples, in 132 games at age 36 (which was 4th in the league). Chipper then played 143, 95, 126 and 112 games with declining production, though still productive seasons. Clemente played 102 games at age 37, as previously noted. But I’d expect to see him playing no more than 110-120 games in his final seasons. Some guys can still do it at an advanced playing age, but the body gives out. I think both were in that category.

      • Al says:

        Have to beg to differ with you in some areas. While I agree that Clemente was impacted by injuries in his later years that reduced his playing time, (He averaged about 122 games a season in his last 5 years) it was about the same as his first five years (125 games a season average) which was also an injury plagued time for Roberto. From 1960-67 Clemente still plagued with injuries was able to increase his season average at about 149 games a season. In his career he averaged about 135 games a season. So his last five years was a bit of an overall career dip, but not as stark as you’re claiming.
        Also when you’re talking about diminshing of skills, it’s all relative. Clemente bemoaned the fact that his arm was no longer as strong as it was when he was in his prime, but that didn’t stop him from having one of the greatest World Series that any player has ever had and that was in his next to last season and as much as his skills might have gone down he was still far better than most other players.
        While I agree that Clemente may have played only another two years or so, it would not have been as much imho to a lessening of his natural skills, which despite age and a career filled with injury reveals a marked improvement due to his growing knowledge, experience, sheer determination and talent.
        Many of Clemente’s offensive averages like b.a., slugging, obp were on the rise up to 1971 and his slugging, ops and ops+ were on the rise right up to his last year. The fact that his last season average for example was a bit lower than the previous three seasons means no more than the fact that he interrupted a streak of 8 previous seasons batting over .300 with a .291 average. Clemente could no longer play as many games as he did, but that didn’t mean that he was no longer an offensive and defensive force; he often was among the top 10 leaders in many categories, made the all-star team every year and was still considered by his peers to be among the best in both leagues both offensively and defensively, he could still run like a deer, make the most amazing catches and hit the ball for average and increasing power.
        For example his batting average in his last four years was .339 and his slugging was .521; Compared to his lifetime .317 b.a. and .475 slugging average among other stats revealing improvement despite age.
        Clemente’s high level of play and an often marked offensive improvement was almost unheard of for any player of his age and time.

  18. Harloringo says:

    I’ve been reading a biography about Willie Mays and it references the Giants scouting Mays, Aaron and Clemente. All three in one outfield… The mind reels.

    • Lois Fundis says:

      This was almost every NL All-Star Game outfield for several years in the 1960s-70s.. I once read a quotation from Tom Seaver about when he first got to pitch in the All-Star game, and that was his outfield, and he felt like he’d died and went to Heaven.

  19. Mark says:

    Audrey Hepburn? I think you meant Katherine Hedburn, because Audrey Hepburn’s beauty is atemporal.

    • Evan says:

      Aye. I’ve never met a person — gay, straight, man, woman — who didn’t think Audrey Hepburn was phenomenally attractive.

  20. Dave says:

    Count me among those who think this ranking is way too high. I love Clemente as a man, and he was a great player, probably worthy of the top 100. But 37? No, not by a long shot. Just among outfielders, I think you have to put the following clearly ahead of him: Ruth, Williams, Musial, Cobb, Aaron, Mays, Mantle, DiMaggio, F. Robinson, Bonds, Henderson, Speaker. That’s 12 outfielders, at least – and it’s not clear to me that Clemente is #13. He’s in the next group along with Kaline, Yaz, Al Simmons.

    37 is way too high. 75 or so would seem right.

    • Al says:

      Pretty much all the outfielders you specifically stated as “clearly ahead of him” Joe has already listed ahead of Clemente. Therefor how could he be listed as “way too high”?
      It is debatable about Kaline and maybe Simmons, although you can’t compare an era like the 60’s offensively to that of the 30’s. Simmons would never has hit as well in the pitching dominant 60’s as he did in the 1930’s. Clemente’s greatest years were in the midst of the most dominant pitching era since the dead ball era. Had he played at his peak in Simmons time or even in the modern era he’d have had an even greater career imho just as Mays, Aaron and Kaline would have.
      Clemente’s defensive skills are far better than most of the outfielders you name and if we are to give extra credit to the great Mickey Mantle for what might have been, we also should do the same for Clemente and Kaline who’s careers were also overshadowed and limited by severe injuries throughout.
      Despite that Clemente continued to improve like a fine wine with age. His last four seasons he hit for a .339 average,steadily pulling up his lifetime b.a. and other numbers up while most players his age were (except for Aaron) were declining significantly or were already retired.
      Clemente also played most of his career in the largest park in the NL and the most difficult place to display power. Stargell’s single season high while playing in Forbes Field was 33 compared to Clemente’s 29. And it was easier for a lefty to his homers there than it was for a righty.
      Had Clemente played in the kind of parks that Aaron, Banks and F. Robby did he’d have hit many more homers. He did the right thing for his team and sought after batting average and as he grew as a player he still learned to hit for average and power up till his last season.

  21. Brent says:

    would think that the 36 or 37 (is there going to be another tie?) players that Joe has better than Clemente are (by Position)

    C: Bench, Gibson
    1B: Gehrig, Foxx
    2B: Hornsby, Morgan
    3B: Schmidt, Brett
    SS: Wagner, ARod, Ripken
    OF: Ruth, Bonds, Mays, Cobb, Aaron, Speaker, Musial, Williams, The Rickey, Mantle, Ott, FRobinson, Yaz, Dimaggio
    P: Young, WJohnson, Clemens, Alexander, Seaver, Maddux, Grove, RJohnson, Mathewson, Paige

    And one (or two?) more. Could be a catcher (Carter is the next ranked by WAR, Piazza also possible) or Cap Anson, I suppose. There certainly could be another Negro League player on the list, besides Gibson and Paige.

    • invitro says:

      Oscar Charleston.

      • BobDD says:

        So if Oscar is added to that list, that is the 36 yet to be numbered. No Piazza, no Lloyd, no Anson, no Delahanty, no Marichal, no Cochrane in the top 100! Only five catchers. The possible tie may come up, but I really think he forgot someone (or two) when making his list.

      • Owen says:

        Martin Dihigo is another possibility, but I would bet on Charleston more.

  22. Chris H says:

    It occurred to me, reading this, that one kind of list of the 100 greatest players might have been dull indeed, a marshalling of facts justifying each player’s ranking and recounting stats and highlights and awards, following a kind of template. (I’m not sure whether Joe Posnanski would have been capable of writing that series – or finishing it anyway.) This is instead a tour de force, 65 pieces so far, each unalike and yet together a perfect set.

    I especially enjoy the way so many of these pieces set the men in their eras. My favorite baseball book is “Willie’s Time” by Charles Einstein, which uses history to illuminate Mr. Mays and Willie Mays to illuminate history. I enjoy this series especially for the same reason.

    Some have said this piece is their favorite, and I can understand feeling that way. But they’re all my favorite.

  23. NevadaMark says:

    Was Clemente a better hitter than Al Kaline? How much more important are the home runs? Was Clemente a better fielder. At least by reputation Kaline was the best defensive right fielder in the American League.

    • Kaline is a great call since both played the same position at the same point in history, although in different leagues. Kaline hit 150 more HRs. Clemente batted 20 points higher. Kaline’s OBP was 16 points higher. They were pretty close in Slugging %, with Kaline 5 points higher. They stole about the same number of bases. Kaline had more doubles, Clemente had more triples. Defensively, and there are a number of measures, Range Factor, Zone Runs, etc. Both seemed to be very good, but Clemente did have a much higher dWar, for what that’s worth.

      I think they’re very close. Clemente probably gets more love because he was more flamboyant on the field & had more memorable plays. Kaline was not stylish in the least, but very effective.

      • Jacob Adler says:

        If Kaline had played in Forbes Field you might have seen a reversal of the power numbers. Detroit is a good sized park but it has always been a great park for hitters for average and for power. While Forbes Field is a very good park for hitters for average, it is awful for power, especially right handed power. Ralph Kiner had his many great years as a power-hitting Pirate only because from his second year on they brought in the left and left center fences by 30ft. They brought them back out the year before Roberto arrived. Kiner’s first year in Forbes he hit 23 homers. When they brought in the fences his homer total went up to more than twice as much at 51.
        Willie Stargell an awesome power hitter never hit more than 33 homers while playing in Forbes Field. Clemente’s season high was 29. And Forbes was friendlier with a short right field porch to left handed hitters than it was to right handed hitters.
        A good measurement for how Clemente might have done in Tiger Stadium is to compare for example his stats in Wrigley, another good park for power stats. There Clemente hit for about the same average as he did at Forbes, .328 at Wrigley, .329 at Forbes. But his slugging average for example goes from .485 at Forbes to .525 at Wrigley. At Aaron’s park Atlanta, Roberto hit .317 and slugged .522. OBP was .380 at Wrigley and .370 at Forbes.
        Al by comparison hit .303, .383, .501 at Tiger Stadium and at what would have been at a comparable park to Forbes, Yankee Stadium Al hit .294, .382 and .412 respectively.
        Clemente was known to be incredibly strong, hitting some amazing tape measure homers and some of the hardest balls as line drives that scared the be-Jesus out of infielder like Pete Rose, “When I played second base, Clemente hit balls harder at me than any left-handed batter.”, and Glenn Beckert. “Clemente was an awesome talent. He was a right-handed batter, but he would hit the ball to me at second as hard as any power-hitting left-hander. He used a very heavy bat and had an inside-out swing. He was very difficult to defense. He would hit shots at you, and the balls would come out of his uniform. The second baseman and the first baseman really had to be on their toes when he was hitting.”
        Hank Aaron said, “Clemente has the misfortune of playing in a big park. If he played in a smaller one, there’s no telling how many home runs he’d hit.”
        So what kind of power numbers Clemente would have put up could have alot more than he had a chance to. He never considered himself as great a power hitter as Aaron or Mays or Mantle but he might have hit as many as Kaline did and still hit for the same average.

        • John Leurck says:

          I don’t think Forbes Field and pre-renovation Yankee Stadium are good matches when comparing Kaline’s home/road splits to Clemente’s. Yankee stadium was 457 to left center. All of Forbes’ real estate was in right center. For a right-handed hitter, that makes a big difference for your assumptions. When talking about territory in right to right center field, I don’t think there was an A.L. ballpark comparable to Forbes Field for that era.

          Maybe see how Clemente’s numbers look at old Busch Stadium/Sportsmans Park (LF 351/CF 422/RF 310) to project how he might have done playing at Tiger Stadium/Briggs Field (LF 340/CF 440/RF 325). In 97 games there, he hit .290 BA/.328 OBP%/.426 SLG%, with 7 HRs and 24 RBI (adjusted for 162 games moves to 11 HRs and 70 RBI). The slash line is a little below his career averages, and the power numbers don’t really reflect that he gains anything playing here. I agree that Forbes did not play to Clemente’s favor for power numbers, but he had way more triples at home than on the road (+36), and a few more doubles, as well (+8). Forbes actually fit his style of play pretty well. He was more of a line drive hitter than a big-fly power guy. In a perfect world, Williams would have played at Yankee Stadium and DiMaggio at Fenway. For these two, the Cubs should have done any and everything to get Clemente to Wrigley, and Kaline would have had a field day in Boston.

          I think these two, with Mays in CF are the best DEFENSIVE outfielders of their generation. However, I don’t think if you had these two playing in the same lineup that Clemente’s power numbers would ever eclipse Kaline’s, anymore than putting Kaline in Forbes would automatically make him a triples machine. Different offensive skill sets, but both played at a very high level. Two of my all-time favorites.

  24. mwp says:

    Growing up I lived in Cleveland; I loved/love baseball; I am an Indians fans; when I went off to college I took one poster with me and hung it in my dorm room – Roberto Clemente – and no matter where I lived during college that poster was up on some wall – and when people would see the poster they would always comment – that is how “big” Clemente was; I still have the poster in a tube up in the attic above our garage some 40 years later; It is the only poster I ever bought because spending money on someone else’s poster just seemed unnecessary; Clemente’s “human-ness” is what sets him apart; he was never afraid of talking about his pain, his strife, his jealousy and struggles; he talked to us about his life and about the same things that we were talking, complaining, wrangling with; his compassion for a life lived was what set him apart; he never forgot who he was he and he let us know that it was ok; he made the list and really that’s all that matters because in so many ways he was bigger than this list; he was more than just an athlete and baseball player; great job Joe; thanks

  25. John Leavy says:

    I never met Roberto Clemente. He died when I was 11. I’m not entitled to an opinion on what kind of man he was.

    I just find it interesting how eager MODERN sportswriters are to castigate their predecessors, and re-write history to treat players as the innocent victims of the vicious media.

    Look, I wasn’t there in the locker room at Forbes Field in 1960, so I can’t judge whether sportswriters were racist bums who treated Clemente unfairly, whether Clemente was just an oversensitive egomaniac, or whether the truth is something else entirely, In the same way, I was in the cradle when Roger Maris broke the home run record in 1961. I have no way of knowing whether Roger Maris was a standoffish jerk, whether the New York reporters treated him unfairly, or whether the truth was somewhere in the middle.

    Regardless, it’s all too common to see current writers swallow whole the idea that yesteryear’s writers were malevolent rats who teed off on sweet, lovable players for no reason at all.

    Remember that Maris earned the nickname “Red Ass Roger” in Kansas City, long before he ever played for the Yankees. In Kansas City, he was regarded as a generally nice guy, but also as a sullen brooder when things weren’t going well.

    Clemente strikes me, from many years and many miles away, as a decent guy who craved adulation and deference, but demanded it on his own terms. He wanted fans to adore him and writers to write about him in worshipful tones, but he didn’t want to show any of the warmth that might have gotten him that love.

    • I do recall Clemente’s reputation as a hypochondriac, but it was more of an eccentric quirky thing, as opposed to some fatal flaw. He would roll his neck like a 75 year old man who had a constant crick in his neck. Looking at games played, mainly later in his career, I could see where his not being on the field may have started to turn from a quirky hypochondriac towards a malingerer. But, I watched him as a kid, and I didn’t live in Pittsburgh. In those days you didn’t see the players on SportsCenter every day. Maybe a couple of times on game of the week and, of course, in the NLCS or World Series, which he was in only a couple of times. (Of course, there was The Sporting News!) So, maybe I missed it. But, I never felt like he was under attack as a bad guy or bad teammate who opted out of games for a hangnail. As far as I was concerned, he was a huge star who was exciting to watch. That’s it. If he was getting bad press, it would have had to have been a local thing in Pittsburgh. Nationally he had a great reputation.

    • For someone who claims not to know these guys, you sure put opinions about them that indicate that you did. You seem to be invested in taking the sides of the old writers no matter what…

    • Jacob Adler says:

      Well your assessment reveals the total lack of awareness that you suggest is possible.
      What I find funny is that you could assume such a lack of warmth from a man who died trying to save millions of people.
      But lets try and educate you a little bit. Clemente was indeed adored by the Pittsburgh fans from the start; even when he was struggling in his first few years. Clemente played hard even then and was exciting to watch. Also he showed a great deal of warmth to the fans. No matter how long it took Roberto would stay and sign autographs. He befriended a number of young fans over the years because he loved kids and fans of all ages. He WAS loved by the Pittsburgh fans and by many kids across the country who crowded the stadiums when Clemente came to play their team.
      Clemente also went out of his way to help young players not only from his team but others, especially Latin players. Clemente would give them money, take them out for dinner and help them improve their hitting and overall play. This was in spite of the fact that Clemente was not really helped by his white teammates when he was a young rookie. He came up the hard way and made it his business to help those who came after him.
      Clemente also suffered not only from lifelong injuries that would have sidelined lesser players, he was such a determined and talented athlete that teammates and managers would not believe he was really injured. This was something that often happened to Latin players who like their African American contemporaries were not treated well by the management. When Clemente was in his prime he was finally taken to a specialist that revealed that the arthritis in his back and neck (which was in large part to a bad car accident a mere few months before his rookie season) was so severe it was the equivalent of a much older man. Still he was accused of being a hypochondriac.
      Not unlike Ken Griffey, many of Clemente’s later injuries were due to his high and hard level of play including some amazing plays in the field like his amazing catch in Houston where he dove headfirst to make what many who were there considered the greatest catch they ever saw.
      I was one of them. I lived through that era and saw all that the man was up against and how he spoke out not just for himself but for others.
      The fact was that the Pittsburgh press had never had a star player that was not only Black but Latin and they ignorantly made fun of him and even though he spoke English, they quoted him with an exaggerated phonetic language that made him seem stupid. As John Sayles, the film director once said, it took the Pittsburgh Press a long time to get with the reality that there best player was a black man. This was still a time of great prejudice. All the negative stuff that still haunts the man came from this time when he was treated unfairly. Imagine yourself being quoted that way in your home town press.
      The irony was that even when he mellowed towards the press as his career went along that even at the very end of his career when he became only the 11th player to get his 3,000th hit, that rarest of achievments was bumped off the headlines in the local sports section for a score of a Steelers game!
      The one group of people that Clemente was wary of was the writers, and as you can see he had good reason to feel that way. Otherwise Clemente was as warm and caring a man as has ever played the game. In his last years he devoted his time and money to a Sports City for the very poor children of Puerto Rico. His efforts despite being cut short by his untimely death led to improving the lives of many children including getting the careers of a number of future ballplayers of to a great start.
      Clemente’s death finally brought to light many of the wonderful things he did for the poor and for children that he did purposely without fanfare.
      Read the Maraniss book and learn something about the man.
      Also, read the book, ’61” to learn about Roger Maris. There was much more to the story than the nickname you mentioned.

  26. mark says:

    Like Maraniss, my appreciation for Clements is aesthetic and ephemeral. No one has ever looked better, or cooler, in a baseball uniform, whether standing still or a blur of motion. Particularly the 1960s era Pirates uniform with the white shirt with black sleeves. Is that shallow? I don’t care.

    And yes, as others have noted, Audrey Hepburn is the very definition of classic beauty.

  27. Steve Farrar says:

    Great article about great player and great man
    Clemente’s highlight films are so much different from any other player’s- he is so instantly recognizable

  28. For anyone interested in Clemente, I highly recommend a short work of non-fiction called A Drive into the Gap, by Kevin Guilfoile.

    From the book’s cover:

    “A Drive into the Gap is a true story about fathers and sons, baseball and memory, and the improbable journey of a bat from one of the most iconic moments in the history of the game to the bedroom of a 12-year-old boy.”

    At only ~70 pages, it is a quick read, and a very enjoyable one.

  29. Shagster says:

    Great piece. The line about the butterfly is one of your best ever. One quibble. Realize it makes a story “juicier” if includes some salacious innuendo. Not sure it’s right for your pieces. Leave speculating that the Dodgers let Clemente go because of rascism to Page 6 at the NY Post. (Their best headline? the one about T Woods marital challenges … “He’s not a Tiger! He’s a Cheetah!”)

  30. Wilbur says:

    Mark, I agree with you. I never saw anyone who looked more like a great player than Clemente. I only saw him once in person, but quite often on TV playing my beloved Cubs.

    He reminded me of a cat, with a bouncing walk or jog on the field with a coiled energy, ready to explode. No one looked better in the outfield, throwing with that great arm, and making his habitual soft-handed basket catch on easy flies.

    It’s purely ideosyncratic, but I did not find Audrey Hebpurn attractive for the same simple reason many fashion models are not: just too damn skinny. When I can count the ribs front and back, it’s not a turn-on for me.

  31. Rich says:

    As always an incredible post. So good in fact that before I even finished it I printed it off to include in a box I’m sending with my daughter when she enrolls at Iowa as a freshman this fall. I’m putting together various things (trinkets, DVD movies with inspirational themes, etc) in a box for her to enjoy. Joe’s article is going right on top. She is an awesome writer, but hates it. She wants to get a degree in Health Sciences. I want her to read Joe’s article to encourage her to keep writing creatively even if she’s not going to do it as a profession. I want her to understand that you don’t have to be a baseball fan or a Clemente fan to see how words can leap off a page and influence someone or change a person’s moment, day or life.

  32. Johnny B says:

    Those old Pirate teams weren’t todays’ ‘work the count, get the pitch count up’ kinduva team. I remember reading an interview of Al Oliver or Stargell saying something akin to, “We were a first pitch fastball hitting club.” They were mashers. I was a Mets fan back in the 60s-70s and the Pirates were scary, swung from the heels. So it’s no surprise to me Clemente’s OBP aren’t up to today’s standards. He was amazing to watch and in the argument with Mays and Aaron back then. (In my opinion Mays wins, Aaron places, and Clemente shows.)

  33. Clyde Sukeforth, who scouted Robinson, later said he was in Montreal and saw Clemente in batting practice. The Dodgers were trying to hide him. He told Max Macon, the manager there, that he had seen all he needed to see. At the Pirates meetings that fall, he said, he pushed for Clemente, and the Pirates drafted him. For whatever that is worth.

    Interestingly, as I understand it, Clemente and Bob Prince adored each other, and Prince could call him “Bobby.” I don’t know whether anyone else was allowed to do so in a way that Clemente appreciated it.

  34. Martin Levin says:

    Easily my favourite player ever. later in his career, runners would simply never try to go to third on a ball hit his way. When he died that New Year’s Eve in 1972, I wept for hours. Joe’s column brought back beautifully the almost ineffability of his greatness.

  35. Mark Heller says:

    Saw him throw out a runner at third on the fly from the wall and foul line at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. A great player who was acknowledged as such during that time period – Mays, Aaron and Clemente all considered all time greats at the time.

  36. Forty-One says:

    Wow. I try to read all of Joe’s baseball posts but this one resonated.
    Roberto Clemente. Semper Fi.

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