Roberto Clemente: Reflections on an All-Time Great

John GrayCorrespondent ISeptember 10, 2008

This is a conversation I recently had with a long time Pittsburgh Pirate fan, Rich Murak, that I thought would be of interest to baseball fans who did not get to see one of the greats of the game play.

What was it like watching Clemente? I have seen highlights and seen his statistics, but many who saw him play revere him so much more like a Michael Jordan. Any players in my era compare?  

Clemente was like a Michael Jordan in Pgh. Not regarded that way anywhere
else, except I guess in Puerto Rico & to his peers. The only really
national stars back then were in NY or L.A. Even with ESPN, it's still
pretty much like that even today.

Bob Clemente was simply the greatest ballplayer I ever saw. I guess
there's a certain amount of hometown loyalty to that, but, honestly, I've
never seen anyone else like him.

The only player I ever saw that I  think might've been as good was Nolan Ryan, and you can't really compare a hitter & a pitcher.

One time Bob Gibson knocked Clemente down with a pitch. Not sure it was
on the next pitch, but in the same at-bat Clemente drove a liner up the
middle & broke Gibson's leg.

I'm not claiming he did it on purpose, but  if anyone could've, it would have been Clemente. That's the kind of ballplayer he was.

I remember watching him take batting practice one day. Liner to left,
to center, to right—he just kept cycling, pitch after pitch.
Apparently hitting them anywhere he wanted to.

The only other hitter I've ever seen anything like him was Tony Gwynn.
I saw Gwynn do the same thing in BP and was shocked. The only arm I've
ever seen that's really comparable is Ichiro.

Dave Parker was exceptionally strong, but he didn't always have the accuracy to go with the power. Clemente could, no lie, throw a strike to home plate from over 360 feet

And he threw the ball backhand from over the top, releasing
almost underhand. I've tried that & I can't make it go anyplace, maybe
in the direction I'm aiming if I'm lucky, but certainly not with any kind
of force. I've never seen anyone else throw like that at all.

He always kept an eye out for rookies—guys that never saw him before—that got a single to right. He'd make like he was bobbling the ball and they'd take a wide turn at first, and he come up throwing & nail 'em coming back to the bag. Veteran players knew better; they didn't take wide turns on Bobby.

I've heard Joe DiMaggio could do the same thing but I never saw it & really can't imagine it would be possible from CF. Hell, I can't imagine it was possible from RF, and I saw him do it! Once even on a Game of the Week. Vin Scully went on n' on about it.

The only player that ever came close to his intensity was Pete Rose.
And Rose was a jerk about it. Clemente simply went on the field to
punish the opposition, n' he was determined about it. He was respectful,
but he hated the other team & wanted to crush 'em.

He could hit for power, but preferred to hit for avg. The one year he
tried, he did so because Harry Walker told him if he'd hit 30 HRs, they'd
win the pennant. He hit 28 or 29 n' they lost; Walker was wrong though,
they didn't have the pitching if he'd hit 60.

But he could've been a power hitter if he wanted to play that game. Not an A-Rod type—probably about on par with, say, Magglio Ordonez.

He had good speed on the basepaths. I think he could've probably stolen
25-30 bases per year, but that wasn't part of the game then. No more
than that—he was fast, but not a speedburner.

He was a smart baserunner though, n' would always advance when the opportunity
presented itself. He had an incredible hook slide. I could never figure
out how he didn't break his leg doing that.

He was an exceptional fielder, but I don't think he was as good as Torii
Hunter. Roberto liked to hot dog in a day when that wasn't really a
popular thing to do, n' occasionally he'd mess up as a result.

He loved to make basket catches. I know Danny Murtaugh hated that, but could
never get him to stop. But he played the field the way he played the
game, with a vengeance, out to destroy the enemy. And he was a
perennial Gold-Glover.

Someplace I've got an old BBDigest with a mini interview with Jim
Palmer. They asked him about facing Clemente in the '71 series: "We got the scouting report on him. They said you could pitch him inside but don't stay there. You could get him to chase a ball low and away, but don't throw it there twice. What were
you supposed to do?"

He dominated the '71 series. It was his chance to showcase his talents
to the world n' boy did he ever. He practically won that series
single-handedly. If you ever run into any of the old Orioles, ask them
about it. I understand they just about all freely admit Clemente beat 'em.

When "experts" rate him in his era that always put him on par with Aaron, Mays, McCovey though his stats would indicate lesser.

He was not "on par" with Hank Aaron! Except for HRs, he was superior to Hank Aaron in every way! I never thought Hank Aaron was anything special (still don't).

I was incensed every time Aaron would start over Clemente in the All-Star game. Hell, Aaron wasn't even the best hitter on his own team. That was Eddie Matthews. When I saw the Braves I watched Matthews n' barely noticed Aaron was even playing. Ol' Henry
was not really a dangerous hitter.

McCovey wasn't that big a star back then, either. I liked him, but I was
a big Giants fan in those days. Juan Marichal was and still is, Clemente excepted, my favorite player ever.

But yeah, Clemente was one of the stars back then, right up there with
Mays, Al Kaline, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Frank Robinson, Aaron, Matthews, Mantle, Killebrew, Tony Oliva...

Baseball wasn't driven by stats in those days the way it is now. Players weren't on the open market, so they didn't have the incentive to drive up their numbers to increase their price.

If Clemente played after the advent of free agency, I'm sure he'd have hit 30 HRs every
year to drive his price up. But maybe not; all he was ever really
interested in was batting titles.

In that era, nobody really cared all that much about HRs. Mays was a
superstar, but nobody thought of McCovey that way. Aaron was a slugger
and an All-Star, but I doubt anyone would've considered him a future
Hall-of-Famer in 1965.

Al Kaline n' Tony Oliva were bigger stars than Harmon Killebrew or Rocky Colavito. The only time anyone got excited about HRs was Mays passing 600 or anytime anybody hit 50+ n' looked like they might have a shot at Ruth's 60. Batting titles were much more

There was nobody like Mays n' Mantle except Mays n' Mantle. They were
in a class by themselves. But both were on the downsides of their
careers, and me, the young kid, could never understand why folks made such
a fuss about 'em.

I got to see Mays n' McCovey both homer in the same game & was far more excited about McCovey than that old guy Mays. And far more disappointed that Marichal was scratched than either or both HRs could assuage. Never did get to see him pitch live.

It wasn't until the '70s that guys like McCovey n' Aaron became big
stars. The game changed. But Roberto never had the chance to pad his
stats; he was gone before '73.

The big thing about Clemente was that he could take over and dominate a
game. You don't see many guys like that. The only recent ballplayer
that really comes to mind in that way is Pujols, and he doesn't do it in
the field.

Or Hunter, but he's not really like that at the plate.  The rest have the occasional game like that, but you don't expect it all the time.

I've never seen another all-around ballplayer that I'd even consider
close to him. Mays & DiMaggio were supposed to be like that in every
phase of the game, but DiMag was done by the time I started going to
games & Mays was nearing the end. 

When you hear people talk about Clemente, that's what they're talking about. We don't seem to produce players like that anymore.

Well, I hope you liked my review of Roberto Clemente. Spent more time than I intended, but once you get talking about Roberto it's tough to stop. He really was incredible; wish you could've seen him. Even the highlights don't do him justice. Every time I see 'em, I always expect so much more than they show.


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