Roberto Clemente epitomized the term "5 tool player" throughout his 18 year career. He could run, hit, hit with power, field and throw with very few peers. Even though he is now a member of the Hall of Fame and his on-field exploits have become the stuff of legend, he was greatly underrated, if not under appreciated during his playing days. One of the reasons can be chalked up to Clemente's reputation as a hypochondriac.
Roberto was never one to gloss over aches and pains or mince words. If you asked him how he was doing, he told you in no uncertain terms about his ailments that day. Because Clemente constantly displayed such a high level of skill, his detractors used to scoff and wonder what he'd be like if he had no complaints. The media used to fuel this opinion of Clemente as a whiner.
In the socially turbulent 1960s, black players and Latino players were looked down upon. Latin players were often mocked in print by having their broken English quotes phonetically written out. In order to make Latin ballplayers more acceptable to the American public, their names were often either Americanized or completely changed altogether.
A slugging first baseman by the name of Victor Felipe Pellot became known as "Vic Power" when he broke in with the Athletics in 1954. A Cuban outfielder by the name of Saturnino Miñoso became known as "Minnie" when he got to the major leagues with the Cleveland Indians in 1949. Roberto Clemente became known as "Bob" on his baseball cards and was called "Bobby" by Pirate announcer Bob Prince.
Roberto Clemente won four batting titles. In 1961, he hit .351. In 1964, he hit .339. The following year, he hit .329. His career best was .357 in 1967. Oddly enough, he hit .352 in 1970 at the age of 36, but was beaten out by Atlanta Braves" target="_blank">Atlanta's Rico Carty who hit .366, winning the title. He was a tough man to fan, but wasn't the toughest to strike out. Clemente's percentage of putting the ball in play was just under 87% for his career. As a comparison, the major league average is about 82%.
Fellow HoF member Kirby Puckett was at about the same percentage as Clemente during his 12 years in MLB. Current Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols is just under 89% after ten years. Carty also was just under 89% for 20 years. HoF'er Tony Gwynn was just filthy with the bat in his hands and his number of strikeouts were just over four percent of his total at-bats.
But, numbers don't tell the whole story. Roberto had the uncanny ability to "waste" pitches. Deliveries too close to take would be rifled into the stands along the first base line with just a flick of his wrist. Clemente would often foul off 13 or more pitches in a single at-bat, while waiting for a fat "mistake" pitch.
Roberto only hit 240 homers during his career. However, he spent most of it playing in cavernous Forbes Field, where the center field wall was 457 feet from home plate. The batting cage used to be kept on the field in dead center because few players could ever hit the ball that far. Those who had that kind of strength could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Gino Cimoli once opined that Clemente could've challenged Henry Aaron or Willie Mays for NL home run superiority if Roberto had slightly altered his game and swung for the fences. That wasn't part of Clemente's makeup. Roberto was an opposite field hitter and had extra base power, which he certainly took ample advantage of.
For those old enough to have seen him play, there was never any question of Clemente's fleet feet. His stolen bases amounted to just 86 and he was caught just 46 times. In 1963, he stole a career best 12 sacks. Clemente used his speed to leg out infield hits and to take the extra base. He legged out 440 doubles.
For comparison purposes, Pujols has 426 doubles. Puckett had 414 doubles. Carty had 278 two-baggers. Gwynn had 543 in 20 years of playing. Mays collected 140 triples and Aaron had 98 of them.
Triples are where Clemente really showed off his wheels, amassing 166 three-baggers during his career. Gwynn had 85, Carty had just 17, Puckett had 57, and Pujols has a mere 15. Playing in such a spacious park as Forbes Field gave Clemente the opportunity to find the gap and run all day.
Fielding was Clemente's forte. He was known for his aggressive style and his sliding grabs in right field. Perhaps no other outfielder could play the carom off the right field wall at Forbes Field any better than Roberto. Only twice did he exceed single digits in errors. In 1959, he made a career worst 13 errors. In 1964, he committed 10 miscues. In 1971, he fielded .993 and the following year at age 38, he was flawless in 94 games. Roberto co-holds the major league career mark of 12 Gold Gloves with Mays.
Clemente's prowess was largely a secret outside of the city of Pittsburgh. Prior to the 1971 World Series, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Frank Robinson boasted that he was "going to hold a clinic on how to play right field." That comment was surprising, given that Robinson had watched Clemente for 10 years, while Robinson was a member of the Cincinnati Reds. After losing to the Pirates, Robinson sheepishly admitted that Clemente was the better right fielder, "performing at the position like a ballet dancer."
Arguably, Roberto Clemente had one of the strongest outfield arms of all-time. Clemente racked up 19 double plays from the outfield and 134 assists. Most of his assists came from opposing hitters taking too wide a turn at first. Imagine the shock on the face of those who upon returning to the bag, found that the first baseman was holding the ball.
There are outfielders in the HoF with more double plays and more assists, but Clemente earned his reputation early. There were outfielders you could take a chance with. Roberto schooled the rest of the league that he was not one of them.
It's hard to imagine, but Roberto rarely took time off from playing the game, preferring to play year-round. Most winters, Clemente would return to Puerto Rico and play a full season of winter baseball for the Santurce Crabbers, giving island fans a chance to see him show off his incomperable skills. Toward the end of his life, Clemente would become manager of the Crabbers and there was talk of him eventually replacing Danny Murtaugh as manager of the Pirates.
While a young player, Clemente was thought to be sullen and aloof. However, a new wave of talent in the form of players like Willie Stargell, Steve Blass and Al Oliver looked up to the veteran in later years. He had earned the respect of his teammates through his hustle and his penchant for being outspoken in the media. It's quite likely that he would've made an outstanding MLB manager.
December 23, 1972 saw an earthquake measuring 6.2 strike the capital city of Managua, Nicaragua. The disaster claimed the lives of between 3,000 and 7,000 persons (the exact toll is unknown to this day) and injured some 15,000 more. Public water and electrical service were exceedingly compromised, although damage to the power plant in the eastern section of the city was relatively light. Famine and disease greeted survivors of the 'quake. Clemente swung into action, collecting goods and necessities to deliver to the victims in a series of relief flights.
Clemente was horrified that the supplies from the first three flights were intercepted by the corrupt Anastasio Somoza regime. He decided to personally accompany the aid materials on the next flight. The plane hired by Roberto was a Douglas DC7 with a history of mechanical problems, was overloaded by 5,000 lbs and had a sub-par flight crew. The plane crashed into the sea off the coast of Puerto Rico immediately after takeoff on December 31, 1972. His body was never recovered. Clemente gave his life for a cause he believed in.