Roberto Clemente

May 24, 1961: Roberto Clemente, the ‘College’ Cubs, and an incident in Mississippi

This article was written by Jack Zerby

Roberto ClementeThe Pittsburgh Pirates were still enjoying the aura of their shocking 1960 World Series victory over the vaunted New York Yankees as they played their 33rd game of the 1961 season. They were in Chicago, en route from Milwaukee to St. Louis, for a two-game series with the Cubs opening on Wednesday afternoon, May 24.1 The Pirates sat third in the National League, at 19-13, one game behind the Dodgers and Giants. The Cubs were already a dreary 12-22, nine games out, in seventh place.

Some of this malaise may have been due to “one of the more poorly conceived ideas in the history of baseball, the College of Coaches.”2 The system involved a group of eight coaches3 haphazardly rotating as manager; Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley had instituted it for 1961 after a slightly less bizarre 1960 experiment in which he had replaced manager Charlie Grimm with former-manager-turned-broadcaster Lou Boudreau after 17 games in 1960. The result had been a 60-94, seventh place season.

The first year of the collegiate approach wasn’t much better. Don Elston, a journeyman back for his second go-around with the Cubs after he had been packaged with Ransom Jackson in a trade with the Brooklyn Dodgers,4 called it “a very bad situation. In 1961 we went to hell. Not one of [the coaches] helped one of the others. All they did was wait until it was their turn [to manage].”5

Vedie Himsl had been the first manager in 1961, rotating out with a 10-21 record. Harry Craft was next — the May 24 game was during his short-lived 7-9 rotation. Later, Elvin Tappe had the longest run, at 42-54; Lou Klein, not even on board when the season started, finished up (5-6).6

The Cubs drew only 673,057 to Wrigley Field in 1961; a modest 5,573 rattled around the iconic ballpark on this Wednesday.7 Craft chose second-year man Dick Ellsworth, a lefty with a 1-3 record and a 4.42 ERA, the third man in the Cubs rotation, as his starter. Pirate skipper Danny Murtaugh countered with righty Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell, 30, a 13-game winner for Pittsburgh in 1960 after acquisition from St. Louis in an early-season trade that sent Julian Javier to the Cardinals.

Ellsworth disposed of the Pirates in order in the top of the first, albeit with a 1-6-3 double-play ball off Dick Groat’s bat that followed a leadoff single by Bill Virdon. Cubs fans may have been a bit smug when Ellsworth struck out Roberto Clemente, hitting .341, for the third out.

Even better fortune may have seemed on the horizon as Billy Williams nicked Mizell for a one-out home run in the bottom of the first to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead. The tall righty finished off Ron Santo and Ernie Banks8 to escape otherwise unscathed.

The lead evaporated to a 1-1 tie in the Pirates’ second. Dick Stuart tripled to deep right field and scored on Gino Cimoli’s groundball to first base. Don Hoak followed with a single, but Ellsworth retired Hal Smith and World Series hero Bill Mazeroski to avoid further scoring.

The Cubs generated some excitement but no runs in their second. After Mizell got George Altman on a fly ball, Don Zimmer bunted toward first. Never known for his fielding skills and tabbed “Dr. Strangeglove” from time to time in his career, Pirates first baseman Stuart fielded the ball but “threw wild and Zimmer went head first into second. Maz[eroski] retrieved the wild throw in front of the Buc dugout and threw it into left field for the second error on the play. [Left fielder] Cimoli tried to flag Zimmer at third but his belly flopper into that stop beat the throw [to Hoak]. But [Zimmer] ‘died’ there.”9 The demise occurred as Mizell got Mel Roach to roll to Hoak, who held Zimmer before he threw out Roach. Dick Bertell struck out, leaving Zimmer stranded.

The Cubs managed another lead in their third inning on Jerry Kindall’s first home run of the season.10 Clemente, no strikeout victim this time, got back into his groove and matched that with his own solo homer to lead off the Pittsburgh fourth. It knotted the game at 2-2.

Mizell gave up a two-out single to Bertell in the Chicago fourth but got the shutdown inning he and Murtaugh were looking for. The importance of the stop was amplified immediately, as the Pirates exploded for four runs in the fifth inning. Smith flied out, but Mazeroski walked. Ellsworth appeared to be in good shape with two outs and only a runner on second after Mizell’s sacrifice. But he wild-pitched Mazeroski to third with Virdon batting; Virdon obliged with an RBI single, bumping the score to 3-2, Pittsburgh. Groat followed with a double that left runners on second and third. Things were still manageable for Ellsworth — with first base open the situation might have called for an intentional walk to the hot-hitting Clemente to set up a force at any base. The decision, though, was to pitch to Clemente. He responded with a three-run homer into Wrigley’s left-field stands.11 It extended the lead to 6-2.

Bob Anderson replaced Ellsworth for the Pittsburgh sixth and worked two scoreless innings. The Cubs even got him a run back in their seventh on three singles — the last one, by Santo, scoring Bertell. Santo’s single chased Mizell, as Murtaugh summoned Clem Labine, pitching in his 12th major-league season. Labine struck out Banks to close out the mini-rally with the Pirates ahead 6-3.

Stuart wiped out all of that effort and extended the score to 7-3 with one swing in the Pirates’ eighth — he launched a long one-out home run to center field off Chicago’s third pitcher, Mel Wright. Next up, Cimoli touched Wright for a triple, but Dick Schofield, subbing for Hoak,12 rolled back to Wright and Cimoli couldn’t advance. Smith grounded to short for the third out.

Labine polished off six straight Cubs in the eighth and ninth, giving Mizell a win and himself what would — after 1969 — be recognized by the records-keepers as a save.

As the faithful filed out of Wrigley, they had seen their Cubs match Pittsburgh with 11 hits and a single error to the Pirates’ two miscues. But in the runs column, where it counted, they had fallen short once again despite their abundance of management.

On this same Wednesday afternoon when a Puerto Rican and a trio of US-born Blacks — three of the four now enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame13 and the other a three-time National League All-Star — played before sparse attendance14 in Chicago, an interstate bus arrived at the Trailways terminal in the Mississippi state capital, Jackson. Among its passengers were members of the first wave of 1961 Freedom Riders, young Blacks and whites, many of them students, claiming the rights of Blacks to equally access the segregated terminal’s “whites only” facilities.15 They were doing nothing more or less than peacefully asserting authority of the United States Supreme Court mandate rendered the prior December in the Boynton v. Virginia decision.16

While the hometown Chicago fans cheered Billy Williams, Ernie Banks, and George Altman and grudgingly acknowledged the skills of Pittsburgh’s Roberto Clemente as he assured them of yet another Cubs loss, the Freedom Riders, Black and white, were summarily arrested and jailed by Mississippi authorities defying the high court’s ruling. But the Freedom Riders movement persisted and grew through that spring and summer, an Interstate Commerce Commission regulation based on the Boynton ruling was entered on November 1, 1961, and ultimately, “the ‘white’ and ‘colored’ signs in bus stations across the South began to come down.”17

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, I consulted the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites for player, team, and season logs and the following box scores:

baseball-reference.com/boxes/CHN/CHN196105240.shtml

retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1961/B05240CHN1961.htm

 

Notes

1 Until the 1988 installation of lights in the Cubs’ home park, Wrigley Field, all the games were played in the daytime. The “series” turned out to be one game only; the May 25 game was rained out. It was played as the first game of a July 6 doubleheader. The Cubs lost, 15-3.

2 Peter Golenbock, Wrigleyville: A Magical History Tour of the Chicago Cubs (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 366.

3 The original eight were Charlie Grimm, Harry Craft, Rip[per] Collins, Bobby Adams, Vedie Himsl, Elvin Tappe, Verlon Walker, and rotating from the minor league system, Goldie Holt. Golenbock, 366.

4 The trade was during the 1955-56 offseason. Elston pitched one mop-up inning for the Dodgers on May 5, 1957. They shipped him back to the Cubs on May 23.

5 Golenbock, 371.

6 The 1961 Cubs finished 64-90, four games better than the 1960 club. They had two ties in each season.

7 But the World Series champion Pirates had a little drawing power — the 5,573 on May 24 bettered both the 2,179 the Cubs drew against the Phillies on May 23 and the paltry 1,286 who came out to see the Cubs play the Giants on May 26. It didn’t help that all three games fell within a seven-game losing streak. These were the days before the “Bleacher Bums” began to populate Wrigley. That began in 1969 when the Cubs regained a degree of respectability under Leo Durocher. See: Robert H. Boyle, “Leo’s Bums Rap for the Cubs,” Sports Illustrated, June 30, 1969, Sports Illustrated Vault.com, https://vault.si.com/vault/1969/06/30/611025/leos-bums-rap-for-the-cubs.

8 Banks, a shortstop from his major-league debut in 1953 through 1960 except for 58 games at third base in 1957, was moved to left field by the Cubs’ brain trust for the May 23, 1961, game. He was there again the next day in this game, with Jerry Kindall at shortstop. Banks played left field for 23 games in 1961 and never appeared there again through his retirement after the 1971 season.

9 Jack Hernon, “Clemente Orbits Pair; Stuart One,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 25, 1961: 35, 37.

10 It was also Kindall’s first hit in seven trips to the plate in 1961. Edward Prell, “Pirates Sink Chicago, 7-3, on Three Homers,” Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1961: 77.

11 Typically for the Cubs of that era, Stuart rolled to third after Clemente’s second home run.

12 Hoak “turned his left ankle [in the sixth inning] rounding first base on a single to left center.” Hernon.

13 Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, and Billy Williams are members of the Hall. George Altman was selected to three National League All-Star teams.

14 Wrigley Field had integration issues of its own even after Ernie Banks arrived. See: Steve Bogira, “Unfriendly Confines: Did Racial Discrimination Start the Cubs’ Slide?” March 24, 2014, Chicago Reader.com, https://chicagoreader.com/chicago/cubs-wrigley-field-100th-anniversary-racial-prejudice/Content?oid=12861125

15 Wallace Dabs, “27 Mixers Jailed on Arrival Here,” Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi), May 25, 1961: 1. https://newspapers.com/image/180068171/.

16 364 U.S. 454 (1960), decided December 5, 1960. The case was argued for appellant Bruce Boynton by future Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall. Mr. Justice Marshall joined the Court in 1967 and served for 24 years.

17 Marian Smith Holmes, “The Freedom Riders, Then and Now,” Smithsonian Magazine, February, 2009; https://smithsonianmag.com/history/the-freedom-riders-then-and-now-45351758/.

Additional Stats

Pittsburgh Pirates 7
Chicago Cubs 3


Wrigley Field
Chicago, IL

 

Box Score + PBP:

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