In the 1950s and ‘60s, most of what baseball fans knew about their home team players came from the sportswriters they read. In the case of Puerto Rican and other Latino players, much of what was written was mean-spirited and demeaning, caricaturing those players’ cultural differences and language hurdles more than their struggles and successes as color-segregated major league ballplayers. Roberto Clemente was no exception; in fact, as a proud and private eventual Hall of Fame outfielder, he became a lightning rod for writers’ barbs. If he was hurting – and he was often hurting – he was called lazy, a chronic complainer, looking for a day off. And that was all the fans knew about him.
This is the Roberto Clemente that opposing players, his Pirates’ teammates and other team employees knew, and the public didn’t know:
Pirates manager Bill Virdon: “You got him going on a plane or bus telling jokes and stories and he had everybody in stitches.”
Trainer Tony Bartirome: “Clemente was the funniest man I ever saw in a clubhouse, but only among the players. He had the knack of getting a team up, if they were in a slump, by making everybody relax and feel good. He was at the center of the noise and life and laughter in the clubhouse, but as soon as the writers came in, he clammed up. They never saw it.”
A life-size wax statue of Clemente stood in the team’s offices. One day Bartirome carried it down to the clubhouse. “I took it into an empty room adjacent to the clubhouse. It was dark and cold in there. The only light came from a nearby bathroom. I laid it on a platform and covered it to the chin with a blanket while some of the players watched. Then I called the team doctor and told him, ‘Bobby’s real sick, doc, you better do something. We put him in the side room in case the writers came in.’
“The doctor touched the statue’s hand. It was as cold as ice. He put his ear to the statue’s chest. No heartbeat. ‘My God,’ he cried. ‘He’s dead!’ By this time everybody in the clubhouse was roaring with laughter, Clemente the loudest of all.”
Phillies outfielder Richie Ashburn: “Bobby and I were at one of those winter banquets in Pittsburgh. The snow was deep on the roads. After it was over he offered to drive me to the airport. I figured it was on his way, or he was going there too, so I said, ‘Okay.’ I found out later that he was really going to the other side of the city and it was far out of his way.”
While the writers played up other Pittsburgh players for the team’s success, National League fans and players who had the chance to see Clemente in action didn’t need the writers to tell them he was the most exciting player they would ever see. Veteran manager Sparky Anderson said, “In my 22 years as a manager, I never saw a better player.” Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton called him “the best player I competed against and the most exciting I ever saw.” Richie Ashburn named him “the best right fielder I ever saw in 40 years.”
It was not just a strong and accurate arm that impressed them. It was speed, daring, unpredictability, and baseball smarts that dazzled teammates and opponents alike.
Pitcher Johnny Podres: “He would hit pitches thrown over his head, down by his ankles, inside, outside. I’d get two quick strikes on him and never get the third one. No matter where I threw it, he’d hit it.”
Podres called him a team player. “If a double was needed, he would go for that. If there were two out and the Pirates needed a run, he would go for the home run. But he would not swing for the fences if his team was down by three or four runs. He would just try to get on base. That’s a team player.”
Joe Torre learned about Clemente’s strong, accurate arm as a rookie in 1961. “I got a hit to right field and rounded first base as most runners do. Clemente picked up the ball, faked a throw to second and threw it so fast behind me to first base I was caught and tagged out. It was my most embarrassing moment on the field.”
Veteran pitcher Nelson Briles was traded from St. Louis to Pittsburgh in 1971. “I never gave him credit for his ability until I was on the same team. One day I was pitching and Willie McCovey, a left-handed pull hitter, was at bat. Clemente was not playing him to pull, so I waved Robby a few steps closer to the right-field line. I was ready to pitch and I glanced out there at him and he had moved back. So I waved him over again and he took a few steps toward the line. I pitched and McCovey hit a screaming line drive into the right-center field gap. I knew it was good for a double and I ran over to back up third base. When I got there, I discovered that Clemente had caught the ball. Back in the dugout Clemente said, ‘I bet you, Nellie, you no figure out how I made that catch. It is because the great Roberto knows how to play the hitter and the pitcher each day. You were pitching good and I knew that hitter could not pull the ball on you, so I move back after you moved me.”
Teammate Al Jackson described Clemente’s intimidating baserunning tactics. “He was the only player I ever saw who would hit a single to left field and run so hard he would get halfway to second, and have to hit the dirt and slide to stop himself, then pop up and get back to first base. If the left fielder bobbled the ball, he’d be into second easily, but he always got back to first if he had to. He played that hard and intensely all the time.”
Pitcher Harvey Haddix: “In Pittsburgh I was as close to Roberto Clemente as anybody. A fine guy. I liked him. He would not start a conversation, but if you wanted to talk with him, he would. We talked a lot on airplane rides and in spring training. He would not let you get close to him. He wanted his privacy, never went with our groups to dinner. He went by himself. One day he came out and I laughed at him. He was rubbing a white suntan lotion all over him. He said, ‘You know why? You see so and so over there? He too black. You see me? Nice and tan.’ Was he a hot dog? I haven’t seen a guy yet who didn’t like to show off his skills. I was called a hot dog a lot of times; I could catch a ball behind my back and other ways. He did not want any attention.
Teammate Richie Hebner: “Robby led by example. When he was 36, if he hit a tap back to the pitcher, he still roared down to first base like the cops were chasing him. When we young players saw that, we told ourselves if he’s bearing down like that after 16 years in the majors, we’d better do that, too, or we’ll look bad.”
NORMAN L. MACHT has been a SABR member for about 37 years and has written about 37 books, including a 1991 biography of Roberto Clemente for ages 12 and up published by Chelsea House.
All quotations are selected by Norman Macht from interviews he did with the players in question.