In the course of his career, Roberto Clemente played in 2,433 games and earned 266 assists.
He made any number of spectacular defensive plays. One often cited is the time that Clemente, playing right field, earned an assist on a bunt. The game was at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh on Friday night, August 27, 1965. The Houston Astros were in town and held a 4-3 lead in the top of the eighth, with runners on first and second and nobody out. With the Astros looking to add an insurance run, it was, journalist Phil Musick wrote, “an obvious sacrifice situation.” Rusty Staub was on second and Walt Bond on first. Bob Lillis pinch-hit for Jim Gentile.
Musick explains that the Pirates’ counter-strategy was to have the third baseman rush in to field the anticipated bunt and have the shortstop run over to cover third. Here’s what he said happened: Lillis “popped his sacrifice attempt into the air near second base. The runners held up briefly, and suddenly Clemente was skidding across the infield in pursuit of the ball. After recovering from the shock of discovering Clemente in his midst, Houston’s Walter Bonds [sic] streaked for third base. Clemente’s throw preceded him to the base, and the humiliated Bonds [sic] was out.”1 Clemente was, Musick wrote, “the only outfielder ever known to play a bunt.”2
In 15 of those games, Clemente had two assists in the same game. In 13 of them, the two assists were both outfield assists.
MAY 22, 1956 St. Louis Cardinals 6, Pirates 3 at Forbes Field
In this game, Clemente had two assists but also made two errors. The errors were committed in the second and ninth innings. In the top of the eighth inning, Clemente moved from right field to play third base. Neither of his assists were outfield assists; both were fielding groundballs and throwing to first base, once in the eighth and once in the ninth. He made his ninth-inning error while fielding a sacrifice bunt.
JULY 14, 1956 Chicago Cubs 6, Pirates 2 at Wrigley Field First game of doubleheader
The Cubs swept, 6-2 and 6-5 (in 10 innings). In the first game, Clemente played right field for the first six innings, then played second base in the seventh and eighth. His first assist came in the bottom of the fifth; he caught a fly ball to right and then cut down Ernie Banks, who had tagged up at second base, on a “rifle shot throw” to third.3 Clemente’s second assist was as a second baseman, a routine 4-3 grounder that ended the seventh inning.
APRIL 17, 1958 Milwaukee Braves 6, Pirates 1 at County Stadium
In the bottom of the third, Johnny Logan led off with a double. Del Crandall singled to right field but tried to take two bags on Clemente’s throw to the plate intended to prevent Logan from scoring. Logan held up at third, but Crandall was out when catcher Hank Foiles quickly fired the ball to second base, 9-2-4.4 After Eddie Mathews’ three-run homer in the fifth, Hank Aaron singled to center. Frank Torre singled to right, but Aaron overran the bag at second base, making a turn toward third base, and was thrown out, 9-4.5
JULY 18, 1958 San Francisco Giants 5, Pirates 4 at Seals Stadium
In the bottom of the third, with the Pirates ahead, 1-0, Stu Miller laid down a sacrifice with Valmy Thomas on first base. The ball was misplayed by Pirates third baseman Frank Thomas, whose throw to second sailed into right field. Clemente threw the ball to shortstop Dick Groat, who bobbled the ball, allowing Miller to reach second safely, but Groat quickly threw home and cut down Valmy Thomas at the plate.6 The Giants built up a 5-1 lead and in the bottom of the fifth with two outs and a man on first, Orlando Cepeda singled to right. The runner ran to third. Clemente gunned the ball in and nipped Cepeda at second base.
AUGUST 10, 1961 St. Louis Cardinals 3, Pirates 2 at Forbes Field
In the top of the fourth, with the game tied, 1-1, St. Louis’s Ken Boyer on first and nobody out, Stan Musial flied out to right field. Clemente caught the ball and threw behind the runner to Dick Stuart at first base; before Boyer could get back to the bag, he was out. The very next inning, the score still the same and again a man on first and nobody out, Curt Flood hit a ball down the right-field line. Trying for a double, he was thrown out by Clemente, with a throw to shortstop Groat at second.7
SEPTEMBER 4, 1961 St. Louis Cardinals 9, Pirates 4 at Busch Stadium
In the bottom of the third, Curt Flood singled with Ray Sadecki on first and no outs. Sadecki took third, but “when he suspected Bob Clemente would throw to third, he was caught in his thoughts trying to get back to first.”8 Flood was thrown out RF-2B-1B. Julian Javier singled and drove in Sadecki. Javier took second on a groundout, and was driven in by Musial’s single. A double by Boyer and a walk to Charlie James loaded the bases. Alex Grammas singled, driving in two runs, but James was out at third base on Clemente’s throw. For James, it was the second time in the game he was thrown out by an outfielder. In the second inning, center fielder Bill Virdon threw him out at second base as he tried to stretch his RBI single into a double.
MAY 3, 1962 San Francisco Giants 8, Pirates 4 at Candlestick Park
In the bottom of the first inning, Orlando Cepeda singled to right field, but took too wide a turn at first base. Clemente threw behind him and, rather than there being runners on first and second, the inning was over. In the fourth, with runners on first and third and Willie Mays at the plate, the Giants broke a 2-2 tie on a wild pitch. Mays then singled to right field, driving in another run, but was thrown out, Clemente to Dick Stuart at first base to Bill Mazeroski at second.
Clemente’s Rawlings Gold Glove Award, 1962. (Photograph by Duane Rieder)
MAY 17, 1964 Los Angeles Dodgers 3, Pirates 2 at Dodger Stadium
First game of doubleheader
Clemente tripled, doubled, and singled in the game, “but it was his arm that captured the fans’ fancy and left two baserunners for dead.”9 As the Dodgers scored their second run in the bottom of the second on a single to right field by Sandy Koufax, Dick Tracewski tried to go first to third, but Clemente’s throw to third base got him as he “fell trying to scramble back to second base,” the tag applied by shortstop Dick Schofield.10 In the seventh inning, Ron Fairly led with a triple. With one out, he tagged and scored on a sacrifice fly to right – though Clemente’s “sensational throw” to the plate nearly got him.11 The very next batter, Willie Davis, grounded the ball into right field but was thrown out at second base “by a couple of lengths,” Clemente to shortstop Schofield.12
MAY 13, 1965 Milwaukee Braves 5, Pirates 4 at Forbes Field
The Braves got 19 hits to eight for Pittsburgh, but just edged the Pirates by one run. In the fourth inning, center fielder Bill Virdon got credit for a double play, catching a fly ball and then throwing out Denis Menke at the plate. Menke was hurt on the play and had to leave the game.13 The Pirates held a 4-1 lead after five innings, but saw the Braves tie it in the sixth. With two outs and runners on first and third in the top of the eighth, Joe Torre singled to give the Braves a 5-4 lead, but when he tried to take second, Clemente’s throw to Schofield got Torre for the third out. The very next inning, the ninth, the Braves angled for an insurance run. With one out and runners on first and third, Sandy Alomar flied out to right field. Clemente threw home to catcher Jim Pagliaroni, who tagged Phil Niekro trying to score on a sacrifice fly.
MAY 12, 1966 San Francisco Giants 3, Pirates 0 at Forbes Field
Jesus Alou singled for the Giants in the top of the second inning. Hoping to put runners on second and third with nobody out, Alou aimed for two bags but was out when Clemente threw the ball behind him to first baseman Donn Clendenon, who then got Alou in a rundown, the ball going 9-3-4-6. The next batter, Ollie Brown, drove in Giants third baseman Jim Ray Hart from third and the Giants led, 1-0. Hart hit a solo homer leading off the fourth. Still nursing a 2-0 lead in the eighth, Willie Mays singled and Hart came to bat. He grounded out – to Clemente in right field, the play going RF to SS Gene Alley for a force out of Mays at second base.
JUNE 13, 1967 St. Louis Cardinals 7, Pirates 4 at Forbes Field
In this game, Clemente cut down two runners, both at home plate, but also committed two errors. In the bottom of the first, with two outs, Orlando Cepeda was on first base, having just singled in the first run of the game. Tim McCarver singled to center, the ball played by Clemente, whose error enabled McCarver to scoot all the way to third base, though Clemente quickly recovered and fired the ball to home plate and got Cepeda. The Giants scored three more runs in the second inning, another Clemente assist resulting in a third out at the plate, this time it being Curt Flood, who tried to go first to home on Bobby Tolan’s double to right.14 Clemente committed his second error in the top of the third, allowing a sixth run to score and setting up the seventh.
JULY 7, 1967 Cincinnati Reds 6, Pirates 2 at Forbes Field
In this game, Clemente the baserunner was a victim of an outfield assist himself. In the top of the second, Clemente recorded his first assist of the game, throwing out Lee May trying to score on Tommy Helms’ fly ball.15 With the score 1-1 in the bottom of the fourth, Clemente tried to give the Pirates a go-ahead run. Bill Mazeroski hit a fly ball to Vada Pinson in center field, but Pinson’s 8-4-2 throw to the plate erased Clemente. The Reds led, 3-1, heading into the top of the seventh. With a walk and a single, they had runners on first and second with nobody out. Pinson grounded a single into right field, but Clemente fielded it and threw to second base quickly enough to force Helms there.
AUGUST 12, 1969 San Francisco Giants 6, Pirates 3 at Candlestick Park
With two outs and a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the second, the Giants’ Ron Hunt walked and stole second. Bobby Bonds singled to right field but Hunt was thrown out at home plate by Clemente. In the top of the fifth, San Francisco right fielder Ken Henderson threw out Bill Mazeroski at the plate. In the bottom of the eighth, with the Giants ahead 6-1, Hal Lanier was on first with two outs. Gaylord Perry singled off Pittsburgh’s Bo Belinsky. Lanier tried to go to third, but was erased on Clemente’s throw to Richie Hebner at third base. There were also the plays that were never made, because opposing baserunners respected Clemente’s instincts and his arm. Bill Mazeroski, who played for 17 years with Clemente on the Pirates, once said of his teammate, “He changes the game. In almost every one of our games, a runner is afraid to try to go from first to third on a single to right. In a year’s time, that makes a hell of a difference in how many runs we give up.”16
SEPTEMBER 14, 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates 4, Chicago Cubs 3 at Wrigley Field
Clemente earned two outfield assists in this game as well, remarkable in that after every one of the 13 previous occasions coming in a game the Pirates lost, Pittsburgh won this one, 4-3. Clemente played no role in the offense, going 0-for-4 and never getting the ball out of the infield. In the bottom of the fourth, the Cubs’ Cleo James hit a two-out double but was thrown out at third base after Clemente’s throw went 9-4-3. (First baseman Al Oliver applied the tag at third base.) The Pirates held a one-run lead (4-3) in the bottom of the seventh. Brock Davis reached on an error at third base. The next batter, Billy Williams, doubled into center field. Clemente fielded the ball and threw to second baseman Paul Popovich, who threw home and Davis was out.
JUNE 25, 1972 Pittsburgh Pirates 9, Chicago Cubs 2 at Wrigley Field
Two months before Clemente turned 38 years old in August, he had another two-assist game, his 15th and final one. Despite the lopsided final score, the Cubs led 2-1 after seven full innings. In the bottom of the sixth, Clemente got credit for an outfield assist on a popup to second base. Ron Santo was on first base. Paul Popovich popped up to second baseman Dave Cash. Santo was out at second base, the play going Cash to Clemente to shortstop Gene Alley. Santo said he hadn’t seen Cash catch the ball.17
After a Manny Sanguillen grand slam gave Pittsburgh a 5-2 lead in the top of the seventh, the Cubs’ Jim Hickman hit a ball into right field, fielded by Clemente, who threw to shortstop Gene Alley in time to force out Billy Williams at second base. The Tribune’s Dozer wrote that Williams had been “decoyed into thinking it would be a catch” and only belatedly “turned on a burst of speed.”18 Clemente had “no chance” of catching the ball, “stopped 10 feet from where the ball landed, grabbed the ball on one hop and fired to Alley.”19
THE PLAYERS THROWN OUT
The players thrown out by Clemente on outfield assists could have helped build an All-Star team. Eight of them are Hall of Famers. Hank Aaron, Jesus Alou, Ken Boyer, Orlando Cepeda (thrown out three times), Del Crandall, Brock Davis, Willie Davis, Curt Flood (thrown out twice), Tommy Helms, Ron Hunt, Charlie James, Cleo James, Lee May, Willie Mays, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Ray Sadecki, Ron Santo, Valmy Thomas, Joe Torre, Dick Tracewski, Billy Williams. (Those in the Hall of Fame are in italics.)
OUTFIELDERS WITH FOUR-ASSIST GAMES
Tom Ruane of Retrosheet notes that according to the last Sporting News Record Book, the record for outfield assists in a game is four, done by four players (five times) in the nineteenth century. Bill Crowley of the Buffalo Bisons accomplished it twice, both in the same season, on May 24, 1880, and August 27, 1880. He had 46 assists that year.
Harry Schafer of the Boston Red Stockings had been the first, on September 26, 1877. Mike Griffin had a four-outfield-assist game for the Brooklyn Grooms on July 17, 1893 and the Cincinnati Reds’ Dusty Miller had one on May 30, 1895.
In the twentieth century, it was done six times: Ducky Holmes (Washington Senators, August 21, 1903), Fred Clarke (Pittsburgh Pirates, August 23, 1910), Lee Magee (New York Yankees, June 28, 1916), Happy Felsch (Chicago White Sox, August 14, 1919), Bob Meusel (New York Yankees, September 5, 1921), and Sam Langford (Cleveland Indians, May 1, 1928). As of this writing in 2022, it has been nearly 100 years since an outfielder recorded four assists in one game.
BILL NOWLIN sadly never saw Roberto Clemente play, having grown up in an American League city (Boston) in the days before interleague play. (But he remembers his Topps baseball cards.) A lifelong Red Sox fan, he was a professor of political science and co-founder of Rounder Records, and has over the past 20 years become more active in writing and editing about baseball, primarily for SABR but also for a few other entities.
13 Jack Hernon mistakenly wrote that it was Clemente, not Virdon, who threw out Menke at the plate. Had that been the case, it would have been Clemente’s third outfield assist. “Braves’ 19-Hit Attack Dumps Pirates, 5-4,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 14, 1985: 24.
14 There had been another out at the plate earlier in the second inning, albeit not one involving Clemente. Mike Shannon was out on an unusual 4-2-5-4 play with second baseman Bill Mazeroski making the out at home plate.
15 A photograph of the play appeared on page 10 of the July 8 Columbus Dispatch.
17 Richard Dozer, “Pirates’ Late Rallies Slam Door on Cubs 9-2,” Chicago Tribune, June 26, 1972: C1, C6. The Chicago Defender said the ball was caught by center fielder Al Oliver, who had raced in, caught it, “did a bellyflop but hung onto the ball,” and then flipped it to Clemente, who threw to Alley for the out. See Norman O. Unger, “Fergie on Bench, Brightens Day,” Chicago Defender, June 26, 1972: 28. Retrosheet, however, has two separate scoresheets for the game, both in agreement with the Tribune account.