ESPN: The enduring mystery of Roberto Clemente’s bat

From Kevin Guilfoile at on December 14, 2012, with mention of longtime SABR members Bill Guilfoile and Ted Spencer:

On Saturday, Sept. 30, 1972, Roberto Clemente arrived at Three Rivers Stadium tired and frustrated. He had 2,999 hits for his career, and the night before he would have become only the 11th player in baseball history with 3,000 hits except the official scorer had changed one of his at-bats from an infield hit to an error. Roberto hadn’t slept at all, but he desperately wanted to get to 3,000. It had been a long season. He was 38 years old and had been plagued by chronic ailments. He wanted to take a couple of games off before the playoffs.

He struck out in the first inning, but in the fourth he doubled off Jon Matlack of the Mets. No scorekeeper could take this one away. On the radio, legendary Pirates broadcaster Bob Prince was calling it: “Bobby hits a drive into the gap in left-center field! There she is!”

After the game, my dad went down to the clubhouse and waded through a media scrum to Clemente’s locker. Sportswriters were asking Roberto how he chose the bat that got him his 3,000th hit. Roberto told The New York Times that Willie Stargell helped him pick out the bat. “I haven’t been swinging good lately so Willie picked out one of my bats … a heavier one that I have been using,” Roberto is quoted as saying. “He handed it to me and told me to ‘go get it.'”

It’s hard to imagine it today, but there were only 13,000 people in attendance. The Pirates were the defending world champions. They had clinched the division title and were headed for the playoffs. One of the biggest stars in a century of Pittsburgh baseball was about to do something that only 10 players in the game had ever done. And Three Rivers Stadium was four-fifths empty. I wonder how many Pittsburghers today claim they were there to watch Clemente get No. 3,000.

When my dad got to his locker, he asked Roberto for the bat he used to get the hit. Clemente handed over the Louisville Slugger — a model U1 with a “21” scribbled on the flared knob in felt pen. Dad packed it up and sent it to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Three months later, almost to the day, Clemente would be dead. A plane he chartered to carry humanitarian supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua would crash after takeoff. No. 3,000 would be the last regular-season hit of his career.

Seven years later, Dad would take a job with the Hall of Fame, eventually becoming a vice president. That bat, one of the most popular artifacts in the museum, was in a display case just outside his office. He would have seen it every single day. No piece of memorabilia in the entire building had a more meaningful, more personal connection to my father than the bat Roberto Clemente used to collect his 3,000th hit.

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Originally published: December 17, 2012. Last Updated: December 17, 2012.