We can spend all day talking about Roberto Clemente’s legacy (that he was a humanitarian, the first Hispanic elected to the Hall of Fame, that his life ended providing aid to the people of Nicaragua), but we should not forget his extraordinary baseball numbers. In many ways his career was a paradox. Popular opinion views him as a power hitter, primarily because of his powerful swing, completed after his patented left-leg buckle (his leg hung and hung in the air, cocked like a gun, until slap . . .). In truth, Clemente was known among his fellow players as a slash and drive non-powerhouse, his feet digging circles in the batter’s box as he hit the ball into the gaps. He led the N.L in hits in two separate years and won four batting titles. His power? Well, frankly — he had some, but not a lot. Rather, he decided that he would be better off acclimating himself to the ugly facts of Pittsburgh’s just as ugly and more than spacious Forbes Field (I remember it as a gussied up and ready-to-burn barn), that played more like the Roman Colosseum than a mid-city diamond. You could hit gappers at Forbes, so Clemente did. He hit 29 dingers in 1966, the peak of his career.
So . . . okay. Clemente couldn’t hit the long ball that well, but at least he was fast. Really fast. Right? Well, actually . . . no. Clemente’s stolen base totals in a career spanning 18 seasons are below average for his time; in fact, they’re way below average. He never stole more than 12 in any one season. Which is nothing to brag about. But here’s the paradox. While Clemente wasn’t Maury Wills, he was probably the best player of his era in going from home to third, or first to third, or first to home. He was absolutely single-minded in hitting the ball to the gaps and then racing the throw to the bag. There are libraries full of videos of Clemente (take a look at this — arms akimbo and pumping) legging a single into a double, or a double into a triple. He won the 1971 World Series MVP (he hit .414 and smacked a home run in the seventh game) almost solely on the basis of his running, what can almost be described as his sheer desire to end up on third. He drove the Orioles crazy.
It was this, his ability to drive the ball into the gaps (and, of course, his twelve Gold Gloves — oh, and his legendary pinpoint throws to third from right field), that made his reputation. He led the National League in triples once, but came close nearly a dozen other times. He was Clemente “the gapper,” with a special all-out work ethic that allowed him to hit over .300 in twelve of his eighteen years (with a lifetime batting average of .317), stroking over 150 hits per year at the same rate in 2400-plus games. He was among the best, ever: there are 27 members of the 3000 hits club, a grouping that may (arguably) be as important — and as elite — as the 500 home runs club (of which there are, count ‘em, 25 members). As important? There’s good reason to argue that 3000 hits is actually less attainable than 500 home runs — the last major leaguer to reach that lofty mark was Craig Biggio, three years ago. Which is only to point out that, in the era of Mays and Mantle and Aaron (an era of long ball hitters), Roberto Clemente stood out as the quintessential all-out play-until-you-drop slasher. It’s what made him a legend in Pittsburgh. It’s what put him in the Hall of Fame.