By Steve Kallas
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(Editor’s note: Monday marks the 40th anniversary of Roberto Clemente’s tragic death.)
We live in a world where many people never saw players like Roberto Clemente or Sandy Koufax or Mickey Mantle actually play baseball. So, now, Koufax was “overrated,” as one “expert” said (preposterous, of course). Or Mickey Mantle “only” hit .298 lifetime so, how good could he really have been? (one of the greatest players ever, that’s how good). Or, in the case of Roberto Clemente, he didn’t have power, so he can’t be an all-time great. One needs to look at the facts to (maybe) understand the greatness of Clemente. Surviving film clips should be reviewed as well. This is about Clemente, considered by a few contemporaries to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, players of all-time. Yet considered by many modern day “experts” to be not worthy of a mention.
As many of you know, the anniversary of the death of the great Roberto Clemente is on December 31. In 1972, Clemente was flying a rescue mission to help the victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua when his plane went down and his body was never found.
Whenever people talk about the great talents of Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, they always come to what was viewed to be his major weakness, that thing that kept him from being considered in the same class with the all-time greats. Clemente really didn’t have power, they say, he only hit 240 home runs, how can he be considered one of the all-time greats if he didn’t hit a lot of homers?, etc. Well, a review of what some of his contemporaries thought, plus a review of the field (Forbes Field) he played in for most of his career, will show that Clemente really did have excellent power and should not be left out of the all-time greats conversation.
“HE PLAYED IN AN AIRPORT”
This all started a few years ago when Hall of Famer Duke Snider was on a New York radio station talking about, among others, the great Clemente. Clemente has always been considered an all-time great player, EXCEPT for that one fact — he didn’t have power. When the interviewer said what everybody has repeated through the years – that Clemente didn’t have power, that he only hit 240 home runs – Snider interrupted and said, with surprise in his voice, “Clemente had power. HE PLAYED IN AN AIRPORT.”
This statement sounded surprising to those who knew that Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner, a Pittsburgh Pirate great (1946-53) right before Clemente (1955-72), had led the National League in home runs for seven consecutive seasons. How could Kiner, a prolific home run hitter, have done so well in Forbes Field while Clemente only managed to hit 240 home runs in his career?
Well, here’s the answer to that question: In 1947, the Pirates talked legendary player Hank Greenberg into coming to Pittsburgh to play for the Pirates. According to various reports, in order to sweeten the pot for Greenberg, the Pirates decided to move their bullpens to left-field. Forbes Field, a massive ballpark first used by the Pirates in 1909, was 365 feet down the left-field line, 406 in left-center going out to 457 in deep left-center.
Prior to the 1947 season at Forbes Field, according to baseball-statistics.com, a “double-bullpen, 30 feet wide by 200 feet long, was placed behind the left field wall – it significantly cut the distances in left field, reducing the left field line from 365 to 335 feet and the left-center power alley from 406 to 355 feet.” In Green Cathedrals by Philip Lowry, the dimensions of Forbes Field are listed as “Left Field, 365 (1930), 335 (1947), 365 (1954), Left Center, 406 (1942), 355 (1947), 406 (1954).”
The New York Times, in its April 19, 1947 edition, described the new “Greenberg Gardens” as a “tailor-made home-run area in left field. The “Gardens” are an enclosed bullpen which shortens the 365-foot distance to the left-field wall by 30 feet.”
Well, that answers a few questions.
The Gardens, re-named by some as Kiner’s Korner since Greenberg retired after the 1947 season, stood at Forbes Field until Kiner, in a dispute with Branch Rickey, was traded during the 1953 season. According to the New York Times, Rickey tried to immediately take down the bullpen and shorter fence, but the National League ordered Rickey to leave it up until the end of the 1953 season, when it was removed. The old, absurd pre-1947 dimensions of Forbes Field were restored for the 1954 season (to have an understanding of how massive Forbes Field was, they stored the batting cage in left-center field ON the field DURING the games).
Of course, Roberto Clemente was a rookie for the Pittsburgh Pirates one year later in 1955.
CLEMENTE’S “MINOR-LEAGUE” CAREER
Some of you know the crazy rule that existed in baseball in the 1950s. If you signed a player for more than $5,000, if that player was not put on the major-league roster for that season, he could then be drafted after a year in the minors in the “Rule 5” draft. According to the excellent Clemente biography by David Maraniss, this is what happened to Roberto Clemente.
After a glowing report from Dodger superscout Al Campanis (interestingly, he gave Clemente an A+ for power), Clemente was originally signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers (to keep him away from the New York Giants so they wouldn’t have Willie Mays and Clemente in the same outfield) and his bonus and contract made him someone who would have to be in the majors or subject to a draft at the end of the year. The Dodgers did the same thing a year later with a pitcher named Sandy Koufax – but the Dodgers kept him on the major league team in 1955.
They tried to “hide” Clemente in the minors in 1954 but many knew of his great talents. So, while Koufax was “protected,” Clemente had a bizarre one-year minor-league career – only 87 games, only 147 at-bats, only a .257 average.
The hiding didn’t work and the Pirates took Clemente with the first pick of the Rule 5 draft.
CLEMENTE’S MAJOR LEAGUE CAREER
So Roberto Clemente showed up at the airport (Forbes Fields) in 1955 as a very young (20), very inexperienced (147 minor league at-bats), very out of place (in Pittsburgh) player. Below is a discussion of some of the power he showed and what some of his contemporaries thought of him from a power perspective:
ROGERS HORNSBY – A coach for the Chicago Cubs in 1959, the Hall of Famer witnessed Clemente hitting a home run out of Wrigley Field on May 17, 1959 that landed on Waveland Avenue, well over 500 feet. It went out to the left of the scoreboard in center field. Hornsby said it was one of the longest home runs he had ever seen in his 45 years in baseball.
SANDY KOUFAX — Two Koufax stories: 1) In the excellent Clemente biography by Kal Wagenheim, Koufax said that the longest ball ever hit off him to the opposite field was “hit off me by Clemente at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1961. It was a fastball on the outside corner, and he drove it out of the park; not over the fence, but he knocked it way out.” Koufax went on to say that Clemente “could hit a PITCHOUT for a home run”; 2) On May 31, 1964 at Forbes Field, Clemente hit a home run off Koufax 30 feet high off the light tower in center field. Koufax said he couldn’t recall anyone hitting one longer off him (from “Tales of the Tape”).
JOHNNY PESKY – Many don’t know that the face of the Boston Red Sox was a coach for manager Harry Walker of the Pirates when Clemente played in Pittsburgh. Two Pesky stories: 1) The Wagenhem bio talks of the day (May 15, 1967) when Clemente hit three home runs and a double against Cincinnati, driving in all seven runs for the Pirates in an 8-7 loss. Pesky, who played with the great Ted Williams, said he had never seen such a fearful display of power in one game; 2) According to the Maraniss bio, Pesky told writer Les Biederman of the Pittsburgh Press that the only hitter he had ever seen get solid wood on the ball time after time as much as Clemente was his [Pesky’s] friend Ted Williams.
HARRY WALKER – Walker was the manager of the Pirates in 1966. Before the season started, he went to Clemente and told him (according to the Wagenheim bio) “Roberto, I wish this year you would go for power, hit 25 homers and get 115 runs batted in. We will need it for the pennant.” Clemente went out and, in his MVP season of 1966, hit 29 home runs and drove in 119 runs (and scored 105). This was staggering because it was (and remains today) the third highest home run total for a right-handed batter in the history of Forbes Field (excluding, of course, the Greenberg Gardens years of 1947-1953).
CLEMENTE v. STARGELL v. KINER – It’s obviously hard to compare, but understand a few things about this trio. Clemente only averaged about 5-6 home runs a year at Forbes Field, a place he played in for fifteen-and-a-half seasons. Stargell only averaged about 10 home runs a year at Forbes Field in the seven-and-a-half seasons he played there. Yes, Stargell was lefty and it was just about equally hard to hit home runs for lefties (although the deepest part of the park was 457 to left center).
The Kiner comparisons are fascinating. Kiner played one year, his first, at Forbes Field when it was an airport (the year before Hank Greenberg came to Pittsburgh). In that first year (old dimensions), Kiner hit 23 home runs. Then, with the advent of Greenberg Gardens, Kiner hit 51, 40, 54, 47, 42 and 37 in his next six seasons (Kiner often credited his mentor, Hank Greenberg, with teaching him (Kiner) how to pull the ball, making him especially deadly with Greenberg Gardens in left to left center field at Forbes Field).
This is not to detract from Ralph Kiner in any way. In fact, his 23 home runs in 1946 led the National League. But Kiner, according to The Baseball Biography Project, only hit eight home runs (of his 23) at Forbes Field in 1946. In 1947, with the advent of Greenberg Gardens, he hit 28 (of his 51) at Forbes Field. In his one season playing his home games in the old Forbes Field, Kiner hit 23 home runs for the season. In the next six seasons playing his home games in the “new” Forbes Field, Kiner AVERAGED over 45 home runs per year.
Give that a little thought when you think about Roberto Clemente.
ALL-TIME LEADING HOME RUN HITTERS AT FORBES FIELD – Without question, this is a misleading stat. But it’s presented to show the futility of trying to hit home runs at Forbes Field. The all-time list at Forbes Field, according to baseball-statistics.com, is 1) Ralph Kiner, 175, 2) Roberto Clemente, 85, 3) Willie Stargell, 74, 4) Frank Thomas (obviously of the old Pirates and, later, Mets, not the modern day slugger), 64, 5) Wally Westlake, 62.
Obviously, Clemente is high on the list because he played there for many years but the point here is that NOBODY could hit a lot of home runs in Forbes Field (except, again, during the Greenberg Gardens years).
PIE TRAYNOR AND TRIPLES – While this quote from legendary Pirate Pie Traynor wasn’t about Clemente, it makes a further point. Dave Anderson wrote a column in the New York Times on July 11, 1970 (just before the closing of Forbes Fields), discussing the fascinating point that, in the 61-year history of Forbes Field, a no-hitter was never pitched there. Anderson quoted Traynor as saying: “The reason for that is that it’s a ‘triple’ ball park, not a ‘homer’ ball park. Hitters shorten their swings.”
Fascinating stuff. On more than one occasion, Clemente told sportswriters about the absurdity of trying to hit home runs in Forbes Field. In 1964, for example, Clemente told a sportswriter that “As long as I’m in Forbes Field I can’t go for home runs; line drives, yes.” Indeed, Clemente hit 166 triples in his career, playing home games for fifteen-and-a-half seasons in a “triple” park. Who knows how many of them would have been home runs in a “normal” park or in Greenberg Gardens?
Interestingly, to almost prove Traynor’s point, two no-hitters (by Bob Gibson in 1971 and John Candelaria in 1976) were thrown in the Pirates new stadium, Three Rivers Stadium, in the first seven seasons there. It seems that Traynor had a point.
1967 – With information at baseball-reference.com, a review was made of virtually every Clemente home at-bat in the 1967 season. The goal was to try to get a feel for how many additional home runs Clemente might have hit in Greenberg Gardens or a more “reasonable” ballpark. Not scientific, but the results are interesting. In 1967 home games, Clemente hit approximately 18-20 balls that were fly outs to left or center (including sac flies) or extra base hits to the outfield (mainly triples). There were eight home games for which actual at-bats were not available.
An exercise in futility? Not really, because it’s just to make the additional point that Clemente had power that didn’t show up in his home run totals because of where he played in the 1950s and 60s.
SANDY KOUFAX AND FERGUSON JENKINS – Clemente didn’t hit more than six home runs against any individual pitcher. But the two that he did hit six home runs off, Sandy Koufax and Ferguson Jenkins, are two Hall of Fame pitchers. Interestingly, he hit six off Koufax in only 107 at-bats. He hit six off Jenkins in only 94 at-bats. Both work out to 30+ homer seasons with about 500 or so at-bats.
THE 1971 WORLD SERIES – The Baltimore Orioles, big favorites to beat the Pirates, didn’t really know how to pitch to Clemente (not that anyone else did). Clemente stood far away from home plate and he would often be pitched away under the theory that he couldn’t reach the outside pitch. Of course, he had excellent power the other way and many of his blasts were to right and right-center field. But National Leaguers knew it was a waste of time to pitch him inside. Clemente once said “pitch me inside and I’ll hit the ball to [expletive deleted] McKeesport.”
In the ’71 World Series, Clemente’s (finally) national recognition MVP World Series, according to the Maraniss bio, the Orioles had decided to pitch Clemente inside (contrary to Gene Mauch’s (Phillies manager) Clemente Rule – “Don’t pitch him inside. He’ll kill you.”). This led to his .414 Series average. In Game 6, Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer came inside to Clemente in the first inning. He hit a triple down the left field line. In the third inning, Palmer went outside to Clemente. He hit a home run to right field. With the game tied at 2 in the tenth inning, Dave Cash singled but then stole second for the Pirates. Unfortunately, that allowed the Orioles to intentionally walk Clemente. The Orioles would win, 3-2, setting up Game 7.
Oriole ace Mike Cuellar started Game 7 for the Orioles. Long-time rivals, Clemente turned on an inside pitch and hit it 390 feet over the left field wall after Cuellar had retired the first 11 Pirates he had faced in the pivotal game. The run turned out to be the difference as the Pirates won Game 7, 2-1, and the World Series. Clemente had at least one hit in every game and had two doubles, a triple and two home runs in the seven-game Series.
OTHER CLEMENTE MOON SHOTS – By no means all-inclusive, here is a list of other Clemente notable smashes:
- In 1955, according to the Wagenheim bio, Clemente hit a Warren Spahn pitch OVER the scoreboard in left field at Forbes Field. The New York Times, on February 11, 1954, explained what a shot this would have to be when, discussing the tear down of Greenberg Gardens, the Times wrote “More important, however, is that instead of clearing a twelve-foot screen to land in homer territory, the hitter will now have to power his drive over the left-field scoreboard, which rises 25 feet 6 inches.” A few days later, Clemente hit a 430- foot triple off Johnny Antonelli.
- On September 8, 1958, Clemente tied a National League record by hitting three triples in one game.
- Early in the 1960 season, Clemente went three for three against Cincinnati, with two doubles, a single and, according to the Maraniss bio, “a long sacrifice fly that would have been a home run in any other park but was hauled in by Vada Pinson near where the batting cage was stored at the 457-foot sign in deepest left center.”
- On May 6, 1960, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, Clemente hit a ball pitched by Sam Jones into a terrific wind. According to the Wagenheim bio, “the shocked fans and players saw the home run ball land 450 feet away as Roberto calmly trotted around the bases.” According to Tales of the Tape, “Despite the wind, the ball carried into the remote bleacher area beyond the left field fence. Clemente and Ernie Banks are the only two visiting players to reach that remote area of the park (along with two Giant players).”
- In June of 1966, according to the Wagenheim bio, during an 11-game home stand, Clemente hit .444 with 28 hits and six home runs. Two of the home runs were to deep right center in Forbes Field, landing “between the Barney Dreyfuss monument and a light tower close to the 436-foot marker.” During that home stand, according to “Tales of the Tape,” one of those home runs, hit off the Cardinal’s Al Jackson, was hit so far that Cardinal’s outfielder Curt Flood said, “I just didn’t think anyone could hit a ball that far.”
- On September 2, 1966, Clemente got his 2,000th hit off Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins, a mammoth blast into the upper deck in right field at Forbes Field.
SO, WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?
This is in no way meant to say that Clemente had the power of a Mantle or a Mays or an Aaron (even Clemente admitted that wasn’t true). But it is to say that Roberto Clemente certainly had excellent power and, if he had played somewhere else (or during the time of Greenberg Gardens), his home run totals would have been much higher. As Kal Wagenheim astutely noted in his Clemente bio, “Many a home run in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Cincinnati, or Philadelphia would have fallen innocuously into the leftfielder’s glove at Forbes Field.”
Nor could you compare Clemente’s power to that of the great Joe DiMaggio, who hit 361 home runs playing in his own airport at the old Yankee Stadium.
But Clemente had his moments (and many of them) where he showed what he could do. He understood early on that it was pure folly to try and hit home runs at Forbes Field. He stood far away from the plate, so most people would pitch him away. He had stunning opposite field power for his time or any time. He played mostly in the pre-1969, high mound “pitchers” era. He came to the majors before he was ready, was thrown into the deep water and survived and then thrived. The Maraniss bio lays out well the many injuries that Clemente had and played with throughout his career. Despite those, he wound up passing the great Honus Wagner for most games played by a Pittsburgh Pirate.
To sum up, any conversation about the greatest baseball players ever is simply incomplete (and misguided) without the great Roberto Clemente’s name in the conversation. He may not be a top five player of all-time, but once you go to the bottom of the top 10, and certainly to the top 15 or top 20, Roberto Clemente’s name is in the mix and on the list.
Remember, HE PLAYED IN AN AIRPORT (Thank you, Duke Snider).