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Roberto Clemente: Career retrospective | Yardbarker

Typically, when we write career retrospectives, usually we are talking about living legends and can talk about their post-career lives. They turn to television or coaching and make Hall of Fame speeches. Unfortunately, none of that was possible for Roberto Clemente. His incredible career, and life, were cut short tragically. And yet, even in death his impact – both on and off the field – is still being felt. Let’s take a look back at everything Clemente managed to achieve before he was taken away from us far too soon.


1 of 20

Clemente begins his career in Puerto Rico

clemente begins his career in puerto rico

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Clemente was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, the youngest of seven children. He began playing baseball in high school, and when he was 18 Clemente became a professional when he signed to play with Cangrejeros de Santurce, where he was a bench player.


2 of 20

Clemente is signed…by the Dodgers franchise

clemente is signed…by the dodgers franchise

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Clemente may be viewed as the quintessential Pittsburgh Pirate, but that’s not where his career on the mainland began. While he was playing pro ball down in Puerto Rico, he drew the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers. They signed him to a contract for their Triple-A affiliate the Montreal Royals, thus beginning Clemente’s minor league career.


3 of 20

Beginnings in Montreal

beginnings in montreal

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Roberto moved to Montreal in 1954 to begin playing for the Royals. There were some issues adjusting, naturally, especially given the language barrier. Fortunately, he had some bilingual teammates to help him. Despite his promise as a player, Clemente actually didn’t play a ton in his time with the Royals.


4 of 20

The Pirates draft Clemente first overall

the pirates draft clemente first overall

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Baseball was different for the ‘50s. Though the Dodgers had signed Clemente to a minor league contract, he was not bound to the franchise. He played for the Royals, which made him eligible for the MLB Draft. The Pirates had been scouting Clemente’s teammate pitcher Joe Black when pitching coach Clyde Sukeforth noticed Clemente. Sukeforth says he told Montreal Macon manager that day to take care of Clemente, because the Pirates were going to take him first overall. Indeed, Sukeforth and Pittsburgh were true to their word in 1954.


early struggles

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Clemente joined the Pirates for the 1955 season, but it was not the easiest transition. For starters, he missed time with injury stemming from a car accident in Puerto Rico. Second, Clemente had to deal with being not only Caribbean but of black ancestry, and Jackie Robinson had only debuted seven years earlier. In his first season, Clemente batted .255 and had a sub-.300 on-base percentage.


6 of 20

A historical moment

a historical moment

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The 1956 season went a bit better for Clemente. Not only did he hit .311, but he was also responsible for what is the only documented inside-the-park walk-off grand slam in MLB history. It would still be until 1958 until the Pirates had a winning season, though.


7 of 20

Clemente is an All-Star, and the Pirates are champs

clemente is an all-star, and the pirates are champs

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By 1960, the Pirates were turning things around, and Clemente was a big reason why. He made the first of his 15 All-Star Games, and Pittsburgh won 95 games to take the National League pennant. The Pirates beat the Yankees in the World Series, giving Clemente his first championship.


8 of 20

Roberto wins his first Gold Glove and batting title

roberto wins his first gold glove and batting title

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The next season wasn’t quite as good for the Pirates, but it was a great season personally for Clemente. He won his first batting title by hitting .351, and on top of that he also won his first of a whopping 12 Gold Gloves.


9 of 20

Two more batting titles

two more batting titles

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Hitting for average was perhaps Clemente’s greatest strength as a player (while he was defensively a strong player, advanced defensive stats aren’t quite as kind to him as the narratives of the time were). In 1964 and 1965 he won back-to-back batting titles in the National League.


10 of 20

Clemente wins NL MVP

clemente wins nl mvp

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In 1966, Clemente put up the kind of counting stats that voters loved, including 29 homers and 119 RBI. He also slashed .317/.360/.536 while playing excellent defense in Pittsburgh’s outfield. Clemente won the National League MVP for his efforts, beating out Hank Aaron’s 44 homers and Sandy Koufax winning the pitching triple crown.


11 of 20

Roberto has his best season at the plate

roberto has his best season at the plate

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

As good as 1966 was for Clemente, the 1967 season was actually even better. He won his final batting title by hitting .357, the best of his career. Clemente also hit 23 home runs and 110 RBI as well. He posted a 7.7 WAR, also the best of his career, but could not take home a second MVP award.


12 of 20

The Pirates move from Forbes Field to Three Rivers Stadium

the pirates move from forbes field to three rivers stadium

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The Pirates called Forbes Field home from 1906 through 1970, which meant that Clemente spent many years patrolling that outfield. During the 1970 season, though, the Pirates made the move to Three Rivers Stadium. It was rough for Clemente, who noted he had spent half his life playing at Forbes Field. Early in the life of Three Rivers the Pirates had a Roberto Clemente Night, celebrating him and his Puerto Rican heritage.


13 of 20

Pittsburgh wins another World Series, and Clemente is the MVP

pittsburgh wins another world series, and clemente is the mvp

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Clemente and the Pirates returned to the World Series in 1971, where they faced off with the defending champions the Baltimore Orioles. Baltimore were favorites, but the Pirates were able to win the series in seven games. Clemente hit .414 in the World Series and hit a home run in Pittsburgh’s 2-1 win in Game 7. This led to Roberto being named World Series MVP.


14 of 20

Clemente gets his 3,000th hit

clemente gets his 3,000th hit

Morris Berman/MLB Photos via Getty Images

In 1972, Clemente turned 38 and was slowing down a bit as a player. Injuries limited him to 102 games, though he still hit .312 that season. One of those hits came on September 30, when he racked up his 3,000th hit, fittingly in front of his home crowd. This would be the final hit of Clemente’s career.


15 of 20

Roberto sets a Pirates record

roberto sets a pirates record

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While Clemente didn’t bat again in the 1972 season after getting his 3,000th hit, he did serve as a defensive replacement in an October game that served as another milestone. By appearing in that game, Clemente passed Honus Wagner for most games played as a Pirate.


16 of 20

Clemente’s tragic death

clemente’s tragic death

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Throughout his career, Clemente did a tremendous amount of charity work, particularly throughout Latin America. An earthquake struck Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, in December of 1972. Clemente had sent relief packages to Managua repeatedly, but they had been diverted by corrupt government officials. Given this, Clemente decided to personally partake in his fourth relief effort. The plane he chartered was understaffed and overloaded, but they took off from New York on New Year’s Eve nevertheless. Sadly, the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean that night, with everybody on board, Clemente included, dying in the accident.


17 of 20

A posthumous Hall of Fame induction

a posthumous hall of fame induction

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Traditionally, a player had to be retired for five years prior to their induction in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Given the tragic circumstances surrounding Clemente, though, baseball moved to change the rules. If a player has passed away, it’s only six months until a player becomes eligible. Clemente was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in March of 1973 with 92.7 percent of the vote.


18 of 20

The Pirates retire Clemente’s number

the pirates retire clemente’s number

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While Clemente wore 13 for his first six weeks as a Pirate, he then switched to the number 21, which he wore for the rest of his career. As perhaps the most-iconic Pirates player ever, naturally Pittsburgh retired his number. They also built a statue of him in front of PNC Park, the park that replaced Three Rivers Stadium.


19 of 20

The Roberto Clemente Award is announced

the roberto clemente award is announced

Ron Vesely/MLB via Getty Images

In 1971, MLB introduced the Commissioner’s Award, which was for the player who combined skill on the field with a dedication to charity work and community improvement. However, in 1973 that award was renamed the Roberto Clemente Award, which is extremely fitting given how much he did for those in need.


20 of 20

Hall of Famer and humanitarian

hall of famer and humanitarian

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Clemente made 15 All-Star teams, won 12 Gold Gloves, four batting titles, and one MVP. He was the first Latin American and Caribbean player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2003, George W. Bush posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Since Clemente, many excellent players have come out of Puerto Rico. In a way, they all owe a debt to Clemente. While his death was truly tragic, we should never lose sight of the fact he died trying to help those in need.

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