On September 30, 1972, Roberto Clemente faced NY Mets starter Jon Matlack in the bottom of the 4th inning of a scoreless game when Roberto reached for on off-the-plate curve ball and smacked it into the gap for a double.
This would be Roberto’s 3,000th hit, and his final hit as a major league player. He would reach 3rd on a passed ball and score on Manny Sanguillén’s single. The Pirates would go on to win 5-0.
In the winter of 1972, an earthquake devastated the small nation of Nicaragua. Roberto had already built a considerable legacy of supporting struggling South American and Caribbean countries, so it surprised no one when he chartered a flight to deliver much needed supplies on New Year’s Eve. Tragically, his plane crashed en route.
To honor the game’s best right fielder, the first Latin American player to notch 3,000 hits (and the 11th player ever) and one of the greatest humanitarians to ever play the game – we organized an intimate gathering of teammates, family and friends at The Roberto Clemente Museum to celebrate Roberto’s life and his milestone 3,000th hit.
Our informal gathering was hosted by the Museum’s proprietor, Duane Rieder, moderated by WTAE’s Ryan Recker and featured Duffy Dyer – the catcher behind the plate for Roberto’s historic hit, teammate Manny Sanguillén and Roberto’s son, Roberto Clemente, Jr.
Over the course of the evening guests were treated to amazing stories and insights about Clemente from those who knew him best:
“Roberto didn’t want to hit home runs. He could have hit 40 per year, but he didn’t want to because a home run would kill a rally.” – Manny Sanguillén, catcher, Pittsburgh Pirates, 1967 – 1976, 1978 – 80
“Typically, for every hitter on the opposing team we’d come up with a scouting report on how to pitch them, what their tendencies were, what crossed them up. Except for Roberto. He moved around inside the batter’s box so much and made so many adjustments, there was no point. He was going to hit you no matter what!” – Duffy Dyer, catcher, NY Mets, 1968 – 1974, Pittsburgh Pirates, 1975-1978
“He inspired us, and he brought other people into the clubhouse to inspire us too, people from outside of baseball, like Bruno Sammartino, Satchel Paige and Muhammad Ali” – Manny Sanguillén
“I was talking to Sandy Koufax once about how to pitch to Clemente, he said the only safe place to pitch him was “On the ground” – Duffy Dyer
“I was about 8 the night he got his 3,000th hit, and playing right field for the Mets that night was Willie Mays, who had knocked his 3,000th hit two years earlier – he was the 10th player to do it. After the 4th inning was over, Willie trotted over to the Pirates dugout to congratulate my dad and shake his hand, and they both got a big ovation from the crowd at Three Rivers.” – Roberto Clemente, Jr.
“Tom Seaver was the smartest pitcher I ever worked with, and he said hands down, the hardest hitter he ever faced was Clemente.” – Duffy Dyer
Throughout the museum are amazing artifacts from Roberto’s inspiring life and career, including his 1956 offer letter from Branch Ricky, Jr., a slightly dented silver slugger bat (his kids tested it out in the backyard) and the propeller from his ill-fated flight. Roberto grew up in Carolina, Puerto Rico, the youngest of seven children. His father was a foreman on a sugar cane farm, and Roberto worked right alongside him loading and unloading trucks for the municipality. Originally, he was a track star and had Olympic aspirations before he turned his attention full-time to baseball.
Throughout his major league career, all with the Pirates, he donated a significant portion of his salary as well as time and resources to support the people of Puerto Rico. He worked tirelessly to create more opportunities for Puerto Rican athletes, better cultural understanding and social equality. He played winter ball in Puerto Rico and always donated supplies and equipment when he came back home. During the winters he spent much of his time volunteering to teach baseball at youth camps and schools, and developed a vision of creating a Sports City with modern equipment, fields and staff to provide training and opportunities for local athletes. He was unable to get funding for his facility during his lifetime, but his widow Vera was able to turn his dream into reality and opened the Sports City complex in 1974. Sports City features baseball fields, basketball courts, a swimming facility and the island’s only American football field. Sports City has been an unmitigated success and has allowed countless Puerto Rican athletes to follow their dreams, including future World Series champion, Bernie Williams, and All-Stars Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, Rubén Sierra and Roberto and Sandy Alomar.
Over the course of his career, Clemente earned 12 Gold Glove Awards, 4 National League batting titles, 12 All-Star Game selections, 2 World Series Championships, was named regular season MVP in 1966 and the World Series MVP in 1971 for his superb performance against the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles. Clemente batted .414, hit two home runs, and turned in several standout defensive plays to carry the Pirates to one of the biggest upsets in World Series history.