Greats of the Game: Roberto Clemente

Random essays inspired by baseball cards

This kicks off an informal series in homage to Joe Posnanski’s book, “The Baseball 100.”

Joe ranked the 100 best players of all time, then wrote a personal essay about each one. Instead of Joe’s list, I’m using one of my favorite sets — 2001 Fleer Greats Of The Game — to identify baseball “greats,” then writing thoughts that come to mind. You won’t find much independent research here, and little to zero saber metrics.

Mostly these are personal reflections of a kid coming of age in the mid-1970s, well before ESPN, cell phones, computers, and social media, and should be viewed through that lens. Some memories might be inaccurate. But they’re true nonetheless. I hope there is something here that baseball fans of all ages can appreciate.

If you enjoy this, please like/share/comment; it’ll inspire me to write more. And hey, It’s all just for fun.

2001 Fleer Greats of the Game

#1 Roberto Clemente

OF, Pittsburgh Pirates

Maybe I watched Roberto Clemente in his epic 1971 World Series, when he hit .414, made several outstanding defensive plays, and earned the Series MVP award. Probably I did. Probably the astonishing images now viewed in grainy YouTube footage unfolded live on my TV screen in real time. But I don’t remember any of them in particular. What I do remember is Dec. 31, 1972: the day Clemente’s plane carrying earthquake relief supplies crashed into the ocean. It was a national tragedy — an international tragedy, as Roberto was headed home to Puerto Rico. I was 11. It was my first brush with an athlete dying in his prime. And that, unfortunately, is my overriding memory of Roberto Clemente.

Which is a shame. Because Clemente was a HELLUVA baseball player. A four-time batting champion and 12-time All Star, the back of this card informs us. Clemente played 18 seasons. That averages out to a batting title about once every four years. His rifle throwing arm helped him lead the NL in assists five times and win 12 straight Gold Glove Awards. Wow!

In 15 seasons from 1958-’72, Roberto failed to hit .300 only thrice; in those years he batted .289, .296, and .291. From 1965–70 he had double-digit triples each season! Even in his final campaign, at age 38, he legged out seven three-baggers. He never hit fewer than 17 doubles. Though his top home run mark was a modest 29, he slugged double-digit dingers in each of his final 15 seasons. He finished with exactly 3,000 hits, 240 homers, and a career batting average of .317.

How does that translate into modern saber metrics such as WAR, OPS+, DRS, and RF? Very well I’m sure. It’s all available if you care to look it up. Me, Ill pass. I don’t need fancy acronyms to certify the talents of Roberto Clemente. I might not remember much from the ’71 Series, but I remember enough. I’ve seen the YouTube clips. And I know, deep in my soul, that Clemente merits a bust with Ken Griffey Jr., Willie Mays, and Barry Bonds on the Mount Rushmore of five-tool players for the 20th Century. I was lucky to have caught a glimpse.

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