Many stories have been told about the great Roberto Clemente during the years, highlighting his great batting and amazing throwing arm, as well as his humanitarian efforts and tragic ending. In celebrating of his 78th birthday today (article was written in 2012), I thought I would go a different route, other than the usual bio I do for every player.
The Pirates acquired their Hall of Fame right fielder from the Brooklyn Dodgers on November 22,1954 in the Rule 5 draft. Roberto played that 1954 season for Montreal of the International League, where he hit .257 in 83 games. His numbers were not impressive there, a .657 OPS, with just six walks, two homers and one stolen base. Certainly not numbers that scream a plus tool in any of the three batting categories of a five tool system to rate players. Clemente was just 19 years old for almost the entire season, in a league where the average age was 28.6 years old. He was on a team with names familiar to some Pirates fans, Gino Cimoli and Rocky Nelson, both members of the 1960 World Series winning team. There was also a pitcher on that Montreal team named Tommy Lasorda.
With just one season of pro ball under his belt, there wasn’t much for the average person to go on, as far as stats were concerned, so now we let The Pittsburgh Press and then other newspapers of the day from around the U.S., tell the details of what the Pirates and those around baseball were thinking that day when Pittsburgh chose Clemente.
First the few important details of that day. The Pirates were picking first in the Rule 5 draft, after losing 101 games that year. The person in charge of the draft was Branch Rickey (the pick was actually made by his son, representing the Pirates). The price of the draft pick was $4,000, though that came with some initial confusion. A pick from the International League usually cost teams $10,000, unless the player received a bonus in excess of $4,000, which Clemente did. Something Rickey Jr quickly pointed out to the Commissioner Ford Frick that day.
The pick was said to have been a surprise to everyone in the room, and thought to be another case of the Pirates “bargain hunting”, but they saw it another way, calling Clemente a sleeper pick. The paper quoted his average as “only .257” and said that he was “chiefly used for defensive purposes” in his limited time.
Roberto wasn’t used much by the Dodgers on purpose, they were hiding their young player from scouts, who still got their chance to really see him play during Winter Ball in Puerto Rico. He was batting .380 at the time the pick was made.
It wasn’t a glowing report by Branch Rickey Jr. that day to the press, saying only “He can run and throw and we think he can hit.”
One interesting thing of that day though, was despite the surprise in the room, some other teams said they would’ve taken Clemente if given the chance.
On the other side of the coin, this is how the deal was reported from the paper that covered the Dodgers, a stark contrast from the subdued Pittsburgh angle.
They called him a speedy outfielder who was a sure-fire star of the future. It goes on to say that Rickey(Sr.) “put one over” on Dodgers owner and former partner Walter O’Malley by taking his “prized farmhand.”
The New York story mentioned that Clemente received $20,000 to sign and also mentioned that the Orioles, Athletics, White Sox and New York Giants would’ve taken him with their first pick. It would certainly be hard to picture him on any of those teams and would’ve made quite a difference in the 1971 World Series if the Orioles actually picked him, that’s with the big assumption the Pirates would’ve still made it there without Clemente.
The New York Times wasn’t quite as thrilled as the other town newspaper covering the story, starting their story by calling the Rule 5 draft a “basement bargain scramble” that would have no effect on the 1955 pennant race. They made no mention of Clemente in the headlines, only noting that the A’s finally spending money for once, paying $30k for three pitchers.
At the meetings, the White Sox GM Frank Lane said that Brooklyn made a mistake by letting Clemente play Winter Ball. He is quoted as saying that he personally would’ve paid Clemente his salary from Winter Ball and had him stay home instead so no one saw him play. Lane also doubted Roberto would’ve been picked had he not played so well recently in front of scouts.
Other papers not closely associated with either team involved had another way of covering the draft details. Catcher Mickey Grasso stole the headlines from Clemente. A 35-year-old with eight years of major league experience, the last being with the Indians in 1954, where he played just four games. Grasso wound up playing eight games for the Giants in 1955, going 0-for-2 at the plate with three walks. Part of the reason Grasso was even mentioned was the fact he caught one game in the 1954 World Series, which pit his former team against his new team.
So depending on where you were at the time, the thoughts on Clemente being picked that day were different. The Pittsburgh fans got a subdued, slightly optimistic view, while people in New York got two contrasting views on the deal. One was that the Dodgers lost a sure-fire star, while the other puts down the importance of the draft and notes the lowly A’s day in the headline. Other areas of the country waited to see what Mickey Grasso could do for the World Champs, as they tried to repeat in 1955.
As a side note, within a month of the pick, Branch Rickey made one passing note while discussing the off-season, mentioning near the bottom of an interview that Clemente “may be a sleeper”. Not exactly putting confidence out there to the Pittsburgh fans, who had just witnessed the Pirates lose over 100 games for three straight years. It was likely a wise move on the part of Rickey to temper expectations short-term. Clemente hit .255 as a rookie, with five homers and just 18 walks in 124 games. The speedy outfielder stole just two bases in seven attempts as a rookie.