First Pitch: Who Were Roberto Clemente’s Favorite Opponents, and Where Did He Prefer to Hit?

Two weeks ago we posted an article looking at how Roberto Clemente did against Hall of Fame pitchers during his career. It was a popular First Pitch topic. During an early Card of the Day article we posted here, I mentioned that I might make the 21st of every month a Clemente card in that feature. With those two things in mind, I decided to make this morning all about the Great One. This is the first of three articles on Roberto Clemente today. We start off with a look at where Clemente did his best hitting during his career.

When looking for his favorite place to hit, the obvious starting place would be against the worst teams of his era. From 1955 until 1972, seven NL teams won at least one pennant. The Dodgers won six times, the Reds and Cardinals won three times each. The Phillies, Astros and Cubs failed to win a single time. The Padres and Expos were expansion teams in 1969, so they weren’t close to winning during Clemente’s time, but he barely played against them. The Astros were an expansion team in 1962, so they seem like the most obvious choice, though the question then remains, did he like to face them better at home or on the road? I wrote this all up before looking into the actual stats, so as I’m typing this I don’t know how it plays out.

Clemente faced just 11 teams during his career, not including World Series games. We have those postseason stats, but the sample size would be too small for a comparison. The games against the Expos and Padres are also a small sample size, especially when we are looking at a specific venue that he liked for hitting, since half of the Pirates games against them were at home. Just for reference, Clemente had an .865 OPS in 48 games against Montreal and an .817 OPS against San Diego in 35 games.

The Great One had a career .834 OPS and he was surprisingly consistent against the league. His best team to face was the Astros with an .873 mark, just 39 points above his career average. His least favorite was the St Louis Cardinals with a .769 mark. Even his toughest opponent could only knock 65 points off of his career OPS. The second worst was a wide margin away from the Cardinals (relatively speaking). The Reds held him to a .796 mark in 280 games. The most average team for Clemente to face was the Mets, with an .839 OPS, just five points ahead of his career mark.

Clemente played in 23 parks during his career. Some were just a handful of times, but he batted 150+ times at 15 different places. Looking at just those places, we see that his favorite place to hit was Three Rivers Stadium, with a .906 OPS in 136 games. His favorite road spot was just behind that mark. He had a .905 OPS at Wrigley Field in 159 games, with 26 homers. That’s the highest home run total anywhere except Forbes Field.

Clemente’s least favorite spot has to be a little surprising, especially with the information we already know. He had an .839 career OPS against the Mets, but it was just .716 in 70 games at Shea Stadium. The closest to his career OPS was County Stadium in Milwaukee, where he posted an .827 mark. For the record, Clemente had an .855 OPS at Forbes Field, so he saw a nice uptick with the move to Three Rivers.

So there you have it. Clemente liked hitting at Three Rivers and Wrigley Field the most, while his favorite opponent regardless of location was the Houston Astros. Despite getting those answers, the career numbers show that he was fairly consistent no matter who he was playing. The Cardinals were the toughest opponent, partially due to Bob Gibson, who held him to a .563 OPS in 128 plate appearances. He surprisingly had trouble at Shea Stadium, despite the fact that the Mets were an expansion team, though two of their worst years happened at the Polo Grounds before they moved to Shea.





By John Dreker

Four former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date.

Mace Brown, pitcher for the 1935-41 Pirates. He spent five seasons in the minors prior to the Pirates purchasing his contract in November of 1934 from Kansas City of the American Association. Brown spent most of the 1934 season pitching for Tulsa of the Texas League, where he won 19 games. The Pirates took him to training camp in 1935 and he made the team, but would be used very little that first year. He made his big league debut on his 26th birthday. Brown had pitched in just seven of the first 84 games of the season, when he was given a spot start on July 20th during a doubleheader. He would throw a complete game against the Braves, winning 14-2. Over the next ten days, Brown got three more starts and the results got worse as he went along. He was moved back to the pen and saw limited time through mid-September. On the 16th of September, he threw one-hit ball over 5.1 innings of relief work. Pittsburgh gave him another start to end the year and he allowed one run in a complete game win over the Reds.

Brown would have a bigger role in 1936, getting ten starts throughout the year, but he got more work during his 37 relief appearances. Eleven times that season he pitched four or more innings in relief, including July 30th, when he threw seven shutout innings in a 5-3 win against the Braves. He threw a total of 165 innings, winning ten games, with a 3.87 ERA. In 1938, he pitched 50 games, 48 in relief. He won seven games and saved another seven, which would’ve led the league, although saves weren’t an official stat back then. In 1938, Brown became the first reliever to ever pitch in the All-Star game. He made 49 relief appearances that season, pitching a total of 132.2 innings. He won 15 games that year, pitching two or more innings 32 times. His season didn’t have a good ending though. Late in the year, he gave up a game-winning homer to the Cubs’ Gabby Hartnett. Referred to as the “Homer in the Gloamin”, it helped the Cubs to the World Series over the Pirates, who were leading the NL for half of the season.

In 1939, Brown began the year in his normal relief role, but after 7.2 shutout innings out of the bullpen in early July, he was moved to a starting role. He made a career high 19 starts before the year was over, winning nine times and posting a 3.37 ERA in 200.1 innings. The 1940 season was just the opposite. He began the year as a starter, before going 4-6 and being moved back to the pen. It was the last full season for Brown in Pittsburgh, who won ten games and saved another seven, pitching a total of 173 innings. After just one appearance in 1941, the Pirates sold him to the Dodgers. It was a move that surprised fans who thought the Pirates were short on pitching to begin with, especially since they didn’t receive any players back in the deal. The Dodgers made an offer that the Pirates couldn’t refuse, paying a hefty cash price for the 32-year-old reliever.

Brown finished the 1941 season in Brooklyn, then moved on to the Boston Red Sox in 1942. He had a great season in 1943, posting a 2.12 ERA in 49 games, throwing a total of 93.1 innings. He spent 1944-45 serving in the Navy, then returned for one more season with the Red Sox before retiring. Brown pitched a total of 262 games with the Pirates, 55 as a starter. He threw 852.2 innings, winning 55 games, saving another 29 and posting a 3.67 ERA. In his four seasons after leaving the Pirates, he pitched only in relief, making another 125 appearances in which he picked up 21 wins and 19 saves.

Steve Pegues, outfielder for the 1994-95 Pirates. He was originally a first round draft pick of the Tigers in 1987, taken 21st overall. He spent five seasons in the Tigers organization, eventually getting to Triple-A in his last season, where he struggled at the plate. He was picked up by the Padres on waivers, playing two years at Triple-A until he was cut at the end of Spring Training in 1994. Less than a week later, he signed with the Reds. Pegues was called up to make his Major League debut on July 6th, walking in a pinch-hit appearance. It was an odd start for him, since his main problem in the minors was his inability to take walks. In his minor league career he took 122 walks in 3,661 plate appearances. After eleven games, in which he went 3-for-10 at the plate, Pegues was released by the Reds and immediately picked up by the Pirates.

In his first game in Pittsburgh, he collected three hits, including a game-tying, two-out single in the bottom of the ninth inning, in a game eventually won by the Pirates in ten innings. His rookie season was interrupted by the strike that wiped away the end of the 1994 schedule. He hit .361 in 36 at-bats between his two stops. Pegues spent the entire 1995 season on the Pirates roster, getting into 82 games. He split his time between the two corner outfield spots and pinch-hitting. He batted .246 with six homers and 16 RBIs in 171 at-bats. The Pirates released him after the season ended. He would end up playing three more years in the minors before retiring, spending time with seven different teams during those last three years.

Ed Fitz Gerald, catcher for the 1948-53 Pirates. The start of his pro career was delayed when he went straight from college to wartime duty. He signed his first pro contract in 1946, hitting .329 in 102 games split between two teams. In 1947, he played for Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League, where he hit .363 in 144 games. Pittsburgh purchased his contract at the end of 1947 and he made the 1948 club out of Spring Training. He would hit .267 with 35 RBIs that rookie season, starting 66 games behind the plate and coming off the bench another 36 times. The Pirates acquired veteran catcher Clyde McCullough in the off-season, meaning less time for Fitz Gerald. He would start just 34 games at catcher in 1949, hitting .263 with 18 RBIs in 160 at-bats. He began the year with the Pirates in 1950, but was sent to the minors a month into the season after hitting .067 in 15 at-bats. Shortly after Fitz Gerald was sent down, the Pirates also sent down Bob Chesnes, a high priced prospect. It was said at the time, that the Pirates had a $200,000 battery in the minors, claiming that each player cost the team $100,000 apiece.

After hitting .313 in 103 games, while playing for Indianapolis of the American Association, Fitz Gerald rejoined the Pirates for the 1951 season. He was the backup to McCullough to begin that year, then went to the third-string role when Pittsburgh acquired Joe Garagiola in June. Early in 1953, the Pirates sold him to the Washington Senators. Fitz Gerald would go on to play in the majors until 1959, finishing his career with the Indians. He then took up a coaching role, finishing with two years (1965-66) of managing in the minors. He finished with a .260 average in 807 major league games. He played 275 of those games while with Pittsburgh, hitting .247 with 74 RBIs.

Fred Dunlap, second baseman for the 1888-1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys, and manager for the 1889 team. He was a strong fielding second baseman, considered to be a star during his time. As a rookie in 1880, playing for the Cleveland Blues, he led the NL in doubles and led all second basemen in assists with 290, finishing third in fielding percentage. The next year he hit .325 with 60 runs scored in 80 games (the team played 85 games that year). In 1882, he became the player/manager and hit .280 with 68 runs scored in 84 games, leading the league again in assists (297) for second basemen, while getting the most total chances. After hitting .326 with 81 runs scored in 1883, Dunlap moved to the newly-formed Union Association, one of the few star players to make that move. The UA was considered a Major League, but the play was not on par with either the American Association or the National League. Dunlap became the instant star of the league, once again taking the player/manager role, finishing with a league leading .412 average, while scoring 160 runs in 101 games. He also led all UA second basemen in putouts, assists and fielding percentage. His team won the UA title with a 94-19 record, going 66-16 under Dunlap.

When the league folded after one year, his St. Louis Maroons team joined the National League. Dunlap saw his numbers drop back down to normal levels. Midway through the 1886 season, he was sold to the Detroit Wolverines. He would hit .265 with 60 runs scored and 45 RBIs in 65 games for Detroit in 1887, helping them to the World Series, then played between the winner of the American Association and the National League. Detroit won the series, which lasted 15 games, although Dunlap hit just .150 in 40 at-bats. Shortly after the series ended, Pittsburgh purchased his contract for a large sum (at least $4,000) and then paid him $7,000 for the season, the highest salary of the day. He was named the team captain and the Alleghenys had high hopes for the 1888 season. Dunlap was coming off an 1887 season in which he broke his leg, missing nearly half the year. After a slow start for Pittsburgh, he again suffered an injury that put him out for awhile, a broken jaw during pre-game practice in early July. Dunap hit .262 that season, playing 82 out of a possible 139 games. In 1889, he played in 121 games, leading the league with a career high .950 fielding percentage. His offense slumped though, all the way down to a .235 average at the plate. In late July, he took over the manager position when Horace Phillips was forced to leave due to his declining health. Dunlap only lasted 17 games (7-10) before handing the reins over to center fielder Ned Hanlon, in the process, starting a Hall of Fame managerial career for Hanlon.

When the Player’s League formed in 1890, Dunlap was one of the few star players not to jump to the new league. He remained with Pittsburgh but wasn’t around for too long. Early in the year, after hitting .172 through 17 games, he was released. He played one game in the PL that year, then signed with the Washington Statesman of the American Association for the 1891 season. Just eight games into his stay there, Dunlap broke his leg for a second time, ending his baseball career. He finished his 12-year career as a .292 hitter in 965 games with 759 runs scored. Four times he led second basemen in fielding percentage and assists, while twice he led in putouts.

John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.

When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.

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