PITTSBURGH PIRATE BASEBALL LEGEND LIVES ON IN HISTORY
Signed Photograph; Roberto Clemente making his 3000th hit; 1972; 8 inches by 10 inches; sold for $8,750.
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's & SCP Auctions.
I grew up in Pittsburgh during the baseball reign of Roberto Clemente. On long muggy afternoons, Bob Prince, the radio voice for the Pittsburgh Pirates could be heard squealing through my transistor radio as the right fielder gracefully dove for a deep high fly ball.
I use the word grace because that’s the best word I can think of to describe how the man played baseball. When it counted most, Clemente was right there with a lightening fast arm, a winning hit, or a seemingly impossible catch that would clinch the game.
"Clemente could field the ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania," broadcaster Vin Scully once said.
As a kid, the roar of the crowd came thundering through my little radio loud-and-clear when Clemente smacked a ball over the left field fence.
"He's the strangest hitter in baseball, figure him one way and he'll kill you another," said Sandy Koufax, former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher.
If there was ever as perfect player Clemente was it. Fans lined up at the gates of Forbes Field to get in and watch him play when he was in town.
Clemente led the National League in batting average four times in 1961, 1964, 1965, and 1967. He led the NL in hits twice in1964 and 1967, and won the MVP award for his 1966 season, when he hit .317 while setting career highs in home runs (29) and RBI (119). He was also the first Latino inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Clemente had heart and made all of us in the rust belt city feel a little bit better about ourselves.
He was born in Barrio San Anton in Carolina, Puerto Rico on August 18, 1934. The youngest of seven children, he grew up poor. In his spare time Clemente played baseball on the sandlots of his home town.
In 1952, he was spotted by a scout from a professional hardball team in Puerto Rico and offered a contract. He signed for $40 per month, plus a $500 bonus. In 1954, Clemente began his move up when he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. They sent him to their minor league team in Montreal.
The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Clemente in 1955 and he started as their right fielder. By 1960, he was a powerhouse player in the major leagues. He also helped lead the Pirates to win both the National League pennant and the World Series.
"I would be lost without baseball. I don't think I could stand being away from it as long as I was alive," he said.
And he seemed unstoppable until Dec. 31, 1972.
Clemente was directing a relief mission to earthquake torn Nicaragua. He and four others loaded a small DC-7 plane with food and supplies that never got past the San Juan border. The plane went down into 30 feet of water in the Caribbean Sea. Everyone aboard died.
The 38-year-old baseball legend was gone and with him went the optimism of many Pittsburgh baseball fans.
On April 24, Sotheby’s and SCP Auctions featured a selection of Clemente items in its Sports memorabilia auction. Here are some current values.
Handwritten Letter; in Spanish to Pedro Vasquez; Puerto Rican baseball league; 1961; $4,375.
Signed Contract; Puerto Rican league; for Los Nuevos Senadores team; winter season games; 1965-66; $5,000.
Signed Photograph; making his 3000th hit; 1972; 8 inches by 10 inches; $8,750.
Signed Baseball; green ink signature spans the sweet spot; $15,000.
Batting Helmet; game worn; caught by fan in box seats; when Clemente threw it after striking out; circa 1960s; $32,200.
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