He was a player for whom the numbers could never do justice, but the numbers were impressive nonetheless. In 1961 Clemente hit as if he had something to prove: .351 with 23 home runs. Still, it wasn't until 1966, when the Pirates asked him to go for the fences and he responded by hitting .317 with 29 homers and 119 RBIs, that he was given the MVP award, and finally he had his proof.
How good a hitter was Clemente? From 1961 until '72, Clemente's average season was an MVP season: .331, 17 homers and 81 RBIs. His .317 lifetime average was the highest for any righthanded hitter since Joe DiMaggio (.325) retired after the 1951 season.
"He had the ability," says Blass, "to turn 10-year veterans into 10-year-old fans when they watched him play. He excited guys who had been around the game for years." Indeed, baseball old-timers—usually inclined to scoff at younger players—regularly threw hosannas his way. Casey Stengel said Clemente was the best rightfielder he had ever seen, and he had pretty much seen them all. The Pirates' Flail of Fame third baseman Pie Traynor had played with Hall of Fame rightfielder Paul Waner, but he said it was no contest—Clemente was a better player.
Standing away from the plate, with his thick-handled 36-ounce bat, Clemente swung at nearly everything: but instead of stepping into the ball, he would move his left foot inside or outside, depending on the pitch. "Pitch me outside," he would say, "and I will hit .400. Pitch me inside, and you will not find the ball." Asked how to pitch to Clemente, Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax said, "Roll the ball." Dodger pitcher Jim Brewer once remarked, "Roberto Clemente will hit .320 the year after he dies."
As an outfielder, Clemente showed so little regard for fences that he sometimes came away from a catch bleeding. Such was the case in 1960 at Forbes Field when Clemente took off after a Willie Mays line drive, with the Pirates leading the Giants 1-0 in the seventh. At the last moment he slammed into the concrete wall. The fans were silent as Clemente staggered to his feet, blood gushing from his chin. But then he held up his glove, with the ball safely inside it, and the stadium exploded. People who saw that catch say it was superior to the legendary catch Mays made in the 1954 World Series.
Perhaps the ultimate evidence of the Clemente talent was his right arm. He led National League outfielders in assists five times, an achievement made more amazing by the fact that runners stopped challenging him, oh, around 1955. He once threw out Lee May of the Reds, who was trying to score from third on a single to right! His work ethic was as strong as his arm. He often came out early with a coach, who hit fly balls off the wall so that Clemente could retrieve them and throw them into metal baskets he had placed on second and third.
"He never made a mistake in the field," says Joe Brown, who was the Pirates' general manager from 1956 to 1976. "He never threw to the wrong base, never failed to take the extra base, never was thrown out trying for the extra base. He was simply the most intelligent player who ever played for me." Clemente once scored a winning run from first base after running through the third base coach's sign. As he later explained it, with a wink, "I have a sore foot. I didn't want to play anymore tonight, so I tried to end the game."
While his play was the stuff of legend, so was his supposed hypochondria. "Sometimes when I wake up in the morning," he once said, "I hurt so much I pray that I am still sleeping." Many of his medical problems had to do with his back, which he injured in a 1954 automobile accident, so he plunged himself into the world of chiropractic medicine. That's why he routinely rotated his neck, to snap the vertebrae into place. But in addition to backaches, Clemente also suffered from headaches, stomach aches, malaria, insomnia, tonsillitis, a hematoma in his right thigh, bone chips in his right elbow, a strained right instep, sore shoulders and various pulled muscles. He wasn't afraid to tell anyone about them, either. Asked how he felt one spring, he said, "Well, my bad shoulder feels good, but my good shoulder feels bad."
But as Clemente often pointed out. "If I was a hypochondriac, I wouldn't be playing." His various injuries and imaginative ailments did sometimes lead to feuds with his managers and the Pirates' team physician, Dr. Joseph Finegold. The good doctor was especially milled when Clemente would take off for Puerto Rico to see his personal healer. Arturo García. "The man is not a doctor," Finegold once said of García. "He is a...a masseur."
Unfortunately for Clemente, his constant moans fed the stereotype that Latin players were somehow malingerers, and that was a misconception he despised. "He was our Jackie Robinson," says Mayoral. "He was on a crusade to show the American public what a Hispanic man, a black Hispanic man, was capable of."