In an age of
power, the fact that Clemente has never hit more than 23 home runs (and has
never driven in more than 94 runs) weighs heavily against his prestige. There
is no doubting that his muscular arms and outsize hands are capable of power,
for one of his home runs—a shot over Wrigley Field's left-center
bleachers—stands as one of the longest smashes ever hit out of the Cub ball
park. Yet because he plays half the schedule in spacious Forbes Field, where
the man who guns for home runs undergoes traumatic revelations of inadequacy,
Roberto wisely has tailored his style to the line drive and the hard ground
ball hit through a hole. Thus he hit only 10 home runs last year, but he is
certain he can hit 20 any season he pleases, Forbes Field notwithstanding.
"If I make up
my mind I'm going to hit 20 homers this year," he bellows with indignation,
"I bet you any amount of money I can hit 20." A change of style would
do the trick, he claims, but what sort of change? Ah, Roberto becomes
tight-lipped. He is one of baseball's most sinister practitioners of
he replies. "A little change in the hands, that's all. I don't want to tell
you what it is."
In baseball any
player who obviously exaggerates simple moves is labeled a hot dog, and on two
counts Clemente seems to fall within this definition. First, he not only favors
the basket catch made famous by Mays but lends to it an added element of risk
by allowing fly balls to drop below his waist before catching them. Second,
when fielding routine singles he often underhands the ball to second base in a
great, looping arc instead of pegging it on a line.
himself, Clemente points out that both the low basket catch and the underhand
throw are nothing more than natural habits carried over from his youth, for
until he was 17 he was a softball player, not a baseball player. Not until a
softball coach named Roberto Mar�n persuaded Clemente that he might earn big
money in baseball did he turn to the sport. From the outset he was a natural
wonder, and yet a problem.
The Dodgers signed
him for a $10,000 bonus but were not quite sure what to do with him. At the
time, if a first-year player who received more than $4,000 was sent to the
minors, he not only had to stay there for a full season but would be eligible
to be drafted by another club in November. The Dodgers could have protected
Clemente from the draft by making room for him on their own roster, but they
were gunning for a third straight pennant and felt that an untested 19-year-old
would be dead weight on their backs. In the end Walter O'Malley's brain trust
assigned Roberto to Montreal but told the Montreal manager, Max Macon, to hide
him—that is, play him sparingly lest enemy bird dogs take a fancy to him.
that '54 season with a shudder. "If I struck out I stay in the lineup,"
he says. "If I played well I'm benched. One day I hit three triples and the
next day I was benched. Another time they took me out for a pinch hitter with
the bases loaded in the first inning. Much of the time I was used only as a
pinch runner or for defense. I didn't know what was going on, and I was
confused and almost mad enough to go home. That's what they wanted me to do.
That way nobody could draft me."
discomposing him, Max Macon held Roberto's batting average to .257, but a
Pirate scout named Clyde Sukeforth was on to Macon's act. One day in Richmond,
Va., before a Montreal-Richmond game, Sukeforth had seen Clemente cut loose
with a couple of eye-popping practice throws. He stayed in Richmond four days.
Macon countered by keeping Clemente on the bench except for two pinch-hitting
appearances, but Sukeforth saw enough of Clemente in batting and fielding
practice to be satisfied.
"Take care of
our boy," he said to Macon as he prepared to leave town. "You're
kidding," Macon said, trying a last-ditch con. "You don't want that
kid." Sukeforth smiled and said, "Now, Max, I've known you for a good
many years. We're a cinch to finish last and get first draft choice, so don't
let our boy get into any trouble." At $4,000, Sukeforth had the steal of
From the Dodger
viewpoint, such setbacks are all part of the game, but for reasons the Dodgers
had no knowledge of, Roberto has regarded their failure to protect him from the
draft as a betrayal of trust. The Dodgers had been his boyhood favorites. Right
after he had made a gentleman's agreement to accept their $10,000 bonus the
Braves offered him $30,000, he says, but he turned it down. "It was
hard," Roberto says, "but I said I gave the Dodgers my word." As he
sees it, the Dodgers took a faithful servant and gambled with him in the draft
pool as they would with a handful of casino chips. Teaching the Dodger front
office the importance of ethics, Roberto in the past five seasons has hit .375
against the pitching staff of Koufax, Drysdale, Osteen, Podres and Company. The
only way to pitch him, guesses Koufax hyperbolically, is to roll him the