Roberto Clemente made his Major League debut on April 17, 1955, batting third and playing right field for the Pirates in the first game of a doubleheader against the Dodgers. In his first at-bat, the 20-year-old Clemente legged out an infield single on a ball to Brooklyn shortstop Pee Wee Reese, offering the Forbes Field crowd a glimpse of the drive and intensity that would come to define him.
Over the next 18 seasons, Clemente morphed from a solid player into a bona fide superstar. A gap hitter who swung at just about everything, Clemente slashed .317/.359/.475 while reaching 3,000 hits and striking out only 1,230 times. He ran the bases with abandon and got away with it thanks to his speed that allowed him to amass 166 triples.
Clemente was a must-see attraction in right field, where he won 12 consecutive Gold Glove Awards beginning in 1961. Blessed with a powerful and accurate arm, he led the National League in outfield assists five times and since 1904 ranks second in career assists as a right fielder, with 255. Basket catches, sliding catches, leaping catches -- Clemente could do it all.
A two-time World Series champion, Clemente earned 15 All-Star Game nods while claiming four NL batting titles and the 1966 NL MVP Award. He ranks 37th all-time with 94.8 Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball-Reference. At his prime, he was one of the most complete players the game has ever seen. Yet the Puerto Rican-born Clemente's greatest contribution to baseball might have come as an advocate for minorities, especially Latinos, who to this day revere him as a trailblazer.
After his death in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972 (49 years ago Friday), at age 38 while attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, Clemente was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in a special election in '73. He was the first Latino to be enshrined.
Let's revisit some of Clemente's signature moments on the field.
July 25, 1956: Inside-the-park, walk-off grand slam
There has been just one inside-the-park, walk-off grand slam in Major League history, and it was done by Clemente. His historic trip around the bases gave the Pirates a 9-8 victory over the Cubs, making it one of just 30 “ultimate grand slams” on record and the only one that was inside-the-park. (Fun fact: Clemente’s first big league homer on April 18, 1955, was also an inside-the-park homer.)
Sept. 8, 1958: A three-time three-bagger
Clemente became just the 28th player in history to triple three times in one game, tying a Modern Era record, hitting a trio of three-baggers -- in the fourth, fifth and eighth innings -- in the Pirates' 4-1 win over the Reds at Forbes Field.
July 11, 1961: Walk-off hit in the All-Star Game
In his third All-Star Game and first as a starter, Clemente delivered a walk-off single in the 10th inning that gave the NL a 5-4 victory. Pinch-hitter Hank Aaron led off the bottom half of the frame with a single off Hoyt Wilhelm and advanced to second on a passed ball. Aaron then scored on Willie Mays' double to left. The next batter, Frank Robinson, was hit by a pitch. And all of it set the stage for Clemente, who drove in Mays with a single to right.
1966: An MVP season
Clemente won his only NL MVP Award in 1966, a year in which he hit .317/.360/.536 with 29 homers and 119 RBIs, marking the first time in his career that he drove in 100 runs or more. (His best season arguably came a year later, when he finished third in the NL MVP Award voting after posting a .357/.400/.554 slash line, with 23 homers, 110 RBIs and an MLB-high 209 hits.)
May 15, 1967: Three-homer, seven-RBI performance
In what was probably the best single-game performance of his career, Clemente went 4-for-5 with three home runs and seven RBIs against the Reds at Cincinnati's Crosley Field. The first two homers were two-run shots, in the first and fifth innings. Clemente added a solo shot in the ninth, but the Pirates ended up losing, 8-7, in 10 innings.
Sept. 20, 1969: Preserving a no-hitter
It seems that every no-hitter or perfect game features one improbable defensive play that keeps the bid alive. When Bob Moose of the Pirates threw a no-hitter against the Mets at Shea Stadium, it was Clemente who did the honors, with a one-handed grab over the right-field fence in the sixth inning to rob New York third baseman Wayne Garrett.
July 24, 1970: Roberto Clemente Night at Three Rivers Stadium
Eight days after opening Three Rivers Stadium, the Pirates hosted Roberto Clemente Night in their new home and welcomed a contingent of fans from Puerto Rico for the occasion. After a ceremony on the field, Clemente hit two singles and made a pair of spectacular catches before leaving the game after six innings with a knee injury.
1971 World Series: An MVP performance
At age 37, Clemente slashed .414/.452/.759 in the 1971 Fall Classic to help lift the Pirates over the Orioles in seven games. As was the case in his first World Series in '60, Clemente hit safely in all seven contests. In the fourth inning of Game 7, he contributed a solo home run that turned out to be key in Pittsburgh’s 2-1 win. Clemente was named the MVP of the Series, becoming the first Spanish-speaking player to earn the award. In a poignant postgame moment, Clemente asked his parents in Puerto Rico for their blessing before accepting the award.
Sept. 30, 1972: 3,000th hit
With the final hit of his career -- a double to left at Three Rivers Stadium off Mets lefty Jon Matlack -- Clemente joined the storied 3,000-hit club. At the time, Clemente was just the 11th player in Major League history and the first Latino to reach that number.