40 years ago Sunday, Clemente notched 3,000th and final hit
It wasn't Jon Matlack's best curve ball, said Duffy Dyer, the New York Mets catcher. It started too high, and the break could have been tighter. But the hitter still had to lunge slightly to reach the low and outside pitch, and rather than flick it to the opposite field or miss it entirely as a lesser player might have done, Roberto Clemente pulled it into the left-centerfield gap.
“I thought he was fooled a little bit, but his hands were back, and he just flipped the bat,” said Dyer, a future Pirate who was behind the plate at mostly empty Three Rivers Stadium on Sept. 30, 1972. “If it was someone like me, it would have been a weak ground ball to shortstop.”
But this was Clemente, “The Great One,” the Pirates' legendary right fielder, hitting a double off Matlack, a 22-year-old rookie left-hander. Clemente became the 11th major leaguer — and first Latino — with 3,000 career hits.
In 40 years since, 17 players have done so. Yet, this occasion resonates because nearly three months later, on New Year's Eve, Clemente, 38, died in a plane crash on a relief mission to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua.
“In a sense, the context is everything,” historian Rob Ruck said. “It's going to be the 40th anniversary of his death at the end of the year. But certainly in terms of the achievement, there's a symmetry, an elegance to his life and death, to reach the milestone and to die three months later.”
The Pirates had clinched the National League East title (they lost to Cincinnati in the playoffs), and Bill Mazeroski pinch-hit for Clemente in the fifth inning. He did not bat again during the regular season.
Among baseball's notable feats, probably only Lou Gehrig's record streak of consecutive games, ended by an incurable disease, matches the poignancy of Clemente's accomplishment and subsequent tragedy.
“There is a literary quality to it, a sadness,” said John Thorn, a Major League Baseball historian.
Only 13,117 people showed up to watch that game on a damp, chilly Saturday afternoon. A few miles away, the University of Pittsburgh Panthers lost to Northwestern in Pitt Stadium to fall to 0-3. That game drew more than 18,000.
Matlack, today the Houston Astros' minor league pitching coordinator, struck out Clemente in the first inning. Leading off the fourth, Clemente asked teammate Willie Stargell to pick a bat for him. Stargell examined three before handing Clemente a Louisville Slugger. Stepping in, Clemente took a strike. The crowd shivered and waited anxiously.
“Everybody's standing,” the late Bob Prince, voice of the Pirates, boomed into the KDKA-radio microphone. “They want Bobby to get that big three thousand.”
Clemente wanted it, too. Badly. He wanted the chase to be over. He had barely slept. Still, he spent time before the game talking to people, kids especially, and posing for pictures.
He was tired but no longer angry. In Friday night's game, stuck at 2,999 hits, Clemente thought he had a hit but the call was changed to an error. He cursed and fumed in the clubhouse but then calmed down. “Deep down, I think I would rather have a clean hit,” he said.
Now he had another chance. “Matlack on the 0-and-1,” Prince said.
The young lefty wound up and delivered. “I'm disappointed because I'm thinking it's gonna be a ball,” Matlack recalled. Clemente, a classic bad-ball hitter, took an awkward cut that would make most other hitters look foolish.
“I'm thinking, why is he swinging?” Matlack said.
Prince: “Bobby hits a drive to the gap in left-centerfield! There she is!”
Watching from the dugout was Chuck Goggin, a 27-year-old rookie utility man, a Marine who survived stepping on a land mine in Vietnam. He joined the Pirates from the minors three weeks earlier. This was his fourth game in the majors, and he started at second base. Leading off, Goggin singled for his first big league hit. He singled again in the third.
When the postgame fuss over Clemente subsided, Goggin remained seated alone by his locker, clutching the precious ball from his hit. A reporter told a photographer to shoot Goggin and Clemente posing together.
“A couple of months later, I got an envelope with the picture, which is one of the proudest pictures I have.”
Clemente “congratulated me on getting my first hit,” Goggin said. “I told him at this rate it was probably going to take me 1,500 years to catch him.”
Goggin ended his major league career with 29 hits.
He watched Clemente round first, arms flying as always, then ease up and glide into second with a stand-up double.
“There was nothing like watching him run the bases,” said Rusty Staub, who was playing right field for the Mets. “And that unique hitting stroke he had.” He chuckled, “We just prayed to God nobody taught it at his camp.”
On second base, Clemente waved his helmet, a gesture frozen in a famous photograph that would assume greater meaning in coming months.
Pirates pitching ace Steve Blass was among those who lobbied for Clemente's moment at second base to be memorialized in a Clemente statue dedicated outside Three Rivers in 1994 and moved to PNC Park. Another pose was used instead.
“I thought it was very symbolic,” said Blass, now a Pirates broadcaster. “I thought it captured Clemente.”
Matlack finally caught on that something big had happened when he noticed commotion around second base.
“I'm sort of standing there wondering, ‘What the heck is going on? We have a ballgame to play. Why the fuss?' ” he said.
Between innings, Clemente ran to his position and again tipped his cap. Among fans in the right field stands was 14-year-old Ann Ranalli, now Ann King, who rode a streetcar Downtown from her home in Dormont and walked across the Fort Duquesne Bridge for the game. King remembers thinking, “He's tipping his cap to us.”
Outspoken, fiercely competitive and stubbornly dedicated to humanitarian causes, Clemente did not always enjoy a warm relationship with fans and media during his 18-year career.
Nevertheless, he said after the game: “I dedicate this hit to the fans of Pittsburgh. They have been wonderful. And to the people back home in Puerto Rico.”
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7810