Water Under the Bridge

By John F. Oyler
Copyright © 2017



The Roberto Clemente Museum
May 11, 2017



The Bridgeville Area Historical Society program meeting for April was a presentation on the Roberto Clemente Museum by Vince Mariotti. Located in the rehabilitated Pittsburgh Fire Department Engine House 25, in Lawrenceville, the museum houses “the world’s largest exhibited collection of baseball artifacts, works of art, literature, photographs, memorabilia, and related materials which focus on Roberto Clemente, his teammates, his personal life, and his humanitarian causes.”

The engine house was originally acquired by Duane Rieder and renovated for his use as a photographic studio. When the Pirates hosted the 1994 All-Star Game at Three Rivers Stadium, they decided to sponsor a special exhibit honoring Clemente. Mr. Rieder visited the Clemente family in Puerto Rico and was able to borrow an impressive collection of artifacts and memorabilia for the exhibit.

In 2006 the Pirates hosted the All-Star Game in their newly completed PNC Park home. As part of the festivities Commissioner Bud Selig presented the Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award to Clemente’s widow, Vera, who had come to Pittsburgh for the ceremony, accompanied by her three sons. Rieder’s reunion with the Clemente family led to the decision to establish a museum in Pittsburgh in honor of Clemente’s baseball and humanitarian careers.

The speaker began by recounting the strange story of how the Pirates acquired the twenty year old Clemente in the 1954 rookie draft. He had been heavily scouted by the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, and Milwaukee Braves as a youthful “phenom” in his native Puerto Rico. Brooklyn signed him as a “bonus baby”, a player whose signing was for an amount greater than the permitted $6,000 (Clemente’s bonus was $4,000), realizing this obligated them to keeping him on the major league roster for two years or run the risk of losing him in the rookie draft.

The ’54 Dodger roster was full of outstanding players, none of whom they were willing to sacrifice for an unproven rookie, so they sent him to Montreal in the hope that no one would recognize his potential. Pirate pitching coach scouted the Montreal Royals that summer, in an effort to evaluate another Dodger prospect, Joe Black. While there he observed Clemente’s skills throwing and batting in practice and wondered why he wasn’t playing in regular games.

Sukeforth advised Montreal manager Max Macon that he suspected subterfuge and told him the Pirates would surely use their first pick in the upcoming rookie draft to select Clemente. Once that news was out, the Royals inserted him in their lineup and his immediate success ensured his forthcoming transfer to the Pirates.

The Pirates did indeed draft him that Fall and had no difficulty finding a room for him on their major league roster. He played well enough in 1955 to earn a starting position in the lineup of a mediocre team. By 1960 he had begun to display his potential and the Pirate team had improved enough to earn a spot in the World Series against the New York Yankees. The story of their classic “underdog beats favorite” performance, capped by Bill Mazeroski’s dramatic ninth inning home run is well known to all local sports fans.

According to the speaker those early years in Pittsburgh were difficult for Clemente. He did not interface well with the local media personnel, partly because of his aloof personality and his broken English, which they ridiculed. The Pirate roster was full of fan favorites – All-American boys like Dick Groat, Vernon Law, Bob Friend, and Mazeroski; folk hero types like Smoky Burgess and Bob Skinner; and outright oddballs like Dick Stuart and Rocky Nelson.

Following the World Series win, Clemente was reported as being resentful of the fan adulation received by Mazeroski and Groat. The next year he won the first of four batting titles and began his remarkable streak of twelve straight years winning a Gold Glove, in recognition of being the best fielding right fielder in the league.

Mr. Mariotti related an example of Clemente’s difficulties with the press. He supposedly asked veteran sports writer Joe Tronzo if he was the best right fielder Tronzo had seen. Tronzo replied, “Of course not, you are the third best.” When asked who the first two were, the writer replied, “Paul Waner, sober; and Paul Waner, dead drunk”.

That story rang a bell with me. Long after Waner had retired from the major leagues, he played sandlot ball with Dormont in the Greater Pittsburgh League. I have his autograph which I acquired after watching him play in an exhibition game in Bridgeville. And my recollection was that he was indeed inebriated in that game. Casey Stengel is reported to have claimed that Waner was the best base runner he had ever seen. “He can slide into second base without breaking the pint whiskey bottle in his back pocket!”

Through the 1960s Clemente’s performance day in and day out was outstanding, both at bat and in the field. He continued to have problems with Pirate management regarding his salary. His total reimbursement for eighteen years of stardom was less than three quarters of a million dollars. Of course he was not alone in this situation; fellow Pirate Elroy Face had to work as a carpenter in the off season to make ends meet.

The speaker exemplified Clemente’s pride in his talent by recounting an incident from the filming of the movie “The Odd Couple”. A key episode in the film required the Pirates to hit into a “5-4-3” triple play against Oscar Madison’s favorite team, the New York Mets. Clemente was selected to be the batter, but each time they filmed the play his pride did not permit him to run slow enough to be thrown out at first. Eventually he was replaced as the batter by Bill Mazeroski.

The climax of Clemente’s career was his remarkable performance in the 1971 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles. Someone commented that the films of that Series looked very much like a Roberto Clemente highlight reel. The next year he thrilled his fans by getting his 3000th hit, a distinction achieved by only eleven players before him. One of the eleven was Paul Waner.

Late in December 1972 the capital of Nicaragua, Managua, was devastated by a severe earthquake. Clemente immediately began organizing emergency relief aid flights. When the first three flights were diverted to allegedly corrupt governmental officials, he decided to accompany the fourth one and ensure the supplies got to the needy people. He chartered a Douglas DC-7, which had a questionable maintenance history and an equally questionable flight crew. The plane was overloaded by 4200 pounds and barely was able to take off. Ten minutes later it crashed violently into the ocean, killing everyone aboard.

Clemente’s best friend, Orlando Cepeda; his Pirate team-mate and protégé. Manny Sanguillen; and Caribbean League team-mate Tom Walker all had offered to make the trip with him, but had other commitments that spared them his fate. Walker, of course, is the father of ex-Pirate second baseman Neil Walker.

The next Spring the Baseball Writers’ Association of America held a special election to posthumously elect Clemente into the Baseball Hall of Fame, waiving the mandatory five year waiting period due to the circumstances of his death. The only other player to receive such a waiver was Lou Gehrig.

The May program meeting for the Historical Society will feature Dr. Carelton Young, discussing the subject of his book “Voices from the Attic – the Williamstown Boys in the Civil War”. The meeting will be held at 7:30 pm, Tuesday, May 30, 2017, in the Chartiers Room of the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department, on Commercial Street.

Water Under the Bridge

  • "Water Under the Bridge" is a column written by historian John Oyler. It appears weekly in the Bridgeville Area News, a TribTotal Media publication, as well as in a more expanded form on his blog.

The Author

  • Aside from being Bridgeville's foremost historian, Dr. John F. Oyler is also an associate professor at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh, where he teaches classes in civil engineering.

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