Giants

How Giants, Dodgers impacted Clemente's legendary career

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Roberto Clemente Willie Mays Hank Aaron

The last hit Roberto Clemente ever recorded against the Giants is a fitting one. Clemente came to the plate in the bottom of the fourth inning with the score tied between the Giants and his Pittsburgh Pirates on Sept. 2, 1972 and the right fielder rocketed a deep blast to dead center field, giving the Pirates the lead with a three-run shot that ended starter Sam McDowell's day. 

Pittsburgh went on to beat San Francisco, 6-3, as Clemente went 2-for-3, hitting a double to go along with the long ball. It was the final time Clemente would face the Giants in his illustrious career. He was 38 years old at the time, still playing like an All-Star on and off the field. 

Clemente's life tragically ended four months later on New Year's Eve in a plane crash off the coast of his native Puerto Rico that killed five total people who were delivering relief funds to Nicaragua following a devastating earthquake. He spent his enter 18-year Hall of Fame career as a Pirate. He first almost spent it as a Giant, if it weren't for the Dodgers. 

Let us explain. 

Former Dodgers scout Al Campanis was managing a winter ball team in Cuba when he first saw Clemente at a tryout camp in his home country in November of 1952. Clemente had recently turned just 18 years old and still was in high school, but played in the Puerto Rico Winter League -- which now is named after him. Campanis called Clemente the "best free-agent athlete I've ever seen" on his scouting report.

 

David Maraniss' biography "Clemente," explains Clemente's signing to the majors came down to five teams: The New York Giants, Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Braves, Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals. Clemente had family and friends in the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of New York, turning his attention to the Giants and Dodgers. 

The MLB draft didn't begin until 1965. Any free agent who signed a contract over $6,000 was designated as a bonus player, meaning a team would have to protect him on the major league roster or they could lose him in a supplemental draft after spending one year in the minor leagues. Well, the Giants felt Clemente needed some more seasoning. They wouldn't offer him a contract north of $6,000, hoping he would sign for $4,000 and start in Class-A Sioux City. 

Remember, the Giants once missed out on signing Hank Aaron by $50 a month.

Missing out Clemente was not an option to the Dodgers. 

Brooklyn signed Clemente for a $10,000 bonus, plus a first-year salary of $5,000. Signing Clemente wasn't the Dodgers' only motive to ink the teen, Maraniss writes. The Dodgers were willing to do whatever it took to keep Clemente away from teaming up with Willie Mays on the Giants. The rivalry never stops.

The Dodgers signed Clemente 15 months after Campanis first saw him at the plate. And then, it went downhill from there. The Dodgers had a master plan to keep Clemente in Triple-A Montreal for the 1954 season, but rarely play him to hide him from other teams. He played 87 games and had just 155 plate appearances.

Clemente hit .257 with two homers in his first, and only, season in the Dodgers organization.

After the '57 season, Clemente was eligible for the Major-Minor League Rule 5 Selection Committee as an unprotected player. The Pirates had the first pick in the draft after having the worst record in the NL. They were run by former Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey and two scouts brought over from Brooklyn, who already had seen Clemente play. 

Rickey represented the Pirates at the draft, and wasted no time. He selected Clemente with the first pick. The cost was $4,000. 

The exact amount the Giants once offered him. 

Clemente's first baseball influence was watching Giants Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, when Irvin was a member of the Negro League's Newark Eagles and played winter ball in Puerto Pico. Clemente went on to enjoy plenty of success against Irvin's former franchise, the same that once low-balled Clemente.

Over an MLB career that spanned just under two decades, Clemente finished with exactly 3,000 hits. He was a .317 hitter and feasted on fastballs from Giants pitchers. Clemente faced the Giants -- both in New York and San Francisco -- in 283 games. After over 1,100 at-bats, Clemente was a career .306 batter against the Giants. He hit 32 homers against them, his third-most vs. any franchise. 

 

Wherever Clemente squared off with the Giants, he found success, just not to the degree he was used to. He faced them at three different road stadiums -- the Polo Grounds, Seals Stadium and Candlestick Park. Clemente hit just .274 at the Polo Grounds, performing much better in San Francisco. He hit .293 in 18 games at Seals Stadium and .282 with 18 homers in 100 games at Candlestick. 

Revenge is sweet, and Clemente found it against the Dodgers. He was at his best facing the first franchise to sign him. His first career hit in the bigs even came against Brooklyn. 

Clemente hit .345, his highest against opponent, over 291 games against the Dodgers. He hit .377 at Dodgers Stadium, which is his highest mark at any park. Clemente also hit .331 in 40 games at the Los Angeles Coliseum and .323 in 26 games at Ebbets Field. 

RELATED: MLB must learn, embrace Latin culture to better the game

Wednesday marks MLB's annual Roberto Clemente Day, honoring the life and legacy of one of the game's true giants. For the first time, this year any player will be allowed to wear No. 21, as long as they requested it to their team in time. Brandon Crawford is the Giants' nominee this year for the Roberto Clemente Award, which MLB calls "the most prestigious individual honor for major leaguers" and is given to players who represent baseball through "extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field."

From Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, San Francisco and everywhere else throughout the big leagues, Clemente again will be remembered by all baseball fans on Wednesday. He'll always be remembered for perfectly representing Puerto Rico and the black and yellow of Pittsburgh. 

Giants fans have to wonder what could have been if that yellow instead was orange.

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