Sept. 30, 1972: Clemente records 3,000th hit
By Thomas Lawrence
Thirty-seven years ago Wednesday, Roberto Clemente recorded a career milestone.
On Sept. 30, 1972, Clemente and the defending world champion Pirates were taking on Yogi Berra‘s Mets at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Clemente, a native of Puerto Rico, was hitting an impressive .311 heading into the season finale against New York.
Batting third against Mets starter Jon Matlack, the eventual National League Rookie of the Year, Clemente looked to push his career hit total of 2,999 into an historic category. At the time, only 10 other players were members of the 3,000-hit club, and only three — Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Stan Musial — had done so in the latter half of the 20th century.
Clemente, aside from being a world-renowned humanitarian, had a chance to become the first Latin ballplayer to reach 3,000 hits.
In the bottom of the fourth inning, Clemente led off against Matlack after striking out in his first at-bat. Clemente promptly roped a double to the Three Rivers outfield — the 3,000th and last regular-season hit of his exceptional career.
But it wouldn’t be his last impact on Major League Baseball. The Pirates won the National League East and were set to take on Sparky Anderson‘s Reds in the league’s championship series. Clemente only had four hits in the five-game series loss, which officially unseated the 1971 world champions, but a double and a home run were among the four hits.
After 18 magical seasons of watching Clemente control the diamond as few ever did, the world was dealt a huge blow when Clemente was killed on Dec. 31. Flying to Nicaragua to deliver goods to earthquake victims, Clemente was the victim of a plane crash that took his life at the young age of 38.
But to dwell on Clemente’s tragic passing is a disservice to the incredible life he led — one which began on Aug. 18, 1934, in Carolina, Puerto Rico. One of more than 200 Puerto Rican players to play in the big leagues, Clemente remains the commonwealth’s all-time hits leader, 276 in front of runner-up Roberto Alomar.
Clemente became the first Latin American player to be elected to the Hall of Fame in 1973, and dozens of artifacts from Clemente’s life are housed at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. In the brand-new ˇViva Baseball! exhibit, which celebrates the Latin influence on the game, Clemente is recognized alongside other Latin American stars.
A No. 21 Pirates jersey retired on Opening Day 1973, a scrapbook of newspaper clippings covering his untimely passing and the “Roberto Clemente Memorial Album” vinyl record are all on display in ˇViva Baseball!.
“Roberto Clemente touched us all,” Pirates pitcher Steve Blass once said. “We’re all better players and people for having known him.”
Thomas Lawrence was the 2009 publications intern at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.