Roberto Clemente: Could he have been bigger than a Yankee Clipper?

Today, I’m pleased to present a first-ever guest post for Baseball: Past and Present. A writer and fellow Society for American Baseball Research member, Joe Guzzardi recently mentioned my site in a column he wrote. He subsequently emailed me and volunteered to write for this site. His name and work will appear weekly, at least for the remainder of the baseball season.

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In a post by Graham Womack about the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Willie Stargell, a reader commented that Willie Mays once said that if Roberto Clemente had played in New York, he would have been more popular than Joe DiMaggio.

Although I can’t find the quote anywhere, Mays probably said it. Not only did Mays admire Clemente’s skills from the opposing Giant dugout but they were teammates on the 1954 Santurce Cangrejeros Caribbean League and played together on more than a dozen National League All-Star games including the 1961 contest. In that 5-4 NL victory, Clemente drove in two runners, one of them Mays.

To answer the question about whether a New York-based Clemente would have been more popular than DiMaggio, you first have to consider the magnitude of surpassing the level of admiration showered on the Yankee Clipper.

Such was DiMaggio’s popularity that during World War II, he was not sent into combat. The fear was that if DiMaggio were mortally wounded, the nation would be so psychologically scarred it would not recover. For three years, DiMaggio was stationed in Hawaii to coach baseball.

For the sake of today’s debate, let’s put Clemente in Yankee Stadium’s right field in his rookie year, 1955, through his final year, 1972. Since Giants and the Dodgers had one foot out of town by 1955, it makes more sense to speculate about Clemente as a Bronx Bomber.

As a Yankee, Clemente would have played in seven World Series, more than the two he participated in with the Pirates but fewer than DiMaggio’s ten.

What would have given Clemente’s popularity a big boost is the supportive press coverage he would have received in Manhattan during those seven championship seasons.

For most of his career, Clemente and the Pittsburgh print media had a contentious relationship. The press considered Clemente a constant complainer and malcontent. For his part, Clemente regarded the writers as racists who did not appreciate his many baseball skills and never missed a chance to belittle his accented English. Clemente said his image suffered in mostly white Pittsburgh because he was, in his words, a double minority: black and Latino.

Pittsburgh’s slanted media treatment of Clemente hurt him with the national press, too. Most Valuable Player voting reflects the writers’ indifference to Clemente, no matter what he accomplished on the field.

During his four National League batting championship seasons (1961, 1964, 1965 and 1967), Clemente won the MVP only once. In the others three years, he finished fourth, eighth and ninth.

His 1960 MVP slight particularly galled Clemente. During Pittsburgh’s World Series championship year, Clemente finished eighth on the MVP ballot behind Pirate captain Dick Groat despite having better statistics in almost every offensive category.

Consider, on the other hand, how a player of Clemente’s caliber would have been received in New York during the 1950s.

When Clemente broke into baseball, the great wave of Puerto Rican migration was underway. Affordable air travel enabled tens of thousands of islanders to uproot and move to New York.

His status as an All-Star player on the perennial champion Yankees would have made him a hero not only in the Puerto Rican community but among African Americans also. In 1955, Clemente would have joined Elston Howard as one of the Yankees’ two-first black players.

And in the ’50s, New York had six daily newspapers. Their Clemente coverage would have been glowing and his national reputation enhanced accordingly.

Would Clemente have been, as Mays speculated, “more popular” than DiMaggio?

Probably not. Ultimately, DiMaggio’s stats were better: 13 seasons (an All-Star in each of them, an achievement never matched); .325 BA, 325 HRs, 1305 RBIs, 3 MVPs versus Clemente’s 18 seasons, .317BA, 240 HRs, 1537 RBIs, 1 MVP.

During his career, DiMaggio had single seasons with 46 home runs and 167 RBIs (1937) and hit as high as .381 (1939). DiMaggio also holds the record that most analysts agree will never be matched, his 1941 56-game hitting streak.

But, if he had been a Yankee, Clemente would undeniably have been more popular nationally than he was in Pittsburgh, a parochial western Pennsylvania city that never created the media hype that automatically comes with super-stardom in New York.

Joe Guzzardi is a writer and member of the Society for American Baseball Research. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

0 thoughts on “Roberto Clemente: Could he have been bigger than a Yankee Clipper?”

  1. I never thought of this. He definitely would’ve been a much bigger star, and maybe voted to more All-Star games, but it makes me wonder… would the Yankees have made it to a couple more WS during the ’55-’72 era, if Clemente was manning RF instead of Hank Bauer or Roger Maris? Would they have beaten Pittsburgh in ’60?

    1. Well, Maris’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) data in 1960 was 7.5 while Clemente’s was 3.3, so maybe not, though the Yankees still would have probably had enough to win the American League pennant since they finished eight games up.

      Now, if Maris could have slid over to left field an outfield of him, Mantle and Clemente would have been unreal. Imagine a 3-4-5 batting order of Clemente, Mantle and Maris….

      And, of course, if we’re talking career WAR, Clemente trounces Maris, 83.8 to 39.8.

  2. I wouldn’t be in too big a hurry to replace Roger Maris with Clemente. Because of the homeruns and ribbies, people tend to forget that Maris was a pretty decent rightfielder. He wasn’t Clemente (not many are), but he was better than average. But Hank Bauer? Go for it, of course! I think that the best comparison to Clemente, during his own time, would be Al Kaline.

  3. People forget that other than not hitting for average, Maris was a hell of a ball player who could do everything far, far better than most anyone else. A complete package and a comsumate team mate.
    Don’t forget that the Clemente of 55-58 or 59 wouldn’t have been able to crack the Yankee lineup with his limited power and more than likely would have been sent to Denver and then traded to KC or maybe the Senators.
    Had he been able to crack the lineup, his best field would have been left, where his above average speed and range, along with rifle arm would have played well in that monsterous left field canyon. I’d have loved to see him batting leadoff, as Bauer did in those years, or second, giving Roger, the Mick and Yogi someone on base to drive home.

  4. Graham, must apologize for this late response,nevertheless Clemente wouldn’t have been more popular,but for the wrong reasons. Italian vs. Latino no chance we all know that!!! West Side Story best depicts that take. I’ll again ask you to visualize a Clemente NOT playing in Forbes field…he would have adopted a more conventional batting stance and he would have had a field day hitting over that short right field line at Yankee stadium. Please, please this game is all about good pitching and the clipper as much as I like that dude wouldn’t have had his numbers if he faced the hof hurlers Roberto did. I can’t emphasize enough,Clemente was ‘the most watchable’of all time’. Pittsburh fans talk of how if they were at the game they didn’t DARE go take a wiz if Roberto was out there…they might just miss a THROW. Of all the Roberto quotes Steve Blass’ would best sum up this Mays contention:(paraphrase??)” He’s the ONE player members from both teams came OUT of the clubhouse to watch during batting practice, he could make a 10 year veteran act like a 10 year old kid”. I dare anyone on that all century team who is still kickin’,other than Mays, to respond to: Do you think you were better than Clemente?

  5. Great article. Interesting to think about. Clemente turned down a much higher offer from the Braves to play with the Dodgers because he had his heart set on playing in Brooklyn where there was already a thriving Puerto Rican Community. Imagining Roberto in the friendly confines of Ebbets Field and later in the L..A. Coliseum and then Chavez Ravine would have been great. On those Dodger teams and in NY and later LA Roberto would have been a mighty popular player that the Dodgers would have been able to build an even greater team around. The word later on was that the Dodgers knew that they could not take on Clemente as they had then a full arsenal of great players. They were at worst hoping to keep the Giants from getting Clemente as a Mays and Clemente outfield would have been too frightening for Brooklyn to contemplate.

    But again magine if the Braves had gotten Clemente. Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente on the same team. Wow!

    One final thought, average-wise even a 55-59 Clemente would indeed have cracked the Yanks line-up for sure. He had far better seasons than any Yankee Leftfielder at the time except for Norm Seiburn in 1958. And altho Hank Bauer had better power numbers, he did not have an overall better batting average, nor would he have been as good a lead-off man, nor would any Yankee outfielder at that time, except the great Mick, held a candle to Clemente’s great fielding prowess.

    Also, no doubt that Clemente would have had even better numbers in that same time frame if he were hitting ahead of the likes of Mantle, Berra, Seiburn, etc. Clemente had some crappy teams in that duration that got better as he did.

  6. p.s. – note that if the quote was true. the alleged Mays comment was that Clemente would have been more “popular” than Joe. D. not better. There is a difference. Regardless of stats Clemente was an extremely exciting player to watch. Had he gotten the press in NY or some other big market, he would indeed have attracted a great deal of attention. Would be nice someday to find out what Mays meant, if he said it. He played with and against Roberto and knew him as a player very well.

    Joe D. was a hard player to match, with a rare combo of power and being one of the best contact hitters to ever play baseball. That is like combining Hugh Duffy and Bbe Ruth in one man. DiMaggio had some great power numbers even though he was hamstrung by playing half his games in Yankee Stadium. No right handed batter ever did as well before or since. Plus DiMaggio was considered to be very fast. Bill Dickey said that DiMaggio was capable of stealing 60 bases a year if he wanted to. And of course his fielding exploits are legendary. Whether or not he was better in the field than Mays or Clemente would be hard to say. And how DiMaggio would have done in the pitching dominant late 50’s and the decade of the 60’s is hard to say, as well as how Mays or Clemente or Aaron or Robinson would have fared in DiMaggio’s day or on some of those amazing Yankee teams as Graham has noted. It’s all good speculation.

    Mays’ all-time favorite all-star outfield was himself in center, Aaron in left and Clemente in right. With Mays leading off, Clemente setting the table and Aaron driving them both in.

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