Any player/Any era: Roberto Clemente

What he did: In essence, Clemente transcended his era. Playing in a time when pitchers ruled, Clemente won four batting titles in a seven-year stretch in the 1960s and hit above .330 four times in the decade. He also won 12 consecutive Gold Gloves from 1961 through 1972 and was known for his cannon arm in right field. Much as he thrived and put together a Hall of Fame career in his day, imagine if Clemente played in an age better suited to his abilities.

Era he might have thrived in: Assuming we suspend debate over whether Clemente’s skin complexion would keep him from playing before 1947, he might have excelled with the Philadelphia Athletics in the early 1900s.

Why: There are a number of reasons I could see this working.

First off, the Deadball Era in general offered huge ballparks that would have suited Clemente’s spray contact hitting abilities and not hampered his defense, given his arm. In fact, I think Clemente might have stood out defensively in the time. He wouldn’t have won Gold Gloves, since the award wasn’t given out prior to 1957, but he’d probably still be remembered for his defense today. After all, Deadball Era first baseman Hal Chase got included in a book on the 100 greatest players of all-time in 1981 primarily for his fielding work. Clemente’s 266 career assists are lower than many Deadball Era outfielders, but I still have a hunch he’d thrive.

I also see Clemente working well with longtime A’s manager Connie Mack, a low-key gentleman who asked nothing less from his players. Mack might have welcomed a man as fine as Clemente, who died in a plane crash in 1972, transporting relief supplies to earthquake victims. Their temperaments would have suited one another.

Clemente also might have significantly upped his batting average playing in the Deadball Era. Depending on when he debuted, Clemente might hit .400, something he never did during his career. In real life, Clemente peaked at .357 in 1967, winning his fourth and final batting title in a year where the National League ERA was 3.38. On the A’s in 1901, when the American League ERA was 3.66, the Baseball-Reference.com converter tool shows Clemente hitting .410 for his 1967 season. Playing every year of his career on a team like those A’s, Clemente would hit .352 lifetime, 35 points better than his actual career average and fourth best all-time.

Last, but not least, here’s an interesting bit of trivia. On the 1901 A’s, assuming the converter is correct, Clemente and Nap Lajoie would be .400 hitting teammates. In all of baseball history, this has happened once, on the 1894 Philadelphia Phillies who boasted a .400-hitting outfield, hit .350 as a team, and still finished fourth. The A’s also finished fourth in 1901, employing a mostly forgettable outfield few modern fans would know. With Clemente in place, I’m guessing those A’s might have had a much more memorable year.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert PujolsBarry Bonds, Bob CaruthersDom DiMaggioFritz MaiselGeorge CaseHarmon KillebrewHome Run BakerJohnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr.Nate ColbertPete Rose,Rickey HendersonSandy KoufaxShoeless Joe JacksonThe Meusel BrothersTy Cobb

4 thoughts on “Any player/Any era: Roberto Clemente

  1. I remember Clemente in the 1971 world series wheeling and dealing in the outfield. What an arm. Bill James discusses Hal Chase in his Baseball Historical Abstract. Chase was suspected of trying to throw games and in with gamblers several times.

  2. I am biased being a long-time fan, but I think Roberto Clemente is one of those players who would have thrived in any era. While he would have been no doubt a deadly high average hitter in the deadball era, he could have been a dangerous hitter today as well and no doubt would have displayed greater power today as he attained his great stats in the greatest era for pitchers and was in one of the grand canyons of baseball that even the great Willie Stargell never hit more than 33 homeruns in a season while playing there– Clemente’s high was 29. Clemente also was hampered in his power by serious damage sustained in a car accident early in his career while rushing to see his dying brother. Even with all the injuries he sustained, I think Clemente would have even thrived better today as he would have received the incredible babying and medical help that players receive today. While Clemente may not have won any homer titles today, he’d be a sure 30 homer a year man in the smaller parks. His stats in Wrigley for example are a sign of how awesome Clemente would have been in more friendly confines. One thing that gets lost on many is that Clemente was not only a great hitter for average, but could when he wanted hit some tape measure shots. Joe Morgan says to this day that out of all the hitters of his time, Clemente hit the ball with the most power.

  3. I was lucky enough to watch Clemente play baseball from the late 50’s until his last year 1972. His all around play was more then outstanding! He could do everything, while the press talked about all the others, Mays, Aaron, Mantle! If you want to know how difficult Roberto how it while coming up as a rookie, please read his biography. The Grapefruit league in Florida was such a horrible experience for black & Latin players! What he did for those players is only outdone by Jackie Robinson! Also Pittsburgh was not very aprecitive to this dynamic player! His whole life was spent doing very generous things for others!Always contributing his time to help others. Then because he found out that the government troops were stealing the supplies meant for the poor…earthquate victums, he got on that old plane to personally deliver the latest load of food & medical supplies !

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