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.


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