On this day 44 years ago, the world lost a Hall of Fame baseball player and a great humanitarian. Thirty-eight-year-old Roberto Clemente, revered as a national hero in Puerto Rico, was leading a relief aid team flying supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua when the small aircraft exploded and crashed into the ocean shortly after takeoff.
Clemente’s untimely death occurred just a few months after he recorded his 3,000th career hit and prompted a special election that made the Pittsburgh Pirates great baseball’s first Hispanic Hall of Famer. At the time, Clemente was just the 11th man in baseball history to achieve 3,000 hits and his lifetime batting average of .317 was the highest among active players.
Clemente used a unique inside-out swing to produce four batting titles, a 1966 National League MVP, and 15 All-Star invitations. Quick, powerful — almost Hank Aaron-like — wrists allowed Clemente to stand away from the plate and drive the ball with ferocity to all fields. He also lead t
he Pirates to World Series Championships in 1960 and 1971, when he was named the Series MVP.
He got the most from his 5’-11”, 180-pound frame offensively and defensively. Most baseball experts and historians still regard Clemente as the best right fielder in baseball history. He patrolled Pittsburgh’s spacious Forbes Field for most of his career with speed and grace, earning 12 Gold Gloves and comparisons to Willie Mays as a defensive player. A strong and remarkably accurate arm kept base runners at bay.
Known for his charitable tireless charitable work, Clemente was recruited by relief organizations to organize relief efforts from Puerto Rico. He not only organized the efforts, but played a large role in gathering the goods and loading the plane. He was on aboard the plane because many people thought the relief supplies were falling in the hands of profiteers. Clemente wanted to ensure that people in need were receiving the goods. The plane carrying a crew of three and Clemente crashed in heavy seas just under two miles from shore.
Clemente’s professional career started on the West Coast and if the Brooklyn Dodgers weren’t so careless, history may have been different. The Dodgers originally signed Clemente out of high school with a deal that included a $10,000 bonus. In 1954, his first season as a professional baseball player, Clemente played for the Dodgers’ minor league affiliate in Montreal.
Per rule of professional baseball at the time, all players signed for more than $4,000 had to be placed on the major league roster after one year of minor league service. Any player not added to the roster could be signed by any other club for $4,000. Instead of adding him to the roster, the Dodgers tried to hide Clemente in Montreal by not playing him. Obviously, a player of Clemente’s talent could not be hidden. He was scooped up by the Pirates for $4,000, making him one of the best bargains in baseball history.
In 1955, Topps issued the first Roberto Clemente baseball card. The colorful horizontal cards featuring portrait and action photos along with the team logo in the upper right-hand corner are considered one of the best-looking sets ever produced. Kudos to Topps for producing a card of a top prospect with no major league experience — a rarity in those days. The final card featuring Clemente as a player, was featured in the colorful 1972 Topps set.
Forty-five years ago this month, one of the worst trades in baseball history was made, prompting one of the most hideous-looking baseball cards ever to be produced.
On December 10, 1971, the New York Mets sent 24-year-old fireballer Nolan Ryan along with three prospects to the the California Angels for shortstop Jim Fregosi. In hindsight, the deal was a disaster for the Mets, but the deal made sense for both clubs at the time.
The Angels obtained one of the liveliest — not to mention most erratic — young arms in baseball. Ryan posted a 29-38 record with an impressive 493 strikeouts, but an alarming 344 walks over five seasons with the Mets.
The Mets were adding an established big leaguer believed to be in the prime of his career. Manager Gil Hodges immediately moved Fregosi to third base, where 45 players had come and gone in the Mets’ 10 years of existence. The last of the original Angels of 1961, Fregosi battled numerous physical problems in his one season with the Angels, including a bad bout with the flu, a sore arm, a strained side muscle, and a tumor in his foot. The six-time All-Star batted just .232 with five homers, and 32 RBI in 101 games for the Mets.
Ryan moved on to a Hall of Fame career that included a major league record seven no hitters, 61 shutouts (seventh all-time), 324 wins, and became all-time strikeout leader with 5,714. This is just one of many trades of a big-armed, but erratic young pitcher dealt for a proven veteran. Unfortunately for the Mets it will be remembered as one of the most lopsided deals in baseball history.
In the early ‘70s baseball card sets went to press in late-December or early-January to be ready for distribution by the start of the baseball season. As a result, Ryan’s head shot for the 1972 Topps set was taken while he played for the New York Mets. The wrong Angels logo (they went to a capital A in 1972) was poorly airbrushed over Ryan’s Mets cap. For some unknown reason, the Topps production team failed to airbrush the pinstripes clearly visible from his Mets jersey.
To make matters worse, Ryan’s doctored image was printed inside the grotesque 1972 Topps tombstone design. Keeping up with the times and looking to change the drab designs of 1970 (gray borders) and 1971 (black borders), the 1972 Topps design features a bright, almost psychedelic color scheme.
One of the most controversial baseball card sets, the 1972 Topps series draws the ire of long-time collectors for emphasizing the product and team rather than the player. The team name above the player image is energized with bright, bold lettering that creates a three-dimensional look. The player name, however, is printed in a simple black font at the bottom of the card. Going against tradition, there is no mention of the player’s position.
The 1972 Topps set is not without merit. The series includes the rookie card of Hall of Fame Catcher Carlton Fisk, which he shares with Cecil Cooper (the featured player), and Mike Garman. The series also features the last regular card issued during Roberto Clemente in addition to late cards of Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. Other featured Hall of Famers include Reggie Jackson, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Joe Morgan, Frank Robinson, and Fergie Jenkins.