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.
Baseball legend Satchel Paige was born on this day in 1906. Forty-five years ago this month, Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn announced that former Negro League players will have a separate wing in the Hall of Fame. Not surprisingly, Kuhn’s separate, but equal Hall of Fame policy did not set well with the American public, particularly baseball players from the pre-segregation era.
Paige and Ted Williams were among the most vocal former players. Paige was famously quoted: “I was just as good as the white boys. I ain’t going in the back door of the Hall of Fame.”
Williams, in his 1966 HOF acceptance speech, urged Major League Baseball and the Hall to open the doors to Negro League stars, referencing Paige, Willie Mays and Josh Gibson among others.
On July 6, 1971 — five months after Kuhn’s backward-thinking-policy was announced — MLB and the HOF succumbed to public pressure and opened the doors to Paige with full HOF membership, which cleared the way other Negro League stars in the years to follow.
Paige’s 2004 Leaf Certified Materials Game Used Jersey cards are some of the most overlooked memorabilia cards ever produced. He spent 22 seasons dominating the Negro Leagues and six years in the majors before being enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1971. There were several versions of Paige’s first memorabilia cards issued in Leaf Certified’s “Mirror Materials” parallel set and the tiered “Fabric of the Game” insert set — all limited to a production run of 100 and selling for over $100.
Paige threw a remarkable 55 no-hitters during his Negro League career, becoming the league’s most popular and recognizable player, not to mention its largest gate attraction. He joined the major leagues in 1948, helping the Cleveland Indians win the World Series as a “rookie.”
In 1965, at the age of 59, nearly 12 years since he last pitched in the majors, Paige pitched one game for the Kansas City A’s, pitching three shutout innings. Three years later, he was a coach for the Atlanta Braves, where he wore the jersey Donruss officials used to incorporate into 2004 Leaf Certified Materials.
Known for longevity and age as a major leaguer, Paige was a Negro League legend in his younger days. At a time when African-Americans were barred from the majors, Paige drew huge crowds of black and white baseball fans. He led the Pittsburgh Crawfords to top billing in the Negro Leagues as a fireballer in the early ’30s and did the same for the Kansas City Monarchs in the early ’40s as finesse pitcher.
Barred from the majors, Paige was often tempted to jump from team to team to earn a decent wage. In 1937, he joined a large group of Negro Leaguers traveling to the Dominican Republic to play for a team owned by Dominican president Rafael L. Trujillo. The following season, Paige hurt his arm pitching in the Mexican League, but quickly transformed from a “thrower“ to a “pitcher.” He returned to the states using guile and control in leading the Monarchs to four consecutive pennants before entering the majors.
The first of just a few Paige baseball cards was issued by Topps in 1953 (#220). A headshot captured the 47-year-old reliever in his St. Louis Browns uniform. Unfortunately, the Topps spelling of “Satchell” was incorrect and never corrected. The card was issued following a 12-10 season with a 3.07 ERA. Paige’s ’53 Topps card is selling for $350 online in decent condition.
On this day in 1974, Hank Aaron smacked an Al Downing fastball over the leap of Dodgers left fielder Bill Buckner for his 715th home run at Atlanta Stadium, breaking the record held by Babe Ruth for over 50 years. The night of April 8, 1974 still hails as one of the most iconic moments in baseball history. The celebration of Aaron’s accomplishment combined with new-found appreciation for home run hitters from a previous, untainted era has increased interest in Aaron baseball cards.
The 1954 Topps Aaron rookie pictures a raw teenager on the verge of greatness. The card design sports two pictures, a large headshot and a small in-action shot in the lower left-hand corner. Hard to find in mint condition due to wear, dullness, blurry lettering and off-centered photos, near-mint PSA-7 versions sell in the $2,400 range.
The slender 180-lb. outfielder would go on to hit an unblemished 755 home runs over his 23-year career. A right-handed hitter with remarkably powerful wrists and a smoothly crafted swing, Aaron was recognized for home runs, but his legacy included 3,771 hits (third all-time), 2,174 runs (tied for second), 2,297 RBI (first), and a career .305 average. Aaron also displayed outstanding speed and one of the better right-field arms of his time.
Topps, a chewing gum producer new to the trading card business, made a wide array of printing and production gaffes while Aaron was emerging as the game’s top slugger. After just a few years of producing baseball cards, Topps had yet to establish much of a photo library, so pictures were often recycled during the ’50s. The same Aaron head shot was used from 1954-1956.
The 1956 card (#31) also includes an action shot in the lower right-hand corner picturing Willie Mays sliding into home plate wearing a Braves uniform. A Topps artist painted the uniform. The actual photo of Mays appeared in a baseball card publication a year earlier. Near-Mint PSA versions of this hard-to-find relic accidentally picturing two of baseball’s greatest players sells in excess of $2,700.
Topps made an even bigger blunder on Aaron’s card the following year. The production staff accidentally reversed the negative on the 1957 card (#20), which displays baseball’s most prolific right-handed hitter batting left-handed. The card that has no-doubt triggered decades of bar room arguments sells for $100 in excellent condition.
The 1958 Topps “Baseball Thrills” card, picturing Aaron’s classic home run swing, celebrates Aaron’s Game 4 homer that helped propel the Braves over the Yankees to win the 1957 World Series. This Topps set is notorious for being mis-cut and off center. The rare gem is worth up to $125.
The ultra conservative Topps Co. rolled the dice in 1974 by printing “New All-Time Home Run King” on Aaron’s 1974 Topps card (#1) despite Aaron entering the ’74 season one home run shy of tying Ruth’s career mark. Fortunately for Topps, Aaron kept the suspense to a minimum, hitting a homerun on Opening Day. The ’74 Topps card became officially accurate a few days later when Aaron broke the record on a nationally televised Monday Night Baseball game with a homer against the Dodgers.
Aaron has gained popularity with today’s collectors, as baseball card manufacturers continue to combine baseball history with modern day memorabilia cards. His 2014 Topps Tribute “Game-Used Bat” card is a great find for $40.