Pittsburgh Pirates: Roberto Clemente’s Major-League Debut Turns 60


When Roberto Walker Clemente trotted out to right field on April 17, 1955, he was making his major league debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

No one knew for sure what his future held, but perhaps no one could have predicted he would lose his life just 17 years later.

Now 60 years after that rookie debut, nearly every Buccos fan knows his story and how he tragically perished in a plane crash on December 31, 1972 while trying to aid earthquake victims. But few fans may know what took place in that rookie debut six decades ago.

Facing the team that originally signed him, Clemente and the Pirates were shut down by the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Johnny Podres that Sunday afternoon; Podres allowed just three runs while his team scored 10.

For Clemente’s debut he faced Podres four times and managed one single, scoring once as well. In the outfield he made two putouts. That one single became the first of the 3,000 hits that Clemente would accumulate before his untimely passing.

Over the course of 18 major league seasons, “The Great One,” which Clemente was often called, also banged out 240 home runs, 440 doubles, 166 triples, and finished with a career batting average of an impressive .317.

“I am convinced that God wanted me to be a baseball player. I was born to play baseball.”

A two-time World Series champion (1960 and 1971), Clemente was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York just one year after his passing. He appeared in 15 all-star games when two were being played in the same season from 1960 through 1962. Roberto was a batting champion for the National League in 1961, 1964, 1965, and 1967.

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Named the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1966, Roberto Clemente may have been more well known for his defensive prowess.

Perhaps playing right field greater than any other player before or after him, Clemente had a rifle arm that netted him 12 Gold Glove awards, or every season from 1961 until his final season in 1972. Clemente even had the ability to throw out runners from his position in the outfield as they made their turn around first base on a single. He had done that several times.

When Roberto Clemente stepped to the plate for the first time in 1955, he was just 20 years old. The Dodgers had signed him and sent him to the minors to play for their minor league team in Montreal. A rookie draft in 1954 brought the young player to Pittsburgh.

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  • The rest is history. A product of Julio C. Vizarrondo High School in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Clemente would face many issues due to his heritage and spent most of his career providing an image of a brooding, quiet player that he would often accuse critics of simply not understanding him and his personality.

    However, in the Steel City he would become a star, a legend, and probably the most beloved athlete to ever suit up in a professional sports uniform for any of Pittsburgh’s professional franchises. When once asked to describe himself, Clemente responded by saying, “I am convinced that God wanted me to be a baseball player. I was born to play baseball.”

    Attend a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game this season and you can rest assured you will see more than one No. 21 Clemente jersey being worn at PNC Park. The Pirates have retired just nine numbers and Clemente’s is among them.

    On New Year’s Eve 1972 the world and Pittsburgh lost one of the finest humanitarians to ever play professional sports and it’s a tragedy that still hits home for many diehard Buccos fans.

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