High and Inside Out: Clemente, A Dodgers Legend

“Imagination… Its limits are only those of the mind itself.” – Rod Serling

It has been established that time, being a man-made entity, is not a fixed construct. That means it can be bent, twisted, warped and shuffled which is what gives science fiction nerds like me the hope that time travel will someday be possible. Whether or not that will ever be reality is yet to be determined but, the very notion of the fantastical enterprise being possible has given rise to some of the greatest stories in literature and cinema. From Dr. Emmett Brown and Marty McFly to Bill and Ted we have always marveled at the idea of travelling to the past and/or the future and see the world how it was or could be.

That is precisely the concept we will explore in this epoch, the many spectacular “what if’s” of big league baseball’s illustrious history. This tip of the cap to The Twilight Zone, DC Comics’ Bizarro World, and Marvel’s The Watcher, will seek to answer the seemingly unanswerable questions we never got an answer to. In our inaugural venture, we ask what the baseball world would have been like if a famous blood pirate patrolled Hollywood instead of the Steel City.

He was born August 18, 1934 in Carolina, Puerto Rico. After playing a season with the Santurce Crabbers of the Puerto Rican Baseball League, the then 17-year old signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers and was sent to the Triple-A Montreal Royals for the 1954 season. Three years earlier, Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier with those very same Dodgers, paving the way for this young phenom from the tropical paradise. The media insisted on referring to him as “Bobby” or “Bob” but the soon to be star insisted on being called Roberto, Roberto Clemente.

Dodgers’ super scout, Clyde Sukeforth, the very man who Branch Rickey entrusted with scouting Robinson years earlier, sang Clemente more than a fair share of praises.

“Well, I said to myself, there’s a boy who can do two things as well as any man who ever lived. Nobody could throw any better than that, and nobody could run any better than that.”

In fact, it was Sukeforth’s gleaming words that led the Dodger brass to add the teenage right fielder to the Major League roster, protecting him from the November Rookie Draft and the prying eyes of Rickey and his new team, the Pittsburgh Pirates who had been rumored to have interest in the prospect. Many in the industry considered the move too soon. How could this 20-year old handle big league pitching after just one year in the minor leagues? Clemente began his career in 1955 under the bright lights of Ebbets Field but served primarily on the bench as the likes of Duke Snider, Sandy Amaros and Carl Furillo patrolled the grass in the outfield.

Flood in 1957.

A young Curt Flood with the Cincinnati Redlegs. Image courtesy of Wikiwand.com

With the emergence of Clemente, and the decline of the aging but still productive Furillo, the Dodgers decided to name Clemente their everyday starter. They proceeded to trade a package of Furillo and Amaros  to the Cincinnati Reds for veteran pitcher Joe Nuxhall, who broke into the league at just 15, and an unknown minor leaguer named Curt Flood, just 18-years old at the time.

The 1956 Dodgers boasted one of the most talented rosters of all-time. The big bad blue outfield sported Clemente in right, Duke Snider “The Duke of Flatbush” in center and the rookie Flood in left field. Fan favorite Roy Campanella manned the backstop and around the diamond stood Gil Hodges at first, Jim Gilliam at second, Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese at shortstop and third baseman Randy Jackson. Jackie Robinson and Don Zimmer manned the utility roles off the bench. Their pitching staff was led by 30-year old Don Newcombe, Roger Craig, the ageless Sal Maglie, the newly-acquired Nuxhall and a young, unpolished local flamethrower named Sandy Koufax.

Clemente excelled in his rookie season, taking advantage of the tight dimensions of Ebbets Field, leading the Dodgers on and off the diamond while displaying maturity and leadership far beyond his years. He was named the National League Rookie of the Year (the fifth Dodger to win the award in its less than ten-year existence) and reaching the World Series against their bitter rivals, the New York Yankees. In Game 5, facing Yankees’ hurler Don Larsen, Clemente put on a show, picking up four hits and driving in five runs en route to a 10-2 Dodgers’ rout. The Dodgers would go on to win the World Series, the second in a row, with Clemente riding through Flatbush on a trolley, as preserved a hero could be.

It was only the start of Roberto Clemente‘s storied career with the Dodgers. After moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Clemente became a fan favorite, drawing droves of Spanish-speaking fans, one of the largest demographics in Los Angeles. Between otherworldly assists from right field and superb hitting at the plate, Clemente soon rose to be the centerpiece of the Los Angeles franchise. They’d win three more championships with Clemente on the roster, cementing a dynasty in the newly-minted California region.

Clemente’s career would last almost two decades, all with the Dodgers. He would compile over 3,000 hits and post a career batting average well above .300. Shortly after his tragic death, when a plane carrying himself and relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua plummeted into the Pacific Ocean, Major League baseball created a special exception and inducted him into the Hall of Fame, voiding the five-year waiting period rule. His number “21” was retired by the Dodgers along with former teammates Reese, Snider, Koufax, Campanella, Robinson and Don Drysdale. Curt Flood, the man whose talents came to the Dodgers because of Clemente’s presence, would become the next mainstay in the Dodgers outfield and later, along with Marvin Miller of the Players Association, help end the ancient reserve clause and bring about free agency to the game. He’d wear number “22” his whole career in honor of Roberto.

So there you have it, the story of a legend just told a different way. Roberto Clemente, humanitarian, baseball legend and (Almost) a Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodger.

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