Roberto Clemente's 'Toolbox': The Arm

From BR Bullpen

Clemente's Contemporaries Chime In

___ The Witnesses ___

"Some right fielders have rifles for arms, but he had a howitzer." - Tim McCarver
"Clemente could field the ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania." - Vin Scully

Clemente was considered one of the greatest defensive right fielders in baseball history due in large part to his very strong and exceptionally accurate throwing arm. On five occasions [1958, 1960, '61, '66 and '67] he would lead the National League in outfield assists, peaking in '61 – his career year offensively as well up to that point – at a somewhat scary total of 27, particularly impressive for someone seven years in the league.

_ Bill James _

Bill James, hugely influential baseball historian/statistician, surely needs no introduction here, and his overall estimation of Clemente is likely only slightly less well known. Certainly, the following quote is not representative of that estimation which – as revealed in James' writings over the years – is for the most part negative, or at least corrective of what James sees as a prevailing overvaluation of Clemente. James’ reevaluation, however, is based almost exclusively on his analysis of the statistical record. For a good introduction to that analysis, see The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. The quote below, drawn from the original edition of the Abstract, is the only example I’ve yet encountered, in an admittedly less-than-exhaustive search, of a Clemente-related passage in James based on observation.

"I’ve been trying a little experiment, asking baseball fans that I meet who had the best throwing arm they ever saw. It’s very rare that anybody who is old enough to remember seeing him play doesn’t immediately say “Clemente.” For younger fans, you just can’t believe what it was like; I hope we see another one like it, or you’ll never believe that it was possible. His throws combined strength, accuracy and speed of release in whatever proportions were necessary to get the job done. Freddie Patek once told me he saw Clemente throw people out at the plate from the warning track at Forbes Field, over 350 feet away. I never saw him do that but I saw him grab a double in the gap and fire it to second base to make it an oops/single, when the entire transaction was so lightning fast that even having seen him do it four or five times, you still couldn’t believe it was possible.” [1]

Incidentally, readers will search in vain for the preceding passage in the more recent – and more obtainable – edition of the Abstract. Apparently James came to his senses in time to excise even this bit of youthful gushing from his 'mature' opus.

_ Re: Mays and Clemente – Mays, Gaylord Perry, Hank Sauer, Eddie Mathews and James K. McGee _

Many of Clemente's teammates have noted how he often seemed to notch it up to an even higher level than usual when going up against Mays and the Giants. Here's a contemporary account from 1967:

"With the Pirate infield tucked in rather closely, Cline rolled a single past Donn Clendenon at first base and Schroder was on his way to a certain death. He challenged the best arm in the National League, the rifle that hangs from the shoulder of Roberto Clemente, and Roberto threw out Schroder into the glove of Maury Wills. The throw was so low in its flight from bare hand to glove, Cline could not risk an advance to second. Mays followed with a single that would have scored Bob had he not given Clemente the challenge." [2]

The Say Hey Kid himself usually knew better than to test his former pupil. Mays' teammate Gaylord Perry recalls opening day 1965:

"Mays rounds third and screeches to a halt. When the world’s best baserunner puts on the brakes on a hit to right, you know it’s because the world’s best arm is in right. And it was a close game – we needed that run.” [3]

As Les Biederman reported:

"Mays didn't even think of trying to score. 'The ball was hit too good and Clemente got it at his knees,' Mays explained. 'I just couldn't take a chance on Clemente's arm.” [4]

Of course an aggressive baserunner like Mays – or Clemente for that matter – is going to push the envelope once in a while no matter who is in the outfield. Looking back at his career in 1998, Mays could recall exactly one instance of being thrown out going first to third:

“Roberto Clemente threw me out on a bang-bang play at third. I should have remembered what a tremendous arm he had.” [5]

If Mays’ recollection is correct, the play he’s referring to took place about 30 years before in Candlestick Park on Saturday, April 13, 1968, almost three years to the day after the more cautious encounter cited above. In '68 as in '65, despite Mays' altered approach, the result remained a one-run defeat for Willie and company, this time with Perry himself inheriting the 'hard-luck loser' mantle from Marichal:

“When Willie McCovey, the next hitter, bounced a single over Donn Clendenon’s outstretched glove into right field, it appeared the dam had been broken and runs would flow.” [6] “Then came the key play of the game. Mays rounded second base and slowed down to draw a throw from right fielder Roberto Clemente.” [7] “Mays, either overestimating his own speed or underestimating the power and accuracy of Clemente’s arm, was thrown out trying to reach third. Maury Wills tagged him as he slid by.” [8]

Mays, like Clemente, had a cannon for an arm but, according to both Hank Sauer and Eddie Mathews, who played respectively with and against Mays in his prime, Clemente had the clear edge in accuracy. Sauer spoke with writer Danny Peary:

“Could Clemente ever throw! Even better than Mays – he was more accurate.” [9]

Mathews compared the two in his autobiography:

“Another guy that never got attention was Roberto Clemente. He was something else. He had a great arm and he could hit. He was a little more flamboyant than Hank, but not like Mays. Willie constantly threw to the wrong base, though, or overthrew the cutoff man to show off his arm. We always kept running on Willie. Don’t get me wrong, he was a great player, but I would take Aaron or Clemente over Mays any time.” [10]

_ Charley Feeney and Les Biederman on "The Throw(s)" of June 13, 1967 _

Charley Feeney, Post Gazette sports editor who became TSN's Pirates correspondent in 1969, would speak with Jim O'Brien in 1994, recalling a play that had lost little of its immediacy more than 25 years later:

“[This is the] story about The Throw, which happened in the late 60’s at Forbes Field. Clemente made the most remarkable throw I ever saw … and he got an error on the play!

“The Bucs were playing the Cardinals, it was one of the middle innings and the Cards had runners on first and third. I don’t recall the runner on third, but Orlando Cepeda was on first. I believe Tim McCarver singled to right, and the runner on third scores. Cepeda is about to stop at second, but the ball rolls through Clemente’s legs, and Cepeda takes third (reason for the error being charged to Clemente). The ball rolled to the warning track in right (not close to the foul line), and Clemente picks up the ball with his back to the plate. He whirls and throws a no-bounce strike to Milt May [sic [11]] at home plate and Cepeda is out trying to score.''

“After the play, I looked around the press box to find the oldest baseball observer there. Leo Ward, the traveling secretary of the Cards, had been watching baseball since the teens. His quote: ‘If I didn’t see it, I wouldn’t believe it.’” [12]

Miraculous as this first-inning assist was, Les Biederman's contemporaneous story reveals that Clemente was just getting started:

"An inning later, Clemente almost duplicated the feat on Curt Flood. This time, Clemente chased Bob Tolan’s double down the right field line and caught up with it in the right field corner. Flood, who was on first with two outs, was given the green light by coach Joe Schultz but again Clemente fired a strike all the way to May – again with no bounce – and Flood bit the dust.

"An inning later, Clemente almost made it three for three in the throwing department. The Cards had three on with one out when Dal Maxvill lined to Clemente. Again Cepeda was on third. When the ball soared toward Clemente, Schultz whispered to Cepeda: 'Want to challenge him again?' 'Yes,' emphatically answered Cepeda. Clemente had to go back a step or two to flag down Maxvill’s fly and then threw side-arm instead of over-handed. The ball landed a few feet toward third base as Cepeda beat the throw and the ball bounced into the seats for an extra run. [Now] the Cards understood why Clemente threw all the way in the air on the other two hits to nail runners at the plate. The infield [in Forbes Field] is concrete hard and a ball can bounce either 50 feet high or skip away, never to be seen again." [13]

_ Howie Haak compares Clemente's cannon to other high-profile howitzers _

Howie Haak, longtime Pirate scout who gained acclaim as the scout who threw open all of Latin America to major-league baseball, puts into perspective the weapon attached to Clemente's shoulder, showing just where it fell within the Pirates' rating system in which 30 was an average arm, 35 average-plus, 40 above average, 50 outstanding, and 60 the absolute best:

"Raul Mondesi is a 40. Clemente and Shawon Dunston were the only 60s we ever had. Dave Parker was a 40." [14]

_ Felo Ramirez _

Of course, lest we forget, not only did Clemente play 'under the radar' in the U.S, context, plying his wares for the benefit of those lucky few baseball-minded Pittsburghers, he also played a great deal of baseball outside of the continental U.S.A. altogether. Cuban-born baseball announcer Rafael "Felo" Ramirez recalls one shining moment out of the many that are lost to us:

"Perhaps the greatest play I’ve ever seen Roberto make was in Nicaragua, in 1964 or 1965, after San Juan won the title in the Caribbean Series. They had Clemente, Cepeda, Pizarro, Conde, Pagan – it was like an all-star team! The San Juan team arranged a friendly game against the teams from Niacaragua and Panama. Know who won? Nicaragua! They had a bunch of old Cubans, almost retired, but they won! What a party they threw in Nicaragua. But during that series, Roberto made such a fantastic play that they nearly raised a monument in his honor out in right field. Ossie Echevarria, a Panamanian, one of the fastest men in baseball, was the runner on first base. A ball was hit to right-center, nearly by the wall. Normally, any runner would make it from first to third on such a hit, especially a guy like Echevarria. Clemente cut the ball off and threw it right into Wito Conde’s glove at third – that ball looked like a jet! The runner was tagged out, and every fan in the ballpark just stood there – mouth open in amazement. They’d seen plenty of top players over the years, but never had they seen a throw like that! Three innings later, the same situation: Echevarria on first, another hit. Roberto cut it off and fired to third. Echevarria was between second and third base. When he slammed on the brakes, it looks so funny, like a character in a Walt Disney cartoon! He threw himself headlong back to second base. Incredible! It was impossible to run against Roberto’s arm." [15]

_ Pedrín Zorrilla _

Pedrín Zorrilla, owner and founder of the Santurce Cangrejeros [Crabbers in English], Clemente's first winter ball team [’52-54], was an important figure in Puerto Rican baseball, a mentor to many players, as well as an unofficial [and sometimes official] major league scout, facilitating the entry of many Puerto Rican stars – such as Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Ruben Gomez and Juan Pizarro – into the big leagues. It's only fitting that we close out our consideration of Clemente's most undisputable attribute by coming full circle and giving the floor to the late don Pedrín, who handed Roberto off to us so long ago.

"He used to do things [in right field] that I thought no outfielder could possibly do. I am, you see, no baby. I know this game and I know the people who play it and I have seen them all ... all of them.

"But I tell you as I look there where once he wore our Santurce uniform, I tell you that when they hit that line drive ... you know that Roberto would of course have to be playing over toward center for a right-handed batter. And when the right-handed hitter put the ball toward the foul line, then Roberto would have to turn his back and sprint in the wrong direction.

"This is, you see, a most difficult play, but all the good ones make it, so you cannot build a memory upon the fact that he could turn and run and catch the ball. But what followed, ah, my friend, what followed. Ah, what followed was that as soon as you heard the sound of that baseball sticking in the pocket of the glove, you knew that Roberto would make this incredible pivot and sometimes without even looking he would throw the ball and heaven help the man on third base who thought he could then tag up and run home after such a play. Heaven help him, my friend, because his legs couldn’t. Roberto would throw him out by three feet."

"I am no child. I get older. I have seen them all. Yes, DiMaggio could make this play and maybe one or two others. That’s all. Upon a sight like this one can build a memory that almost measures up to the greatness that was Clemente." [16]

______ Notes ______[edit]

  1. Bill James, The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (New York, Villiard Books, 1988), p. 236
  2. Bob Stevens, “Haller’s Homer Sinks Bucs,” The San Francisco Chronicle (Saturday, September 23, 1967), p. 33
  3. Maraniss, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, pp. 99-100
  4. Biederman, "Clemente's Throwing Rep Won Inaugural for Bucs," TSN (April 24, 1965)p. 18
  5. Glenn Dickey, “Baseball’s Living Legend,” The Sporting News (October 26, 1998), p. 12
  6. James K. McGee, “Poor Perry Loses by 2-1 Again,” The San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday, April 14, 1968), p. 1C
  7. McGee, “McBean Not Superstitious on No-Hitter,” The San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday, April 14, 1968), p. 3C
  8. McGee, “Poor Perry Loses…”
  9. Peary, We Played the Game: Memories of Baseball's Greatest Era (New York, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. 1994), p. 398
  10. Eddie Mathews and Bob Buege, Eddie Mathews and the National Pastime (Milwaukee, Douglas American Sports Publications, 1994), p. 182
  11. Actually, that would be Jerry May. In fact, it would be well over three years before Milt joined the club.
  12. O’Brien, Remember Roberto, p. 418
  13. Les Biederman, "Roberto’s Rifle Wing Amazes Fans, Shoots Down Cardinals," TSN (July 1, 1967), p. 15
  14. Dennis Tuttle, “The New Arms Race,” Inside Sports (August 1997), p. 35
  15. Wagenheim, Clemente!, pp.123-124
  16. Izenberg, Great Latin Sports Figures, pp. 8-9

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