On April 17, 1955, Roberto Clemente made his Major League debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates, starting his Hall of Fame career with a 1-4 performance against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Due to the keen eyes of Branch Rickey and scout Clyde Sukeforth, the Pirates swiped Clemente from the Dodgers Triple-A affiliate in Montreal. All despite Brooklyn’s best efforts to hide his talent. Eighteen seasons and 3,000 hits later, Clemente built a most remarkable career with the Pirates for both his efforts on and off the field.
But what would have become of Clemente’s career if the Dodgers attempts to keep him away from the other 15 big league clubs were successful?
“He worked out with me in center field to start,” Montreal teammate Don Thompson said in a 2008 interview. “He had a great arm and he could hit; he hit a lot of bad pitches, like Berra, over his head. He was a wild swinger, but I could tell he was going to be a good ballplayer. … They were trying to hide him. He was eligible for the big league draft. They knew that if they didn’t take him on Brooklyn that he would possibly be drafted.”
The Brooklyn Dodgers had one of the most established lineups in the National League at the time of Clemente’s debut, with perennial All-Stars Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, and Duke Snider solidifying the heart of the Dodgers order. With Snider and Furillo firmly entrenched in the outfield and the emergence of Sandy Amorós in left field, there was little reason for the Dodgers to rush the 20-year-old Clemente to the majors.
“[George] Shuba would have gone, but Clemente would have ridden the bench until he was good enough for the majors,” said historian Stew Thornley via e-mail.
During Game 7 of the 1955 World Series, Dodgers manager Walter Alston inserted Amorós in left field, where he made a game-saving catch on a smash by Yogi Berra. The left-handed Amorós was able to reach towards the foul line with an outstretched right hand to snare Berra’s drive. If Clemente was available, would Alston have gone with him over Amorós as the defensive replacement? And if so, would Clemente have been able to reach Berra’s hit? Most experts agree that if Alston had kept the right-handed Junior Gilliam in left field, that he would not have been able to reach the ball, which could have dramatically altered the Dodgers chances of a World Series victory.
In 1956, Clemente experienced a breakout season for the Pirates, batting .311 in 147 games and throwing out 17 runners from the outfield. If Clemente was truly ready to unseat Amorós, the Dodgers could have fielded an outfield of Clemente, Snider, and Furillo,with the hopes of repeating as World Series Champions. However tantalizing was the prospect of Clemente’s addition to the 1956 team; perhaps even more interesting was the rumored shakeup of the Dodgers lineup at the end of the season.
Ted Reed, the author of Carl Furillo’s biography, “Carl Furillo: Brooklyn Dodgers All-Star,” stated that a possible trade of Furillo could have positioned the Dodgers to have three Hall of Famers in the outfield to start the 1957 campaign.
“I think it is reasonable to conclude that had Clemente been available, the Dodgers might well have traded Furillo at the end of the 1956 season,” Reed said via e-mail. “A trade was discussed that would have sent Furillo, Gino Cimoli, and others to the Phillies for Richie Ashburn and Harvey Haddix.”
Regardless, Furillo was starting to fall out of favor with Walter O’Malley due to durability issues that cropped up during the 1956 season. He missed significant time in 1957 and by 1959 he was no longer a starter for the Dodgers. Would the excitement that Clemente have brought to the Dodgers lineup in 1957 have been enough to help keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn?
“Clemente would have helped them win and draw fans; however, I think the ballpark issue was more significant than attendance in the mid 50s for them,” Thornley said.
As the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles with Clemente in tow, it is certain that other prominent outfield prospects would have been separated from the team’s record books. The Dodgers were rich in outfield talent during their early years in Los Angeles, with the likes of Cimoli, Tommy Davis, Willie Davis, Don Demeter, Ron Fairly, Lou Johnson, Frank Howard, and Wally Moon all playing significant roles manning the vast greens in Los Angeles.
Studying the Dodgers’ nines of the early 1960s, Clemente’s pairing with Tommy Davis in the 1962 lineup could have given the Dodgers the necessary firepower to surpass the San Francisco Giants, who bested the Dodgers by only one game to win the National League pennant. Would Clemente’s MVP season in 1966 have pushed the Dodgers past the Orioles in the 1966 World Series? Which of the aforementioned outfielders could have been trade chips for the Dodgers to acquire the pitching depth necessary to replace the early retirement of Sandy Koufax?
Clemente won two World Series championships with the Pirates during his career. If he stayed with the Dodgers, Clemente had the opportunity to garner at least a half-dozen rings, potentially making him one of the most decorated players of his generation. The bountiful Dodgers knew that when they signed Clemente in Puerto Rico that they were going to have a tough time holding him in the minor leagues while their core players aged. If Clemente spent his entire career as a Dodger, he could have certainly put their dynasty on par with the Yankees. However, the fans of Pittsburgh may never have known the spirit of Clemente that resonated far beyond the two championships he brought to the Steel City.