Tragically, Clemente only had a few short months to live when he entered the 1972 season, hitting 118 just shy of becoming the first Latin player to reach the holy number—which, at the time, meant an automatic ticket to the Hall of Fame.
The pirate legend died on December 31, 1972, when the plane he was traveling in with humanitarian aid supplies for earthquake-stricken Nicaragua crashed after taking off from his native Puerto Rico.
Although Clemente had already spent 18 seasons with Pittsburgh and was 38 at the time of his death, he appeared to be in great physical shape. In fact, just a year earlier he won the World Series MVP award as the Pirates edged out the Orioles in a seven-game series on their way to the franchise’s fourth title.
Unfortunately, it was difficult for the veteran to stay on the field that year, making hitting the 3,000 mark less certain than most people expected when the season began. After all, he’d racked up no fewer than 118 hits in every season of his career except 1957, and even topped the 200 hits four times.
But despite his acting looks, Clemente had a long history of spinal problems. He even dealt with a bout of malaria before the ’65 season.
“He looked like a specimen,” said Pirates quarterback Steve Blass, Clemente’s teammate for eight seasons. “He looked like he was 25, and on top of that he could be a movie star. But there were physical problems with him.”
These physical ailments, more so than pitchers around the National League, will be the biggest reason Clemente’s 3,000 chaser will eventually come down to the wire during a season in which he slashed a solid 0.312/.356/.479. He appeared in just 102 matches – the fewest of his career – although a player goal that delayed the start of the season until mid-April contributed to that total as well.
Clemente was hitless in his first two contests before catching multiple hit games in three of five. He finished April with 12 hits in 47 at-bats (. 255). A scorching May during which he batted 365 base hits with 35 base hits Clemente centered just 71 runs shy of 3,000 with four months left to play.
Manny Sanguillen, a three-time All-Star catcher from Panama who went from Clemente to being his closest friend on the Pirates, recalls how missing games upset the legendary right-hander.
“One night we were in Atlanta in ’71, and it was really hot, above 90 degrees,” Sanguillen recalls. “[Clemente] He told me, “I can’t get out of the lineup because I want 3,000 hits. I have to be the first Latino to reach 3,000 hits.”
I ordered fruit and water from room service and stayed with him until 3 am. People don’t know what he went through. He was also having problems with a tendon in his back. His body was giving way.”
The great Clemente will need to somehow stay healthy enough to accumulate a powerful final push. Not surprisingly for a player who was at his best when the pressure was high—he hit safely in all 14 World Series games he played—Clemente was up to the task.
From September 2–7, he hit seven hits and hit a safety in five straight games. He had three hits per game against the Cubs at Wrigley Field on September 12-13, including his last career home run off fellow Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins on September 13.
Clemente followed up his last career hit with six more hits over the next three games, giving him 2,990 with two weeks remaining. Suddenly, this achievement mattered again.
While anticipation of the magical moment began to build up in the Pirates clubhouse and around Pittsburgh, there wasn’t as much hype around Clemente’s chase as fans would expect today.
“I got a lot of attention, but nothing like what happened in Chicago or New York or Los Angeles,” Blass said.
“At the time, we Latinos didn’t get a lot of press,” Sanguillen added.
After three more multi-hit games in his next eight games, Clemente was just two shy of him with five games remaining on the Pirates’ schedule. He collected 2,999 — a hit single off Phillies’ Steve Carlton, another future Hall of Famer — in the season’s last road game.
He’s back home in Pittsburgh where Clemente is making his final charge of immortality. He had four matches remaining.
“To get 3,000 successful results means you have to play a lot,” Clemente told reporters. “For me, that means more. I know how I am and what I’ve been through. I don’t want to get 3,000 blows hitting my chest and screaming, ‘Hey, I got it!'”
“What it means is that I didn’t fail with the ability I had. I’ve seen a lot of players come and go. Some failed because they didn’t have the ability. Some failed because they didn’t have the will.”
Number 3,000, I have to get it this season.
Roberto Clemente, Spring Training, 1972
“Well, maybe it will be tomorrow,” Clemente told Mayoral. “But I haven’t been sleeping well lately.”
Clemente leaves no room for suspense. He was ready for the chase to end. The next night, after striking out first in the first inning, Clemente hit a gap-double against John Matlack, eventual Rookie of the Year, to start the fourth.
“The script You Can’t Write Better Than That was a ringing double to left center field,” Blass said. “Not dodgy. No fly popup down the right field line. And against an excellent marksman like John Matlack.
“That situation is at second base. I will never forget it.”
“I felt uncomfortable when all these people applauded me,” Clemente told Mayoral.
Thanks to a hot September in which he batted . 333 and hit safely 30 times, the 15-time All-Star became the first Latino to reach 3,000 strikeouts. His colleagues were ecstatic.
“I was one of the happiest people in the world,” said Sanguillen. “The Latinos were all happy. Now you see how much there is in baseball.”
Clemente would also become the first Latino to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame the following summer, when the normal five-year waiting period was waived following his tragic death.
A man whose legendary humanity is sometimes overshadowed by how great a ballplayer he was once beaten by the clock no one knew was ticking, stuck forever at 3,000 strokes—a magic number that became as synonymous with him as the number 21 he wore.
Of course, the hour has not matched Khalid as Clemente, whose legacy lives on in many ways, 50 years later from the Clemente Bridge out of PNC Park to the prestigious award that bears his name and is given annually to the player who best represents what all great players aspire to on and off the field.