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Green: Clemente, not Mays, deserves title of greatest

Jerry Green
The Detroit News
Roberto Clemente

The greatest player in the history of Major League Baseball sat in the ramshackle shed of the visitors' clubhouse in venerable Crosley Field in Cincinnati. He fidgeted and twisted his neck and his shoulders, an athlete in perpetual motion. He was attended by a trainer who massaged his shoulders and an interpreter to translate back and forth between English and Spanish.

Roberto Clemente might not have been the perfect baseball player. But no other player in the game's 140 seasons has been closer to perfection.

Not Ty Cobb. Not Babe Ruth. Not Willie Mays. Not even Mike Trout, the Irreplaceable.

It is a personal opinion, arrived at belatedly, that Clemente was the baseball player nonpareil. It is an opinion that might be shared by only few other ancient souls captivated by sports.

For sure, today's Internet blogging juveniles with their higher-brow obsession with metrics will launch darts at this premise.

But they did not see Roberto Clemente play with grace and sharpened skills and with pride in his carriage.

Roberto had problems. He was a hypochondriac. An insomniac.

Lots of folks lug those problems.

Clemente's major problem -- yearning for acceptance and stature as a ballplayer -- was quite simple.

He played baseball in Pittsburgh.

He played in Pittsburgh in an era during which marvelous athletes were publicized and glorified. Television was in its adolescence, still a new medium. Print journalism dominated, and newspapers reached out to cover celebrated athletes.

These were the middle years of the 1960s.

In a different world

In New York, Joe Willie Namath was adored by the populace. He accepted the super-glamour that surrounded him and in turn, triggered the super-glamorization of pro football, starting it to the popularity the sport maintains 50 years later.

Muhammad Ali preached that he was "The Greatest," and the world believed him as he boxed and won – mostly – in America and in Africa and in Asia.

Namath, Ali – they were the greatest and we the press (still a 1960s word) believed and said so.

They were extroverts and their images were splashed on the covers of national magazines as they were in the daily print press.

And then there was Roberto Clemente. The greatest of all baseball players.

He played in the same sports era as the wondrous Willie Mays. They were rivals on the field. But Willie had the luxury of playing in New York and then in San Francisco when the Giants moved to California.

Willie got the acclaim. We-the-press kowtowed to Willie.

And Roberto was locked in isolation.

So it was that this stranger walked into the visitors' clubhouse located behind the grandstands at Crosley Field. It was a small, steamy room. Clemente sat in the middle with the Pirates' trainer kneading his shoulders. The date was May 15, 1967.

And Roberto chit-chatted for much of an hour with the wanderer from Detroit.

"If I could sleep, I could hit .400," was one of Clemente's favorite sayings.

He talked about lacking the acclaim of other ballplayers. Mays, his contemporary and rival, in particular. He talked about his pains and aches and his prowess.

His envy of other ballplayers with more recognition was obvious. But also showing was dignity and charm and elegance and kindness.

Then Clemente walked out of the clubhouse.

He was at work for the Pirates.

Home run first inning, off Milt Pappas, out of Detroit's Cooley High School.

Home run fifth inning, off Pappas again.

Home run ninth inning, off Gerry Arrigo.

And amidst this barrage, double seventh inning, off Darrell Osteen.

Roberto, with the bothersome neck, battered three pitchers for three homers and the double. He drove in seven runs.

The seven runs were not quite enough.

The Pirates lost to the Reds, 8-7, in 10 innings on Tony Perez's home run.

"Nobody does anything better than me in baseball," was another of Clemente's noted quotes.

We'll never know how much more greatness Roberto Clemente had within him after the day he collected his 3,000th hit for the Pirates in the final game of the 1972 season. He was 38 and planned to continue playing.

"Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don't, then you are wasting your time on Earth," Clemente had said, a quote frequently repeated on the Baseball Almanac website.

His death was a terrible sports tragedy.

Clemente – humanitarian, ex-United States Marine, still the pride of Puerto Rico, right fielder – died on New Year's Eve 1972. He was on a mission, and it had nothing to do with baseball.

The well-known story defines Roberto Clemente. He died in the crash of a cargo plane carrying relief supplies from Puerto Rico to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

Those of us who then voted in the elections of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown quickly broke the five-year rule. We voted Roberto into the Hall of Fame in a special election.

He was the first Latin player enshrined in Cooperstown.

Historical figure

This past week the Smithsonian Institution in Washington added a classic photo of Roberto Clemente to its National Portrait Gallery. Clemente was so honored because he was favored in a public vote pitting him against Babe Ruth and Sandy Koufax. The Smithsonian said Clemente won because he was an "influencer of American history and culture," according to a wire service article.

More stature – years so late – for Roberto Clemente.

Mays hit more home runs during a longer career than Clemente. Clemente had a higher career batting average, .317 to Mays' .302.

A statue of Roberto Clemente sits outside of PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

Each was an amazing five-tool player – the non-metric evaluation of baseball player's lasting worth. Clemente and Mays, along with Al Kaline, in those years of the 1950s, 1960s and early 1960s, could hit, hit for average, run, throw and field – the traditional five tools.

Three years ago, after watching rookie Mike Trout as he devastated the World Series-bound Tigers in three games in Anaheim, I invoked memories of Willie Mays. Trout is the rare five-tool player in today's baseball. Then I claimed that Mays was the greatest baseball player ever, and that Trout was the most accomplished player to enter the game in 40 years.

Upon further review, I dispute myself.

Clemente, without checking the updated sabermetrics, was the greatest. He was a superior hitter to Mays, without the power. He had a stronger arm. They were equal as fielders.

Roberto did not have the glitz of Mays – nor of Trout, bolstered by his Los Angeles exposure.

Clemente had one flaw. He played in Pittsburgh.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports reporter.