With all the hoopla about the LeBron James sweepstakes, Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, scheduled for Tuesday in Anaheim has somehow gotten lost in the sports shuffle. For anybody who has ever been a baseball fan, the All-Star Game is a time of powerful nostalgia for players of the past. In my case, I always think of my all-time favorite player, number 21 of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Roberto Clemente.
I grew up in Pittsburgh. My first season as a fan was 1955, the year the Dodgers won their first and only World Series championship in Brooklyn. That was also Roberto Clemente's first season as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Clemente had been signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers for a bonus prior to the 1954 season. The Dodgers immediately assigned him to their triple-A minor league affiliate in Montreal. Under the rules existing at that time, if an MLB franchise did not take special measures to protect a bonus player, he was subject to being drafted by another team. The Pittsburgh Pirates took advantage of these rules and drafted Clemente prior to the 1955 season.
The rest is history. Clemente became one of the greatest players of his era. He made 3,000 hits and had a career batting average of .317. Roberto was, without any doubt, in terms of fielding, the greatest right fielder in the history of baseball. No right fielder ever possessed a stronger, more accurate arm.
I had the good fortune to see Roberto play in each of his 18 Pirate seasons, from 1955 through 1972. There were certainly better ballplayers than Roberto, including Ted Williams, Willie Mays, and Henry Aaron. Yet no player in either the National or American League ever played as fine a World Series as did Roberto in 1971 in the Pirates' triumph over the Baltimore Orioles.
The thought has occurred to me, however as to what would have happened if the Dodgers had protected Roberto and brought him up to Brooklyn for the 1955 season. One must then also wonder how Roberto would have fared if the Dodgers had then stayed in Brooklyn, rather than moving to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. The Dodgers certainly never would have moved to California if Robert Moses had condemned the land at the Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues intersection and given it to Dodger owner Walter O'Malley to build his dream, a domed stadium.
Had the Dodgers kept Clemente in Brooklyn in 1955, he would have competed with Sandy Amoros and Junior Gilliam for the left field position, rather than right field. The Dodgers had the "Reading Rifle", Carl Furillo in right field, an outstanding fielder and hitter with a powerful, accurate arm. Left field, however was always a question mark for the Dodgers during their last decade in the Borough of Kings.
I think Clemente may well have won the left field starting job in 1955 for a surprising reason: Had Clemente played in Ebbets Field, he would have become a power hitter, giving him a decided edge over Amoros and Gilliam even at this early point in his career. The fabled bandbox home of the Dodgers was a home run hitter's delight. Clemente would have become a 30 home run a year man in Ebbets Field and the future Dodgerdome at Atlantic and Flatbush.
By contrast, Forbes Field, where Clemente played fifteen and a half seasons, was the most difficult home run park in the history of baseball. As the late Pirate manager Danny Murtaugh noted, Clemente had excellent power, but he became a "made-over" hitter in Forbes Field, hitting doubles and triples in bunches, but rarely taking a home run swing.
So the power hitting Clemente would have won the left field Brooklyn Dodger starting job in 1955, and switch hitter Junior Gilliam would have played second base, rather than Don Zimmer. Sandy Amoros would have been a reserve left fielder and pinch hitter.
Yet this situation may well have deprived Brooklyn of their cherished 1955 World Series victory.
The Dodgers won their only Brooklyn World Series victory in 1955 by defeating the New York Yankees by a 2-0 score in Game 7 in Yankee Stadium. The key to the victory was a superb catch by Sandy Amoros in the sixth inning of a long fly ball to left field off the bat of Yogi Berra. The left-handed Amoros, running at full speed sideways to his right, reached out and caught the ball with his right gloved hand near the foul pole and prevented a double that would have driven in two base runners, tying the score.