Feb. 19, 1954 The Dodgers sign 19-year old Roberto Clemente to a big league contract

February 19, 2014
(Don Sparks/National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

By Helen Stiles

Roberto Clemente, once a Brooklyn Dodger?  Who knew?  Most of us only remember Clemente in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform, but Clemente started his Hall of Fame career as a Dodger.

On February 19, 1954, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed the young Puerto Rican to a major league contract which included a $10,000 signing bonus.  Because the signing bonus exceeded $4,000, the Dodgers were required, by Major League Baseball rules, to place Clemente on their major league roster for his entire first season or risk the possibility of losing their young prospect to another team in the annual rookie draft.  But instead of adding Clemente to the major league roster, the Dodgers decided to send him to their minor league affiliate, the Montreal Royals, for the 1954 season. 

The Dodgers hoped that Clemente might go unnoticed by other major league teams, but that wasn’t the case. Pittsburgh Pirates coach Clyde Sukeforth – a former coach for the Dodgers – took notice of the young Clemente and on Nov. 22, 1954, Clemente was the first player selected in the Rule 5 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Clemente spent the next 18 years (1955-1972) in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform building a Hall of Fame caliber career. During his playing career with the Pirates, Clemente was a 12-time National League All-Star, a 12-time NL Gold Glove Award Winner, National League MVP in 1966 and World Series MVP in 1971.

On July 24, 1970 Roberto Clemente was honored by the Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium with Roberto Clemente Night.  In a speech to the Pirates’ fans, Clemente said: “I began one life in 1934 when I was born in Puerto Rico and I began another life in 1955 when I began playing baseball in Pittsburgh.” 

On and off the field, Clemente believed in giving his all to making things better. He was quoted as saying; “If you have the opportunity to make things better and don’t, you’re wasting your time on this earth.”  On New Year’s Eve, 1972, Roberto Clemente lost his life while trying to make things better for earthquake victims in Nicaragua. He was accompanying a food shipment to the earthquake victims when the plane he was riding in crashed into the sea off the coast of his native Puerto Rico. 

In a special election held in 1973 – where the customary five-year waiting period was waived – Roberto Clemente became the first Latin American player to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Helen Stiles is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum