Growing up in Pennsylvania and attending Henderson High School in the 1960s, Matlack already had some familiarity with Clemente, who was well known to fans throughout the state. As a youngster, Matlack did not see Clemente play in person at Forbes Field, but that would change after the left-hander turned professional.
“I didn’t see him play before I was drafted, but coincidentally I went to the University of Pittsburgh,” said the well-spoken Matlack, speaking in front of a crowd of 170 fans in the Grandstand Theater. “After I was signed [in 1967], I saw him play at Forbes Field. This was after I had signed with the Mets. He was just a phenomenal ballplayer. He had all the tools that you could want.”
Even by his final season in 1972, those tools had not faded. Clemente could still run, hit, and hit with power, and remained a strong defensive presence in right field. He hit .312, posted an OPS of .835, and won his 12th Gold Glove Award. Perhaps the only skill that Clemente had lost was his ability to play every day; due to a variety of nagging injuries, Clemente appeared in only 102 games that season.
Yet, Clemente played enough to draw within range of his 3,000th hit. With the regular season coming to a close and the Pittsburgh Pirates playing in their 152nd game (out of a total of 154 during the strike-shortened season), Clemente stood just one hit short. After striking out badly in his first at-bat against Matlack, Clemente came to bat in the bottom of the fourth inning at Three Rivers Stadium.
Matlack recalls the pitch that resulted in No. 3,000.
“I don’t specifically remember the sequence of pitches,” Matlack said. “But I do remember the pitch that he hit. When it left my hand, it was a breaking ball, and I was trying to throw the ball low and away toward the outside corner. It was going to be outside. I thought it was going to be called a little ball. And I was a little disappointed that he was able to hit it and it ended up being a double.”
As the ball was retrieved and returned to the Pirates’ dugout, Clemente doffed his helmet to the smallish crowd of just over 13,000 fans. At first, Matlack did not understand the reason for the gesture or the retrieval of the ball. “I had no idea that it was his 3,000th hit. None,” Matlack told a near capacity crowd of 170 fans in the Hall of Fame’s Grandstand Theater in September. “He hit a ball into left field for a double and then was standing at second base, tipping his helmet to the crowd. I had no idea until I looked up and saw it flashing on the scoreboard that he had just hit his 3,000th hit.”
“At that point we didn’t know that was going to be his last hit,” said Matlack, “so that makes it a little bit more poignant. But I was a rookie, losing a ballgame at the tail-end of the season, doing my best to get through the game. That hit was just what it was, a double, and I had to go on to the next hitter and try to figure out how to get him out.”
Matlack felt that he had made a good pitch to Clemente, low and outside, but as with many offerings delivered to the Pirates great, he found a way to convert it into a line drive.
“I think the key to his his success as a hitter was this: his hands never committed [until the last moment],” said Matlack. “He would take a big stride, but his hands always stayed back, in a cocked position. He would keep his hands back. His timing was such that he was still able to get to the pitch.
Clemente’s death that New Year’s Eve, as part of a mission of mercy to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua 43 years ago, prevented him from ever facing Matlack again. The two men never talked at the ballpark, either at Three Rivers Stadium or at Shea Stadium, but Matlack did meet Clemente under far more social (and special) circumstances.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum