Clemente’s 3,000th hit nearly made history twice
At the beginning of the 1972 season, Clemente and most Pittsburgh Pirates fans thought that he would reach the mark by August, but a spate of injuries limited the veteran outfielder’s playing time that summer. As the Pirates moved into the final days of their regular season schedule in September, it now seemed questionable that Clemente would reach 3,000 at all that season.
With the Pirates already having clinched the National League East, manager Bill Virdon debated the merits of resting Clemente vs. having him continue an all-out pursuit of 3,000. Clemente, of course, wanted to play. As the Pirates readied to play their final full weekend series of the regular season, he stood at 2,999. Playing at Three Rivers Stadium on a Friday evening, Clemente faced New York Mets ace Tom Seaver and tapped a bouncing ball up the middle. Second baseman Ken Boswell tried to field the grounder, but the ball caromed off his glove. The message on the scoreboard at Three Rivers Stadium almost immediately flashed “Hit”—No. 3,000. The crowd of over 24,000 fans erupted loudly.
Clemente would collect four more hits during a disappointing National League Championship Series loss to the Cincinnati Reds, but since those hits came in the postseason, they would not count toward his career total.
Then came the tragic fates of winter. The New Year’s Eve mission of mercy to Nicaragua ended in a plane crash, killing five men, including Clemente, who was just 38. Clemente had planned to play one final season for the Pirates before embarking on a post-playing career that might have involved public service in government, or perhaps even a second career in baseball as a manager.
The year of 1972, which had started with such promise, turned out to be the last of Clemente’s life. It was also our last chance to watch his remarkable brilliance, exemplified on the day that he reached the milestone of 3,000.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum