Clemente’s October led Pirates to 1971 title
Yet, in October of 1971, Roberto Clemente came as close to carrying his team to a world championship as any one player has ever done. In a World Series matchup that heavily favored the powerhouse Baltimore Orioles, Clemente lifted the underdog Pittsburgh Pirates to one of the most remarkable upsets in Fall Classic history. Hitting the ball with a relentless ferocity, running the bases like a man 10 years younger than his listed age of 37, and fielding his position with breathtaking flawlessness, Clemente galvanized the Pirates, almost willing them to a World Series title that most had considered unlikely, if not impossible.
The events of the first two games of the ’71 World Series did not bode well for the Pirates. They were overmatched by the Orioles, who won the two games by the combined score of 16-6. The victories by the Orioles fulfilled most of the pre-Series expectations. Most writers had predicted the Orioles would win the Series with ease, and quite possibly in a four-game sweep.
As well as Clemente played in the first two games, he was in no mood to discuss the merits of his performance. He was more concerned with the poor condition of Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. A rainy late summer in Baltimore, coupled with a series of NFL games, had left the playing surface in muddled condition for the World Series. Clemente also criticized the sight lines at Memorial Stadium. “This is not a big league ballpark.” Clemente told the Sporting News. “You cannot see the ball in the outfield. You can’t see where it’s going when they hit it in the air… You have to worry about the holes [in the ground] and the grass.”
Cuellar’s hasty reaction resulted in an errant toss, which pulled Powell off the bag. Clemente was safe, a routine pitcher-to-first-putout instead becoming an error against Cuellar.
Perhaps rattled by his own mistake, Cuellar walked Willie Stargell, putting Pirate runners at first and second with no one out. Cuellar then ran the count to 1-1 against Bob Robertson. Noticing that Brooks Robinson was playing deep at third, Danny Murtaugh signaled to Frank Oceak, his third base coach, that he wanted the slugging Robertson to bunt.
And even in a tough, extra-inning loss in the sixth game, Clemente pounded out a triple and a home run against the great Jim Palmer.
It was now on to Game 7, which turned into a classic pitcher’s duel between Pirates ace Steve Blass and the lefty-throwing Cuellar, one of four 20-game winners for the Orioles that season. The game remained scoreless heading to the fourth inning. Cuellar then breezed through the first two Pirate batters.
He then faced Merv Rettenmund, who bounced a high hopper over the second base bag. Pirates shortstop Jackie Hernández fielded the tricky ground ball and fired to first base, ending the game and giving the Pirates their first world championship since 1960.
While Blass had pitched brilliantly in his two Series starts, it was Clemente who was clearly the MVP of the World Series. For more than an hour after the game, Clemente remained trapped on the NBC-TV platform, unable to move because of the mass of players, reporters and officials that had convened in the Pirates’ clubhouse.
For many years, Clemente had been respected by insiders as one of the game’s great players, but the Pirates’ status as a small-market franchise had caused him to be overlooked by fans and media nationwide. All of that had now changed. Clemente’s all-around performance on national television transformed the public’s perception of him as a very good player into awareness of his true status: That of a superstar.
“He turned 10-year major league veterans into 10-year-old fans,” Blass, a teammate of Clemente for nine seasons, said during a visit to Cooperstown in the late 1990s. “And that’s what’s special about the very special ballplayers. You just really enjoy watching them play. You even enjoy watching them run out to their position. You just can’t get enough of the special guys. Clemente was just that good.”
Indeed he was.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum