Roberto Clemente records 3,000th hit in final regular-season at-bat

Written by: Thomas Lawrence

It was a moment that seemed inevitable. But in retrospect, the timing of Roberto Clemente’s 3,000th career hit seemed directed by destiny.

On Sept. 30, 1972, Clemente and the defending World Champion Pirates were taking on Yogi Berra’s Mets at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Clemente, a proud son of Puerto Rico, was hitting an impressive .311 heading into the season finale against New York.

Batting third against Mets’ starter Jon Matlack, the eventual National League Rookie of the Year, Clemente looked to push his hit total of 2,999 into an historic group. At the time, only 10 other players had joined the 3,000-hit club, and only three – Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Stan Musial – had done so in the latter half of the 20th Century.

Clemente, besides being a world-renowned humanitarian, now had a chance to be the first Latin American ballplayer to reach 3,000 hits.

In the bottom of the fourth inning, Clemente was leading off against Matlack after a strikeout in his first at-bat. Clemente promptly roped a double to the Three Rivers outfield – his 3,000th and last regular-season hit of his exceptional career.

But it wouldn’t be his last impact on Major League Baseball. The Pirates had won the National League East, and were set to take on Sparky Anderson’s Cincinnati Reds in the league’s championship series. Many felt the 1972 Pirates were better than the Pittsburgh squad that won the World Series a year before, but the Reds prevailed in five games - rallying to win the deciding Game 5 in the bottom of the ninth.

Clemente only had four hits in the five-game series loss which officially unseated 1971 World Champions, but those hits included a double and a home run.

After 18 magical seasons of watching Clemente control the diamond like few ever did, the world was dealt a huge blow when Clemente was killed on Dec. 31, 1972. Flying to Nicaragua to deliver goods to earthquake victims, Clemente was the victim himself of a plane crash that took his life at the young age of 38.

One of nearly 300 Puerto Ricans to play in the big leagues, Clemente remains the all-time Puerto Rican hits leader, ahead of runner-up Iván Rodríguez by 156 hits.

Clemente became the first Latin American player to be elected to the Hall of Fame in 1973, and dozens of artifacts from Clemente’s life are preserved at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“Roberto Clemente touched us all,” said Pirates pitcher Steve Blass. “We’re all better players and people for having known him.”

Thomas Lawrence was the publications intern in the Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program Class of 2009 at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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