Roberto Clemente Joins
the 3,000 Hit Club

There are many iconic numbers in baseball, mostly the jersey numbers of famous players. Roberto Clemente will forever be associated with the number 21, Jackie Robinson with 42, Lou Gehrig with 4 (the first major league number to be retired), and so on.

When it comes to play statistics, there is a much higher number associated with a select few: 3,000.

Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame

Island Pride

The 3,000-hit club is one of the most exclusive honors in the sport. There’s no formalized award, just the objective facts of the public record. The most recent inductee was Albert Pujols in May 2018, the fourth player in history with 3,000 hits and 600 home runs, and only the second Dominican to make the club. Adrian Beltre was the first a year before, so it’s been a hugely exciting time for the Caribbean presence in baseball.

Pujols is one of our favorites here at RCF, and he makes no secret that his accomplishments over the past decade have been significantly motivated by the Clemente Award he received in ’08, which stands in a place of honor in his home. It’s amazing how much has happened these past 45 years.

Elementary school presentation of plaque honoring 3000 hit milestone
Photo: JCD Collection

Three Thousand at Three Rivers

It was September 30, 1972. It felt like the dawn of a new age for Roberto, like his legend was just beginning to be written. There was no way to know that he would only be with us for three more months.

The Pirates were still glowing from their World Series win the previous year, with Roberto and Bill Mazeroski the only remaining players from their win in ’61. When Roberto’s 3,000th sailed over the heads of Yogi Berra’s Mets, it was a moment straight out of a classic movie.

Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame

the pitch heard
around the world

When it comes to the 3,000-hit club, only the most hardcore fans and scholars could name the pitchers who were on the other side of those iconic moments. Not so with Roberto.

Jon Matlack is a crucial element of the Roberto legend, thanks to his presence on the mound that day. Matlack was a strong pitcher, and Roberto struck out badly in their initial encounter. He made sure not to let it happen again at the bottom of the fourth.

Photo: Jerry Siskind

Hometown Hero

Attendance was slim that day, and the audience rooting for the Pirates were mostly die-hard Clemente fans, a few dozen of whom had flown up from Puerto Rico specifically for this occasion. Among them was a photographer from San Juan, Luis Ramos, who captured the whole day in a famous sequence of pictures.

Roberto, ever the showman, turned to the crowd and removed his helmet, thanking them for their support on his incredible journey. Matlack had no idea what was happening, until he looked at the scoreboard and saw the massive blinking number 3,000.

Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame

“Off Matlack”

Matlack was a great technician with a keen eye for technique, and he observed that “…his hands never committed [until the last moment]. He would take a big stride, but his hands always stayed back, in a cocked position.” This unusual method combined with his impeccable timing made Roberto a force to be reckoned with, even up against some of the game’s strongest pitchers.

When he was given the ball to keep after the game, he wrote “off Matlack” on its surface in pen. The 3,000-hit club was a tiny group of 10 at the time, with only Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Stan Musial batting 3,000 since 1950.

Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame

Legacy of Excellence

Out of the entire pool of players in the club (32 as of this writing), Roberto is the only one to make 3,000 hits and no more. This eerie coincidence has been often commented upon.

The sheer statistical unlikelihood, of hitting that milestone and dying so soon after, is enough to give pause to the strongest spiritual skeptic.

Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame

His Real mission

Three years later, Vera Clemente told the New York Times, “[In 1972] he said, ‘If I don’t hit it now, I don’t hit it ever.’ I don’t know if he knew or what.” Unfortunately, nobody knows why things played out the way they did on New Year’s Eve.

What we do know is that Roberto would have wanted us to carry on his real mission: to build nations of good in a world that is crying out for meaning and truth.

Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame