Roberto Clemente was a great baseball player, but his throwing arm was extraordinary. I know. I saw it happen.
And Joe Morgan was the victim.
On July 21, 1970, at the Astrodome, Clemente’s Pirates were facing Houston. Jesus Alou was on first base in the bottom of the first when Morgan sent a stinging line drive single to right field. Alou went to third on the play, and Morgan took a wide turn at first.
Bad move. Clemente came up firing, throwing behind Morgan to first baseman Al Oliver, who tagged the surprised runner out.
Amazing. I’ll bet Morgan remembers that play.
Clemente was known as “The Great One,” a prideful man from Puerto Rico who won four National League batting titles. He was named to 15 All-Star teams and was the NL’s MVP in 1966.
He connected for his 3,000th and final major-league hit, a double to left-center off Mets’ left-hander Jon Matlack, in the fourth inning at Three Rivers Stadium on September 30, 1972. He was the 11th player in major-league history to reach that milestone, and the first player of Hispanic heritage to do so.
On December 31, 1972, Clemente boarded a small plane in Puerto Rico bound for Nicaragua to assist with earthquake relief in the capital city of Managua. The overloaded plane crashed just off the Puerto Rican coast, and Clemente’s body was never recovered. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973 in a special election that waived the mandatory five-year waiting period.
Clemente’s baseball cards have endured through the years, and several are quite valuable. Here is a look at 10 quintessential cards.
1955 Topps – Clemente’s first Topps issue is his rookie card (No. 164), and it has become a coveted item among collectors. Centering for the card always has been an issue. Of the 2,970 cards graded by PSA, there has been just one PSA-10 and 11 PSA-9s.
High grade examples are also are rare on the SGC site, with only one of the 839 registered cards grading as high as 96 (mint). Two came in at 92.
Former major-leaguer Dmitri Young owned that sole gem mint Clemente, and fetched $432,690 at SCP Auctions in 2012, setting a record for a post-World War II card. Earlier this year, a PSA-9 card was auctioned for $310,700. In 2006, a Clemente card in that grade sold for nearly $275,000 less.
Clemente rookies are readily available on eBay with mid-range examples currently running between $900 and $2,000.
1973 Topps — Clemente’s final card was issued after his death and was part of the first series (card No. 50). Clemente is taking a swing and s hadows cover his face; the photo appears to be from a spring training game the previous year.
Ironically, in an interview with The Associated Press in the spring of 1972, Clemente said he was thinking about retiring.
“I would like to play this year and one more, but if I have a chance I can quit after this year,” he told the AP.
According to the PSA registry, only five cards from 1973 are graded Gem mint. On its website, Memory Lane noted that trying to find a PSA-10 Clemente from 1973 is synonymous to “eating soup with a fork.”
SGC has seven cards that grade at 96.
You can still Clemente’s final card in very nice shape for around $75.
1958 Topps — Card No. 52 continued a pattern begun in 1957 by Topps to refer to Clemente as “Bob.” While Pirates broadcaster Bob Prince would refer to him as “Bobby” on occasion (and also “Arriba”).
Clemente, proud of his heritage, hated the Americanized version of his name and insisted on being called Roberto.”
Topps actually used “Roberto” on his 1955 and ’56 cards. Topps would not revert back to “Roberto” on its cards until 1970, although the poster inserts of that year still called him Bob.
The 1958 Topps card has two variations. One shows the team name in white letters, while a rarer version features it in yellow. There have been 701 yellow versions listed in the PSA registry, and there are no gem mint cards; there are seven PSA-9s.
There are two PSA-10s out of 1,595 registered white letter versions, and 16 in near-mint condition.
Nicer examples can be found for $300 and up with top end cards reaching $1,000 and more.
1957 Kahn’s Wieners — A regional issue from the Cincinnati meat company that consisted of members of the Pirates and Reds, this 29-card set was the first to feature Clemente (No. 5).
These cards measured 3¼ by 4 inches and had black-and-white photos on the card fronts and blank backs. Beneath the player’s photo was an advertising s
logan that advised collectors that Kahn’s was “the wiener the world awaited.”
Finding this card in high grade is extremely difficult. As the cards were packaged with the hot dogs and came in contact with the meat, many cards are found in stained condition.
Clemente’s card is the key one in the 1957 set, and of the 23 cards submitted to PSA, only three grade out as high as PSA-7 (near mint). Only six have been submitted to SCG, with the highest grade being an 80 for one card.
As of this writing there was exactly one on eBay.
1968 Topps 3-D — Clemente is part of 12 subjects in this rare test set. This set predates the 3-D cards issued by Kellogg’s by two years, but the same process was used.
There are no sharp corners, as they are rounded, and the card backs are blank. The card fronts include the player’s team, name and position; Clemente is still referred to as Bob. A thin layer of ribbed plastic produces a 3-D effect when the card is tilted.
The only other Hall of Famer in the set is Reds first baseman Tony Perez.
The PSA registry lists six gem mint examples of the Clemente card out of 49 submitted. Eighteen have been submitted to the SGC registry, with two grading as high as 96.
1972 Topps — The last regular card issued during Clemente’s lifetime (No. 309), it’s a very affordable card and easy to obtain. NM/MT examples can be found for $50-75.
It also reflects the psychedelic design that made the 1972 set one of Topps’ more distinctive products during the 1970s. The photo shows Clemente casually tossing a ball into the air. It was about chest-high when the photo was snapped, right above the word “Pirates” on his uniform front.
Looks like Roberto was keeping his eye on the ball, just like every Little Leaguer is taught to do.
1962 Venezuelan Topps — Clemente made his debut in this 198-card set produced for the South American market. The front of the card mirrors the American-produced Topps set, right down to including “Bob” as Clemente’s first name. That’s a puzzling decision, given Topps’ goal of making inroads in the Latin American market. But then again, it was easier to just use the printing plate from the U.S. version.
Here’s a unique difference: for the first time, Topps reprinted the backs of cards (with the exception of league leaders) in Spanish. So, Clemente’s card back begins, “Uno de los mejores jugadores en las Ligas Mayores …” (“One of the most exciting players in the majors” was the lead-in on the regular Topps issue).
The card stock is flimsy, which makes finding these cards in a higher grade a difficult chore. Sixteen have been submitted to PSA, and the highest grade attained was PSA-5 (EX condition). Only three are in the SGC registry, with one grading at 60 while the other two are 40s. The lone example on eBay as of this writing was a low grade example priced at $250.
1956 Topps — One of the nicer sets from the 1950s, and the last “large” set before Topps adopted its current card size. Clemente (No. 33) sports two different card back variations — white and gray.
Like all of the cards from the 1956 set, the card is dominated by a large portrait shot, with a smaller action shot. The card backs consist of a three-panel cartoon, with 1955 and lifetime statistics listed directly below.
The first panel is especially amusing. Clemente, who originally was a prospect in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, is pictured next to a man pointing to the Brooklyn Bridge. “Like it?” the man holding the contract asks. “It’s yours!”
That’s a nifty play on the greatest con man in American history, George C. Parker. He sold the Brooklyn Bridge at least twice a week to unsuspecting victims, one time for as much as $50,000. Why Topps chose that particular cartoon panel to illustrate Clemente’s early pro career is amusing and baffling at the same time.
There are no PSA 10s of the gray or white back version, and only three PSA 9s of gray backs. There are 18 white backs that have graded out at PSA 9. SGC has two gray backs that come in at 88, with a white back registering the same grade.
Landing a NM 7 like one of these for $500-600 (or higher grade, of course, if you can afford it) would seem like a pretty good long-term investment.
1970 Topps — The 1970 Topps set offers a sort of understated elegance. Clemente is shown hefting a bat somewhere near the on-deck circle at Shea Stadium. Topps reverted to calling him “Roberto” after a 13-year hiatus.
The gray borders and Clemente’s name in black script complete the modest look. It was a nice way to open the 1970s.
Surprisingly, out of 2,440 cards sent to the PSA registry, there is only one that graded out at gem mint. Thirty-four are at PSA 9s (one of those is currently on eBay). Two cards on the SGC site are 96s.
1964 Topps Stand-Ups — Clemente is one of more desirable cards in this offbeat set, trailing only Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and a short-printed Carl Yastrzemski in value.
This was a die-cut set, and a folded card could be made to stand up to be displayed. For that reason, finding these cards in high grade proves difficult.
Clemente is shown in a throwing position. The top half of the card sports a yellow background, with the bottom half in green. Clemente’s name is in red letters inside a yellow box.
Again, there are no gem mint registered versions of this card in PSA, although there are 12 PSA-9s. There are two SGC 96s and seven SGC 92s.
While it would be a stretch to call the Stand-Ups “attractive” they are underpriced considering the relative few available in the market, especially at the higher end.
Clemente has been gone for nearly 43 years, but fans and collectors still hold him in high esteem. So do the Pirates. The right-field wall at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park is 21 feet high in honor of Clemente’s normal fielding position and uniform number.