How the Pirates stole Roberto Clemente from the Dodgers

Remembering the legendary Roberto Clemente (0:39)

Doug Glanville reflects on the legacy and sacrifice of Pirates Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente. (0:39)

We all know the biggest heist in baseball history, when the New York Yankees bought Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox for $100,000. That transaction altered the histories of those two franchises: The Red Sox had won AL pennants in 1912, 1915, 1916 and 1918, but they finished under .500 in each of the 14 seasons after the sale and suffered a prolonged championship drought; the Yankees, of course, would go on to win a World Series or two.

A less famous bit of larceny, however, occurred when the Pittsburgh Pirates stole Roberto Clemente from the Brooklyn Dodgers. Since today is Roberto Clemente Day in the majors, let's recount how this went down.

Dodgers scout Al Campanis, then managing in Cuba in winter ball, first saw Clemente at a tryout camp in Puerto Rico in November 1952. Clemente had just turned 18, and while still attending high school he was playing for the Santurce team in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Campanis' scouting report -- you can see it here -- included an A-plus grade for Clemente's throwing arm and power and an A grade for everything else. Campanis would call Clemente the "best free-agent athlete I've ever seen."

At this time, the majors had the ill-advised bonus rule in effect. Originally designed to prevent the rich teams from signing the best amateur prospects -- the draft didn't begin until 1965 -- and to curtail rising signing bonuses, from 1953 to 1957 the rule called for players who received a bonus payment of at least $6,000 to spend two calendar years on the major league roster from the date of signing. The rule was as ridiculous as it sounds and certainly hindered some careers. A pitcher named Tom Qualters spent the entire 1954 season on the Phillies' roster without ever getting into a game.

The Dodgers signed Clemente 15 months after Campanis first saw him. By then, the Giants, Braves, Red Sox and Cardinals had also expressed interest, according to David Maraniss' biography "Clemente." The Braves were serious bidders, reportedly offering the largest bonus ($25,000 to $35,000). But Maraniss writes that Clemente wanted to play in New York, where he had friends and relatives in the growing Puerto Rican community there. From Maraniss' book:

That left the Giants and Dodgers. Any signing over $6,000 would designate Clemente as a bonus player, meaning a team would have to protect him on the major league roster or face losing him in a supplemental draft after his first year in the minors. The Giants, apparently concluding that Clemente needed at least a year of seasoning, kept their offer below the bonus line. Their scout, Tom Sheehan, hoped that Clemente would sign for a $4,000 bonus and begin in Class-A ball in Sioux City, Iowa.

It wasn't enough. The Dodgers signed Clemente for a $10,000 bonus and a first-year salary of $5,000. Maraniss writes that the Dodgers had motives beyond just Clemente's talent: They simply wanted to keep him away from the Giants, where he would team with Willie Mays in the outfield. The Dodgers knew he needed some time in the minors, as well. Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi would later say, "It was a cheap deal for us any way you figure it." Indeed, as Maraniss notes, another reason it was cheap is that white bonus babies were receiving bonus payments six times higher on average than black and Latin players.

The Dodgers assigned Clemente to Triple-A Montreal for the 1954 season, and the popular story -- repeated by Clemente himself -- is that the front office gave orders to manager Max Macon not to play him. The hope, apparently, was to hide Clemente from other teams, even though of course everyone knew about Clemente. The Dodgers could have done what other teams did with their bonus babies, use them sparingly in the majors. Harmon Killebrew, for instance, signed with the Senators in 1954 and batted just 104 times over two seasons before spending most of the next three years in the minors. In Montreal, Clemente appeared in 87 games but had just 155 plate appearances, playing mostly against left-handed pitchers. He hit .257 with two home runs.

Was he buried in Montreal? Author Stew Thornley, in an article originally published in 2006 in The National Pastime, points out many errors of fact in some Clemente biographies and argues against the theory that the Dodgers simply tried to hide Clemente. He writes:

Although Bavasi had claimed at the time that they signed Clemente only to keep him from the Giants, in 2005 he offered a different reason. "I know your sources are not idiots," he wrote in e-mail correspondence with the author, "but not one of those things you mentioned are [sic] accurate. Let's start from the beginning." Bavasi then wrote that while there was not a quota in effect, race was the factor in their decision to have Clemente play in Montreal rather than Brooklyn:

"[Dodgers owner] Walter O'Malley had two partners who were concerned about the number of minorities we would be bringing to the Dodgers. ... The concern had nothing to do with quotas, but the thought was too many minorities might be a problem with the white players. Not so, I said. Winning was the important thing. I agreed with the board that we should get a player's opinion and I would be guided by the player’s opinion. The board called in Jackie Robinson. Hell, now I felt great. Jackie was told the problem, and, after thinking about it awhile, he asked me who would be sent out if Clemente took one of the spots. I said George Shuba. Jackie agreed that Shuba would be the one to go. Then he said Shuba was not among the best players on the club, but he was the most popular. With that he shocked me by saying, and I quote: 'If I were the GM [general manager], I would not bring Clemente to the club and send Shuba or any other white player down. If I did this, I would be setting our program back five years.'"

Now, all that sounds plausible. On the other hand, in 2005, Bavasi was 90 years old. Was his memory sharp enough to recall exactly what Jackie Robinson had said 51 years earlier? And it's pretty convenient that it would be Jackie Robinson who would offer the perfectly convenient reason to not keep Clemente on the club. Hey, it would be better for the black players to not add another black player to the team.

The truth, I guess, remains lost to history. It's possible that both theories are true: The Dodgers were worried about having too many black players on the team and they tried to hide him in Montreal. Thornley suggests Clemente wasn't good enough to play at first -- he swung wildly at pitches out of the strike zone -- and started playing later in the season only as a platoon player. Shuba, meanwhile, spent the entire 1954 season on the major league roster and hit .154 in 65 at-bats. So maybe he was a popular teammate.

Anyway, I recently read somewhere that Clemente was the only bonus player immediately sent to the minors and thus left unprotected. I can't confirm if that's true, but Clemente was now eligible for the Major-Minor League Rule 5 Selection Committee. The Pirates, with the worst record in the National League, had the first pick. They were run by former Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, and scouts Howie Haak and Clyde Sukeforth -- brought to Pittsburgh from Brooklyn by Rickey -- had seen Clemente during the International League season.

Branch Rickey Jr. represented the Pirates at the draft and selected Clemente. The price: $4,000.

And that's how the Pirates stole Roberto Clemente from the Dodgers.

As a footnote: When Branch Rickey Sr. finally saw Clemente play for the first time in the Winter League after the Pirates drafted him, he was not impressed, remarking on Clemente's timid play on the bases and in the field and his disappointing foot speed. Rickey did admit, however, that the kid had a good throwing arm. Clemente had to spend the entire 1955 season on the Pirates' roster since he originally signed for more than $6,000; he hit just .255 with a .284 OBP and a .382 slugging percentage, plus five home runs, in 474 at-bats. While he hit .311 the next season, he hit just 26 home runs his first five seasons and didn't have his breakout season at the plate until 1960, when he was 25 and his power finally developed.