MLB: How the Dodgers first signed Roberto Clemente but carelessly lost him

The rivalry between Dodgers and the giants is famous for its long and rich lore, but a little-known chapter in that history provides us with one of the most intriguing “what-if” scenarios in baseball history. Robert Clement is considered one of the best right fielders of all time, a member of the Hall of Fame who had exactly 3,000 hits and amassed 12 Gold Glove Awards before his tragic death in a plane crash on December 31, 1972. His major league accomplishments came in a Major League uniform. piratesbut it wasn’t with that organization that he began his professional baseball journey.

In early 1954, after seeing Clemente play in the Puerto Rico Winter League, several teams from the Big leagues showed interest, including the Braves, Red Sox, Cardinals and Giants. With the rival Giants clearly chasing Clemente, the Dodgers outbid them with a $10,000 signing bonus and a $5,000 first-year salary. The Braves reportedly offered much more, but Clemente wanted to play in New York because he had family and friends there. So he signed with Brooklyn on February 19, 1954.

The Dodgers, the team of Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Pee-Wee Reese and Don Newcombe that would win the World Series the following year, had Roberto Clemente. But they wouldn’t have it for long. Back then, there was a rule governing signing bonuses of $6,000 or more (about $63,000 today): If a club signed a player for a bonus at or above that threshold, he had to spend two calendar years in the team’s Major League roster as of the date of signing, otherwise it would be eligible for the Draft Rule 5.

Clemente was not protected from the Rule 5 Draft because he was quickly assigned to Triple-A Montreal. The 19-year-old only played in 87 games for the International League Royals in 1954, hitting .257/.286/.372 with two home runs in 155 plate appearances. According to a 1962 article in The Sporting News, Clemente felt that he was being “hidden” from the general baseball world due to concerns that if he played well, another club would take him in the Rule 5 Draft.

“Clemente, on the other hand, felt, and still feels, that the Royals kept him out of the regular lineup so that Major League teams would consider him a weak prospect and ignore him in the postseason draft for which he would be available. as an additional player if he was not promoted to the Brooklyn roster,” wrote the article’s author, Howard Cohn.

Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi said signing Clemente in the first place was a matter of keeping him away from the Giants, though he reportedly gave multiple reasons for Clemente’s assignment to Triple-A throughout the season. years. The man who was in the Pirates’ general manager chair at the time of the 1954 Rule 5 Draft (Pittsburgh had the first pick after finishing an MLB-worst 53-101) was none other than Branch Rickey.

Rickey had been general manager of the Dodgers from 1942 to 1950, signing Jackie Robinson in 1945 before Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier two years later. Rickey and Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley had a falling out, which led to Rickey’s departure from Brooklyn. Now, although Rickey initially wasn’t that impressed with Clemente, he kicked him out of his old club.

Manny Randhawa/

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MLB: How the Dodgers first signed Roberto Clemente but carelessly lost him