The Racist History Behind Roberto Clemente’s Transition From the Dodgers to the Pirates

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This week, the world celebrated Roberto Clemente Day in honor of the Puerto Rican right fielder, who spent 18 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Roberto Clemente was the first Latin American and Caribbean player to enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, and outside of his heroics on the baseball field, he was known for being an exceptional human being. He often did charity work in Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries, and his tragic and untimely death came about as a result of an airplane accident on December 31, 1972 while he was en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

Clemente honed his craft at a time when baseball was “just starting to fumble its way through racial integration,” which makes his unprecedented success as an Afro-Latino in the MLB during the mid-twentieth century that much more valiant. Is it possible that his race led to his signing for the Pittsburgh Pirates rather than the Brooklyn Dodgers?

A recent ESPN article by David Schoenfield claims that the Pirates stole the star outfielder from the Dodgers on the basis of the latter’s blind search to find a way to deal with having too many black players on their roster. On February 19, 1954, Clemente signed with Brooklyn after an A+ report from scout Al Campanis. He would earn $5,000 in his first year with the squad, plus an additional $10,000 bonus. As a player receiving a bonus of over $6,000, wacky MLB bonus rules required him to spend two calendar years on the Dodgers’ roster directly following the date of signing, but team management assigned him to play with Triple-A subsidiary Montreal instead.

According to Schoenfield’s article, the Dodgers knew that Clemente was in need of some minor league experience. The deal wasn’t costing them much anyway, as “white bonus babies were receiving bonus payments six times higher on average than black and Latino players.” So, there he was, playing (or barely playing, depending on how you look at it) for Montreal.

Despite his lack of experience and developmental needs, club GM Emil “Buzzie” Bavasi claimed at the time that Clemente had been signed by the Dodgers to keep him away from the Giants. In a fascinating article by Stew Thornley, quotes from Bavasi illuminate the idea that while there were no race quotas in the MLB, race was a definitive factor in the decision to move the Puerto Rican to Montreal:

“[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 that 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.’” (From an e-mail correspondence between Thornley and Bavasi, June 3, 2005)

Were the Dodgers worried about having too many black players? Was Jackie Robinson worried about adding another black player to the quota? Whatever the reasoning was, placing Roberto Clemente with the Dodgers’ Triple-A subsidiary left him unprotected, and thus free for the taking. So the Pirates were quick to pick him up under the Major-Minor League Rule 5 Selection Committee, and selected the star for $4,000.