By John Hughes
Fifty years ago the sea took back a gift the Universe had given baseball and humanity.
On December 31, 1972, a plane carrying Roberto Clemente barely made it off a Puerto Rico runway before diving into the Atlantic Ocean. The DC-7 was loaded with humanitarian aid Clemente himself had helped gather, to take to survivors of an earthquake in Nicaragua.
He was 38. He was a baseball superstar. He was a god in Puerto Rico. Students of The Game, knew him as the Great One.
The natural need to hang onto our heroes is often cause to make martyrs of mortals or to mythologize the lives of those who were super, but short of supernatural.
Clemente, though, earned his place. And by his death he became legend. That his body was never recovered may have served his legacy. Spared the full-stop finality of a body in a tomb, spirit remains elliptical. In a way, he isn’t gone; he’s just not here.
In recent days the baseball world has revisited the greatness of the Great One with tributes and memorials. Media headlines re-state his influence for audiences mostly too young to otherwise know.
The Los Angeles Times: “Roberto Clemente is as influential as ever 50 years after his death”.
CBS News: "Roberto Clemente remains Latino legend 50 years after his death”.
Bob Hille, The Sporting News, wrote this: “It’s hard today, half a century later, to describe what Clemente’s death meant to baseball. Just imagine, in a blink today, losing a 15-time All-Star, NL and World Series MVP (1966 and '71, respectively), a four-time batting champion and Gold Glove winner in 12 consecutive seasons who also batted over .300 13 times.
“. . . He was here. And then he was gone. Just imagine.”
And imagine this as evidence of the man inside the player: When Martin Luther King Jr. visited Puerto Rico, he asked for an audience with Clemente. The two sat under a mango tree on Clemente’s farm and discussed who-knows-what. But it is a discussion any of us might wish to have overheard.
And here’s the man inside the player: Home, in Carolina, Puerto Rico, for the offseason, Clemente learned that a high school teacher of his had back pain . . . “He lifted me in his arms, placed me in his car and drove me to San Juan to be examined by his doctor,” former history teacher Maria Isabel Caceres wrote in the September, 1973 issue of Readers Digest. “He repeated it 15 days in a row, until I healed. When I asked the doctor how much I owed him, he replied: ‘Nothing. That’s already paid for’.”
And this: Once Clemente visited a community leader in Dominican Republic. It was just a casual meeting, but in the course of conversation she told Clemente that she hoped there’d be music at her funeral. When she passed, Clemente went to her funeral and played harmonica.
A link between what was and what might have been, exists here at Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory in the form of one of the rarest bats in baseball history. Few – even in the ultra-niche world of baseball bat collectors – know about the Louisville Slugger Roberto Clemente model C276.
Its story was just beginning as Roberto Clemente’s final earthly days were approaching. Fifty years ago . . .
. . . On the last day of the 1972 regular season at Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh Pirate Roberto Clemente entered the game with 2,999 hits.
To that point, only 10 players had reached the hitters’ pinnacle represented in the magical 3,000. (Fifty years later, there are just 33 members of the “3,000 Club”.)
The Pirates faced the New York Mets, and Clemente was facing rookie pitcher Jon Matlack.
Sport is full of coincidence that become beautiful myth. Like this: Months earlier, during Winter Ball in Puerto Rico, Matlack was among players Clemente invited to the Clemente home after a game.
As recalled by Matlack and reported in the Bleacher Report in 2011: “The players were talking baseball in Clemente's trophy room when Clemente picked up one his bats that was in a corner of the room'. Young Matlack was awed.
" ‘This bat was leaning in a corner. Somebody asked about hitting, and he picked up the bat to demonstrate. I remember thinking, 'That's a big bat,' and I asked about it, and he said it had the maximum dimensions. He set it back down, and when everybody sort of moved on, I grabbed hold of it. I could barely pick it up. It led me to believe how strong this guy really was’."
Strong enough to double off Matlack in his second at-bat, reaching number 3,000.
Hard to believe in the age of Instagram, but 50 years ago, Matlack had no idea he’d just given up hit number 3,000. Harder to believe was that it would be the last regular-season hit of Clemente’s life.
Jon Matlack was on his way to becoming Rookie of the Year. Roberto Clemente was on his way to an abbreviated ride on a faulty cargo plane.
The bat Clemente swung into the record books had his name on it, but was not a “signature model” Louisville Slugger. The U1 model was made for Bernard Bartholomew “Frenchy” Uhalt.
Frenchy Uhalt’s Major League career was just 57 games long. He is best known for having played 20 years – til 1948 – in the Pacific Coast League. He had a total of just 40 Major League hits, but his bat became historic in the hands of Clemente.
A feature of the Slugger U1, is that it has a “cone” shaped knob – a design that allows players who, as did Clemente, like to drape their pinky fingers off the bottom of the bat.
Clemente’s first order of bats (1954) was for the (Stan Musial) M117. The next season he switched to the S2 (used by Ernie Banks, Willie Mays and others). He would use at least four other models, but none as famously as the U1.
By the time Clemente collected number 3,000, he’d done about all a ballplayer could hope: World Series Champion(s), batting titles, Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, Silver Bat, All-Star(12) . . . And, at age 38, there was speculation that the Great One might retire.
Clemente had other plans. And, perhaps if only to announce his intentions of continuing his career, Clemente decided it was time to create a signature model Louisville Slugger. (When a player uses someone else’s model, but then modifies its shape, the new design becomes his “signature” model.)
During the National League playoff (Pirates v. Reds), Hillerich & Bradsby Co. (makers of Slugger) pro rep Rex Bradley met with Clemente in Cincinnati to discuss changes Clemente wanted in the U1.
It is fair to guess that Clemente had thought thoroughly about how the shape of Frenchy Uhalt's bat might be modified to better advantage. Like other great hitters, Clemente left little to chance when it came to his bats.
"He probably knew as much about timber as anyone," Bradley told author David Maraniss (Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero). "He knew if he had a good bat. He would bang them together and see if they sounded good. He could tell from the sound." (Clemente once wrote a note to Bradley, telling him to not send any bats made from "red wood" -- meaning from the heart of the ash tree.)
"He wanted the widest grains, always," Bradley said. "And he knew the wide grains came in the summer growth, he was that precise."
For reasons now lost to time, Clemente wanted the knob of the U1 thickened just slightly; perhaps imperceptibly so to mortal eyes, but significantly so in the eyes of a hitting maestro. (Ted Williams once rejected an order of Louisville Sluggers because the handle was "off" by 5/1000ths of an inch. And when Jackie Robinson modified the S100 to create his signature R115, he made the handle just 1/1000th of an inch thicker than the original -- approximately the width of a sheet of composition paper.)
Bradley returned to Louisville with Clemente's recipe, and on December 12, 1972, Hillerich & Bradsby made the C276 -- the Roberto Clemente signature model.
Bradley had promised to send two prototypes to Clemente, presumably for him to use during the Caribbean season (Clemente was managing and playing during winter ball.)
Whatever happened to those two bats is not clearly known. It is possible, likely even, that Clemente never used either, given the events of the time.
In 1972, remember, we didn't yet have the shipping conveniences of today -- especially so, when it came to cargo leaving the US mainland. Liberal estimates of when Clemente's bats would have arrived would place them in Puerto Rico right around the same time -- December 23 -- of the Nicaragua earthquake.
Once the earthquake hit, Clemente stopped all baseball activity, to focus on relief, especially for Managua, where Clemente had managed. So, then, best guess scenario is that there would have been no more than 10 days from the time the bats were made in Louisville, until the time Clemente had stopped playing.
So what became of the C276?
Well. The original -- the model that would have been used as a template of sorts for a handturner working with a lathe -- is in the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory Bat Vault.
And the two Bradley would have sent to Clemente for his approval?
Google says they're for sale by collectors, ranging from about $25,000 to about $40,000 each.
But how did these two extraordinary pieces of baseball history and Clemente lore end up in auction houses?
In August, 2021, Roberto Clemente, Jr. (pictured below, left) and Luis Clemente (pictured below, right) visited Louisville Slugger Museum to unveil a statue of their father. Roberto Junior was just 7 when his father was killed; Luis was 6. Inside the museum bat vault the brothers had pictures taken holding the C276 -- a model their father designed, but very likely never held himself.
Staff here were hopeful of some insight from the sons/brothers on the provenance of those rare bats. But as the Clementes listened to the story of the C276, they were shocked to learn that it even existed.
Of the nearly 5,000 unique bat models created by Hillerich & Bradsby Co. since the first one in 1884, some, because of players who used them, are more historic than others.
Babe Ruth designed his R43 and, duh, it became high demand. Hank Aaron had four signature models starting with the A93. Mickey Mantle made Eddie Malone's M110 famous. Bill Mazeroski used Vern Stephens S2 to hit the only World Series Game 7 walk off homerun in history in 1960. George Brett gained fame (and infamy) using Marv Thronebury's T85 to hit the "pinetar" homerun in 1983.
And Clemente, the Great One, whose life we celebrate and whose death we still mourn 50 years later, got glory from the bat of Frenchy Uhalt -- for whom "glory" was 20 years of Minor League obscurity.
Some players of Latin American origin have teared-up when seeing the C276 on visits to the museum.
It is safe to say that it was never swung by its creator, and no player since has ever ordered it.
And maybe that's the right outcome for a bittersweet bit of Louisville Slugger history, and an homage to the gift taken those many years ago by the sea.