BROOKLYN – 15,000 sweating patrons filed into Ebbets Field and saw what must have seemed like an aberration. The mighty Dodgers were in first place and seemingly pennant bound. Their opponents that afternoon, the Pirates, languished in the cellar, as they seemingly always had. But for the first game on the afternoon of July 3, 1955, it almost seemed like the National League had been turned upside down.
Pittsburgh struck first. After a strikeout, Brook starter Spooner was tagged for two runs in the opening inning, the first of which came from a Gene Freese homer. The southpaw did little to help his cause by walking both Roman Mejias and Frank Thomas, with the former scoring on a Dick Groat single to center.
Before the first game, Brooks Manager Alston withheld his players from batting practice because of the blistering heat. Clearly the unspent energy came to full steam right away. Don Hoak lifted a fly ball to left for the first out, and Lino Dinoso gave up a walk to Pee Wee Reese. Duke Snider followed with a double to right, moving the captain to the corner. Both Reese and Duke scored a minute later, when Gil Hodges lined a double to center, tying the ballgame. Carl Furillo wasted no time in unknotting said tie with his 12th home run of the season.
An inning later, after quick outs to the Pirates’ 8, 9 and 1, Brooklyn continued their productivity. Hoak got to Dinoso with a grounder into centerfield, pulling up with a double. He was able to score on a Snider single into right.
Then, the tide began to turn. The top of the third saw Spooner fall apart. Three walks to Freese, Thomas, and Dale Long loaded the bases with only a single out. A ground ball by Groat to short had Reese mishandling the play, allowing Freese to score. Though Johnny O’Brien struck out swinging, the Dodger lefty walked catcher Hardy Peterson, scoring Thomas and bringing Pittsburgh to within one. Righty Ed Roebuck was called in to put out the fire, ending the inning with a groundout.
The right-hander Ronnie Kline came in to handle matters in the Pirates’ third, giving up only a single by Furillo. It was then that rookie Roberto Clemente began to percolate.
The young Puerto Rican He had originally signed with Brooklyn in 1954 for a $10,000 bonus. Sent to their International League club in Montreal for his first season of organized ball, the newcomer would struggle to land playing time in a full crop of reliable outfielders. As a result, he batted only .257 in 87 games. Dodger General Manager Buzzie Bavasi’s attempts to thwart the Pirates in the Rule V Draft not withstanding, Branch Rickey landed Clemente, sight unseen, for his last-place club.
Interestingly enough, the first game he played as a Pirate in April was against the same club that had let him go the year before. The first game of a doubleheader found him facing Johnny Podres in the opening frame – he got a hit in his first at bat. He had two more in the second contest that afternoon. The following game saw him hit his first homer – an inside the parker. Three weeks in, Roberto was on a tear, batting .360 in the first three weeks of the season. A bad-ball hitter with amazing speed, on the base paths, his style of play made him a fan favorite in Pittsburgh.
Clemente was also a defensive standout. Playing in rightfield at Pittsburgh meant dealing with a fence line that was as menacing as the one found at Ebbets Field. He quickly learned how to play the balls that caromed off of every single angle of the fence. He could corral longer hits very quickly, and with an incredible accurate throwing arm, opposing baserunners could never easily take an extra base. And those were just the balls he didn’t catch on the fly. During that July 3 game in Brooklyn, he had stabbed a Pee Wee Reese liner to rightfield in the second frame, with a beautiful leaping catch in front of the Esquire Boot Polish advertisement.
Overall, he was the one who made the difference in the summer swelter.
Clemente had struck out in the first as the leadoff man, and meekly grounded to short to end the second. Now, facing a righty, he laced a triple on a fly to center, later scoring easily when Mejias grounded into a double play. That burst of energy tied the game at five.
With the Dodgers up, again, Kline gave up only a single hit, a double by Hoak. The young Clemente had a chance to do more damage in the Pittsburgh fourth, and did so – tripling to left on a liner, scoring Peterson and giving his club the lead. The Bucs won, 7-5.
The next game, things righted themselves in the world of the National League. Billy Loes and the Dodgers handed Pittsburgh another loss. It was their 49th of the year. They eventually finished 60-94, good for the very bottom of the pack. Roberto finished the season having played 124 games and batting .255, by no means a stellar rookie performance.
However, more importantly for the last place team, he had earned his spot in the Pirates outfield for good, and baseball in Pittsburgh was about to get much hotter.