Written by Bob Smizik- former Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette sports writer who has a fantastic blog covering Pittsburgh sports.
Forty years ago today — Sept. 30, 1972 — it was cool and partly cloudy in the early afternoon, perfect weather for football. But this was a day for baseball in Pittsburgh. Pirates great Roberto Clemente had a rendezvous with history.
You wouldn’t have known it, though, from the lack of hype. The phrase “overhyped’’ probably didn’t exist back then. There was no ESPN, no Internet, no intense national focus on all things sports.
The Pirates were playing the New York Mets at Three Rivers Stadium and Clemente went into the game with 2,999 hits. Only nine other players in MLB history had reached 3,000 hits. Clemente was about to become the 10th, but the historical nature of the feat was hard to detect that afternoon.
For starters, only 13,117 people came to Three Rivers Stadium to see not just history but the World Champion Pirates. And it’s not like the Pirates had faltered in defense of their title. They were winning with more regularity in 1972 than they had in 1971. They were the favorite to repeat as World Series winner.
The national media, what there was of it in those days, was not in attendance. The press box at Three Rivers was barely more crowded than on a normal day.
Nor was Steelermania affecting the interest. The Steelers Nation had not yet been born. The Steelers were gaining in popularity but still were losers, still about three months away from their own slice of history — the Immaculate Reception.
Clemente batting in his customary No. 3 spot in the lineup — behind Chuck Goggin and Rennie Sennett — struck out in the first inning against Mets starter Jon Matlack. When he came to bat in the fourth, neither Matlack nor Pirates starter Dock Ellis had allowed a hit.
Clemente ended that. He lashed a Matlack pitch in the left-center gap — a fitting No. 3,000 — for a double. The small crowd was on its feet, and in a picture for the ages the proud Clemente doffed his cap to the fans.
And that was pretty much it. When Clemente’s turn at bat came the next inning, appropriately enough, another future Hall of Famer, Bill Mazeroski, pinch-hit for him.
The Pirates allowed the media into their clubhouse for an interview. My recollection is there might have been 10 people surrounding Clemente. He made a point of thanking his parents and was emotional, not unusual for him, during the interview, which lasted about 10 minutes.
Clemente’s hit ignited a three-run rally and the Pirates went on to win, 5-0. Ellis’ no-hitter was broken up in the sixth and he was removed after the inning in anticipation of a post-season start.
To further emphasis how underappreciated this event was, the next day in the Pittsburgh Press — at the time the only Sunday newspaper in the region — Clemente’s achievement was not the lead story. In the greatest journalism misjudgment of my lifetime, the lead story that day was a loss by Pitt, falling to 0-5 and on its way to a 1-10 season, to Northwestern.