How did Roberto Clemente hit at Montreal’s Jarry Park?

Photo from Jeff Polman. Posted on Facebook page for the book “Big Hair & Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the  Swinging’ 70s.” Thanks to Paul Hodgson for bringing this photo to my attention.

Roberto Clemente appears comfortable and serene as he signs autographs for an eager group of kids in the above photo that was snapped at Jarry Park in 1970. But if you examine this baseball legend’s numbers in Montreal during his professional career, you’d have to think that Clemente was frustrated for much of the time he spent in this Canadian city.

Signed to a $15,000 contract by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954, Clemente was assigned to their International League affiliate Montreal Royals. With a rule in place that stipulated that any team signing a rookie to a contract over $4,000 must keep that player on their major league roster for the season or risk losing him in an off-season draft, sending the talented youngster to the minors was a gamble. Clemente’s season in Montreal wasn’t particularly memorable. Despite being one of the Dodgers’ best prospects, the slender outfielder was sent to the plate only 148 times and hit just .257 in a 154-game season.

His lack of playing time was puzzling – a trend that began in the Royals’ home opener, when, after registering three hits in four at bats, he found himself on the bench for the next game. Even hitting a monstrous home run that cleared the left field wall and went right out of Montreal’s storied Delorimier Downs stadium (the first player to do so) wasn’t enough to earn him a regular spot in the lineup.

So why did the Dodgers refuse to play their premier prospect on a consistent basis? The most popular explanation is that they feared losing him in the off-season draft and they didn’t want other teams to see how good he was.

“The evidence seems to indicate that the Dodgers were trying to hide him,” said Bruce Markusen, author of “The Great One,” an excellent book about Clemente, in a 2002 interview. “I mean if you have a young player with that much talent and you’re trying to develop him, you don’t limit him to 148 at bats.”

In his book, Markusen also notes that, during Clemente’s tenure with the Royals, the future Pirates star often took batting practice with the pitchers and typically only played the second game of a double-header (most scouts from visiting teams left after the first game). These tactics seemed to support the theory that he was being hidden. But if the Dodgers were trying to hide him, they didn’t succeed. The Pittsburgh Pirates made Clemente their first selection in an off-season draft similar to today’s Rule 5 draft.

The 1954 season was obviously a very frustrating one for Clemente. For a more detailed account of Clemente’s minor league stint in Montreal, you can read my previous blog entry.

Clemente, of course, returned to Montreal as a big leaguer with the Pittsburgh Pirates, In all, he suited up in 26 games over four seasons (1969 to 1972) in 10 series at Jarry Park and hit .255 – that’s the second lowest batting average he recorded in any ballpark that he had substantial at bats in (He hit .241 in 24 contests at Houston’s Colt Stadium).

With that said, it wasn’t all frustration for Clemente in Montreal during his big league career. Here are a few highlights:

– Clemente’s first hit at Jarry Park came on July 14, 1969. In his first at bat at the stadium, Clemente singled off of Expos right-hander Bill Stoneman in the second inning. Clemente notched an additional single and a double in that game to register his first of three, three-hit games at Jarry Park during his career. The Expos defeated the Pirates 2-0.

– Clemente’s first and only home run at Jarry Park was belted off of right-hander John Strohmayer in the fifth inning of a Pirates’ 8-4 win over the Expos on May 23, 1970.

– The Pirates superstar’s final three-hit game at Jarry Park came in the Pirates’ 6-2, 13-inning win over the Expos on May 21, 1971. Two (single in the ninth and double in the 11th) of Clemente’s three hits came off of Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Claude Raymond. Despite allowing the two hits to Clemente, Raymond pitched four scoreless innings in relief.

– Clemente’s final hit at Jarry Park was a single off of Expos righty Mike Torrez on September 10, 1972. It was the 2,978th hit of his career. Torrez scattered eight hits that day in a complete-game, 8-2 victory for the Expos. It was Torrez’s 16th win of the season.

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