Were I given by some magical being the chance to see a single athlete from history, engaging their sport at the height of their power, my answer would likely come very quickly: Roberto Clemente, “the Great One”, who died in a plane crash just off Puerto Rico while doing humanitarian work in South America. Clemente died with exactly 3,000 hits, was a perennial All-Star and Gold Glove winner, and he played for two World Series champions during his career, spent entirely with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Clemente was one of the greatest baseball players of all time, and certainly the greatest Pittsburgh Pirate of all time.
I saw this highlight of Clemente’s play in right field just the other day. Usually when we admire baseball feats, it’s either a hit or a catch. This is a throw: in Game Six of the 1971 World Series, an Orioles batter hits a sharp, hard base hit into the right-field corner. There’s no way Clemente can turn this clear base hit into an out, but he can get the ball back in quickly, stopping any runners already on base from scoring–and that’s exactly what he does. Note how patient he is: he sets up and lets the ball come to him. It’s fundamentally perfect fielding, and that’s before he rises and uncorks an astonishing throw. Yes, it’s a one-hopper–but the hop doesn’t come until the ball is almost all the way back to home plate. No one scored on this play, and the Pirates went on to win that World Series.
And if the magical wish-granting being I mention above asked me to specify one play committed by the athlete of my choosing? In that case, I’d go back to the Pirates-Cubs game on July 25, 1956, when Clemente came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth, with the bases loaded, and hit the only walk-off inside-the-park grand slam in baseball history.