When the first night game in MLB history took place in May 1935 at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, nine-month-old Roberto Clemente enjoyed the focus of his large family.
Thirty-six years later, in the inaugural night game in World Series history, Clemente shined under the artificial illumination, stroking three hits as the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Baltimore Orioles in Game 4 on Oct. 13, 1971.
The Bucs stopped the O’s in seven games in that Fall Classic and Clemente, along with his stellar defensive play, registered a hit in each game — the same hitting milestone he reached in 1960 as Pittsburgh beat the New York Yankees in that historic series — to win World Series MVP. Clemente, in a sense, lived under multiple spotlights when you combine his baseball exploits and his off-the-field humanitarian efforts and eventually reached icon status as he consistently delivered something a bit different.
To commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the first World Series game under the lights and to celebrate Clemente in general, we take a look at Clemente collectibles. As a nod to his primary Pittsburgh jersey number 21, we take a look at 21 somewhat oddball items of “The Great One.”
This compilation, created with input from seasoned Clemente collectors Howard Chasser, Chris Mandell and Steve Radcliffe, emphasizes a blend of regional and at least relative mainstream examples. None are his regular main “base” card from the average Topps set, even though those are tremendously popular.
21. 1958 Kahn’s Weiners
This rare regional card comes up on each of the want lists from our Clemente collectors. “It’s the only Kahn’s Clemente I don’t have in my collection,” Mandell said. The outfielder appeared in this hot dog-related set in 1957-64 and 1966.
20. 1959 Topps #543 “Corsair Outfield Trio”
The first glimpse of the outfielder on a Topps card outside of his regular pasteboard or a team card.
19. 1960 Bazooka Gum Box (with Yogi Berra and Ken Boyer)
Chasser diligently hunted this box for decades. “Last year I found a guy on eBay who owned a complete set [of the Bazooka boxes],” he said. “I pinched myself almost daily for two weeks as I stared at the end of the 30-year search.”
18. 1961 Harmony Milk
The year for these 8x10 photos with round corners is approximate for some collectors. Radcliffe called this possibly “the toughest regional [Clemente] I know of.”
17. 1961 Post cereal #132
Issued mainly on the back of cereal boxes, collectors could also wrangle this Post card via a mail-in offer for the 10-card team sheets. The team sheets are difficult to find and pricey, although some reprints do exist.
16. 1962 Topps Baseball Bucks #17
An early Clemente Topps oddball item. Distributed in their own one-cent packs, these come with a fold/crease and look like smaller pieces of currency.
15. 1962 Pittsburgh Exhibits (5 of Spades)
“The story I heard out of Pittsburgh is these were made in somebody’s basement,” Radcliffe said. “They were never licensed, but they were sold out of vending machines. The authorities put an end to the operation.”
14. 1963 Salada Coin
The second of two years of Salada coins, these are metal, not like the plastic ones with the paper inserts from 1962, and deliver vibrant colors.
13. 1964 Topps Stand-Ups
“The yellow and green jump right out, it has a comic book punch,” Mandell said. “It’s meant to be folded half-way down, it’s a toy as much as a card.”
12. 1964 KDKA TV, Radio/Sweet Clean Pirates Portraits
“An incredibly difficult oversized item issued by Sweet Clean laundromats in Pittsburgh,” Chasser said. “Few collectors have ever seen these.”
11. 1966 Topps #215 1965 NL Batting Leaders
Pictured with Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, this is likely the key league leader card from a Golden Age of cards, based on the player for player star power.
10. 1967 Coke Bottle Caps
“These came on bottles of Coke, Fresca, Sprite and Fanta,” Radcliffe noted. Finding these without rust and/or a few dings is a challenge.
9. 1967 Topps Pin-Up Sticker
“This is believed to be a Topps prototype [to date it is unique] and it has the same image and similar sizing to the 1967 pin-up inserts, but has no number,” Chasser said. “And it is printed on sticker stock like the 1967 Pirates stickers and 1968 Action All-Star stickers.” Plus, Chasser likes this item since it was found for him “by a friend, who has since passed, who shared a mutual admiration for Clemente.”
8. 1967 Topps Stickers
This test issue featured players from the Boston Red Sox and Pirates. Clemente shows up twice and one touts him “for MAYOR.”
7. 1967 Topps Venezuelan
The identical image as the key regular Topps Clemente card from the same year. Mandell hopes to see one of these in person at some point. “The typical Venezuelan patina makes it look even better!”
6. 1968 Topps 3-D
“The key Clemente card,” according to Mandell. “It’s fairly rare. It was a test issue, a new idea.”
5. 1969 Milton Bradley #60
Part of a board game, the superstar normally rules the 296-card set.
4. 1971 Milk Duds
Fairly plentiful in either hand cut or box form, a good shot of Clemente on the candy box back.
3. 1971 Kellogg’s 3-D #5
In only the second year of these cards showing up in certain cereal boxes, Kellogg’s decided to issue these one at a time instead of in a mail-in offer as all their other comparable sets of the era. Clemente appeared in the 1970-72 Kellogg’s issues. “Want a tougher challenge?” asks Chasser. “Try to get them in unopened pack form!”
2. 1972 7-Eleven Slurpee Cup
The first time the convenience store chain served up the semi-frozen drink in a plastic cup set with a major sports league theme. At this point, it’s hard to find in strong condition.
1. 1972 Topps #226
This cardboard shows Clemente on the base paths during Game 4 of the 1971 World Series, thus ending the list largely where the topic began, with “The Great One” being there for his teammates and the masses during the first Fall Classic night game. For collectors, this card is an easy snag with some flair, much like the ballplayer demonstrated on a regular basis.
Of course, many other cards, inserts and additional oddball memorabilia pieces could have been on this list, but this “21” has a little something for several collectors within the hobby. And like Clemente in each of his 14 World Series games, some of the hits here were small and others big, but all spark solid interest.
TAKING THE EXTRA BASE
Mandell says interest in Clemente items is “sky-rocketing.”
“It seems to build over the years and I think Clemente interest and value will continue to go upward,” he said.
But more than that, Mandell, Chasser and Radcliffe emphasize the superstar’s athletic ability, combined with the struggles he endured, plus his humanitarian efforts, that serve as inspiration for many.
“Dying tragically, but while trying to help others,” Mandell added, referencing Clemente’s death in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972 while flying from Puerto Rico to help deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
One final thought from Mandell perhaps best sums up Clemente collectors: “It’s an outstanding community of people who feel the magic of an icon — a larger-than-life shooting star which shone so brightly and then disappeared leaving us all wishing for more.”
— Doug Koztoski is a frequent SCD contributor. He can be reached at email@example.com.