Roberto Clemente signed with the Dodgers in 1954

Imagine Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente on the same court with the Giants.

Now imagine that you are the 1954 Dodgers, and you imagine Willie Maes and Roberto Clemente on the same court as the Giants.

The Dodgers-Giants rivalry is famous for its long and rich tradition, but the little-known chapter in that story gives us one of the most interesting “what if” scenarios in baseball history.

Regarded as one of the greatest fit field players of all time, Clemente is a Hall of Famer who had exactly 3,000 hits and 12 Gold Glove awards before his tragic death in a plane crash on December 31, 1972. His major league accomplishments came wearing the Pirates uniform, but no His professional baseball journey begins with that organization.

In early 1954, after watching Clemente play in the Puerto Rican Winter League, several major league teams showed interest, including the Braves, Red Sox, Cardinals, and Giants.

With Clemente’s rival giants clearly seeking out, the Dodgers bid on them offering $10,000 in signing bonus and a $5,000 salary for the first year. The Braves were reportedly offered much more, but Clemente wanted to play in New York because he had family and friends there. So he signed with Brooklyn on February 19, 1954.

The Dodgers — the team of Jackie Robinson, Duke Snyder, Roy Campanella, Jill Hodges, B-Wee Reese and Don Newcombe, who will win the World Championship next year — had Roberto Clemente.

But they won’t keep it for long.

At the time, there was a rule governing signing bonuses of $6,000 or more (about $63,000 today) – if a club signed a player for a bonus at or above that limit, they had to spend two calendar years on the team’s Major League roster from the date of signing, otherwise it would be eligible for Draft Rule 5.

Clemente was not protected from the Base 5 draft because he was immediately assigned to Triple-A Montreal. The 19-year-old only played in 87 games for the Royals in the International League in 1954, scoring 0.257/.286/.372 with two home runs in 155 games.

According to a 1962 article in The Sporting News, Clemente felt “hidden” from the wider world of baseball in fear that if he played well, he would be taken over by another club in the draft base 5.

“Clemente, on the other hand, felt – and still feels – that the Royals kept him out of the regular line-up, so the big league teams would think he was a slim prospect and ignore him in the post-season draft for which he would be available as an extra player if he wasn’t promoted to Brooklyn’s roster,” The article’s author, Howard Cohn wrote.

Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi said signing Clemente in the first place was a matter of keeping him away from the Giants, though he’s offered multiple reasons for hiring Clemente to Triple-A over the years.

The guy who was in the GM Buccaneers chair at the time of the 1954 Rule 5 draft (Pittsburgh had the first pick after finishing MLB-worst 53-101) was none other than Branch Rickey.

Ricky was the Dodgers’ manager from 1942 to 50 and famously signed him with Jackie Robinson in 1945 before Robinson broke the baseball color barrier two years later. Ricky and Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley had a breakout, which led to Ricky’s departure from Brooklyn. Now, even though Ricky wasn’t a fan of Clemente at first, he pulled him out of his former club.

In his 1955 exploratory report, Rickey wrote that while he was told that Clemente had great speed, “Clemente’s running performance is poor, certainly poor, and based on what I saw tonight, he has a running speed that is slightly above average in the Major League.”

However, there were some undeniable strengths of Clemente which Ricky also noted.

“He has a beautiful throwing arm,” Ricky wrote. “He throws the ball down and it really goes places… His level on the board is perfect… I wouldn’t classify him, however, as a potential home run hitter.”

Overall, Ricky’s assessment of Clemente was that while he might eventually become a productive Major League player, that would be years away.

“I don’t think he could do any good to a major league team in 1955,” Rickey wrote in his report. “So, we’re stuck with him – really stuck, until such time as he can really help a club in the league.”

Whatever Ricky thought of Clemente’s abilities the first time he saw him, something he told the Pittsburgh Press about two weeks after Clemente was drafted proved to be sound:

“We may have a sleeper in Roberto Clemente, which we recruited from Montreal.”

Clemente didn’t reach his stride until 1960, when he earned his first 12 All-Star picks over the remaining 13 seasons of his career. A 12 straight Gold Glove from 1961-1972, he earned a .317/.359/.475 hitter with 240 home runs in an 18-year career with Pittsburgh. He helped the Buccaneers win the World Championships in 1960 and ’71, and earned the World Championship MVP honors after the Bucs defeated the Orioles in the ’71 Fall Classic.

It all can be traced back to November 22, 1954, when Rickey and the Pirates drafted Clemente away from the Dodgers for $4,000 (the amount required to be paid to the team from which the “bonus” player was drafted).

History might have turned out quite differently if the Dodgers had put Clemente on the Major League roster in 1954. It might have turned out differently if Brooklyn had not allowed Clemente to play winter ball in his native Puerto Rico at the time he was. Exciting after the disappointing performance of Montreal.

Still another dimension of how things are different lurks in the Giants – if they upped their show, Clemente’s name might have been on the list with the Mays’.

Miss and Clemente on the same court is fun to think about. But it’s not a purely theoretical exercise because it actually happened, and not just with giants. When Ricky was taking notes for his reconnaissance report, Clemente was playing left field for Puerto Rico’s Cangreiros de Santorci team, and the man in the middle was Mays.

Together, they combined for seven hits, including a pair of triples from Clemente, in an 11-3 win over Panama at the Caribbean Championship on February 14, 1955.

Clemente made his MLB debut two months later against the team he had lost the previous year. His first major hit, a single, came on his debut on the board against the Dodgers at Forbes Field on April 17, 1955. It was the first of 395 hits Clemente would collect against the Dodgers in his career. His batting average of 0.345 against them is the highest he has ever scored against any club in his career.

A baseball executive who watched the Dodgers lose Clemente might have put together the best of his 1954 Rule 5 Draft:

“I think the Brooklyn Club has outdone itself in kid intelligence,” White Sox General Motors Frank Lane told The Associated Press. “He shouldn’t have been allowed to play winter ball. That is where he got attention.”

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