Sunday, June 12, 2005
By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Roberto Clemente was back in the news last week and, as is often the case with this Pittsburgh sports idol, emotions ran high. It seems some low forms of human life were auctioning parts of the plane in which Clemente was killed while flying rescue supplies from Puerto Rico to Nicaragua Dec. 31, 1972. There was outrage all around. Such pure greed is hardly unusual in 21st century America, but, as always, when Clemente is involved we hear everything a bit more loudly.
Clemente is unique among Pittsburgh sports figures. No one, not even Mario Lemieux, arouses the passion of Pittsburghers so mightily.
A generation of baseball fans watched Clemente from the mid-1950s until the early 1960s and pronounced him an over-rated malingerer who didn't hit in the clutch. But, with his play in the 1960 World Series, with the first of four batting titles in 1961, with an MVP award in 1966 and with a historically heroic Series in 1971, a younger generation elevated Clemente to the status of a Pittsburgh icon. The circumstances of his death, while he was still a highly productive player, made him a legend.
The Sixth Street Bridge is now the Roberto Clemente Bridge. A park on the North Shore is named in his honor. Some members of the media refer to the right-field wall at PNC Park as the Clemente Wall because it's 21-feet high, made that height because 21 was Clemente's number.
Not surprisingly, Clemente is regarded by many as the greatest Pirate ever.
He is, of course, no such thing. That honor indisputably goes to Honus Wagner, the winner of eight batting titles and the greatest shortstop in the history of the game.
But here's what's amazing, here's what will make Clemente's legion of fans furious. Clemente is not the second greatest Pirate. He's not the Pirates' greatest outfielder. In fact, he's not the franchise's greatest right fielder.
Paul Waner, who played right field for the Pirates from 1926 to 1940, is the greatest right fielder in the team's history.
The following should not be perceived as being critical of Clemente, a great Hall of Fame player, but rather as a tribute to Waner, another great Hall of Fame player who has fallen through the cracks of Pirates history.
Waner is a forgotten man in Pirates lore, a legend dimmed by time and the ESPN generation. He played much of his Pirates career beside his brother Lloyd, a Hall of Fame center fielder. They were known as Big Poison and Little Poison. They combined for 5,611 hits, the most by brothers in baseball history -- more than the three Alou brothers, more than the three DiMaggio brothers, more than the five Delahanty brothers.
Paul Waner was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1951, receiving 83 percent of the vote. Among the at least 11 future Hall of Famers who didn't make it that year were Bill Terry, the last National League player to hit .400, and Bill Dickey, at the time considered one of the greatest catchers in baseball history.
When Waner reached the 3,000-hit plateau in 1942, he became only the seventh player in baseball history to do so and the first National Leaguer in 28 years.
Waner is not just a Pirates great, he's an all-time great.
Waner's family has pleaded with the Pirates for some sort of recognition -- perhaps a plaque at PNC Park, preferably the retirement of his number. They just wanted something to acknowledge his accomplishments, something so that he will be remembered. The team has ignored those pleas, which is sad for the Waners and unfortunate for the Pirates.
It's easy to compare Waner and Clemente because rather amazingly they had almost the exact same number of career at-bats. Waner had 9,459, five more than Clemente. Yet he had 152 more hits, 165 more doubles, 25 more triples and four more RBIs. He had 21 more stolen bases, 854 fewer strikeouts and 470 more walks. His lifetime batting average was 16 points higher than Clemente's. His on-base percentage was 45 points higher.
Clemente hit 127 more home runs and his slugging percentage was two points higher than Waner's.
Comparing numbers across eras is not always fair. A better comparison often is how well each man did among his peers.
Clemente won four batting titles and one MVP award. Waner won three batting titles and one MVP award.
Waner led the National League in games played three times, hits twice, runs scored twice, doubles twice, triples twice, total bases once, times on base four times and RBIs once. In those same categories, Clemente led in hits twice and triples once.
Few, if any, could match Clemente in the field, but Waner also excelled defensively. Red Smith, the Babe Ruth of sports writers, wrote this about Waner:
"Because his hitting overshadowed everything else, his defensive skill is rarely mentioned. But he was a superior outfielder and one of the swiftest runners in the National League with a wonderful arm."
He had other attributes considerably less admirable. As was the case with many players of that era, Waner reportedly was a heavy drinker.
This prompted Casey Stengel, the Hall of Fame manager who was a peer of Waner's, to say, "He had to be a very graceful player because he could slide without breaking the bottle on his hip."
A legend in his own time, a forgotten man today. Paul Waner deserves better.
(Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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