To say baseball was a different game way back in 1969 is an understatement. That year saw both leagues split into two divisions each for the first time, while the designated hitter in the AL was a couple of years away and free agency — not to mention the millions that would come with it — was just a fantasy.
And back then the all-time hits list was dominated by white men who played in the dead ball era at the dawn of the 20th Century.
Which is why Roberto Clemente’s 2,500th hit on this day in béisbol, Aug. 5, 1969, was a big deal.
There were only eight players with more than 3,000 hits, led by Ty Cobb’s 4,191, when the Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder reached his milestone two weeks shy of his 35th birthday (there are currently 31 on the list).
So not only did Clemente’s 2,500th hit help make any unenlightened fans out there realize what an amazing player the Puerto Rico native was as he continued to take his place among the game’s immortals, it also made people realize Latino players could be just as good, if not as great, as ones born in the U.S.
As most fans know, Clemente would get his 3,000th and final hit in 1972, and die in a tragic plane crash at age 38 that winter. By then, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays had broken the Top 10 among the all-time hits leaders — both got No. 3,000 in 1970 — and flaunted what the game had stupidly lost out on before Jackie Robinson changed the face of baseball.
But it was Clemente, along with fellow Hall of Fame pioneers Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal and Luis Aparicio — who proved early on that baseball was now a game without borders.
— Robert Dominguez
Robert Dominguez is co-author of “Bronx Bummers: The Unofficial History of the New York Yankees’ Bad Boys, Blunders and Brawls” and writer of the upcoming “El Salón: The Trials and Triumphs of Baseball’s Latino Hall of Famers.”