Baseball Lore: Roberto's big heart matched a great arm when tossing to kid
April 29, 2014 11:23 PM
Pittsburgh Pirate right fielder Roberto Clemente
By George Skornickel
Growing up on the North Side, I had many opportunities to go across town to attend Pirates games at Forbes Field.
I would catch the red and white 77/54 streetcar for the rattling ride to Oakland. Once there, I would stop at Gus Miller's newsstand for a copy of The Sporting News, then cross the street to Weinstein's for a takeout kosher corned beef sandwich, which I would eat sometime around the fourth inning.
It was just a short walk from Weinstein's to the main gates of Forbes Field, where there was always a great amount of activity. Just a few feet from the entrance was the Home Plate Cafe, which was actually shaped like a home plate. Tom and Jerry's nearby was a long, narrow building famous for its hot dogs.
Going to Forbes Field was an event even before you got through the gate, but my most vivid memory centers around a baseball that sits on the desk in my study. I got it in 1960, when I was 13 years old.
I got to the ballpark early that day and stationed myself at the railing next to the Pirates dugout, close enough to the field and players that you could actually smell the tobacco juice and sweat. I always had with me a program and my trusty pen shaped like a Louisville Slugger bat, for autographs. To get players to sign in those days just took a degree of politeness and a good spot at the rail when they were done with fielding practice.
On this day, my favorite player, Roberto Clemente, began catching warm-up tosses along the first base line with Joe Christopher. I was always fascinated with the effortless way Clemente seemed to throw and catch a ball, his side-armed tosses to Christopher smacking into the glove with a surprising amount of force.
Mustering all the courage I could, I yelled, "Roberto, Roberto, can I have the ball when you're done?" His response was an almost unnoticed nod of his head.
I was thrilled. I had gotten his autograph on many occasions, and had had several opportunities to talk to him, but now I was going to get a 13-year-old's version of the Holy Grail -- an official Warren Giles National League baseball.
I moved back a few rows to watch the players, and after what seemed like an eternity, a bell rang and the players started heading for the dugout. Clemente looked toward the seats, made eye contact with me and tossed the ball in my direction.
The next thing I knew I was hit from behind and found myself falling head-first toward one of the blue wooden seats. I caught my balance and turned just in time to see a heavy-set man of about 40 grabbing the ball. I started walking away toward my seat with tears in my eyes.
Suddenly, I heard a loud voice booming the words, "Give the kid the ball!"
I turned and saw Clemente with one foot on the railing, ready to leap over it. The man who had knocked me flying suddenly appeared, stuffed the ball in my hand, muttered something I couldn't understand and walked away. I had my treasure.
I was so excited I almost didn't hear Clemente yell, "Kid, are you all right?" He still had his foot on the rail. He also had a look of deep concern on his face. All I could do was nod my head. He motioned with his mitt for me to come down to the rail. On shaky legs, I approached.
He wanted to know again if I was OK, and then he asked, "Got a pen?"
I reached into the back pocket of my jeans for my trusty Louisville Slugger. He took the pen and signed the ball with his distinctive autograph. He smiled while handing it back to me.
"You be careful now," he said on his way to the dugout.
That afternoon, I sat in the front row of the right field stands cheering every time Clemente came to his position, caught a fly or batted the ball. I can't remember if we won or lost.
But every time I think of Forbes Field with its huge scoreboard and Longines clock, the batting cage stored in center field, the red brick outfield wall covered with ivy and the rock-hard infield, I always remember that day in 1960 when Roberto Clemente signed a ball for me.
George Skornickel of Fawn, a retired English teacher, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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