Because the record book lists Roberto Clemente with 3,000 career hits, people naturally assume that the 3,000th was his final hit, that double off the New York Mets’ Jon Matlack on September 30, 1972.
You’ve all seen the photo, Clemente standing on second base, tipping his hat to the crowd. But it was not his last hit. Another left-hander served up the final hit of The Great One’s tragedy-shortened career, and he remembers it as well today as he did on that October day during the National League Championship Series almost 40 years ago.
A few years back, when he was serving as pitching coach with the Cincinnati Reds, someone who had chronicled the final game of that classic playoff series approached Don Gullett in the Cincinnati dugout prior to a mid-summer’s game. Gullett was one of the best left-handed pitchers of his era. His manager, Sparky Anderson, had proclaimed him a sure Hall of Famer before his first season in the major leagues had ended, which was before his 21st birthday.
He might have made it, too, had arm miseries not ended his career after nine years with a spectacular 109-50 won-lost record carved out of a 3.11 ERA. Gullett could do almost anything on an athletic field, once having scored 72 points in a game while at Lynn (Ky.) High School. Helluva basketball game, you say. Would have been, but this was football! That’s right, he scored 11 touchdowns and six extra points.
When he was asked about it during his rookie year, Gullett’s explanation was as simple as life in Lynn when he grew up.
"Coach turned me loose,” he said.
"You know,'' the dugout visitor said on this day a few years back, "you gave up Roberto Clemente's last hit.''
"I did know that,'' he said.
"What'd you throw him?'' Gullett was asked.
"I tried to get a fastball in on him, but I left it out over the plate and he hit it to right field,'' said Gullett; only a pitcher, or the man who hit it, would remember that.
That game has become one of the most famous in the storied history of both the Pirates and the Reds, being the final game of the '72 NLCS. The best-of-five series was tied two games each, the Pirates leading 3-2 entering the bottom of the ninth inning. Reliever Dave Giusti was brought in to face Johnny Bench, and the Hall of Famer hit one of the most dramatic home runs in baseball history, over the right-center field wall to tie the game.
It was the only opposite-field home run Bench hit all season. Tony Perez and Denis Menke followed with singles. Bob Moose came into the game and uncorked a wild pitch to pinch hitter Hal McRae that allowed pinch runner George Foster to come leaping across the plate with the run that won the pennant.
Moose would die almost four years to the day later in a car wreck while the flame that was Clemente’s life was snuffed out when a plane he had chartered to bring relief supplies to an earthquake-stricken Nicaragua plunged into the Caribbean on New Year’s Eve that very year.
And so it was that Gullett had served up the final hit of Clemente's storied career, a career that began with the Pirates stealing him away from the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had tried to hide him on a minor-league roster in Montreal, in the Rule 5 Draft, then collecting 3,000 hits and becoming the best defensive right fielder ever to play the game.
"Clemente could do so many things to beat you,'' said Gullett. "You couldn't make a mistake with him and he had as much power going to the opposite field as anyone I ever saw."
Clemente got that point across to Gullett the first time he ever faced him. It was spring training in 1970 and Clemente drove a long home run over the right-center field fence off the young left-hander. That's when Pat Corrales, a backup catcher for the Reds, gave Gullett a tip on pitching to Clemente.
"He used to stand way, way off the plate. It looked like you could get him on the outside corner, but he'd just dive in and kill that pitch. Corrales told me the way to pitch him was to come inside,'' said Gullett.
And that's just what he was trying to do when Clemente got the last base hit he would ever get, proving once again that there was no real way to get him out.