Too Much or Too Little? Ariba’s Popularity Extends From Fans to Collectors
by Stephen Flinn
Roberto Clemente’s image has adorned every baseball momento imaginable, from the obvious to the arcane. Baseball cards, programs, calendars and photographs as well as cereal boxes and bread wrappers have worn the baseball legend’s figure.
Even a beautiful six-inch tall porcelain action statue is now marketed in sports-collectible circles nationwide. The figurine replicating the familiar action pose of Number 21 fielding a ground ball gleams on a deep green pad simulating Forbes Field’s grass with Clemente’s likeness standing in front of the 375 foot outfield wall marker.
But now, an even more glorious remembrance of the great right-fielder will hail in Pittsburgh for all to see. Never again will a fan be able to attend a Pirate game or even pass through the northern edge of downtown Pittsburgh and not be reminded of Clemente.
Until just recently, Pittsburgh’s greatest tribute to their fallen hero has been a larger-than-life Clemente statue placed on the causeway surrounding Three Rivers Stadium. Also, the shoreline-park between the stadium and the Allegheny River was dubbed Clemente Park. And when Pittsburgh hosted the Major League Baseball All-Star Game and accompanying Fanfest in 1994, Clemente was the focal point.
Now, Pittsburgh is remembering Clemente in grand style, and will be naming the Sixth Street Bridge after its #21. The Pirate’s 2001 Opening Day is slated to be grand indeed, as the much-debated new stadium is scheduled to host the Buccos from that day on, far into the future.
It was for that reason many Pittsburghers wanted the new stadium to be named after Roberto. After all, ‘Clemente Park’ does have a nice ring to it. But in the modern-day economics of ‘cash comes first, sentiment comes second’, the cash register rang even louder than the sentiment when PNC Bank accepted the naming rights deal. PNC, familiar with cash drawers, shelled out between $30-40 million over twenty years to name the ballpark after itself and coordinate related marketing activities as well.
So county commissioners Mike Dawida and Bob Cramner have decided not to ignore sentiment and probably did the next best thing by christening the gateway to the stadium as Clemente Bridge. The official naming ceremony may take place by the end of the summer. The naming of the bridge seems to be a win-win situation for the Pirates and the city. The Pirates receive a huge financial windfall and the city receives another Clemente memorial.
There is, of course, no question about the greatness of Pittsburgh’s first round pick in the 1954 winter baseball draft. Nor did he become the pride of Puerto Rico - and many Pittsburghers, by accident. The great right fielder recorded a .317 lifetime batting average, banging out 3,000 hits including 440 doubles, 166 triples, 240 home runs and 1,305 RBI. He was the star of the 1971 World Series, batting .414 and leading the Pirates to a series victory over the Baltimore Orioles. After winning the National League batting crown in 1961, 1964 and 1965, he earned National League MVP honors in 1966. In 1967, he batted 357, winning his fourth batting title. During that year, Clemente batted .317, recording 119 RBI, 31 doubles and 11 triples. During his 18-year tenure with the Pirates, he earned 12 Golden Gloves, and batted over .300 thirteen times.
The truth is, however, that many Pittsburghers consider Clemente already sufficiently honored by the statue and park. That Clemente is again recognized while other previous great Pirates are "forgotten", such as Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor, Lloyd Waner, etc. Perhaps, but the greater local fallout initially seemed to focus less on why the bridge was being renamed in honor of Clemente and more on why the stadium was not so named. Make no mistake, perhaps the greatest right fielder in baseball history remains an icon here.
Just ask those who make a living at it.
"People come in here and ask about Clemente items almost every day and the sentiment of most of my customers I heard talk about it has been if it can’t be the stadium, then the next best thing is to name the bridge after Clemente," said R.J. Kowalski, part owner of Greentree Trading Company. "Most people understood why it made more sense to do what they did, so I don’t think there are many hard feelings over the way the city and the Pirates decided to do it."
"I have heard ‘why are the Pirates concentrating only on Clemente when so many other Pirates were great at what they did as well?’" said Steve Jenka, co-owner of Big Save Sports Cards in Baldwin Township, "but most people, including me, still feel that it was a good idea to name the Sixth Street Bridge after Clemente."
Jenka pointed out that Clemente has always been a popular item at his business, but since the 1994 All-Star Game and Fanfest, Clemente has become even more popular, especially with younger people.
"Most young collectors didn’t know who Clemente was, but since that five-card Clemente collector’s set was released at Fanfest, a lot of younger people became more interested in him," Jenka said. "And naming the bridge after him will certainly not hurt his popularity among collectors, and I can say that even though demand has always been high, interest has peaked even a little higher recently for Clemente items."
The five card set Jenka mentions was the only set in history released by competing baseball card companies when Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Pinnacle, and Upper Deck joined forces and issued the set exclusively for Pittsburgh Fanfest collectors. This set is currently worth over $100.00. Other new Clemente memorabilia on the horizon include porcelain baseball card replicas and tin boxes containing reprinted Clemente baseball cards.
Roberto Clemente memorabilia is not only popular among Pittsburghers, but nationwide as well.
"A national dealer once told me that Mickey Mantle was his number one seller and Clemente was second," said Vic Mannella, owner of Triple Play Sports Cards in Carnegie. "Once a sports star is deceased, no more autographs can be given out or appearances made, so the value of the items automatically increases and an autographed item can double or triple in price."
Coincidentally, his rookie baseball card in mint condition, or his autographed baseball or bat, may sell for about $1.00 for each hit he recorded before his life was cut short on that tragic 1972 New Year’s Eve, or roughly $3,000 on the open market. Current book value of his rookie card is $2,200.
"A Clemente rookie card may sell for $3,000 depending on the condition," said Mannella. "Clemente items are among my most popular sellers."
Dwayne Askews of A & A Sports Cards in Bridgeville agrees that Clemente is the most popular Pittsburgh sports star. "I have Clemente cards here from $20 to $25 all the way up to a few hundred," Askews said, "and they’re all popular."
Mike Jones, owner of Mike’s Card Shop in Coraopolis, also has great success selling Clemente items. "Clemente is still the most popular sports memorabilia item I sell," Jones said.
The Big Picture
Clemente was not the original baseball hero in Pittsburgh, and may not have even been the best. But he is certainly one of the most-loved baseball heroes, not just in Pittsburgh, but everywhere. The Hall of Fame waived the mandatory five-year waiting period when they inducted Clemente posthumously on August 6, 1973.
Puerto Rico remembered its national hero when Kellogg’s Cereal Company issued a Corn Flakes box dedicated to Roberto with a head shot of him standing poised with a Louisville Slugger in hand. The box, for the most part, was printed in Spanish because it was only released in Puerto Rico. Kellogg’s responded to the demand of American baseball fans who wanted to purchase the Clemente Corn Flakes boxes as well and about a year later, marketed an English-labeled version and sold them in America. Under the Corn Flakes label on the front of the box reads the saying, "The Original and Best."
From our vantage point, the impact of Clemente’s life and death cannot be underestimated when considering how he should be honored. Because many of us were born and raised with Clemente in our blood and, in a strange way, we may be a little too casual in how we remember him. But we would be short-sighted in failing to recognize how large Clemente remains with baseball fans, serious and otherwise.
To them, he was baseball in Pittsburgh. To us, he was our hero. And if baseball’s economics don’t allow us to name the stadium after him, let’s do the next best thing.
Stephen Flinn is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.