Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Brooklyn Dodgers, Roberto Clemente and the Rule 5 Draft

With the Rule 5 Draft quickly approaching it's interesting to see what teams are doing to transition players in and out of their 40-man rosters.  Sometimes trades are consummated, as evidenced by the two most recent Dodger trades with the Rays and Diamondbacks, but other times a club may gamble a bit by leaving a good prospect unprotected in hopes they get passed over by other clubs.

This brings up the main reason why I am writing this post.  The most famous Rule 5 Draftee to ever get plucked off a teams roster and to go on to fantastic heights is Roberto Clemente.  And, as I'm sure you likely know, he was taken by the Pittsburgh Pirates off the 1954 Brooklyn Dodger roster.

That's right folks, the great Roberto Clemente was once a Dodger... shoulda been a Dodger.

This makes me wonder, what the heck happened?  How could a team known for an excellent farm system and having a great ability at recognizing talent not protect a future star like Clemente?  Is there a story behind this?

Well, I'm currently reading an biography by Andy McCue on Water O'Malley called, "Mover & Shaker: Walter O'Malley, the Dodgers, & Baseball's Westward Expansion," and it does its best to explain the machinations behind the scenes.  Below is an excerpt.  BTW, this book is one of the most detailed books I've ever read about O'Malley's Dodgers, and I highly recommend it to any Dodger fan.  Now on to a passage in the book regarding Roberto Clemente:
The other player was another Hall of Famer, Roberto Clemente, and, again, roster limits played a role.  Clemente signed in February 1954 for $15,000.  Because that was over $4,000, the bonus rule mandated the Dodgers put him on their roster or risk having him drafted by another team the next winter.  Bavasi felt the Dodger roster was full and decided to take the risk.  It did not work.  That December (Branch) Rickey and the Pirates drafted Clemente.

In more than three decades of talent evaluation, Buzzie Bavasi made few mistakes.  Clemente was clearly one of them, and an unnecessarily defensive Bavasi told many stories over the years about how it happened, some involving Walter O'Malley.

In the earliest rendering Bavasi gave the loss the "irrelevant" label by saying the Dodgers had signed the Puerto Rican outfielder only to keep him away from the Giants.  A few years later he was resigned.  "That was probably my biggest mistake," he told Charles Maher of the Los Angeles Times.  "We can blame the rules for part of it, but part of it was our judgment."

Later still, his version began to have scapegoats.  The first was O'Malley.  Bavasi said he was fully aware of Clemente's talent and knew Branch Rickey and the Pirates were convinced of it, too.  Bavasi said he went to Rickey, his old mentor, and called on his friendship.  Rickey agreed not to take Clemente.  But, Bavasi said, Rickey and O'Malley got into a shouting match over some unrelated issue at an owners meeting.  O'Malley cursed Rickey and Rickey changed his mind.

In later renderings a racial issue was added.  Bavasi told author Thomas Oliphant both the O'Malley cursing tale and that O'Malley ordered him to limit the number of blacks on the team because he was fearful of fan and team reaction.  Clemente was a very dark-skinned Latino, and in Bavasi's final version it was now O'Malley's partners who had vetoed the idea of more blacks, an angle he also told Oliphant.  He cited the partners as Jim Mulvey and John Smith.  Mulvey was back on the board of directors in 1954, but O'Malley had full control.  Bavasi evidently forgot Smith had been dead neary four years by the time the Dodgers even signed Clemente.
We may never know the real reason for the ill-fated decision to not protect Roberto Clemente from the Rule 5 Draft, or if there's really any reason at all.  After all, sometimes things just happen, and as a Dodger fan that fact only helps you appreciate how crazy this game really is.  As a side note, yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the plundering of the Dodgers by the Pirates.  That sounds so apropos, doesn't it?

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