The Only Walk-Off, Grand-Slam, Inside-the-Park HR in MLB History

July 25, 2017
That’s what the author claims, anyway, and I’m sitting in an airport with very dicey internet connections, unable to verify that claim, and it’s not really to the point if it’s really as unique as he claims. The part that gets me is that today is July 25, 2017, and purely by chance this one-of-a-kind phenomenon took place exactly sixty-one years ago today, propelling me to write a draft and try to post it, in honor of the anniversary, before they call my flight in about another 15 minutes.

According to the author, a Professor of English at UMass-Amherst named Martin Espada, this unique HR was hit on July 25, 1956 by none other than Roberto Clemente: Read the article, and you’ll see two things: it was a very exciting play (as I just wrote, a week or so ago, my favorite plays are triples, and even more exciting, though I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one, is an inside-the-park HR—a walk-off grand-slam of that stripe would be the ultimate in excitement), but Professor Espada writes, even more heatedly than he does about the event, about the racism with which the event was written up, at the time, and then a few years afterwards, and then in the Roberto Clemente biography by David Maraniss.

I’m not sure how to take the racist angle. My first instinct is to acknowledge it: sure, it was (barely) in the first decade of integrated baseball, so of course white sportswriters, and white ballplayers, and white biographers are going to imbue events with a cruder sense of race-relations than we will find polite in 2017. To say that pretty much anything involving a minority ballplayer from 1956 will be described in racially insensitive terms from our perspective is to be met with the all-purpose 21st century response of "Duh!" And if you read the heated comments to this article, you’ll see that much of the heat concerns racism rather than baseball, including defenses from Maraniss himself, as well as from Maraniss’s (and others’) defenders and detractors, on a level not often seen outside of the Reader’s Posts section of BJOL. Read it and enjoy.

But I’d like to focus on the baseball stuff alone. As I just mentioned about exciting baserunning, and its disappearance from the game as smart baseball and sabermetrics, there seems to be less reckless strategy employed in baserunning generally, which I’m quite sure represents a firmer grasp of risk/reward and a less daring brand of baseball, both at once. In the situation described here—bases loaded, no outs, down by three runs, bottom of the ninth—would you be inclined to hold Clemente to a triple, if you were his manager or his third-base coach? (In this case, they were one and the same.) If Clemente stops at third base, you have the game tied up, no outs, and a good baserunner on third base. I don’t know what the Pirates’ odds of winning the game would be at that point, but they’ve got to be pretty good—75%? 90% Better than 90%?--, and even if they fail to get Clemente in from third, they’ve still got a tied game, at home, which in itself puts the odds at better than 50/50.

So, racial and cultural stuff aside, are you inclined to label Clemente a genius, as Professor Espada seems inclined to do, a brilliant assessor of risks and rewards, or do you take Manager Bobby Bragan’s more conservative position, and throw up a stop sign, saying, "Roberto, this game isn’t about you, and exciting the fans, and going for the glory! Stay put, and let one of your teammates drive you in."

They’re calling my flight, so I’ll have to continue this column in the Comments sections, if anyone cares to chime in. I’m with Roberto, and daring baserunning, by the way, but I think I’m speaking as a hot-blooded fan, not a cold-blooded analyst. I think the play I’d like to see, and the play I wish I’d seen, is not the soundest winning strategy.



COMMENTS (25 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
The Espada article, among its other dumbnesses, mentions Pete Rose as a typical hot dog "damn the torpedos" type player--even when he's accusing MLB of racism, he has trouble coming up with actual racist incidents. Sorry, "Peter" Rose.
6:27 PM Jul 28th
Marc Schneider
Well, MacArthur didn't get killed. He did eventually get relieved but that was from advocating an even more foolish policy and he came home to a hero's welcome. So, he made out ok. And, to be fair, his landing at Inchon was a good example of the point I originally made. In a lot of ways it was risky and foolish but it worked; sometimes boldness is its own reward and sometimes not. Baseball is the same way; if you take a chance and succeed, you are great, if you fail you are a bum.

In Clemente's case, I don't think you needed sabermetrics to say that the "wise" move would have been to stop at third. It doesn't exactly take advanced analytics to figure out that the chances of scoring from third with no outs are very high. On the other hand, who knows, maybe Brosnan gets out of it. But I'm pretty sure that even back then I would have been telling him to stop.

About racism, I do have to say this. Black and Latin players weren't necessarily the first to be bold on the bases. There were plenty of white players (Cobb, Pepper Martin) who were pretty bold and daring. The stereotype about Latin and Black players really comes down to the idea that they are daring without thinking. It's a way of diminishing the accomplishment. If, during the 50s for sure, a white guy had done what Clemente did, people would most likely have attributed it to his weighing the risks. So it's fair to talk about racism (or, prejudice which, I think, is somewhat different) but the points this author made to prove it in this case seem pretty specious.

4:06 PM Jul 28th
Steven Goldleaf
It was Lord Raglan, who died in the Crimean War, described in the Britannica as "suffer[ing] much from the early failures of the campaign and from the hostile criticism of the inefficient commissariat arrangements" in other words, from making a lot of dumb calls in the Charge of the Light Brigade. Gotta go with the percentages, man.
2:14 PM Jul 28th
Steven Goldleaf
It's a great analogy, Marc, between generals' and ballplayers' decisions. Let's focus on MacArthur in Korea for a moment, or other generals whose instincts were off. They got KILLED for their reckless choices. I was just reading in the Britannica (a time-killing habit of mine, poring over the encyclopedia) about the charge of the light brigade--this poor bastard's decision is STILL being derided, 150 years later. The part of Clemente's choice that I can't get over is that, now that we know exactly what the odds were of him scoring if he'd stayed on third base vs. him trying for home, we can say "dumb move" but before sabermetric analysis, it was anybody's guess which move was better. I can't restate often enough how my preference as a fan, out to see exciting baseball, is for Clemente to go for home, but now that I KNOW (as opposed to "think") it was smarter to stay at 3B, I'm almost sorry for what sabermetrics has contributed to the game. I guess this was my point in publishing this piece (apart from the fun of seeing it go from the idea stage to the publishing stage inside of 20 minutes), to see what the cold-blooded analysis of baseball detracts from the sheer joy of watching exciting baseball take place before my eyes. I'm sure if I were there, I would have been screaming "Go for it, Roberto!" (or maybe "Nail him, Ernie!") but it just wasn't a good move, however exciting it was to watch. I'm what you'd call "seriously conflicted."
8:55 AM Jul 28th
Marc Schneider
Clemente's play in some ways reminds me of great generals I have read about (e.g., Patton, MacArthur) who took seemingly unwise gambles that seemed to work. (Although MacArthur's decision to invade North Korea obviously did not.) Eisenhower used to talk about luck. Like them, I think great players often rely on instinct, knowledge, and a feeling that they are lucky enough to succeed. That seems to be what Clemente did. (Not mention that the Pirates were a lousy team so it didn't really make that much difference if they won or lost that game.) Sometimes an athlete just does things; fear of failure is crippling and, while Clemente might not have tried to score if he thought rationally about it, it did work.

BTW, I think the article is rather silly. Clearly, you can find racism everywhere if you want. But to argue the lack of celebration of the play (which happened in a meaningless game) is a proof of racism is absurd. Plus, as the author acknowledges, there were far fewer channels of information in 1956. This was a game between two bad teams that no one paid attention to. He's right that, today, it would have been all over the internet. It also would have gotten attention if it had been in the World Series or in an important pennant race game.
3:42 PM Jul 27th
Well, down a run is quite a bit different from tied. Risking being out and ending the world series is quite a bit different from risking being out (to win the game right now) and then going to extra innings.

So (rhetorically) what are we watching the games for? Lots of things, to be sure, but making a damn the torpedoes try for the brass ring has got to be one of them.
1:19 PM Jul 27th
I believe a World Series ended when a Great player (The Greatest, actually) tried to steal second base when his team was down a run. So yeah, Great players can and do make stupid mistakes
1:10 PM Jul 27th
It's all good, as they say, or even if they didn't. We need triangulation here...where's Marisfan when I need him?
1:03 PM Jul 27th
Steven Goldleaf
I was kidding, sort of: of course he was (literally) Roberto Clemente, and he also had the seeds of greatness before anyone knew it.

But the sense in which I wasn't kidding was that even the greatest of the great do dumb things, particularly in their youth. Not sure where, probably in the article I linked to, but Clemente himself later characterized his decision to try for home as a kind of dumb-kid thing to do. I think if Clemente himself can look back and say he did something unintelligent, so can we. Actually, I think we can even if he never said so, but the fact that he criticized his own actions makes that point a little stronger. You don't want to take the position that great players never make mistakes, I think, because then your entire argument would hinge on whether someone qualifies as "great" and therefore exempt from criticism.
11:19 AM Jul 27th
"Not yet he wasn't."

But, Steven, events like this (okay, this is ridiculously unique, but still) are how a great player builds his legend.

Seriously, I believe that in athletic competition there are moments where the instantaneous recognition of the situation, the environment, everything...allow a player to make the right decision despite what we might call the "odds" say. And what are our "odds" in this analysis built on? The score, the number of outs, the inning. That's a lot, but it is nowhere near everything.

He was Clemente before we knew he was Clemente.​
11:01 AM Jul 27th
Steven Goldleaf
Brosnan died in 2014. His SABR-bio has this to say about his writing career after he retired in 1964: "While continuing to write regular baseball articles, Brosnan also worked for an ad agency, as he had during the off-seasons for many years, and in broadcasting. He published several baseball books for young readers (titles like Great Baseball Pitchers and The Ted Simmons Story). In the early 1970s he began writing baseball articles for Boys’ Life, which he continued to do for 20 years." Seems kind of unambitious to me, writing those sorts of articles for that sort of audience, and writing ad copy (presumably for the bucks), but each to his own.

10:27 AM Jul 27th
Steven Goldleaf
Not yet he wasn't.
5:22 AM Jul 27th
Well, yes "1500 MLB coaches, analysts, sabermetricians, managers, players, etc," can be right, but only if they ignore poetic truth. Clemente made the right play because he was Clemente.
1:37 AM Jul 27th
Steven Goldleaf
No shortage of one (or two) book wonders, Gary. Harper Lee comes to mind. But most people try to milk it for all it's worth.

This (Clemente) is a continuation, perhaps, of what I was discussing last week, an obvious success to judge by the result--I'm sure anyone who thought about it, certainly anyone who saw it, thinks it was the greatest play since sliced Swiss cheese--but if you freeze the camera as Clemente ran towards third and show the film to 1500 MLB coaches, analysts, sabermetricians, managers, players, etc. at that moment, probably 1499 of them are going to tell you "Hold him up!"
8:24 PM Jul 26th
Aside from comments and criticisms about the article, gotta say: what an amazing play! I mean, can you believe it (?) but you have to. A historically unique event, famous players, finished off with a reach back and touch the plate slide into home.

Sometimes, man, the hell with analysis or probabilities. Clemente saw his opportunity, brilliantly so, a moment unparalleled and completely unable to be prepared for. He took it, he was right, and I think we can all tell the statistics and probabilities to shut up, already. Of course he made the right play.
5:52 PM Jul 26th
Perhaps Brosnans' short writing career might have a parallel to that of Claude Brown (Manchild in the Promised Land), a writer who had the natural skills but a limited number of interesting stories to tell. Browns book is terrific, but it was his autobiography and, once told, he couldn't find other stories in him anymore.

Brosnans' two books were about his own MLB experiences; after his baseball career was done, perhaps he also had nothing more that captured his interest sufficient to produce more. I believe he did write a few other articles (Sports Illustrated, that kind of thing) but that was about it.
5:15 PM Jul 26th
Steven Goldleaf
Fireball, we definitely have a lot of reading-challenged members of my profession--or more precisely, readers whose conclusions are severely limited ideologically. I'm also a fan of Brosnan's writing (and I wonder why he never pursued his literary attempts further--two decent books and then nothing. I should follow up on what he did with his life.) Thanks, tkoegel, for that link--that's exactly what I was wondering about. 82% is pretty good, definitely something I would take over what seems to me to be a 50/50 shot, a tag play at the plate. My other question seems more difficult: the declining numbers in the course of baseball history of ITP HR, adjusted for balls in play and number of games. More difficult by the unreliable tracking of ITP HRs, I suppose. But there seems to be pretty reliable recording of triples hit, which might work just as well. Maybe I'll see if "Hey Bill" has a way to find out.
12:19 PM Jul 26th
Fireball Wenz
I also read the Espada article, and have read both of Brosnan's books. The "look at numero uno" bit is clearly part of the casual racism that was prevalent at that time.
It is not a phrase that any intelligent, sensitive author would write today.

But the whole other bit about Brosnan being "disgusted" is clearly not about "race" at all - it's typical of Brosnan's wry style - the loss is clearly what he is "disgusted" by.

I guess reading comprehension is not a prerequisite for becoming a professor of English.

11:41 AM Jul 26th
Oops, meant to include the Tango link:
11:13 AM Jul 26th
Steven, I may not be understanding the question you are asking. But from good Mr. Tango's run expectancy matrix for the years 1950-1968 it appears that Clemente would have stood an 81.8% chance of scoring from third with no outs. Not considering, of course, that Clemente was third in the order and one might expect that the heart of the Pirates' lineup might get that run home from third even more frequently.
11:12 AM Jul 26th
Steven Goldleaf
Also, Don, I'd interested in using your data to quantify my opinion that the risk/reward point has moved over the years. It seems to me that the ITP HR rate (and the triples rate, for that matter) would fairly represent MLB's overall decision-making process on taking the extra base. Not just raw numbers, of course, but raw numbers adjusted for Balls in Play and number of games should do the trick. Subjectively, I'd say we'd see a steady decline in risk-taking on the basepaths in general over the years, but I'd be fascinated to learn if there are periods of sharp decline, or no decline, etc.
9:27 AM Jul 26th
Steven Goldleaf
Yes, Don, as the article specifies "He made it just in front of the relay from Ernie Banks. He slid, missed the plate, then reached back to rest his hand on the rubber with the ninth run in a 9-8 victory as the crowd of 12,431 went goofy with excitement." That tells me that it was a high-risk play, every chance in the world that Clemente would have been thrown out at the plate. Isn't it cool that it involves one sure-shot HoFers, Banks (playing shortstop, I figured out after trying to understand how a 1B would be the cutoff man on a ball hit to LF) trying to throw out another eventual sure-shot HoFer?

BTW, I got in at 11:30 last night, eleven hours after leaving my apartment for a flight that was ostensibly 2 hours and thirty-five minutes, so I didn't have a chance to follow up. Anyone able to figure out the odds of the Pirates winning that game if Clemente stayed at 3B with no outs? Is there a table of some sort that lists all game situations on it? The more I think about it it, the better I think the Pirates' chances would have been if Clemente had stayed on third, notwithstanding the fact that they won the game outright by him racing past the stop sign. As a Latin player says in Mark Harris's novel Bang the Drum Slowly "This is maybe not such good baseball, mister."

9:20 AM Jul 26th
I'm with Gary, the article is horse manure. The racist angle (and since when is 'Latin American' a race?) is effectively refuted in the commentaries to the article by one David Speed.

There is enough real honest-to-god bigotry in the world: it is hardly necessary to invent it where it doesn't exist.
5:27 AM Jul 26th
I think the article is full of it. The author all but calls Jim Brosnan a racist. I don't see it. Yes, Brosnan wrote that, "He once ran right over his manager, who was coaching third base, to complete an inside-the-park grand slam homer, hit off my best hanging slider. It excited the fans, startled the manager, shocked me, and disgusted my club," and so what? It's racist for Brosnan to wryly note his personal reactions to a tough day at the park?

The article shows that you can use a lot of different things to grind an axe, if in fact you have an axe to grind.
1:25 AM Jul 26th
I'd need more details. For example, how close was the play at the plate likely to be? I would guess that a majority of the inside-the-park home runs I've ever seen (fewer than 10) were not close, that going for the HR was a no-brainer. (This is a description from a blog post 7/25/2013: "Clemente lined it into left field and was off to the races. As he came around third he flew through a stop sign and bolted toward home plate like a man on a mission. It was a mission he would accomplish, as he just beat out an Ernie Banks relay to the dish. As Clemente came sliding in he missed the plate then reached back and got a hand on it before a tag could be applied. "

Apparently it was very close. I suspect a lot of people would agree that caution was the better option (and I agree that Brosnan's discussion of it was more than a little distressing).

Espada wrote: "Today, such an accomplishment would be reported ad nauseum on ESPN, MLB, and every other sports media outlet in the country. There would be replays, reenactments, panel discussions, commentaries, debates, and statistical breakdowns. Within minutes, we would know that this was the only home run of its kind in history."

It had to have been exciting; it was obviously (in retrospect) exciting and unique--but probably no one at the time knew it was unique. According to Baseball Reference, more than 19 inside-the-park HRs were hit in 1956. (Why do I say "more than"? Because BBRef, in its situational hitting data, has Pittsburgh--and Clemente--with 0.) Call it one or so per week. In 2016, with nearly twice as many games played, there were only 9.

Maybe it didn't get much attention simply because no one realized that it was unique.
7:09 PM Jul 25th
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