Tom Lohr has eaten a hot dog at all 30 MLB ballparks and is the author of "Gone to the Dogs: In Search of the Best Ballpark Hot Dog."
Greatness Captured on Card Stock
Roberto Clemente is held in high esteem by all fans. Not only was he one of the best players of his era, but his off-field activities focused on helping others. It was this generosity and compassion that ended his life when his plane carrying earthquake relief supplies to Nicaragua crashed killing all aboard.
Clemente was in the waning days of his career when this tragedy occurred, but he still had a few years left, and even at an advanced age for a baseball player, Roberto was still one of the sport's top performers.
His commitment to humanity and baseball is embodied in the award named after him that is given to one player per year that “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement, and the individual's contribution to his team.” In other words, a top performer who plays the game like a gentleman and is connected in a helpful way to his community. It has been awarded since 1971 (originally as the Commissioner's Award, it was changed to the Roberto Clemente Award in 1973), its recipients include a host of Hall of Famers.
Roberto had cards printed with his likeness from 1955 to 1973, a total of 18 mainstream issued cards. There was a slew of food issue and other types of cards, but many were regional and most were low quality.
In choosing the top five Roberto Clemente baseball cards of all time, I am not judging them on value, but on but on appearance. There are many great players that have adorned hideous cards; don't confuse this selection with what you think they are worth, but how pleasing they are to the eye. Nothing is better in a card collection than a great player on a beautifully designed card.
1. 1960 (Card #388)
I know many of you are screaming, “Where is his rooking card!? Where are his earlier cards!? Settle down, and remember its looks, not value. As much as I am not a fan of Clemente's early cards, I would love to have them in my collection.
The cards from 1955–56 were of the type that looked more like paintings than photographs. If you have ever seen an old black and white wedding photo that was colorized during the same time it was taken, then you know how artificial it can look. Those early cards have the same effect.
The 1957 card was one of the most poorly designed in the 20 century, and the 1958–59 cards have too much bold and distracting yellow. The 1960 card is one of the best designed. I have an affinity for the horizontal cards, and while the 1960 card is a little busy, it has some great features.
A little over two-thirds of the card is a color photo of Roberto holding his bat with a batting practice net in the background. The picture is taken from his mid-torso up. To the left of that is a full black and white body shot of him in his batting stance. The lower left has a very cool early Pirate's logo followed by his name in alternating red and white letters (Clemente was known as “Bob” on most of his cards).
Team and position are printed underneath the name in small black letters. The bottom stripe is orange, and the black and white full body shot is on a blue background. It sounds like those colors would clash, but they blend well to make a great-looking card.
2. 1963 (Card #540)
The 1961 and 1962 cards were just bland, with the '62 having an awful try at simulating a wood background. The 1963 card was unique in that it was the last card in Clemente's career to have two images of the player on front.
The top 80% of the card is a color photo of Clemente looking like he had just thrown a ball (he had a cannon of an arm) on a blurry stadium background that is almost certainly Forbes Field. The bottom 20% is a blue stripe that has the player's name in white letters and team and position in small black letters.
What really tops this card off and makes it stand out is the addition of the second photo. It is a black and white shot of him holding a bat and looking away embedded in a red circle. The red ball is just loud enough to grab your attention and makes this card both interesting and pleasing to the eye.
3. 1970 (Card #350)
There seemed to be little imagination or serious design thought put into the cards from 1964–1969. Most were simple color photos, including some closeup portrait shots, team name and position, and not much else. The 1965 card with its closeup of Clemente with the magenta bottom stripe and yellow team pennant was a good try, but Clemente's cards were very “meh” until the '70s.
The 1970 card is a bit spartan, but it is a simple and clean design. It is a beautiful shot of Clemente posing taking a swing from the knees up. Most of the card is taken up by the photo. A blurry but color background of a section of Forbes Field really gives the sense of being at the ballpark.
To the top and right of the photo is the team name in red, and the bottom consists of Clemente's name in signature script followed by a small vertical white line and position in small red letters. This card is also of note in that it is the first card that Clemente uses Roberto as his first name instead of Bob.
4. 1971 (Card #630)
I thought I might be somewhat biased in choosing the 1971 issue as it was the first year I began collecting cards. After talking with dozens of other collectors, the 1971 cards are held in high esteem by nearly all of them. The black border makes it very different from all previous issues (and makes the cards difficult to find in mint condition), but it is again the simplicity of the design that makes it a great card.
The top of the card is the team name in large, yellow capital letters. Just below that is his name in all lower case and smaller orange letters. A red dot follows the name and then the abbreviated player position in lower case pale blue letters. The vast majority of the card is taken by the best card photo ever taken of Clemente. He is taking a swing, and the bat is in the very near foreground and flows to Roberto's likeness in the mid-ground.
The background is a slightly out of focus, brand spanking new Three Rivers Stadium. Near the bottom of the photo is his signature. The card has a 3-D effect that is captivating. The serious look on Clemente's face also helps this card achieve greatness.
5. 1972 (Card #309)
To be truthful, I hated these cards when they first came out. After the clean and subtle 1971 card, the design for 1972 screamed 1970s. In case you were not around, Mod was a type of fashion that was loud, colorful, and funky. This card has all of that.
Clashing blue and orange borders (that worked in 1960 but presented in all the wrong ways in 1972) make my eyes hurt. The team name at top is also in blue and orange lettering that burst out in what looks like the title of a film in a movie poster, flanked on each side by a star. Most of the card is taken up by Clemente's photo, and there is an elongated oval at the bottom with his name in it. So why does this ugly at first sight card make the top five?
If you grew up in the '70s, you know what a weird time it was. Music, hairstyles, clothes, and cars were weird. It is the decade that gave us (unfortunately) disco and the AMC Pacer automobile. It was a difficult and tumultuous time for many. I still do not hold the '70s in high regard, but the styling on that card is very representative of the decade.
The card has grown on me to become one of my favorites. It is also the last card to be issued while Clemente was still alive. His last card was in 1973 and had already been in production at the time of his death. If the funkiness of the card doesn't win you over, then his photo will. It has him standing on the field with stadium seating in the background while tossing a ball up in the air. The shot captures the ball on its way up or down just below Roberto's head.
Bonus Card: 1970 Kellogg's 3-D (Card #27)
Beginning in 1970, Kellogg's inserted one 3-D card in each box of cereal. Each team had a few representatives in what was normally around a 75 card set. The layered plastic card used the layers to create the effect. It also caused the cards to curl and crack, making a pristine set very hard to find.
Clemente's card, like most, featured a large shot of him with a blurred stadium in the background (the blurring helped with the 3-D). The only other features on the front of the card is a white baseball to the top and right of the photo that has that player's team and position in small blue letters on the top and bottom, with the player's name in larger red letters between them. The player's signature is also printed across the bottom. The 1970 set is Kellogg's inaugural offering of 3-D cards that would run for 14 years.
A Wonderful Person and Player Enshrined in Cardboard
Baseball was fortunate to have had Roberto Clemente. His baseball cards capture him in the prime of life and serve as a chronological reminder of his years of greatness and performance. If you don't have a Clemente card in your collection, you should acquire at least one.
The early cards are far too expensive, but some of the later ones can be had if you save up for it. Whichever card you chose, don't choose it for its supposed value; pick it because it is pleasing to you and serves as a pleasant representation of one of the greatest human beings and players to ever take the field.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 11, 2021:
That is such a shame that he was killed when he was doing such great humanitarian work.