Though the lockout prevented the Rule 5 Draft from taking place in its usual December timeslot, the R5 will happen at some point once the transactions freeze is over, thus continuing one of baseball’s oldest traditions. At a time when competitive balance is at the forefront of labor talks between the league and the MLBPA, the Rule 5 Draft has long served as a vehicle for players to gain opportunities on new teams, and to prevent clubs from hoarding young talent. While the specifics and procedures of the event changed greatly over the years, the Rule 5 Draft has existed in one form or another since 1892, becoming a staple of the offseason even if often overshadowed by bigger winter transactions featuring proven MLB stars.
And yet, the Rule 5 Draft tends to jump into the headlines whenever one of the picks ends up becoming a notable contributor to his new team. Last year’s draft, for example, was a particularly strong class that saw Garrett Whitlock (Red Sox), Akil Baddoo (Tigers), and Tyler Wells (Orioles) all deliver strong rookie seasons. Both the modern rules of the draft and the increased focus on prospect value make it less likely that a true superstar minor leaguer will slip through the cracks of the Rule 5, though that doesn’t stop teams from dreaming that just maybe, their next Rule 5 pick will end up being the next Roberto Clemente.
Like clockwork, Clemente’s name is inevitably mentioned every year around Rule 5 time, as the Pirates legend is certainly the most prominent player to ever be selected in the relative modern era of the R5. (Hall-of-Famers Christy Mathewson and Hack Wilson were also Rule 5 picks, though both players had already debuted in the majors prior to their selection.) Even in Clemente’s day, the Rule 5 Draft’s procedures were different than they are now, as Clemente was eligible to be selected due to his status as a “bonus baby.”
From 1947 to 1965, MLB had a rule in place stipulating that if any amateur player signed a contract with a bonus greater than $4K, that player had to remain on his team’s big league roster for two full seasons. If that player wasn’t on his new team’s active roster, he was eligible to be selected in the Rule 5 Draft.
This is exactly what happened to Clemente, signed by the then-Brooklyn Dodgers in February 1954 at age 19. Signed for a $10K bonus and a $5K salary, that type of money in 1954 alone put Clemente on the radar of other teams, and international scouts were already well aware of Clemente’s potential. The Braves reportedly offered Clemente a much larger bonus, but he opted to stick with the Dodgers since he had already verbally agreed to their deal.
However, even with all of this known interest in Clemente, the Dodgers didn’t put him on their 25-man roster. Brooklyn had won the last two National League pennants, and with the team aiming to finally break through and win the World Series, the Dodgers felt they couldn’t afford to have an untested rookie filling a roster spot. Clemente was instead assigned to the club’s Triple-A affiliate in Montreal, as the Dodgers seemingly just crossed their fingers that they could sneak him through the Rule 5 field.
In a 2019 piece for The Athletic, Stephen J. Nesbitt unraveled some of the mythology surrounding Clemente’s brief Dodgers tenure. The popular version of the story is that Montreal tried to shield Clemente from rival scouts by limiting his playing time and benching him whenever he had a good game, or removing him from the lineup if he had a big hit early in a game. However, SABR researcher Stew Thornley noted that the right-handed hitting Clemente was almost never deployed against right-handed pitching, so a strict platoon could have been more to blame for Clemente’s lack of playing time than any attempt from the Dodgers to try and “hide” him.
Besides, while Clemente hit only .257/.286/.372 in his 155 plate appearances with Montreal, his raw ability was hard to miss. (Clemente was also on fire while playing winter ball in Puerto Rico around the time of the R5.) The Pirates took clear notice, and since they had the first pick of the 1954 Rule 5 Draft, Clemente was quickly Pittsburgh-bound that offseason. If the Dodgers’ strategy was indeed to just hope that other teams would ignore such a prominent prospect, the bet didn’t pay off.
As Nesbitt notes, longtime Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi has told a few different stories in regard to why or how Brooklyn lost Clemente, such as Pirates GM Branch Rickey backing out of a gentleman’s agreement to not take Clemente in the Rule 5 Draft. In another version, Bavasi claimed the Dodgers signed Clemente solely to keep him away from the arch-rival Giants, and eventually direct him via the R5 to an also-ran team. Bavasi also said in an e-mail to Thornley in 2005 that Jackie Robinson personally told the front office that adding Clemente to the team and removing a white player from the roster “would be setting our program back five years.”
All of Bavasi’s claims seem to only generate more questions than answers, and yet the end result was still Clemente in a Pirates uniform. In the short term, losing Clemente didn’t hurt the Dodgers, as the team continued being a perennial contender and won four World Series titles between 1955-65. As well, Clemente took some time to fully adjust to the majors, hitting a modest .289/.311/.395 with 26 home runs over his first five seasons and 2560 plate appearances with Pittsburgh.
Needless to say, however, Clemente is an awfully big “one that got away.” One can only imagine how much more successful the Dodgers would have been with Clemente in their lineup, especially after he broke out into true stardom. From 1960-72, Clemente hit .329/.375/.503 with 214 home runs while playing peerless right field defense and unleashing arguably the best outfield throwing arm in baseball history on many a hapless baserunner. If Bavasi did count on Clemente being suppressed on a losing team, that plan backfired — the Pirates ended becoming much more competitive during Clemente’s tenure, highlighted by World Series championships in both 1960 and 1971.
It could be that losing Clemente inspired the Dodgers to take a bit more care with their next “bonus baby” player. The next season, Brooklyn signed another promising youngster to a hefty $14K bonus and stuck with him on the MLB roster for the next two seasons. Like Clemente, it also took this player some time to become a star, yet the Dodgers’ patience more than paid off as Sandy Koufax started dominating batters.
Clemente’s legend perhaps looms largest on December 31, as it was on this day in 1972 that Clemente and three other passengers died during a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico. The flight was a relief mission intended to bring aid to Nicaragua following an earthquake, and Clemente wanted to personally supervise the delivery to ensure that the goods would reach their intended destination. Clemente was only 38 years old at the time of his tragic passing.