ALL STAR FIELD OF DREAMS?
On three magical summer days in the 1960s, it was Aaron, Clemente and Mays in the Same Outfield
By Marty Appel
Tom Seaver was 22-year old rookie with the hapless New York Mets in 1967, but a strong first half of the season had made him the Mets’s lone All-Star selection.
He was still in single digits on a career that would find him scaling 300 victories, and he spent most of that July 11 evening in the visiting bullpen at Anaheim Stadium, hardly expecting to see action at all.
“Walt Alston was the manager,” said Seaver, “and even though Sandy Koufax had retired, he had Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Don Drysdale, Fergie Jenkins – more than enough to get him through nine. I couldn’t see getting in unless we went extra innings. But I was just thrilled to be there, thrilled to be among all these great players who I had watched on TV in All-Star Games just a year before.”
Seaver’s best case scenario came to be. The game, the first played in prime time on the East Coast thanks to a 4:15 West Coast start, was tied 1-1 after nine.
In the top of the 15th, the Red’s Tony Perez finally connected for a home run off Oakland’s Catfish Hunter (in his fifth inning of work), to give the Nationals a 2-1 edge. And now Alston summoned Seaver from the bullpen to work the last of the 15th.
Seaver walked in from the pen. He would be facing Tony Conigliaro, Carl Yastrzemski and Bill Freehan, and he tried to stay focused on that. He took his eight warm up throws, turned his back on the plate and took a few steps behind the mound to rub up the ball in that calming and timeless habit of pitchers.
Glancing up towards the scoreboard, he suddenly found himself taking a panoramic view of his outfielders to see how they were positioning themselves for Conigliaro. And there they were – Hank Aaron in left, Willie Mays in center, Roberto Clemente in right.
“I stopped cold,” recalled Seaver. “The moment almost overwhelmed me. Being in the big leagues was one thing, but our Mets were still a last place team, and I had never experienced anything like this moment. Aaron, Mays, Clemente, all there at once behind me. Was this real?
“Aaron was my favorite player as a kid, even though I was a pitcher and he was a hitter. I don’t know what it was, I just liked the Braves, maybe it was their uniforms, but Aaron was my hero. And Mays….Clemente – I had these guys’ baseball cards in my back pocket just a couple of years before. This was a not-to-be-believed moment for me at 22.”
No fool he, Tom got Conigliaro to fly out to Aaron. After walking Yaz, he got Freehan on a flyball to Mays, and then struckout pinch-hitter Ken Berry for the save. What a night for a rookie.
And what a night it was, looking back, for baseball fans. With the passage of time, we might think that having Aaron, Mays and Clemente out there together for All-Star Games was an annual occurrence. But it wasn’t. It happened only three times in the 18 years they were in the majors together – three magical midsummer days, covering 23 wondrous innings of All-Star baseball.
Willie Mays was the first of the trio to reach the majors, joining the New York Giants in 1951.
Because he was a May 25th call-up, he was not selected for the All-Star team in his rookie year. In ’52 and ’53, he was in the service, so his All-Star debut came in 1954 as a reserve outfielder, entering the game in the fourth inning as a replacement for Jackie Robinson.
1954 was Aaron’s rookie campaign, and he made his All-Star debut a year later, going 2-for-2 in his home park in Milwaukee after entering the game as a pinch runner in the fifth. When he went to right field, Mays was in center. Two-thirds of what would prove to be the ultimate outfield was quietly in place.
Clemente, drafted by Pittsburgh from the Brooklyn Dodgers, entered the majors in ’55, but would not make his All-Star debut until 1960. Roberto had batted as high as .311, but his home run totals were in single digits and his RBIs only averaged about 50 for those sad Pirate teams, and that wasn’t much production from an outfielder. So each year, until the Pirates’ pennant-winning campaign of 1960, Clemente was passed over. Sometimes it would be for greats like Stan Musial or Frank Robinson, and sometimes, even fellows like Wally Moon and Bob Skinner made it over him.
He played both All-Star Games in ’60, replacing Aaron in right in the seventh inning of the first game at Kansas City, and walking for Aaron in the 8th at Yankee Stadium two days later. Thus it was in 1960 that the names Aaron, Mays and Clemente all appeared in a box score together for the first time. But they weren’t in the lineup at the same time.
From 1947-57, starting lineups were determined by fan balloting. After Cincinnati fans stuffed the ballot boxes in ’57 and voted most of the Reds to the starting lineup (an election overruled by Commissioner Ford Frick), the responsibility for choosing the starters went to the players, managers and coaches. It was this group of voters who would determine, from 1958-1969, if Aaron, Mays and Clemente would be together out there. And invariably, the answer came up “no.”
The principal reason was that voters were asked to select a right fielder, a center fielder and a left fielder – not three outfielders. So with Aaron and Clemente both in right, it couldn’t happen.
The National League was also enjoying a superb talent era, and often, there would be someone either enjoying a remarkable first half who might have been selected anyway. While Mays had been anointed with superlatives from the day he broke in, acceptance in that class would take longer for the other two. They had to build their careers and convince people over time of their greatness.
In the first 1961 game, for example, the starting National League outfield was Mays-Clemente and the Giants’ Orlando Cepeda, on his way to a 142-RBI season. Aaron was a 10th inning pinch-hitter in the first game, and a starter in the second game – with Mays and Cepeda. Clemente would replace Aaron in right.
In the first 1962 game, played before President Kennedy in Washington, it was Clemente, Mays and the Dodgers’ Tommy Davis, on his way to a .346 season. Aaron, injured, did not play in the game, but did appear in the second game as a replacement for Mays in centerfield.
In 1963, back to one game a year, it was again Tommy Davis winning a starting berth, along with Aaron and Mays. This time Clemente replaced Aaron in center late in the game.
In 1964 it was Clemente, Mays and the Cubs’ Billy Williams, with Aaron simply pinch-hitting in the ninth.
And then came the 1965 game in Minnesota.
This time it was left fielder Willie Stargell, Clemente’s Pittsburgh teammate, who was voted a starter, joining Mays and Aaron. But in the seventh inning, with Sam McDowell on the mound, Mays walked and Aaron singled to right center. Stargell was due to hit, but manager Gene Mauch called on Clemente to bat. There it was – Mays on third, Aaron on first, Clemente at the plate. A moment to freeze in time.
Roberto forced Aaron at second, Mays scoring, and when the inning ended, the three of them headed for the outfield. There was Mays in center, number 24 on his back, San Francisco on his jersey front, tossing warm-ups to Clemente in left. Roberto, in his sleeveless Pirates jersey, number 21 on both front and back, was soft tossing back, his gifted throwing arm somewhat out of place in left. Over in right, Aaron, #44 on his back, an “M” on his cap for the last time (the Milwaukee Braves would be in Atlanta by the next All-Star Game), was warming up with someone from the N.L. bullpen in right. After 11 years together in the big leagues, they were at last together in the same outfield.
They played three innings together that day. On the field with them at the same time was Ernie Banks at first, Pete Rose at second, Leo Cardenas at short, Ron Santo at third, and Bob Gibson on the mound for the last two innings. Joe Torre had a privileged view as the catcher. Finally, everything had come together just right. The stars were in perfect alignment, both in the heavens and on the outfield grass at Metropolitan Stadium.
A year later, in 1966, a rule change finally permitted players to vote for three outfielders, instead of selecting players specifically by left-center-right. The change was executed by Commissioner William Eckert and his administrator, Lee MacPhail. This opened the doors at last to having Clemente and Aaron both elected. And it worked. With Mays, the three were at last all voted as starters by the league’s players. But it would be the only time this would happen.
The game was played in 105-degree heat in St. Louis, and this time it was Clemente in right, Mays in center, and Aaron in left. There they stood, for the entire game, all ten innings of it, as the Nationals won 2-1 again, on a walk-off base hit by Maury Wills, scoring Tim McCarver. Mays, Aaron, Clemente not only played the whole game, but batted 1-2-3 in Alston’s lineup. With Koufax as starting pitcher, this might have been the one game to see if you had to choose one game in your lifetime.
In ’67, the game in which Seaver debuted as an All-Star, the starters were Lou Brock, Clemente and Aaron, Mays having actually been outvoted. But Willie hit for Brock in the 6th and stayed in the rest of the way, as did Roberto and Henry, totaling another ten innings together for the trio, and a total of 23 in the same outfield.
And that was it. Clemente would play through 1972 when he died in the off-season in the crash of a private plane on a mercy mission to earthquake-torn Nicaragua. He was an All-Star each of his remaining four years, but the trio was never reunited together again. In ’69, the starters were Aaron, Cleon Jones and Matty Alou. In 1970, fans began voting again and elected Mays, Aaron and Rico Carty, a surprise write-in victor. In ’71 it was Mays, Clemente and Stargell, and in ’72 Mays, Aaron and Stargell.
For his 14 All-Star Games, Clemente batted .323 with ten hits, a homer and 4 RBIs. In his 24 games, Aaron hit .194 with 13 hits, two homers and 8 RBIs. Mays, also in 24 games, hit .307 with 23 hits, 3 homers and 9 RBIs.
But it wasn’t about the stats. It was about three names who we now see as forever linked as immortals from the ‘50s and ‘60s who happened, by chance, to find themselves side by side in the same outfield, in the same box score, on three magical days a generation and a half ago.