Branch Rickey found flaws in Roberto Clemente the first time he scouted him

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Branch Rickey thought Roberto Clemente would be a standout hitter from Day 1. (AP Photo)
Branch Rickey thought Roberto Clemente would be a standout hitter from Day 1. (AP Photo)

Branch Rickey was a brilliant baseball mind. As an executive, Rickey oversaw the creation of farm systems, utilized advanced statistics before anyone else and was one heck of a scout.

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Rickey oversaw and developed a number of Hall of Famers during his career, including Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial and Pittsburgh Pirates legendary outfielder Roberto Clemente.

What made Rickey such an effective judge of talent? Thanks to the Library of Congress, we can finally get a better idea of how he viewed players. A number of his scouting reports are now publicly available.

There are over 1,750, so it might take you a while to get through them all. But that’s time well spent. You can see what Rickey thought of Sandy Koufax, Bill Mazeroski, Don Drysdale and Hank Aaron.

Clemente’s, however, is one of the major highlights. Rickey was with the Pirates at the time he wrote the report, so he was giving thoughts on a player who would greatly impact his future. Not only that, but Rickey’s report on Clemente in 1955 wasn’t all flowery. He found flaws in the future Hall of Famer.

In fact, it starts off criticizing Clemente for his lack of speed. Rickey goes so far as to call it, “Bad, definitely bad, and based upon what I saw tonight, he has only a bit above average major league running speed.” He’s also critical of his ability to steal bases, saying he has “no adventure whatever on the bases.”

But once Rickey gets to Clemente at the plate, you can tell he sees an incredible future contributor. Here’s what Rickey says, in full, about Clemente’s hitting:

“His form at the plate is perfect. The bat is out and back and in good position to give him power. There is not the slightest hitch of movement in his hands or arms and the big end of the bat is completely quiet when the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. His sweep is level — very level. His stride is short and his stance is good to start with and he finishes good with his body. I know of no reason why he should not become a very fine hitter. I would not class him, however, as even a prospective home run hitter.”

Even after saying that, Rickey does not believe Clemente is ready for the majors in 1955. He notes that Clemente cannot be passed through waivers until 1956, but another team would claim him. As Rickey puts it, they are “stuck with him” for now.

That actually proved to be correct. Clemente struggled in his first season in the majors, hitting .255/.284/.382, with five home runs, in his rookie season. The Pirates stuck with him, and he blossomed into a future Hall of Famer.

Rickey even nailed the part about Clemente’s speed. He only had one season with double-digit steal totals, and finished his career with just over a 50 percent success rate.

As you might expect, Rickey’s other scouting reports are just as insightful and entertaining. It’s fascinating to see how his mind worked when watching other players.

More often than not, his opinions are correct. And given his reputation, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

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