At the beginning of the 1972 season, only 118 hits separated Roberto Clemente from the historic goal of 3 hits. Considering the regular calendar of 162 challenges, reaching the long-awaited goal did not look so complicated under normal conditions. At that point, only ten hitters in major league memory had reached the coveted limit: Ty Cobb with 4191 hits, Stan Musial with 3630, Tris Speaker with 3515, Honus Wagner with 3430, Eddie Collins with 3311, Hank Aaron with 3272, Nap Lajoie with 3251, Willie Mays with 3178, Paul Waner with 3152, and Pop Anson with 3081 hits. Among the closest active sluggers to the coveted target, along with Clemente and his 2882 hits, was only Al Kaline still relegated with 2695 hits to his credit.
For the Pittsburgh Pirates and their star, the start of the season was set for April 15 in New York at Shea Stadium, the home of the Mets. As was customary, Clemente was placed in right field and third in the offensive lineup by Bill Virdon, who was making his debut as manager of the Pirates and had been his teammate for ten years in the 60s.
For the Mets he would be as a starting pitcher, his ace Tom Seaver and former executioner of Clemente. This time the story was no different.
His first at-bat of the season came with one out and Al Oliver at first for a single. Without any consideration, Seaver struck him out using his traditional expedient, swinging a delivery over the right corner of the plate.
From the stands, Pirates scout Harding Peterson recalled a scene he had witnessed during practice. After practice ended, he found Clemente alone near the batter's box. “What are you doing here alone?” Peterson asked. Roberto took a stride but did not swing. He took another stride but this time he was simulating a run to first base. "Well, I know we're going to start the season against the Mets," he replied. "I'm imagining that I see the same pitcher that I will see that day." That pitcher was Seaver. On the next two opportunities, Seaver eliminated him again. In the third inning with a fly ball to right field, a runner on first base and one out on the board. New York was ahead 2-0.
In the sixth inning, he forced him to ground out to shortstop with no one on base for the second out. New York won 5-4. They would not see each other again until September in the midst of an unforgettable confrontation that no one would imagine would be the last of his major league career.
The first of the 118 hits he connected in that 1972 campaign
After missing all seven of his at-bats against the Mets, Clemente finally hit his first hits of the year against the Chicago Cubs on April 18 at home, singles off Milt Pappas in the first and third innings. It was a reaction that he put in evidence, that he seemed willing to reach three thousand hits.
He hit a home run against Bob Gibson and Don Sutton and a triple against Ferguson Jenkins, three future immortals like Seaver would also be. “It didn't matter that Clemente was already 38 years old,” said Don Drysdale, the Dodgers pitcher and another future member of Cooperstown.
“I couldn't see Clemente walking slowly toward home plate. So strong was the impression of him, that when he threw the ball to him he cringed in fear at the movement of his bat and lowered his head unconscious”.
Given his "advanced" age, manager Virdon began limiting Clemente's appearances, though his absence could affect the Pirates' quest to recapture the NL East crown. However, he manages not to miss again until the last day of the calendar.
He did not decline and the anxious 3 thousand hit
The “forced” absence did not prevent the Pirates from retaining the crown in the NL East. Clemente contributed a .303 average to start the month of September, while raising it to .312 to also land in the 3 hits that the world eagerly awaited.