My Clemente: Manny Sanguillén

By Charlie Vascellaro

The first time Manny Sanguillén met Roberto Clemente, he was flying from Panama to Pittsburgh.

“I flew in first class and Clemente came in coach,” Sanguillén recalled.

Sanguillén inadvertently purchased the wrong ticket and Clemente assisted him in getting a refund. This was one of the first instances of Clemente helping Sanguillén learn his way around baseball and the United States.

That was back in 1966, the year before Sanguillén made the Pirates’ roster. The two men later became inseparable, though not quite immediately, according to Sanguillén. There was an issue that required managerial intervention.

“His bed was there and my bed was here,” Sanguillén said during a recent interview with La Vida Baseball at The Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh. “But he knew too many people and I went downstairs and told the manager, ‘I need a different room because Roberto has too many people [coming to visit]. Can I get a different room?’

“But from that time on we clicked and we became friends and that reminds me of how God brought us together,” Sanguillén said.

It’s not an overstatement to say that the life and career of Roberto Clemente — the first Latin American enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum — impacted many of the Latinos that followed him into Major League Baseball. Since La Vida Baseball’s launch in March, we have posted different versions of “My Clemente” stories, including from former major leaguers Edgar Martínez and Joey Cora.

But of all the people that Clemente touched and befriended, perhaps no one was closer to him than his teammate, Manuel de Jesús “Manny” Sanguillén.

‘I’ve never seen a better ballplayer’

Born on March 21, 1944 in Colón, Panama’s second-largest city, located near the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal, Sanguillén grew up to become a tall and agile multi-sport athlete who boxed and played basketball and soccer before focusing on baseball. He was discovered by Panamanian scout Herb Raybourne, who also unearthed Pirates’ infielder Rennie Stennett and centerfielder Omar Moreno as well as New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera many years later.

Sanguillén signed with the Pirates in 1964 only after Raybourne convinced him to become a full-time catcher. When he finally made his big-league debut on July 23, 1967, it was the middle of Clemente’s 13th season with the Pirates. But by that time, the perennial All-Star had already taken Sanguillén under his wing.

“He explained to me what to do to win and how to be a hitter,” Sanguillén said. “He told me if the pitcher got me out on a slider in the second inning, then I should be looking for that pitch when I faced him again later in the game, especially with two outs and runners in scoring position.”

Leadership came in multiple forms with Clemente. He led with his words and his deeds.

I’ve never seen a better ballplayer than Roberto Clemente, not only in right field. He was the most complete ballplayer ever,” Sanguillén said.

“When we went to the World Series in 1971, he said, ‘If you guys get me to the World Series, I’ll take over.’ When we got there, he took over. That was amazing. I’ve seen so many people struggle while hitting in the World Series, but he had the gift and the talent, and he believed that he could do it. And so, he took over the World Series and I thank God that I played with him and saw that talent every day.”

Clemente always rose to the occasion, but his performance in the 1971 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles was one for the ages. He hit safely in all seven games, batting 12-for-29 with two home runs, two doubles, one triple and four RBI while becoming the first Latino to be voted World Series MVP.

Sanguillén wasn’t too shabby himself, catching every inning of that fall classic while hitting 11-for-29 with one double. He’s considered one of the best catchers of his era — right up there with Johnny Bench — hitting.300 four times and averaging .296 over his career. Like Clemente, he preferred a big bat — up to 40 ounces — and was an excellent bad ball hitter who would swing even at intentional balls.

Sanguillén says he learned from the master — Clemente himself — but he would not say which one of the two was better at that specialty.

“I don’t want to go there because I learned from him,” Sanguillén said. “He would tell me, “Don’t swing at that high pitch because you’ll be able to hit .340.’ But he would swing at the high pitch, and then I would swing at the high pitch. He had that mindset when he wanted to do something, he would do it.”

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Sanguillén, 73, still resides in Pittsburgh. One of the most popular players to wear a Pirates uniform, he can be found during the season posing for pictures and signing autographs at his own barbecue concession stand located just beyond left-center field at the Pirates’ PNC Park.

He’s a frequent visitor to The Clemente Museum, located in a former fire station in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. Sanguillén has his own room, adorned with Gold Glove Awards presented to Clemente as well as numerous photos, artifacts and memorabilia chronicling Sanguillén’s 13-year major league career, 12 of them with the Pirates.

“All these trophies and this collection are a blessing from God,” Sanguillén said.

Like Clemente, Sanguillén performed in the era after integration, fortunate to play for a club and city receptive of black and Latino players. On September 1, 1971, Sanguillén was behind the plate when Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh penciled in a historic lineup card — MLB’s first all-black lineup — for a game against the Philadelphia Phillies.

In addition to Sanguillén there was Dock Ellis on the mound, Al Oliver at first base, fellow Panamanian Rennie Stennett at second base, Dave Cash at third base, Cuban Jackie Hernández at shortstop, Willis Stargell in left field, Gene Clines in center field and Clemente in right field.

Of course, the Pirates made more history later in 1971, claiming the World Series title. Sanguillén and the Pirates won the world championship again in 1979. All told, he was part of six playoff teams and a three-time All-Star.

His proudest moment? Catching Bob Moose’s 1969 no-hitter, a 4-0 victory against the New York Mets at the old Shea Stadium on a windy day.

‘He took care of himself’

During the winters, Sanguillén played for numerous teams in the Caribbean leagues, including teaming with Clemente in Puerto Rico on the San Juan Senators during the 1970-71 season.

Clemente showcased his coaching abilities while mentoring the Panamanian. At times a brother and other times a father, he taught the young catcher as much about life as he did about baseball.

“Roberto was strong mentally. He took care of himself. He didn’t eat crazy, he ate a lot of vegetables, a lot fish, a lot of things that kept him going,” Sanguillén said. “He also said to me ‘Sangy, when you get older don’t wait until spring training to get into shape, come in better shape and then eat good and put on weight during spring training.’ If his weight was 180 or 181 he would come into spring training at 179.

“He always said: ‘Sangy, I have to take care of myself because there are not too many Latinos in the big leagues. Someday there are going to be a lot of Puerto Ricans in the Hall of Fame and all of Latin America. So, I need to be disciplined.’

“He never went into any strip joints. He never went to any dive bars. We only used to go to nice places where they have a piano and then we eat. Whenever curfew was, that was the time we go to the hotel. We never stayed out late night or anything like that.”

It was a tight friendship until the end. When the airplane that was taking Clemente and relief supplies to the earthquake survivors in Nicaragua crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Puerto Rico on New Year’s Eve 1972, Sanguillén assisted scuba divers searching for Clemente’s body for three days. Clemente’s body was never found, but as we see over and over again, his spirit lives on, this time in the body and soul of his best friend, Manny Sanguillén.

Featured Image: Charlie Vascellaro

Inset Images: Charlie Vascellaro