How did MLB star Roberto Clemente's bat from his 3,000th - and final - hit end up in Boca Raton?




The mystery surrounding the bat used by Roberto Clemente for his 3,000th hit endured for 45 years.

Many believed it to be the Louisville Slugger displayed in the Baseball Hall of Fame provided by the Pittsburgh Pirates director of public relations.

A former Pirates trainer believed it to be an Adirondack bat hanging on a wall in the home of that same PR director, Bill Guilfoile, even though Guilfoile never thought the bat he was gifted was the one from the historic hit.

A photographer insisted Clemente gave the bat to his son 50 years ago Friday, the day Clemente became the 11th player in Major League Baseball to reach 3,000 hits.

Stories were told. Articles were written. Photos were examined. Film was studied.

So much uncertainty about one of the most historic artifacts in a game that cherishes its history.

But that mystery has been solved. For the last five years, the bat the Pirates Hall of Famer used to record his 3,000th hit three months before he died in a plane crash while on a humanitarian mission to Nicaragua has sat in a vault in the Boca Raton home of Rob Shelling.

Shelling, a 43-year-old orthodontist was the only one aware of the history behind the bat when it became available at an auction about five years ago. He saw a photo about a month before the auction, did some research and discovered this was no ordinary bat. He hoped no one would uncover its significance.

No one did. So he submitted a bid.

How much? "The price of a normal Clemente bat," is all Shelling would reveal.

Standing in front of a painting by artist Kait Schoeb, Dr.
Standing in front of a painting by artist Kait Schoeb, Dr.  

Which is not close to what one man, Duane Rieder believes the bat to be worth. As the executive director of the Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh, Rieder is the Clemente Whisperer.

"In the crazy world we live in now ....I would say somewhere between $500,000 and a million," said Rieder.

'It's definitely the bat'

Just how sure are we this is the Clemente bat? Rieder is 100 percent certain that Shelling is the owner of one of the most elusive pieces of baseball history. And Rieder had every reason to doubt Shelling had the most valuable Clemente bat considering he possesses two others Clemente had with him that day.

"I'm the one who told him," Rieder said. "It's definitely the bat."

Additionally, Shelling has a letter of authenticity from  Resolution Photomatching, the most trusted authentication process, to solve the mystery.

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The history of the Clemente 3,000th hit bat is a fascinating, twisted tale; and archaic considering the spotlight and attention on any sports achievement in modern times. Just the fact that Clemente could walk off the field that day in Pittsburgh carrying three bats, which he did, and no one really paying close attention to which one he used for the historic hit is difficult to imagine.

Imagine Albert Pujols shoving his 700th home run bat into a bag after reaching that mark on Friday night or Aaron Judge picking up a stack of bats after hitting his 60th home run and no one really sure which one each used for the momentous hit.

Those bats will be tracked like the flight carrying the Queen's coffin.

Dr.
Dr.  

Impressive collection of baseball bats in Boca Raton

Shelling was raised in South Florida and, like many kids, collected autographs. He had the Dolphins, and later Heat, Marlins and Panthers, as home-town teams. The Yankees and Orioles were among teams holding spring training in the area.

But soon, he outgrew the stacks of notebooks and names scribbled on baseballs and loose pieces of paper.

"At some point I realized, 'What am I doing? I got notebooks full of photos, baseballs.' It just didn't seem that special," he said

"Then I came across bats. They are having them custom-made and they have their names on them. It just seemed way more interesting to me than balls and other stuff."

Now, Shelling's home has more lumber than a sawmill. His collection includes bats from most Hall of Famers. Baseball royalty such as Ruth, Aaron, Mays, Williams, DiMaggio, Mantle, Musial, Gehrig. About 150 in all. Two he continues to hunt are bats used by Eddie Collins and Mel Ott.

To say Shelling knows bats is like saying Ted Williams could hit.

And that knowledge came in handy when Shelling saw that photo of the Clemente bat about to be auctioned.

"When I saw the bat I'm like, 'that bat looks so familiar. Where did I see it?' " he said.

Shelling started re-examining photos, one in particular of Clemente holding the bat and ball from the day of his 3,000th hit. He studied each one and concluded this was the bat that was in Clemente's hands in that picture and the ones when he records his 3,000th hit.

"Within five minutes, I'm like, 'Oh my God, I'm hoping nobody else sees this,' " he said.

The telltale signs were the wood grains, an oval defect in the grain to right of Clemente's name, a black hashmark by his fingers in the photo of him holding the bat that can be seen in the photos of him during the hit. Plus other minute markings.

"Anything like that kind of catches your eye," Shelling said. "People who collect bats are looking for wood grains, looking for marks on the bat. That one sticks out like a sore thumb."

Shelling recently attended the Roberto Clemente Foundation Golden Anniversary Commemoration Gala in New York. There he spoke with Rieder, who started the Clemente Museum after collecting "thousands" photos including everything he could find from the day of Clemente's 3,000th hit.

"It's all by identifying the wood grain," he said. "And once you go to nicks and pine tar and cleat marks ... Once we started comparing we're like, that's definitely the bat."

Clemente's last regular season at bat in Major League Baseball

On Sept. 30, 1972, Clemente carried three bats to the on-deck circle, two Louisville Sluggers and an Adirondack, before the historic hit. Since Clemente had a contract with, Hillerich & Bradsby, the parent company of Louisville Slugger, to use their bats, he had a trainer scrape off an identifying ring on the Adirondack bat so it could not be easily identified from a distance.

Clemente later told reporters he chose the bat that teammate Willie Stargell picked out - Clemente said his swing was a little off and Stargell suggested a heavier bat - and pictures from the at bat clearly show that to be a Louisville Slugger. That eliminated the Adirondack bat. Rieder says he has the other two bats, and the Hall of Fame has a another bat that is much cleaner than the one Clemente used, and with fewer ball marks.

Rieder has insisted for years the Hall of Fame "definitely" has the wrong bat.

"The Hall of Fame has a new white, shiny bat with no nicks, no cleat marks, no pine tar, no nothing on it," Rieder said. "The Hall of Fame bat is truly the worst of the lot."

Shelling recently e-mailed the Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball bat has not received a response from either.

On that day in 1972, Clemente led off the fourth inning of a scoreless game against the New York Mets at Three Rivers Stadium. The second pitch from lefty Jon Matlack was a breaking ball Clemente lunged for and sent into the left-center field gap for No. 3,000.

The Pirates had three more regular-season games remaining but had clinched a playoff spot so Clemente did not have another regular season at bat. He finished the season with a .312 batting average and .317 career average.

Clemente played five playoff games that season as the Reds eliminated the Pirates in NLCS.

Three months after his 3,000th hit, on New Year's Eve, Clemente boarded a cargo plane in Puerto Rico that was delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. The plane experienced engine failure soon after taking off and crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico. All five people on board died.

No one knows the journey taken by the bat Shelling now owns. One story has Clemente giving a bat that could have been the one he used for his 3,000th hit to a mother and daughter who were friends of the family and were with Vera Clemente, Roberto's wife, the night Clemente died. A 2012 ESPN the Magazine story written by Kevin Guilfoile, the son of Bill Guilfoile, raises the possibility that Clemente may have told three different people he was giving them the treasured bat.

Now, that elusive bat is part of Shelling's impressive collection and has moved to the top of his most cherished possessions just ahead of a Ruth bat from 1933 and a bat believed to be used by DiMaggio during his 56-game hitting streak in 1941.

Where will the bat go from here? Shelling is not sure. Before hearing what Rieder believes it's worth , Shelling wasn't sure if he'd pass it down to his children or if one day it would have another owner. Now?

"At that price I'll just keep it," he said.

("But) I just know it shouldn't be hidden in my closet. I don't want to put it up for bid because then I don't know what's going to happen with it. I don't know what to do with it to be honest."

Tom D'Angelo is a journalist at the Palm Beach Post. You can reach him at tdangelo@pbpost.com.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: MLB's Roberto Clemente's bat from 3,000th hit, in Boca Raton

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