In both Puerto Rico and Pittsburgh, more than four decades after his untimely death at the age of 38, the name of Roberto Clemente brings a smile to almost every face.
Clemente is number 21 in this “Real Heroes” series — the very number on the jersey he wore during all 18 seasons he played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, from 1955 to 1972.
He was one of the greatest right fielders in baseball history. He could run, hit, and throw better than almost anybody who ever played the game. Black and Puerto Rican by birth, he transcended race, nationality, and culture to become American Major League Baseball’s first Latino superstar.
Growing up in western Pennsylvania in the 1960s, I heard his name every day, always wrapped in glowing admiration. He had so much talent and character that Pulitzer Prize–winning author David Maraniss could write a 400-page biography of him, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero.
The youngest of seven siblings, Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker (in Spanish, the last name is the maternal family name) was born in 1934 in Carolina, Puerto Rico. As a young boy, he worked in the sugar cane fields with his father. “I learned the right way to live from my parents,” he said years later.
I never heard any hate in my house. I never heard my father say a mean word to my mother, or my mother to my father, either. During the war, when food was hard to get, my parents fed their children first and they ate what was left. They always thought of us.
The Clementes were poor in material wealth, but over time, the riches of a loving family opened many doors for the children.
Roberto showed an early love of baseball, easily the island’s favorite sport. The Brooklyn Dodgers offered the 20-year-old a contract in 1954, but his stint with them was brief. He was picked up a year later by the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates — none other than the legendary Branch Rickey, who a few years before had enabled Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier by signing him to the Dodgers as Major League Baseball’s first black player. Rickey, a devout Christian, was devoid of prejudice and reveled in giving every good person a chance. He once told an interviewer,
All men anthropologically come from the same source, with the same potentials, and must have equality in chance and opportunity. And that is so right, I think, that posterity will look back upon what we are doing today in our domestic issues here. They will look back upon it, I think, with incredulity and they’ll wonder what the issue was all about. I really think so. It’s solved in baseball. It’ll be solved educationally. It’ll be solved everywhere in the course of time.
Maybe Rickey also knew that discrimination rarely pays in the marketplace. An owner or manager who passes up the chance to hire a winner becomes a loser to competitors who will do it instead. Both Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente made their teams proud and their owners financially well-off because they were great players.
An owner or manager who passes up the chance to hire a winner becomes a loser to competitors who will do it instead.
Clemente donned the Pirate uniform in 1955 at a very inauspicious moment in the team’s history. Calvin Coolidge was president the last time the Pirates had won a world championship. That was in 1925. By the 1950s, the team was written off and joked about routinely. Going to Pittsburgh seemed like a one-way ticket to the cellar.
As a black Hispanic whose English was barely passable, Clemente faced daunting personal obstacles as well. A car accident caused by a drunk driver in his rookie year left him with lower-back pain that plagued him for the rest of his life. Baseball was a sport in which players were expected to be pillars of stoicism, never speaking of anything but their prowess. Sports writers never wanted to hear a player complain about how he felt, but when they asked Clemente that question, the Puerto Rican would tell them honestly, giving rise to the exaggerated claim that he was a hypochondriac.
Pirates executive Danny Murtaugh explained, “He was such a truthful man it backfired on him sometimes. If you asked him if his shoulder hurt, he’d say ‘Yes, it does.’ Then he’d go out and throw a guy out at the plate. That’s how he got the hypochondriac label.”
Clemente played hard, all the time, whether he hurt or not. It was a matter of pride. “When I put on my uniform, I feel I am the proudest man on earth,” he said the year before he died. “The players should pay the people to come and see us play.” On another occasion, he told an audience,
Why you think I play this game? I play to win. Competition is the thing. I want to play on a winning team. I don’t want to play for sixth place. I like to play for all the marbles, where every game means something. I like to play for real, not for fun.
While at spring training with the Pirates in Florida, Clemente would occasionally see and hear the ugly face of anti-Latino and anti-black prejudice. It later prompted him to sympathize openly with the nascent civil rights movement, but he never let prejudice compromise his professionalism or his charitable attitude toward other good people, least of all the disadvantaged. “I don’t believe in color,” he said.
He spent considerable free time volunteering as a baseball coach and mentor to young boys in the barrios back in Puerto Rico. During the winter of 1958–59, he even joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve, spending his six-month active duty in the Carolinas and Washington, DC.
Thanks to Clemente and other great players like Bill Mazeroski, the Pirates’ fortunes began to look up in the late ‘50s. In 1958, they scored their first winning season in a decade. Two years later, they were the National League champions. The Pirates entered the 1960 World Series as the underdogs against the American League victors, the New York Yankees, who boasted big names in their ranks like Yogi Berra, Roger Maris, and Mickey Mantle. In the ninth inning of game seven, the world of baseball was stunned when Mazeroski slammed a home run and the Pirates won the game 10 to 9. World champs for the first time since almost a decade before Clemente was born, the Pirates earned back the esteem that had evaded them for so long.
Throughout the 1960s, Robert Clemente’s fame grew as his abilities awed fans year after year.He was a National League All-Star every season he played after 1960 but for one, 1968. He won the National League’s Golden Glove Award for outfielder every season from 1961 on. He won the National League batting title four times — in 1961, 1964, 1965, and 1967 — and won the Most Valuable Player award in 1966, hitting .317 with 29 home runs and 119 RBIs. In 1967, he belted out 23 home runs, batted in 110 runs, and logged a career high .357 batting average.
This phenomenal athlete could be philosophical at times and even elegant in his accented English:
If we have respect for our fathers and we have respect for our children, we will have a better life. I watched on TV when America sent men to the moon, and there were a lot of people whose names weren’t given who helped make it possible. You don’t have the names of those who run the computers and other things. But they worked together and this is what you have to have ... Chinese, American, Jewish, black and white, people working side by side. This is what you have to do to make this a better life. When you can give opportunity to everybody, we won’t have to wait to die to get to heaven. We are going to have heaven on earth.
The Pirates’ next shot at a World Series came in 1971. After beating the San Francisco Giants for the National League pennant, they faced the Baltimore Orioles, the defending champions. In seven games once again, the Pirates won the series. Clemente, at 37 years of age, batted a stunning .414 average and hit a home run in the final deciding game. No one could refute that he richly deserved to be named the 1971 World Series MVP, and so he was.
A few months later, in accepting yet another important award, Clemente delivered these memorable lines:
Accomplishment is something you cannot buy. If you have a chance and don’t make the most of it, you are wasting your time on this earth. It is not what you do in baseball or sports, but how hard you try. Win or lose, I try my best.
On September 30, 1972 — a month and a half after his 38th birthday — Clemente reached a milestone with his 3,000th hit of his major league career. To this day, only 28 other players in baseball history have exceeded that number of hits in a major league lifetime. It was the last at-bat of his career during a regular season. There would be no 1973 season for the superstar from Puerto Rico.
At 12:29 a.m., just two days before Christmas in 1972, the capital of Nicaragua was struck by a massive, magnitude 6.2 earthquake. In a country where Clemente had close friends and which he had visited just three weeks before, the casualty figures were heart wrenching: 6,000 killed, 20,000 injured, and more than a quarter-million homeless. In Puerto Rico, Roberto Clemente watched the early reports on television with his family, just long enough to know he had to act.
Helping the needy came naturally to Clemente, and he had done it personally, frequently, and often quietly for years. Within hours of the quake, he gathered medical and other relief supplies. He organized flights to carry them to Managua. Distressingly, he learned that the supplies taken by the first three flights were diverted by corrupt officials of the Nicaraguan government. In anger, and determined to personally see that the material went where it was intended, he boarded the fourth flight himself but it never made it. Mechanical trouble forced the plane into the sea on New Year’s Eve, 1972. Clemente’s body was never found. He left behind his beloved wife Vera and three boys, all under the age of seven.
Helping the needy came naturally to Clemente, and he had done it personally, frequently, and often quietly for years.
In a special election on March 30, 1973, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voted to waive the stipulated waiting period and posthumously elected Roberto Clemente into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Twenty-six years later, he was ranked number 20 on The Sporting News’s list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players of all time. He was the highest-ranking Latin American and Caribbean player on the list.
Another baseball great, fellow Pirate Willie Stargell wrote this of Clemente in his own 1984 autobiography:
I especially respected and admired Clemente, who later became one of my best friends. Roberto was superhuman on the ball field. He played right field with the grace and style of a ballet dancer. His agility and strength enabled him to perform plays some fans thought to be impossible. But he was also an intensely fierce warrior who played each game as if it were his last.
Roberto Clemente. All these years later, the thought of him still brings a smile, and some tears as well, to the faces of many people, including me.
For further information, see:
- David Maraniss’s biography, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero
- The Clemente family’s biography: Clemente: The True Legacy of an Undying Hero
- DVD: American Experience: Roberto Clemente
- Paul Robert Walker’s biography, Pride of Puerto Rico: The Life of Roberto Clemente
- David Thomas Roberts’s piano composition, “Roberto Clemente” (YouTube)
- Martin Espada’s “The Greatest Forgotten Home Run of All Time”