The late Puerto Rican Pittsburgh Pirates star is one of Major League Baseball’s legends not only for his exploits on the field but for his humanitarian legacy, which is still honored annually with the celebration of “Roberto Clemente Day.”
“Roberto Clemente was my friend, a unique human being and a unique player. When he I was one more fan of his. He was unique,” said former Cuban slugger and Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer Atanasio “Tony” Pérez when describing Clemente, while Edwin Rodríguez, former Florida Marlins manager, adds about the former Pirate star “if he went far in baseball, he went even further as a human being … ”
Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker, born on August 18, 1934 in Carolina, Puerto Rico, began his winter baseball career n the island with the Santurce Cangrejeros baseball club in 1952, and two years later the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him to their Triple A team, the Montreal Royals, for $5,000 a year and a $10,000 bonus.
The Dodgers had hoped the outfielder would go unnoticed in the minor leagues as he had to be exposed on Rule 5 draft a year later due to his bonus and the fact that he was not included on the Major League Baseball roster.
Although he was given little playing time (.257 with two homers and 12 RBIs in 148 at-bats) to “hide” him, the Pirates, who had seen his talent when they went to scout pitcher Joe Black, chose him with the first selection.
That’s how Brooklyn lost Clemente and at once also began one of the most illustrious careers in Major League history.
In his early Pirate years, Clemente had to deal with injuries, the racism that prevailed in the United States at the time, and the language barrier, but in 1960 he began to make his mark on the field when he helped his team defeat the New York Yankees in the World Series.
From there on, Clemente became a superstar and one of the most complete players, who could beat you with his bat, glove, arm and legs. He also fought for equality and was very vocal about it in his years as a player.
“My great satisfaction comes from helping to erase worn-out opinions about Latin Americans and African Americans,” said Clemente, who was also known for his charitable work in Pittsburgh and Puerto Rico.
“There is nothing wrong in our homes and country that a little more compassion, care and love can’t heal. We are all brothers and and we must help each other when necessary,” said Clemente.
He was the second Latin American to win the Most Valuable Player Award (NL 1966) and the first to win the Most Valuable Player Award in a World Series (1971). Overall, he won four batting titles with .351 (1961), .339 (1964), .329 (1965), and .357 (1967) averages, 12 Gold Gloves – all consecutive from 1961 to 1972 – and was selected to 12 All-Star Games.
The apex of his career came in 1971 when he won the World Series MVP when the Pirates defeated the Baltimore Orioles in seven games. Clemente hit .414 with two homers and four RBIs, and made several defensive plays in the Fall Classic, eventually receiving the national recognition that eluded him for a long time.
Then, on September 30, 1972, he capped his brilliant career by becoming just 11th player in history to reach 3,000 hits when he hit off Mets left-hander Jon Matlack in what would be his last at bat.
Three months later, on December 31, baseball and Puerto Rico were shocked when hours before the New Year Clemente died in a plane crash off the coast of his native Puerto Rico. He was 38 years old.
The Pirates star had spent days raising aid for Nicaragua, which was devastated by an earthquake on December 23. Clemente decided to travel to the Central American nation to personally deliver the aid after learning that previous shipments were diverted by government authorities and were not reaching those most in need.
The DC-7 plane in which he traveled along with four other people had a history of mechanical problems and was reportedly 4,200 pounds overweight when it crashed moments after taking off from the airport in Carolina, Puerto Rico.
The following season the Pirates retired his number 21 and Major League Baseball renamed the “Commissioner’s Award” which is awarded annually to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and individual contribution to your team” in his honor.
He was also inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 by special vote, being the only player besides Lou Gehrig to be elected waiving the traditional five-year waiting period.
“He was great as a player, a great leader, very humanitarian in causes in favor of others, great as an inspiration for the youth and for all those involved in baseball and in any sport …” said then commissioner Bowie Kuhn during the induction ceremony at Cooperstown.
A little over 48 years after his death he is still honored in each school and park that bears his name, within the statues that have been erected in his honor, in each athlete, team or person who has emulated the Puerto Rican idol by helping others in need. That is his legacy.