A dazzling baseball superstar of surpassing skills, Roberto Clemente (1934-1972) was the first great Latin American player to captivate the major leagues. His life was cut short when his plane, delivering relief supplies to earthquake-devastated Nicaragua, crashed on the last day of 1972.
A Puerto Rican national hero, Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente spent his sparkling 18-year baseball career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He enchanted fans with his powerful throwing arm, graceful outfield defense, and superb hitting. Clemente won Gold Glove Awards, symbolizing defensive supremacy, every year from their inception in 1961, until his death in 1972. He also was elected to the National League All-Star team 12 times. Clemente was an outspoken advocate for Hispanic rights and a humanitarian. His untimely death came while he was leading a mission of mercy.
Clemente’s ancestors were Puerto Rican laborers who worked on the island’s coffee and sugar plantations. His father, Melchor Clemente, was in his mid-50s when Roberto was born in the Puerto Rican town of Carolina on August 18, 1934. Roberto was the last of six children for him and his wife, Dona Luisa. Melchor Clemente was a foreman at a sugar cane mill and ran a small grocery. His wife rose early to do the family laundry for the owner of the mill. She was very religious, and often fed poor children who came to her house. Clemente’s parents instilled in him the values of hard work, respect, dignity, and generosity. “I never heard any hate in my house,” Clemente said. “Not for anybody. I never heard my mother say a bad word to my father, or my father to my mother.” He revered his parents throughout his life.
Even in his childhood, Roberto was an organizer. He once led a group of boys in raising money to build a fence to protect his school, and another time rescued a driver from a burning car. Beginning at the age of nine, he got up daily at six o’clock to deliver milk for a penny a day, saving his earnings for three years in order to buy a bicycle. From an early age, Clemente developed a passion for baseball. “I wanted to be a ballplayer,” he said. “I became convinced God wanted me to.” He would hit bottle caps with a broomstick, throw tennis balls against walls, and practice his skills endlessly.
At the age of 18, Clemente attended a tryout camp conducted by Brooklyn Dodgers scout and future general manager Al Campanis. Among 70 players, Clemente stood out. “He was the best free-agent athlete I have ever seen,” Campanis recalled. After playing with Santurce in the Puerto Rican winter league, Clemente signed with the Dodgers for a $10,000 bonus and a $5,000 salary. He played in 1954 with the Dodgers’ Montreal farm club. But when Brooklyn didn’t protect him on its roster, he wasdrafted by Pittsburgh. “I didn’t even know where Pittsburgh was,” Clemente later confessed. The Pirates installed him as their right fielder
Pride of Puerto Rico
“Clemente was our Jackie Robinson,” said Puerto Rican journalist Luis Mayoral. “He was on a crusade to show the American public what a Hispanic man, a black Hispanic man, was capable of.” Robinson had broken baseball’s color bar in 1947 with the Dodgers. Clemente was not baseball’s first Hispanic player – others such as Minnie Minoso preceded him–but he was the first to make a major impact on the game.
When Clemente made his major league debut on April 17, 1955, he was listed as “Bob” on the Pirates roster because Roberto sounded too foreign. He made an immediate impression with his skills, his style, and his bearing. Though less than six feet tall and weighing only 175 pounds, Clemente swung an imposing 36-ounce bat. He stood far off the plate, legs spread wide, holding his bat high and leaning his powerful upper body over the plate. Using his quick hands and strong arms, he could handle pitches thrown in any location, often driving them to the opposite field.
Asked how to pitch to Clemente, Dodgers Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax replied jokingly: “Roll the ball.” Clemente himself, not known for modesty, said: “Pitch me outside, I will hit .400. Pitch me inside, and you will not find the ball.” Power was the only attribute separating Clemente from Willie Mays, to whom he was frequently compared as an all-around player. Clemente was a line-drive hitter who cleared the fences at the rate of about 15 home runs a season.
Whether in the field or on the basepaths, Clemente always hustled, often running out from under his helmet or hat “He played just about every game like his life depended on it,” said his Pirates teammate, Willie Stargell. His acrobatic fielding delighted fans. He covered an enormous amount of ground, caught fly balls no one else could reach, and made tremendous throws. Many experts considered his outfield arm the best ever seen in baseball. Few runners would try to take extra bases against him, yet he still led the National League in outfield assists in five seasons. One time, he threw out Lee May of Cincinnati trying to score from third base on a single.
Despite his skills, Clemente had a difficult transition to major league baseball. Sportswriters often misunderstood his broken English and misquoted him. Sometimes they even made his English look worse than it was. He also had frequent run-ins with quick-tempered Pirates manager, Danny Murtaugh. In his first five seasons, Clemente hit over .300 only once and never had more than seven home runs.
In 1960, he had a breakthrough season, leading Pittsburgh to the World Series. Against the vaunted New York Yankees, he had nine hits. After the Pirates won the Series on Bill Mazeroski’s dramatic home run, Clemente skipped the team party and walked the streets of Pittsburgh to personally thank the fans. Yet the baseball writers elected Pirates shortstop Dick Groat, who had a .325 batting average with two homers and 50 runs batted in, as the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1960. Clemente finished eighth in the voting with a .314 average, 16 home runs, and 94 runs batted in. Clemente publicly expressed his anger at the voting, saying it showed bias against Latin players.
In 1961, Clemente won the National League batting championship with a .351 average and hit 23 home runs. He hit above .300 in 12 of his final 13 seasons and led the league in batting three more times, in 1964, 1965 and 1967. In his homeland, he was a bona fide hero. Clemente became known as “the Pride of Puerto Rico.”
Clemente was outspoken about his perceptions of prejudice toward Hispanic players. “Latin American Negro ballplayers are treated today much like all Negroes were treated in baseball in the early days of the broken color barrier,” he told Sport magazine. “They are subjected to prejudices and stamped with generalizations.” One example of such prejudice, Clemente thought, was writers’ frequent portrayals of him as a hypochondriac. Clemente often complained of health problems, including backaches, headaches, stomachaches, insomnia, tonsillitis, malaria, sore shoulders, and pulled muscles. Often before stepping into the batter’s box, he would roll his shoulders and neck, trying to align his spine. He insisted that his injuries were as real as the pains suffered by Mickey Mantle, a contemporary white superstar. He pointed out that nobody accused the great Mantle of being a malingerer.
Clemente grew increasingly annoyed that, unlike contemporary white stars, he never was asked to do commercial endorsements. “I would make a lot more money in baseball if I were a white American,” he said in typically blunt fashion.
Intense and outspoken, Clemente often aroused controversy with his political views. He was a staunch advocate of Hispanic civil rights and a close associate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Clemente was a frequent participant in the social issues and campaigns of the 1960s. “I am from the poor people; I represent the poor people,” Clemente once said. “I like workers. I like people that suffer because these people have a different approach to life from the people that have everything and don’t know what suffering is.”
Clemente often took younger Latin players under his wing. In 1966, his young teammate, Matty Alou, wrested the batting championship from him. This was accomplished largely by following Clemente’s constant admonitions to hit outside pitches to the opposite field.
A Legacy of Hope
Clemente was more than a ballplayer. He was a remarkably sensitive and intelligent man. He wrote poetry and played the organ, worked in ceramic art, and studied chiropractic medicine. His strongest commitment was to the young people of Puerto Rico. During the off-season, he conducted baseball clinics all over the island, talking to children about the virtues of hard work, citizenship, and respect for their elders.
Clemente again led the Pirates to the World Series in 1971. With a show-stopping performance on national television, he finally achieved the recognition he had long deserved. Clemente hit a home run in the final game to help the Pirates win and was named Most Valuable Player of the Series. Asked by sportscasters how he felt, his first statement was to his parents, in Spanish. Translated, it was: “On the greatest day of my life, I ask for your blessing.”
Toward the end of his career, Clemente felt he had made some headway against prejudice. “My greatest satisfaction comes from helping to erase the old opinion about Latin Americans and blacks,” he said.
A Fatal Plane Crash
In 1972, at the age of 37, he was still going strong. He played in only 102 games due to various injuries but still batted .312. On September 30, the last day of the season, Clemente got his 3,000th career hit, becoming the eleventh man to reach that famous mark. The hit, a ringing double, turned out to be his last. Moved by the plight of Nicaraguans devastated by a major earthquake, Clemente feared that the Puerto Rican military was intercepting relief shipments. He insisted on personally delivering supplies collected by the people of Puerto Rico.
The prop-driven DC-7 that was carrying Clemente and the aid packages on December 31, 1972 crashed into the ocean soon after taking off from San Juan. The cause of the crash was never determined; a cargo overload may have been a factor. The island of Puerto Rico and the city of Pittsburgh were both overwhelmed by grief. A Catholic nun in Pittsburgh wrote a letter to Clemente’s widow, Vera, saying: “He fell into the water so that his spirit could be carried by the ocean to more places.” Three months after his death, the Baseball Writers Association voted Clemente into the Hall of Fame, the first Latin American player to be enshrined in Cooperstown.
Clemente long had dreamed about developing a youth camp in his native Puerto Rico. After his death, Vera Clemente took the lead in developing the camp. Cuidad Deportiva Roberto Clemente was built on 304 acres of marshland donated by the Puerto Rican government. Over the years, its Raiders baseball academy developed a number of major league stars, including Juan Gonzalez, Roberto Alomar, Ivan Rodriguez, Sandy Alomar Jr., Benito Santiago, Carlos Baerga, Ruben Sierra, and Jose Guzman. Besides athletic facilities, it also has programs in drama, dance, music, folklore, and crafts. This camp is in keeping with Clemente’s vision of a place where young people can follow their dreams.
Clemente’s legacy of magnificent athleticism and an abiding belief in human potential proved a lasting one. At the 1994 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, a bronze statue honoring Clemente was unveiled at Three Rivers Stadium. At a speech in Houston, a year before his death, Clemente had said: “If you have an opportunity to make things better, and you don’t do that, you are wasting your time on this earth.”
Honored After Death
Clemente was honored in various ways for his achievements after his death. Schools in Chicago, Illinois; Allentown, Pennsylvania; and Detroit, Michigan, have been named in his honor. In 1984 the U.S. Postal Service issued a 20-cent stamp in Clemente’s honor and in 2000, it issued a 33-cent stamp in his honor. In April of 1999 Allegheny County, Pittsburgh, renamed the Sixth Street Bridge as the Roberto Clemente Bridge to honor the baseball legend. In 2002, Allan H. (Bud) Selig, Major League Baseball’s Commissioner announced that September 18 will be known as Roberto Clemente Day. In 2006 David Maraniss wrote a book about Clemente’s life, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero. In April of 2008, PBS featured a biography on Clemente as part of their American Experience history series.