Clemente (Walker), Roberto

views updated


(b. 18 August 1934 in Carolina, Puerto Rico; d. 31 December 1972 in San Juan, Puerto Rico), dynamic and heroic major league outfielder known as "The Great One" who earned posthumous election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and worldwide acclaim for his humanitarian activities.

The son of sugarcane workers Melchor Clemente and Luisa Walker, Clemente was born into relative poverty during a time of economic depression in Puerto Rico. As the youngest of the large Clemente family, Roberto's love of baseball became obvious to his parents. He soon began an amateur career as a shortstop in youth softball, but his first coach, Roberto Marin, recognized Clemente's superior throwing arm and moved him to the outfield. By the time he reached his teens, Clemente had grown into such an impressive and athletic physical specimen that some observers considered him a major league prospect.

At a tryout camp organized by the Brooklyn Dodgers and held at the Sixto Escobar Stadium in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Clemente impressed scout A1 Campanis with his speed, bat quickness, and powerful throwing arm. Two years later, on 19 February 1954 Clemente signed a minor league contract with the Dodgers, who paid him a $5,000 salary and a $10,000 bonus. In his only minor league season, Roberto played sporadically for the Montreal Royals. On the advice of scouts Clyde Sukeforth and Howie Haak, the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted the talented but unrefined outfielder. He made his major league debut the next spring, batting a mediocre .255. Clemente improved over his next four seasons, but his overly aggressive baserunning and lack of power made the Pirates wonder whether he would ever become a star.

Clemente also struggled in making the transition to American culture. Still a neophyte English speaker, Clemente experienced difficulties communicating with the media and bristled when newspaper reporters quoted him phonetically. He also became angered when writers criticized him for his tendency to complain about minor injuries. Scarred by what he considered racist treatment, Clemente became a champion for the cause of the Latino athlete.

Clemente's breakout season was 1960. He batted .314 with 94 runs batted in (RBI), helping the Pirates to win the National League pennant. He batted a solid .310 in the Pirates' stunning seven-game World Series upset of the New York Yankees—a classic game best remembered for Bill Mazeroski's Series-ending home run. Clemente batted safely in each of the World Series games in 1960, but his baserunning helped the Pirates win Game 7. In the eighth inning, a hustling Clemente beat out a routine infield topper, setting the stage for Hal Smith's dramatic three-run homer, which gave the Pirates a short-lived lead. One inning later, Mazeroski concluded one of the unlikeliest upsets in World Series history.

Angered by his eighth-place finish in the 1960 National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) voting, Clemente continued his assault on National League pitchers and baserunners for the rest of the decade. He won his first Gold Glove and the first of four batting titles in 1961 and captured the MVP Award in 1966. Overshadowed at times by fellow Hall of Famers such as Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays, Clemente nonetheless established himself as one of the decade's true greats.

In the mid-1960s, Clemente enjoyed his two best seasons while playing under Pirate manager Harry Walker. In 1966 he won the National League's MVP Award by reaching career highs with 29 home runs and 119 RBIs. The following summer, he batted a career best .357. Even in later seasons, Clemente continued to punish pitchers with his ferocious swing while striking fear in baserunners with his overpowering right arm. Possessing what some scouts have called the greatest throwing arm in baseball history, Clemente played right field like few others and earned twelve consecutive Gold Glove awards.

During the 1971 World Series, Clemente showed a national television audience what Pittsburgh fans had known for years. Clemente tormented the Baltimore Orioles with a parade of line drives, dramatic home runs, dynamic base-running, and inspiring throws. His MVP performance, which included two home runs and a .414 batting average, lifted the Pirates to an unlikely seven-game victory over the heavily favored Orioles. With this performance, Clemente achieved the international recognition that he felt he long deserved but had previously been denied. He confirmed his greatness the following season, when he became only the eleventh player in history to collect 3,000 hits. Ironically, his 3,000th safety—a double against Jon Matlack of the New York Mets—was the final regular season hit of his legendary career. He finished his eighteen-year tenure in Pittsburgh with a lifetime batting average of .317.

Off the field, Clemente dedicated his time to a variety of humanitarian endeavors. He helped raise money for the Pittsburgh Children's Hospital, one of his favorite charities. During his winters in his native Puerto Rico, Clemente routinely held free baseball clinics for underprivileged children. The events of December 1972 typify his charitable nature. After a strong earthquake struck Nicaragua, Clemente organized a relief effort to assist the victims. On New Year's Eve he boarded a plane filled with emergency supplies. Tragically, the aging plane, overloaded with cargo, crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico. None of the passengers or crew, including the thirty-eight-year-old Clemente, survived the fiery accident. Clemente left behind his wife, the former Vera Cristina Zabala (whom he married 14 November 1964), and their three young sons.

Nearly thirty years after Clemente's induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in the summer of 1973, his legacy remains powerful. In Puerto Rico, the "Roberto Clemente Sports City," operated by Clemente's widow and two of their sons, provides underprivileged youngsters with athletic and recreational opportunities. Beneficiaries of this program have included future major league stars such as Roberto Alomar, Sandy Alomar, Jr., Juan Gonzalez, and Ivan Rodriguez.

Since his death, Clemente has been featured on two stamps issued by the U.S. Post Office. In addition, Clemente has been the subject of more books (including several written in Spanish and Japanese) than any Latin American in major league history. His story has proven especially popular as the subject of children's books. Through his outstanding career and philanthropic life, Clemente continues to serve as a role model for today's youth. As former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn once said of Clemente, "He had about him the touch of royalty."

Among the many books about Clemente are Bruce Markusen, Roberto Clemente: The Great One (1998), and Thomas Gilbert, Roberto Clemente (1991). Paul Robert Walker, Pride of Puerto Rico: The Life of Roberto Clemente (1991) is a children's book about Clemente. Interesting magazine articles include "The Strain of Being Roberto Clemente," Life (24 May 1968); "Roberto the Great," Newsweek (15 Jan. 1975); and "Roberto Went to Bat for All Latino Ballplayers," Smithsonian (Sept. 1993). An obituary is in the New York Times (2 Jan. 1973).

Bruce Markusen

About this article

Clemente (Walker), Roberto

Updated About content Print Article