Clemente, Roberto (1934-1972)

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Clemente, Roberto (1934-1972)

Longtime Pittsburgh Pirates rightfielder Roberto Clemente is much more than one of the premier major leaguers of his generation. While his statistics and on-field accomplishments earned him election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, equally awe-inspiring are his sense of professionalism and pride in his athleticism, his self-respecting view of his ethnicity, and his humanism. Clemente, who first came to the Pirates in 1955, died at age 38, on New Year's Eve 1972, while attempting to airlift relief supplies from his native Puerto Rico to Nicaraguan earthquake victims. He insisted on making the effort despite bad weather and admonitions that the ancient DC-7 in which he was flying was perilously overloaded. This act of self-sacrifice, which came scant months after Clemente smacked major-league hit number 3,000, attests to his caliber as a human being and transformed him into an instant legend.

Roberto Walker Clemente was born in Barrio San Anton in Carolina, Puerto Rico. While excelling in track and field as a youngster, his real passion was baseball—and he was just 20 years old when he came to the major leagues to stay. On the ballfield, the muscular yet sleek and compact Clemente dazzled as he bashed extra-base hits, made nifty running catches, and fired perfect strikes from deep in the outfield to throw out runners. He was particularly noted for his rifle arm. As Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully once observed, "Clemente could field a ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania."

Clemente's on-field record is exemplary. In his 18 seasons with the Pirates, he posted a.317 batting average. He won four National League batting crowns, and earned 12 consecutive Gold Gloves for his fielding. On five occasions, he led National League outfielders in assists. He played in 12 all-star games. He was his league's Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 1966, and was the World Series MVP in 1971. When he doubled against Jon Matlack of the New York Mets on September 30, 1972, in what was to be his final major league game, he became just the eleventh ballplayer to belt 3,000 hits.

Yet despite these statistics and the consistency he exhibited throughout his career, true fame came to Clemente late in life. In the 1960 World Series, the first of two fall classics in which he appeared, he hit safely in all seven games. He was overshadowed, however, by his imposing opponents, the Mickey Mantle-led New York Yankees, and by teammate Bill Mazeroski's dramatic series-winning home run in game 7. Clemente really did not earn national acclaim until 1971, when he awed the baseball world while starring in the World Series, hitting.414, and leading his team to a come-from-behind championship over the favored Baltimore Orioles. According to sportswriter Roger Angell, it was in this series that Clemente's play was "some-thing close to the level of absolute perfection."

Clemente was fiercely proud of his physical skills. Upon completing his first season with the Pirates, his athletic ability was likened to that of Willie Mays, one of his star contemporaries. The ballplayer's response: "Nonetheless, I play like Roberto Clemente." During the filming of the 1968 Neil Simon comedy The Odd Couple, a sequence, shot on location at Shea Stadium, called for a Pittsburgh Pirate to hit into a triple play. In the film, Bill Mazeroski is the hitter. Supposedly, Clemente was set to be at bat during the gag, but pulled out because of the indignity.

In the decade-and-a-half before his 1971 World Series heroics, Clemente yearned for the kind of acknowledgment won by a Mays or a Mantle. Certainly, he was deserving of such acclaim. Had he been playing in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, rather than in a city far removed from the national spotlight, he might have been a high profile player earlier in his career. Compounding the problem was Clemente's ethnic background. Furthermore, Clemente was keenly aware of his roots, and his ethnicity; he even insisted that his three sons (who were two, five, and six when he died) be born in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, this pride often was misconstrued—and arguably, one reason why he was not beloved earlier on was racism. The expectation that he blend in rather than exude ethnicity is epitomized by the fact that on all of Clemente's Topps baseball cards issued between 1958 and 1969, his name is Americanized as "Bob" Clemente.

Adding to the affront was that whenever Clemente would comment that other ballplayers of equal accomplishment were luxuriating in the limelight, he would be labeled a complainer and hypochondriac. "As a teammate," fellow Pittsburgh Pirate Willie Stargell observed, "we had a chance to marvel at talents a lot of people didn't understand." So it was no surprise that after the 1971 World Series, upon being handed the MVP trophy, Clemente pointedly declared, "I want everybody in the world to know that this is the way I play all the time. All season. Every season." Then, ever so typically, he spoke in Spanish, asking for his father's blessing.

The rule requiring a ballplayer to be retired for five years prior to earning Hall of Fame eligibility was waived for Clemente. He was inducted a year after his death, becoming the first Hispanic to be so honored. Since then, he has inspired thousands of Latino ballplayers. "Growing up in Puerto Rico, we got to learn a lot about his character," observed Bernie Williams, one of the major league stars of the 1990s. "Clemente is a great hero for all Latin players," added Juan Gonzalez, a Williams peer and fellow Puerto Rican. "Not only was he one of the best baseball players ever, but he was a great human being as well." Clemente also has been cherished by his teammates. After pinch-hitting a game-winning ninth inning single in Game 2 of 1979 World Series, Pirate catcher Manny Sanguillen declared that he wished his feat to be dedicated to the memory of Clemente. "He helped us in a lot of ways," summed up Willie Stargell, "to be the players we were."

Clemente was the second ballplayer (after Jackie Robinson) to be featured on a United States postage stamp. In 1973, the government of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico granted acreage for the development of Roberto Clemente Sports City, which allows Puerto Ricans to participate in a wide range of athletic pastimes. In 1993, his eldest son, Roberto, Jr., established the Roberto Clemente Foundation, which offers recreational and educational activities for Pittsburgh-area children while stressing the relevance of community involvement. In 1994, the Pirates unveiled a statue of Clemente outside Three Rivers Stadium. Throughout 1998—the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death—the Baseball Hall of Fame issued a special Roberto Clemente commemorative admission ticket. Each year, one major leaguer receives the True Value/Roberto Clemente Man of the Year Award for combining on-field heroics with community responsibility.

Roberto Clemente merits every honor he has received. In an era of pampered, egocentric athletes who charge big bucks to little kids for autographs, the manner in which Clemente lived and died is all the more poignant and praiseworthy. As he once observed, "Any time you have an opportunity to make things better and you don't, then you are wasting your time on this earth."

—Rob Edelman

Further Reading:

Markusen, Bruce. Roberto Clemente: The Great One. Champaign, Illinois, Sports Publishing, Inc., 1998.

Miller, Ira. Roberto Clemente. New York, Tempo Books, 1973.

Musick, Phil. Who Was Roberto? A Biography of Roberto Clemente. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1974.

Wagenheim, Kal. Clemente! New York, Praeger Publishers, 1973.

Walker, Paul Robert. Pride of Puerto Rico: The Life of Roberto Clemente. New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

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Clemente, Roberto (1934-1972)

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