Clemente, Roberto

views updated May 17 2018

Roberto Clemente


American baseball player

Hall of Fame baseball player Roberto Clemente was the first great Hispanic star in major league baseball. Playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he had a lifetime average of .317 and 240 home runs; had four seasons

with 200 or more hits; and won twelve Gold Gloves in eighteen seasons. He also won the National League Most Valuable Player award in 1966. Clemente's stellar performance helped open the door for other Hispanic players to enter the sport.

Clemente was born in 1934 in Carolina, Puerto Rico, the youngest of seven children, six of whom were boys. His father, Melchor, was a foreman of a sugar plantation and worked long hours in the fields, receiving a dollar a day. When Clemente was young, he worked in the same fields, loading and unloading trucks.

Clemente began playing baseball with his friends at an early age, and continued to play through high school, where he starred in baseball and track. He was such a skilled javelin thrower that some thought he might make Puerto Rico's 1952 Olympic team. However, baseball was his favorite sport, and he devoted most of his free time to it. His high school coach, Robert Marin, told a scout for the Santurce professional baseball team to take a look at Clemente. The scout held tryouts for seventy-one players, and sent seventy of them home after watching Clemente. He offered Clemente a $5,000 bonus, a $60-per-month contract, and a baseball glove.

From 1952 to 1955, Clemente played for Santurce. Although Latin players, like African-American players, had been barred from the U.S. major leagues, this barrier was beginning to break down, and Clemente attracted the attention of major league scouts in the U.S. After he batted .356 for Santurce during the 1952-1953 winter season, Brooklyn Dodger scout Al Campanis chose him to attend a baseball clinic. In addition, Clemente was paid a $10,000 bonus.

When Clemente graduated from high school, ten teams, including the Dodgers, wanted to recruit him. Clemente, who had promised Campanis he would go with the Dodgers, was true to his word, despite the fact that the Milwaukee Braves had offered him $30,000. In 1953, at the age of 19, Clemente went to the Dodgers' top minor-league team, the Montreal Royals. He then ran into problems with red tape: baseball regulations stated that if a player received a bonus of more than $4,000, he had to be placed on the major league roster after one season. If he was not, another team could draft him for $4,000.

This caused a problem for the Dodgers, as their major-league roster was too crowded for them to use Clemente so soon. Although they tried to hide Clemente from other teams by using him very little, the Pittsburgh Pirates were not fooled, and drafted him on November 22, 1954.

Clemente made his major league debut on April 17, 1955, playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates. At the time, the Pirates were in last place, but by 1956, with Clemente batting .311, the Pirates moved up to seventh place. This was the first of thirteen seasons in which Clemente would bat at better than .300.

In 1958, Clemente made twenty-two assists, the most among outfielders. In 1960, the Pirates won the World Series.

Clemente's Puerto Rican heritage caused a great deal of commentary, much of it negative, despite his playing ability. Because many Americans were uncomfortable with the "foreignness" of Clemente's name, Roberto, he was introduced as Bob Clemente in games. In the press, writers emphasized his origins and appearance, calling him a "dusky flyer" and a "chocolate-colored islander." In addition, they regularly mocked his imperfect English, reprinting sentences such as "I no run fast cold weather," according to Steve Wulf in Sports Illustrated.

Although he constantly battled this prejudice, Clemente retained an inner sense of his own worth as a player. Wulf noted that in 1955, when a radio interviewer told him that he ran, threw, and hit as well as Willie Mays , Clemente replied, "Nonetheless, I play like Roberto Clemente." He also said, "Pitch me outside. I will hit.400. Pitch me inside, and you will not find the ball."

Racist feelings against Clemente became even more obvious in 1960, when he hit .314 with 16 home runs and 94 RBIs for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Despite this stellar performance, he came in eighth in the voting for Most Valuable Player. The award was given to Clemente's teammate Dick Groat, who hit .325 but only had two home runs and 50 RBIs.

Sportswriter Phil Musick, who spent years covering Clemente's career, was one of those who focused more on racist characterizations of Clemente than on his skills as a player. However, Musick later apologized in his 2001 book, Reflections on Roberto, writing, "There was a racial overtone to much of what was written about Clemente early in his career, and unfortunately it precluded much reporting on his baseball skills and how they were acquired. The author of this work (Musick) bears some of that responsibility."

From 1961 to 1972, Clemente's average season was.331. with seventeen home runs and eighty-one RBIs. Eventually this overwhelming talent became too difficult to ignore, and in 1966 he finally won the Most Valuable Player award.

In 1961, Clemente won the first of four batting titles, batting .351 with 201 hits.

In 1963, Clemente met Vera Zabula in a drugstore; she was 23, and he fell in love at first sight. She told Wulf, "On our first real date, he told me he was going to marry me. On our second date he brought pictures of houses."


1934Born August 18, in Carolina, Puerto Rico
1952-53Plays for Santurce, Puerto Rico baseball team
1953Plays for Brooklyn Dodgers' minor-league team, the Montreal Royals
1954Drafted by Pittsburgh Pirates
1955Clemente bats .311, the first of 13 seasons batting at better than .300
1960Bats .314 with 16 home runs and 94 RBIs, but comes in eighth in MVP voting
1960Pittsburgh Pirates win World Series
1963Meets Vera Zabula
1964Marries Vera Zabula
1966National League Most Valuable Player
1971World Series Most Valuable Player
1972Injured, but still bats .312
1972In his final at-bat, makes his 3,000th hit
1972Dies when his plane crashes during a mission to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua
1972Elected to Baseball Hall of Fame


Clemente's life was celebrated in this Fox Sports Net documentary, which originally aired in March of 1998. Narrated by actor Jimmy Smits and combining home movies, media footage, and interviews with Clemente's friends and family members, the documentary provides a well-rounded portrait of Clemente. It also examines the impact of racism on Clemente's career. According to Steve Crowe in Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, this video portrait "soars in capturing the pride of Puerto Rico's baseball grace and demand for dignity."

Clemente won his second batting title in 1964. On November 14 of that year, he also married Zabula; they would later have three sons, Roberto Jr., Luis Roberto, and Enrique Roberto. He won his third batting title in 1965 with a batting average of .329, and took his final title in 1967 with .357 and twenty-three home runs. In 1969, the Pirates took the Eastern Division title; Clemente had an average of .352.

In 1970 the Pirates lost the National League playoffs to the Cincinnati Reds, but in 1971 they won both the National League title and the World Series. Clemente was named Most Valuable Player of the World Series.

Clemente was injured in 1972, but still batted .312. The Pirates won the division title, but lost to the Reds in the playoffs.

Clemente's last hit, his 3,000th, was on September 30, 1972. He was only the eleventh player ever to reach that number. After the 1972 championship, Clemente returned to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he had customarily spent his off-seasons working with youth programs.

Clemente's Personality

Known as a hypochondriac, Clemente frequently suffered from a variety of injuries and ailments: headaches, backaches, stomach pains, malaria, insomnia, bone chips, and pulled muscles. According to Steve Wulf in Sports Illustrated, someone once asked Clemente how he was feeling. "Well," Clemente said, "My bad shoulder feels good, but my good shoulder feels bad." However, when he was called a hypochondriac, Clemente replied, "If I was a hypochondriac, I wouldn't be playing," according to another Sports Illustrated article by Wulf.

Although he worried about his own health, this did not prevent Clemente from being concerned about others' feelings and welfare. He was notably generous with fans and others. After the Pirates beat the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series, Clemente did not attend the team partyinstead, he walked around Pittsburgh thanking the fans. In Sports Illustrated, Steve Wulf quoted his wife, who said, "He would rather be late for a meeting with the governor than pass by a stranger who needed help with a tire."

Clemente's desire to help others would later contribute to his early death, which he often feared. According to Steve Crowe in the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, Clemente had a deep fear that he would not live to see his children grow up. In early November of 1972,

he dreamed that he was watching his own funeral; the dream would later seem oddly prophetic.

In late December of 1972, an earthquake destroyed most of Managua, Nicaragua; 6,000 people were killed, 20,000 injured, and 250,000 left homeless, without food, clothing, water, or medical supplies. Clemente helped organize relief missions to the survivors in the stricken city. On December 31, 1972, Clemente's plane took off from San Juan, Puerto Rico carrying eight tons of supplies. A few minutes later, it exploded and crashed into the sea. Clemente and the four other people on board were killed in the crash, and although divers searched for his remains, his body was never found. Puerto Rico declared three days of official mourning for its lost hero.

Clemente's Legacy

Shortly after his death, Clemente became the first Hispanic person ever inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame; the usual rules, which stipulated that a player had to wait five years after ending his career before being inducted, were waived.

Awards and Accomplishments

1960Pittsburgh Pirates win World Series
1961-72National League Gold Glove at OF
1966National League Most Valuable Player
1971World Series Most Valuable Player
1972In his final at-bat, makes his 3,000th hit
1972Elected to Baseball Hall of Fame

After Clemente's death, the Pirates honored him for the next several seasons by wearing patches on their sleeves. The patches had Clemente's uniform number, 21, circled in black. The team also played a series of exhibition games in San Juan in order to make Clemente's dream of a "sports city" in Puerto Rico come true.

Clemente's wife Vera remembered that for years he had talked about creating a "sports city" for the young people of Puerto Rico, and she spearheaded the effort to build one. Today the Ciudad Deportiva Roberto Clemente, located in Carolina, Puerto Rico, continues to encourage young people to play sports and to succeed at them. Since its beginnings, it has fostered many players who later came to the major U.S. leagues.

In addition to being depicted on almost 100 baseball cards, Clemente was honored in 1982 with a 20-cent stamp issued by Puerto Rico. At the 1994 All-Star game in Pittsburgh, a bronze statue of Clemente was unveiled. Pirates outfielder Orlando Merced told Wulf, "Roberto Clemente means a dream to me, and to a lot of kids and people. He has pushed me to be a betterplayer and a better person. When they unveiled the statue, I was crying. It made me proud to be who I am and to be a Puerto Rican."

When Clemente entered major league baseball, he contended with widespread racism among players, fans, and sports reporters. Partly because of his presence and his talent, baseball teams today spend millions of dollars to recruit and keep talented Hispanic players; by 1998, almost nineteen percent of major-league players were Hispanic. According to Bill Plaschke in The Sporting News, Dodger scout Mike Brito said, "Today, the Latin player coming in is treated like a king. If he is any good, he gets everything." Despite this, Latin players still face stereotypes, according to Plaschke, "that they are hotheaded, or that they don't have inner drive." In addition, although Hispanic players are now relatively common, only one of 120 personnel executives is Hispanic. In The Sporting News, Richard Lapchick quoted former player agent Joe Masso, who said that Hispanic players need a transition program to help them understand the language and culture of the United States, and that "The U.S.-born players need a deeper understanding of Latino culture so they can play better as teammates on and off the field."

Career Statistics

PIT: Pittsburgh Pirates.

In Stamps, John D. Babbitt quoted Clemente's summation of his life philosophy: "Accomplishment is something you cannot buy. If you have a chance to do something for somebody and you do not make the most of it, you are wasting your time on this earth."



Musick, Phil. Reflections on Roberto. Sports Publishing, Inc, 2001.


Babbitt, John S. "Roberto Clement: A Sports Legend." Stamps (July 30, 1994): 1.

Crowe, Steve. "'Clemente' Documentary Soars with Pride." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (March 5, 1998): 305K6854.

Kaplan, Jim. "It's a Dream Come True." Sports Illustrated (October 5, 1987): 95.

Lapchick, Richard. "Recalling Roberto." Sporting News (October 27, 1997): 7.

Plaschke, Bill. "Lamenting Clemente." Sporting News (January 12, 1998): 9.

Wulf, Steve. "Arriba Roberto!" Sports Illustrated (December 28, 1992): 114.

Wulf, Steve. "Roberto Clemente." Sports Illustrated (September 19, 1994): 110.

Ziegel, Vic. "Remembering Roberto Clemente." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (December 31, 1997), p. 1231K5142.


"Roberto Walker Clemente." (November 17, 2002).

Sketch by Kelly Winters

Clemente, Roberto: 1934-1972: Baseball Player

views updated May 18 2018

Roberto Clemente: 1934-1972: Baseball player

The first Puerto Rican member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Roberto Clemente broke down many of the barriers against Latinos in baseball. Puerto Rican broadcaster and journalist Luis Mayoral was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying, "Clemente was our Jackie Robinson. He was on a crusade to show the American public what a Hispanic man, a black Hispanic man, was capable of." Clemente was a right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates for 18 years, and had a lifetime batting average of .317, hitting 240 home runs.

Clemente was born in 1934, the youngest of Melchor, a sugarcane worker, and Luisa Clemente's seven children. He grew up in Carolina, Puerto Rico, near the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan. As a boy he played softball in neighborhood lots, and also participated in other sports. He won medals for the javelin throw and short distance races, and was was so skilled at javelin throwing that some observers felt he might make the 1952 Puerto Rican Olympic team. However, baseball was his real focus. He played with the amateur Juncos Double A Club and then played in the Puerto Rican Winter League with the Santurce Crabbers. His talent was soon noticed. Brooklyn Dodger scout Alex Campanis first saw Clemente at a try-out. "He was the greatest natural athlete I'd ever seen," Campanis once said, according to Sports Illustrated.

Just after graduating from high school in 1954, Clemente was signed with the Dodgers' and sent to play with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' minor-league affiliate in Montreal, Canada. He received a $5,000 salary and a $10,000 bonus. In the following year, however, a loophole in baseball signing rules allowed the Pittsburgh Pirates to draft him for $4,000. Clemente chose the number 21, the number of letters in his full name, for his jersey. When he made his major league debut on April 17, 1955, he was called "Bob Clemente" because management felt that "Roberto" was too foreign a name to appeal to American fans. That first season he batted .255, hitting five home runs and 47 RBIs. For his second season, Clemente batted .311.

According to the Latino Sports Legends website, "In the 1960s no other player dominated the entire decade like Roberto Clemente." There were four years1961, 1964, 1966, and 1967in which had over 200 hits. In 1961 and 1967, he batted over .350. Also during this decade, he was a four-time league leader in batting. It has been said, according to the Latino Sports Legends website, that his play was "something close to the level of absolute perfection."

At a Glance . . .

Born Roberto Walker Clemente on August 18, 1934, in Carolina, Puerto Rico; died in a plane crash on December 31, 1972; son of Melchor (a sugarcane worker) and Luisa Clemente; married Vera Clemente, 1964; children: Roberto Jr., Luis Roberto, and Enrique Roberto.

Career: Baseball player, Pittsburgh Pirates, 1955-72.

Awards: Twelve Gold Glove Awards for defensive ability,1961-72; four Silver Bats for four National League batting titles; two World Series Championships, 1960, 1971; Most Valuable Player Award, World Series, 1971.

Clemente was often taunted because of his Puerto Rican heritage. Sports writers made fun of his accent and his use of English. One writer even asked if he wore a loincloth back home in Puerto Rico. In Sports Illustrated, Steve Wulf noted that sports writers routinely described Clemente as a "dusky flyer" and a "chocolate-colored islander." According to George Diaz in the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, "Clemente responded with dignity, occasionally returning fire with the same passion he applied as he stepped into the batter's box, neck twitching with nervous energy. Moments later, he would smash the dickens out of a baseball."

The first Hispanic player in the major leagues was a Cuban student named Esteban Bellan, who played in 1871, but Clemente was the first to speak out for minority rights. Manny Mota, a coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers, was quoted by the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service as saying, "He was a leader and controversial because he didn't permit injustice in regard to race. He would not accept injustices with Latins nor with players of color. He was always there to defend them." Clemente himself, according to the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, noted, "I am Puerto Rican, I am black, and I am between the walls."

Prejudice against Clemente may have played a part in the National League's Most Valuable Player voting in 1960. Although he had a .314 batting average and 94 RBIs that year, Clemente finished eighth in the voting. The winner was teammate Dick Groat, who hit .325 but only had 16 home runs and 94 RBIs. In 1961 Clemente threw out 27 runners and won the first of his twelve straight Gold Gloves. By 1966 his talent could no longer be ignored, and he finally received an MVP Award.

Clemente met Vera Zabala in a drugstore in 1963, and the couple were married on November 14th of the following year. Their first son, Roberto, Jr., was born in 1965. The family later grew to include two more sons: Luis Roberto and Enrique Roberto. Clemente, proud of his Puerto Rican heritage, insisted that each of his children be born in Puerto Rico.

When Clemente was not playing, he dressed with relative formality, always wearing a coat and tie, unlike most men in blue-collar Pittsburgh. He was a private person, and often quiet. According to the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, former teammate Steve Blass said that Clemente seemed to feel, "I have a stature, and I have a responsibility to carry that stature."

Throughout his career, Clemente suffered a variety of injuries, including malaria, backaches, bone chips, insomnia, headaches, pulled muscles, and tonsillitis. Clemente freely complained about his injuries. When once asked how he felt, he responded, according to Sports Illustrated, "Well, my bad shoulder feels good, but my good shoulder feels bad."

On September 30, 1972, at the age of 38, Clemente made his 3,000th hit at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. When, during the fourth inning, this landmark ball was launched into a gap in left-center, a crowd of 13,119 fans leaped, cheering, to their feet. "I felt kind of bashful," Clemente later told the Sporting News about the crowd's enthusiastic reaction. "I'm a very quiet, shy person." Famed player Willie Mays shook his hand, and Clemente kept the ball as a souvenir of the hit. Clemente told the Sporting News, "I dedicated the hit to the Pittsburgh fans and to the people in Puerto Rico."

Clemente was the first Latin player to reach 3,000 hits, and only the eleventh player in history to do so. Teammate Nellie Briles recalled in Newsweek, "He had no more to provehe'd won his batting titles and MVPs, and now he could play for the love of the game." Briles continued, "After the hit all he did was stand on second base and tip his hat. It was a very regal moment."

In December of 1972, a devastating earthquake hit Nicaragua, killing thousands and leaving 100,000 homeless. Driven by his concern for the victims, Clemente decided to help in the relief efforts. Two planes had been sent to deliver emergency goods, but the supplies had not reached the stricken areasNicaraguan soldiers were stealing the supplies. Clemente decided to accompany the next shipment, hoping that his celebrity would deter would-be thieves. On December 31, 1972, the plane carrying Clemente, a crew, and food supplies for the victims crashed into the ocean just off the Puerto Rican coast. Clemente and the four crew members were all killed. His body was never found.

Upon Clemente's death, Puerto Rican Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon, according to the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, said, "Our people have lost one of their great glories." Although there is normally a five-year waiting period for Hall of Fame eligibility, this rule was waived in Clemente's case, and he was inducted into the Hall in 1973, the first Latin player to receive this honor. That same year, baseball commissioner Bowie Kugh established the Roberto Clemente Award, given for sportsmanship and activism.

Clemente's sons have carried on his athletic and humanitarian legacy. His oldest son, Roberto, Jr., was first signed to a professional baseball contract by a Philadelphia Phillies scout in 1984. A 1986 knee injury kept him from the game for three years, and, during spring training with the Baltimore Orioles in 1989, a back injury ended his baseball career. Clemente's second son, Luis, also ventured into professional baseball. Signed in 1984 by the Pittsburgh Pirates, a shoulder injury necessitated his retirement after two years. Luis, has served as President and CEO of the Roberto Clemente Sports City in Puerto Rico, where 200,00 young people come each year to play sports and learn good citizenship, since the early 1990s. In 1993 Roberto, Jr. founded the Roberto Clemente Foundation. This organization reaches out to disadvantaged teenagers, providing baseball, softball, and educational opportunities. At a banquet in 1971 Clemente summed up his attitude to life, quoted in Sports Illustrated: "If you have an opportunity to make things better, and you don't do that, you are wasting your time on this earth."



Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.


Fresno Bee, July 5, 1998.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, March 5, 1998, p. 305K6854; March 30, 2002, p. K7277, K7278.

Newsweek, October 25, 1999, p. 63.

Pittsburgh Business Times, February 4, 2000, p. 1.

Record (Bergen County, NJ), August 19, 2000, p. A4.

Sporting News, October 14, 1972; October 27, 1997, p. 7; January 12, 1998, p. 9.

Sports Illustrated, December 28, 1992, p. 114; September 19, 1994, p. 110; April 6, 1998, p. 33.


Kelly Winters and Jennifer M. York

Roberto Clemente

views updated Jun 08 2018

Roberto Clemente

A dazzling baseball superstar of surpassing skills, Roberto Clemente (1934-1972) was the first great Latin American player to captivate the majorleagues. 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 was drafted 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 an 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."

Speaking Out

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."

Further Reading

Musick, Phil. Who Was Roberto?: A Biography of Roberto Clemente, Doubleday, 1974. [/reading

Maclean's, April 13, 1987.

Smithsonian, September 1993.

Sporting News, December 28, 1992; October 27, 1997; January 12, 1998.

Sports Illustrated, August 17, 1984; October 5, 1987; September 19, 1994. □

Clemente, Roberto Walker

views updated May 29 2018

CLEMENTE, Roberto Walker

(b. 18 August 1934 in Carolina, Puerto Rico; d. 31 December 1972 near San Juan, Puerto Rico), charismatic Hall of Fame baseball player, a graceful outfielder of exceptional talent with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who in the heyday of his career in the 1960s became a symbol of pride for Puerto Ricans and a humanitarian hero, dying in a plane crash while taking aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

Clemente was the son of Melchor Clemente, who cut cane for the Rubert Brothers Sugar company, and Luisa (Walker) Clemente, who ran a grocery store for the plantation workers. The large family included seven children—the youngest, Roberto, his three brothers, a sister, a step-sister, and a stepbrother. A quiet, obedient boy, Roberto tossed a baseball against his bedroom ceiling at night and played on sandlots during the day. A milk delivery route and other manual labor helped him grow into a muscular, athletic young man, and he excelled at track and field, including the high jump and the javelin throw. On the Sello Rojo Rice Company team and at Julio Vizcarrondo High School he played shortstop but eventually was moved to right field. As a teenager Clemente played for the Juncos in the amateur Puerto Rican Double-A League and the Santurce Crabbers in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Legendary Brooklyn Dodgers scout Al Campanis called him "the greatest natural athlete I ever saw as a free agent." After two years with Santurce, Clemente signed with Brooklyn in 1953 for a $10,000 bonus—the largest ever given to a Hispanic player at that time.

The Dodgers had no room for Clemente in their All-Star outfield and sent him to their top farm club in Montreal, where they kept him on the bench to try to hide his talents from other teams. But Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Branch Rickey drafted him when the Dodgers didn't protect him. The Pirates chose Clemente in the first round of the minor league draft on 22 November 1954. Months before beginning his major-league career, Clemente suffered severe and permanent spinal damage when a drunk driver hit his car while Clemente was returning from a hospital visit with his dying brother. His early career with the perennially last-place Pirates was marred by injuries, including lower back problems stemming from the accident.

In the 1960s, however, Clemente became one of the top players in baseball. Had he been a marquee player in New York, Clemente would have become a household name. Instead, he labored in relative obscurity in small-market Pittsburgh. During the 1960s Clemente batted over .300 nine out of ten seasons and four times led the National League in batting average (.351 in 1961, .339 in 1964, .329 in 1965, and .357 in 1967); he also led the league in hits in 1964 and 1967. He led his club to two World Series victories, in 1960 and in 1971, hitting safely in twelve consecutive World Series games and winning the series Most Valuable Player Award in 1971, when he hit .414. In 1966 he was named the National League's Most Valuable Player after years of complaining of being overlooked by the writers who voted for the award.

Sensitive to bigotry and to media portrayals that he thought denigrated his race—he was a Puerto Rican of African descent—Clemente distrusted reporters. His pride was easily offended, and he lacked the thick skin of other pioneers in baseball, such as Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball's longstanding color line. Early in his career, a few reporters labeled him a "hot dog" for his flashy style of play and frequent injuries, and he chafed at that description. He was a hypochondriac who suffered from insomnia, stomach disorders, headaches, and nagging back pain, but though he often complained, he didn't deserve his reputation as a malingerer.

Clemente's idiosyncratic, attention-getting style of play was perfectly suited to the 1960s, and he embodied the way baseball, like society, was changing. Baseball was no longer America's pastime; with the help of Clemente and others it became the world's game, with a new flair, a transcendent energy, and expanded athletic dimensions. Clemente worked so hard at baseball and played with such joyful abandon and distinctive style that he rose above the game's limitations. At bat he engaged in constant psychological warfare with the pitcher. Huddling deep in a corner of the batter's box, he exploded with a slashing swing, his legs and torso twisting in opposite directions. His quick hands and fluid stroke could reach balls in and out of the strike zone, and there was no place a pitcher could safely throw the ball.

In the outfield Clemente was extraordinary, running into walls, making diving catches, and flinging the ball to the infield with incredible speed. He won twelve Gold Glove awards for fielding excellence. His powerful arm, which many experts consider the most potent in baseball history, changed his opponents' game. Clemente routinely threw out runners going from first to third on base hits—a difficult feat for a right fielder—and sometimes he nailed batters on clean hits before they reached first base or nipped them as they rounded a bag too wide.

For most of his career Clemente returned to Puerto Rico every winter to play in the league where he had begun his professional career. In 1964 he married Vera Cristina Zabala in Carolina. They had three sons. Though not directly involved in politics, Clemente was always interested in the welfare of poor Hispanics, and he was Puerto Rico's biggest hero in the 1960s, a symbol of Puerto Rican pride.

When a devastating earthquake ravaged Managua, Nicaragua, on 23 December 1972, Clemente became consumed with chairing the Nicaraguan Relief Committee in Puerto Rico, going door to door in wealthy San Juan neighborhoods to raise money and personally supervising the loading of relief items on a DC-7. On the last day of the year Clemente boarded the plane bound for Nicaragua; it crashed shortly after taking off from San Juan.

On the last day of the 1972 season Clemente had gotten his 3,000th hit, joining an exclusive club of baseball's greatest players. He became the first Hispanic in baseball's Hall of Fame. Clemente opened the door for many Hispanic stars who followed. In the ensuing decades Latin America became the world's most fertile area for recruiting U.S. Major League Baseball players. Baseball changed dramatically because of Clemente's dedication to the game he loved.

Clemente's papers and further information regarding his career are available at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, New York. Biographies of Clemente include Phil Musick, Who Was Roberto? A Biography of Roberto Clemente (1974); Peter C. Bjarkman, Baseball Legends: Roberto Clemente (1991); Thomas W. Gilbert, Roberto Clemente (1991); Bruce W. Conord, Roberto Clemente (1994); and Bruce Markusen, Roberto Clemente: The Great One (1998). An obituary is in the New York Times (2 Jan. 1973).

Michael Betzold

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