34 Years Ago Today

Baseball legend Roberto Clemente died 34 years ago today.

Born into humble circumstances on August 18, 1934 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Clemente was a gifted athlete with a passion for baseball, and by the time he was 17, he was playing for the Santurce Crangejeros, a Puerto Rican minor league team.

Roberto was a real talent who could do it all; he could hit to all fields with power, he was a great baserunner, and he had an incomparably strong throwing arm.

While playing for Santurce, he was discovered and drafted by the Dodgers, signed to play for the same AAA Montreal Royals that Jackie Robinson played for, and experienced much of the same types of racial discrimination.

On top of that, because he was a bonus baby, Clemente had to fight through the Dodgers’ efforts to hide his talents. Not wanting other clubs to discover how good he really was, the Royals’ manager would keep Roberto, a right-handed batter, out of the lineup against left-handed pitching, and would bench him enough to prevent him from getting into any sort of rhythm with his swing.

But some talents cannot be hidden, and realizing how good Roberto could be, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed him after the 1954 season for $4,000.

After a mediocre rookie season (he only hit .255), Clemente hit .311 in 1956 and began to form his reputation as one of the best players in the game. In the field, he made spectacular catches and threw out runners all over the basepaths with his incredibly strong and lethally accurate arm (Vin Scully once said that Clemente could field the ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania), and at the plate, he hit to all parts of the field and came up with big hits in clutch situations.

But not all was perfect in Pittsburgh. Clemente felt out of place and isolated there, living in a city with no Hispanic community to speak of. Proud of his Latino heritage, he bristled when sportswriters called him “Bobby”, and was constantly accused by the media and fans alike of being a hypochondriac, despite the fact that he played in constant back pain from a spinal injury he suffered in a car accident during his rookie season, and played 152 games during the 1965 season while suffering from an attack of malaria.

Roberto also felt under-appreciated as a Latino star playing for the small-market Pirates, as he received little nationwide attention despite leading Pittsburgh to a World Series title in 1960 and winning batting titles in 1961 and 1964. Even after a dazzling 1966 season that won him the National League MVP award, he was still not as well-known as other stars like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.

By 1971, Clemente was a veteran of 16 seasons in the Major Leagues, and was undoubtedly one of the very top players in the game, but still didn’t receive much national attention. But in 1971, the Pirates played the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series, finally putting Roberto in the national spotlight, and he made the most of it. He played inspired baseball, hitting .414 for the series with 12 hits and two home runs, while playing his usual spectacular defense in the outfield. Pittsburgh won the series four games to three, and Clemente won the MVP award for the series.

The next fall, on September 30, 1972, Clemente doubled off of Jon Matlack of the New York Mets. It was the 3,000th hit of his illustrious career.

It would also turn out to be his last.

After the end of the season, on December 23, 1972, a severe earthquake hit the city of Managua, Nicaragua, killing over 7,000 people and leaving over 250,000 homeless. Roberto, who had previously traveled to Nicaragua and had many friends there, was affected very deeply, and, according to his wife, said over and over, “Something has to be done! Somebody has to do something!”

What he did was to work furiously over the next few days collecting supplies and donations for the earthquake victims. He worked close to 20 hours a day, sleeping very little, and not even taking the time to open Christmas presents. But his work was a success, as he collected over $150,000 and more than 26 tons of clothing, food and medicine.

Roberto hired an old DC-7 airplane to take some of the supplies down to Nicaragua on December 31, but the plane was barely in the air when one of the engines began to vibrate and caught fire. After a series of explosions, the plane fell to the Atlantic Ocean, within a mile of the Puerto Rican coast. There were no survivors, and the bodies of Clemente and the other four passengers were never recovered.

In 1973, Clemente became the second Latin American to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Baseball commissioner Bowie Kühn waived the mandatory five-year waiting period, saying it wasn’t necessary “because of how great Clemente was as a player, how great he was as a leader and how great he was as a humanitarian.”

Kühn also said:

“[Clemente] gave the term ‘complete’ a new meaning. He made the word ‘superstar’ seem inadequate. He had about him the touch of royalty.”

Apart from being a Hall of Fame caliber player, Roberto Clemente was a pioneer, whose excellence in the Big Leagues opened the door for the Latin American players of the future. Due in large part to his accomplishments, Latin Americans dominate today’s game as never before.

But Clemente was more than that. In his life, he was the pride of Latin America, and a hero and example for his teammates, his fans and his family. In his death, he was the pride of the whole world, and was a hero and example for all of us.

Roberto Clemente’s life made him famous; his death made him a legend.

Sources for this post include The Baseball Almanac, BaseballLibrary.com, El Pelotero Online, Latino Sports Legends, and Baseball Reference.


Looking for a Good Movie to Watch?

I know that Christmas might technically over, but I’m not having Christmas with my family until tomorrow night, so for me it isn’t. Based on that, and the fact that I find myself with some extra time over the holidays, I am pleased to present you with Luke’s Top 10 Movies to Watch over the Holidays. Enjoy.

10. Holiday Inn (1942): Bing Crosby runs an inn that is open only for the holidays and tries to prevent Fred Astaire from stealing his girl. Contrary to popular belief, Bing’s Christmas classic jingle, “White Christmas” comes from this movie.

9. A Christmas Story (1983) has been somewhat of a cult classic in recent years, and features young Ralphie’s quest to obtain a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Humorous and quaint, TBS does both the film and the entire world a great disservice by showing it for 24 hours straight on Christmas Day.

8. The Empire Strikes Back (1980): Okay, I know that technically, The Empire Strikes Back is not a Christmas movie, but it still fits in this list for several reasons: (1) There is a lot of snow in it, (2) the wampa ice creatures kind of look like polar bears, (3) Boba Fett embodies the true spirit of Christmas when he gives Jabba the Hutt what he’s always wanted: Han Solo all wrapped up in carbonite, and (4) what time of year is not a good time to watch the Best Of All Star Wars Movies?

7. A Christmas Carol (1951): The best of all the versions I’ve seen of Dickens’ classic tale (with the possible exception of the Disney version). The ghost of Jacob Marley may be pretty laughable now, but I bet he scared kids to death in 1951.

6. Elf (2003) is probably the funniest Christmas movie of all time. I’m not a big Will Ferrell fan, but he is outstanding as Buddy the Elf. Also, Zooey Deschanel's version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is probably the best ever.

5. Miracle on 34th Street (1947): I actually hadn’t seen the original version until this year, and was pleasantly surprised at how good it is. It certainly deserves its status as a Christmas classic.

4. The Shop Around the Corner (1940): This movie is not as well known as You’ve Got Mail, which was based on it, but it is a lot better. James Stewart, Frank Morgan, William Tracy and Felix Bressart all put in good performances, and it would be even better if Stewart’s love interest in the movie (Margaret Sullivan) didn’t look quite so much like a chipmunk.

3. Home Alone (1990): Macaulay Culkin may have been the best child actor of all time, and this is his best movie. What helps this movie the most is that for years it was played on Thanksgiving night, and really signified the beginning of the Christmas season.

2. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969): I consider myself to be somewhat of a James Bond expert, and this is my favorite Bond movie, and George Lazenby is my favorite Bond actor. The movie is set up in the Alps (among other places) and really does have a Christmas-y feel to it, complete with ice skating and carols, snow, and Christmas presents.

The opening scene might be my favorite of the movie, with some pretty cool camera work and Lazenby breaking the fourth wall by looking at the camera and saying, “This never happened to the other fellow.” Diana Rigg also does a great job playing the only Bond girl who succeeded in getting James to walk down the aisle.

1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) has been the stereotypical Christmas movie for years, always appearing on network TV, which is kind of a shame, as it makes people take it for granted and not appreciate how good it really is. Of all the movies on this list, It’s a Wonderful Life is the only one which would also rank high my list of Best Movies of All-Time.

Arguably the movie for which James Stewart is best known for, It’s a Wonderful Life was also the first movie he appeared in after his decorated service in World War II, and apparently, he wasn’t sure if he still had it or not. Just watch the scene in Martini’s bar where a distraught George Bailey is praying, and you can see that he was still at the top of his game.

So there you have it: Luke’s Top 10 Movies to Watch over the Holidays. What do you think? Am I right on target, or way off base? Either way, I hope you enjoyed the list, and enjoy the rest of the holiday season.


He Was Right on Time

I discovered from reading another blog the other day that one of my heroes, Buck O’Neil, was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. O’Neil passed away back in October at the age of 94, after being involved with baseball for over 70 years.

Having already played some semi-pro ball, Buck O’Neil broke into the Negro Leagues in 1937, 10 years before Jackie Robinson would integrate the Major Leagues. His best years came with the Kansas City Monarchs, where he won two batting titles, played in four East-West All-Star games, and won several championships.

O’Neil was past his prime by the time that Robinson suited up for the Dodgers, so he never got the chance to play in the Major Leagues, but he remained very active in organized baseball, taking over managing duties for the Monarchs and leading them to two more championships.

After leaving the Monarchs, O’Neil became a successful scout for the Chicago Cubs (he signed future Hall of Famer Lou Brock), and in 1962 became the first black coach in the Major Leagues (also with the Cubs). He stayed with the Cubs a long time, and later scouted for the Kansas City Royals.

I first heard of Buck O’Neil the same way that most of the world did, when he appeared in Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary, Baseball. In the film, O’Neil gleefully recalled his days in the Negro Leagues and introduced America to a side of its national pastime that it had mostly forgotten about. And as he described his life as a baseball player who was systematically excluded from the Major Leagues because of the color of his skin, he did so graciously, without a hint of bitterness.

In 1994, O’Neil’s tireless work led to the creation of the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Missouri, and also to the Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans’ Committee voting in many Negro Leaguers that would have otherwise been forgotten.

Despite all this, O’Neil was himself forgotten on too many ballots back in July, when he missed being elected to the Hall of Fame by a single vote, on what was widely rumored to be the last vote on which Negro Leaguers would be inducted. It appeared that Buck had missed out again.

But you wouldn’t think so to hear his reaction:

“God's been good to me. They didn't think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That's the way they thought about it and that's the way it is, so we're going to live with that. Now, if I'm a Hall of Famer for you, that's all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don't weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful.”

Maybe that’s not such a surprising statement from a man that Ken Burns described this way, in O’Neil's autobiography, I Was Right on Time:

“John Jordan O’Neil is a hero, not in the superficial sporting sense of a man who homers in the ninth to win a game, but in the human sense of a man we all should look to and strive to be more like. His life reflects the past and contains many of the bitter experiences that our country reserved to men of his color, but there is no bitterness in him; it’s not so much that he put that suffering behind him as that he has brought gold and light out of bitterness and despair, loneliness and suffering. He knows that he can go farther with generosity and kindness than with anger and hate…He is my hero, my friend, my mentor; he is, like Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson, what human progress is all about.”

It seems like Buck O’Neil was always coming at the wrong time: he was too old to make it to the Majors, missed out on the last HOF induction for Negro Leaguers by a single vote, and was awarded the Medal of Freedom after he had passed away.

But as Buck himself would be quick to point out, he was right on time. He was right on time to play alongside some of the greatest baseball players in history. He was right on time to witness and take part in the changing of millions of hearts and attitudes. He was right on time to keep the memories of the Negro Leagues alive and to pass its heritage on. And he was right on time to remind us, like Ken Burns said, that we can go farther with generosity and kindness than with anger and hate. Thanks Buck, for being right on time.

Thanks for signing that baseball I sent you too.


Back to School Time…

Well, I finally got the official news yesterday: I have been accepted to Graduate School at the University of Arkansas. I will start taking Spanish classes in January.

I actually started the application process back in September, but it has been a long string of problems, delays and red tape. But, I am finally in, so I won’t complain too much.

I’ve been a Razorback fan my entire life, but for the first time ever, I will actually be one myself. Woo pig.


Think Outside the Bun? No Thanks.

This may come as a shocker to many of you, but apparently, Taco Bell has been using some Less Than Top Notch ingredients.

The number of possible E. coli cases related to Taco Bell restaurants has passed 200 and has ranged across several states, causing many people to think twice before making a “run for the border”, and the share price of parent company Yum! to fall 5.6% over a three-day period.

Jeff Omohundro, a Wachovia analyst in Richmond, Virginia suggested that the E. coli outbreak could lead to a “short-term, although potentially significant negative sales impact at Taco Bell.”

Although Mr. Omohundro is certainly more qualified to give an opinion on this than I am, I agree with him: people do generally try to avoid ingesting potentially lethal bacteria.

On top of the bad publicity and the drop in stock prices, Taco Bell will also undoubtedly suffer from legal expenses as well, as many of the victims have already filed lawsuits.

I might personally feel some sympathy for Taco Bell, if it wasn’t for the fact that they tried to bump me off last week with a tainted chicken quesadilla. I’m virtually certain that my week-long illness had nothing to do with the E. coli cases, but I’m still bitter. After all, I felt so bad that I haven’t been able to update my blog.*

*For those of you about to mention that I rarely update anyway, bite your tongues.

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