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.