How Puerto Rican Baseball Icon Roberto Clemente Left a Legacy Off the Field

The first Latin American baseball player to record 3,000 hits, Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente won four batting crowns, 12 Gold Glove Awards and the 1966 National League Most Valuable Player award during his iconic career. A 15-time All-Star player, the Puerto Rico native led the Pittsburgh Pirates to two championships and was named 1971 World Series MVP at the age of 37.

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The superstar outfielder wowed fans with his mighty bat, quick feet and rocket arm, but Clemente was equally acclaimed on the diamond for his generous heart, charitable contributions, and fiery fight for social and economic justice.

“Clemente had a deep sense of empathy for others, and this was especially true in terms of class and socio-economics,” says University of Pittsburgh history professor Rob Ruck, author of Raceball: How the major leagues colonized the black and Latin game. “He’s always identified with the people down there, the underdogs.”

Clemente saw baseball as a way to improve the lives of the children of Puerto Rico, just as the sport had done for him. He brought baseballs and gloves to sick fans and organized baseball clinics across the island that educated thousands of children, especially those in poorer households, in more than baseball. “I bring kids together and talk about the importance of sport, the importance of being a good citizen, the importance of respecting their mother and father,” said Clemente. “Then we go to the baseball field and I show them some techniques for playing baseball.”

Throughout his baseball career, Clemente sought land and investors for what he called “the greatest ambition of my life” – a “sports town” where Puerto Rican children of all classes could live for. short periods and learn various sports.

Roberto Clemente confronts Jim Crow

Roberto Clemente hugged his mother at the San Juan airport in 1961, the year he won the National League batting title.

Roberto Clemente hugged his mother at the San Juan airport in 1961, the year he won the National League batting title.

After signing a big league contract as a teenager, Clemente came to the United States and first encountered Segregated Jim Crow during spring practice in Florida. Forced to stay in a rooming house instead of the Pittsburgh team hotel due to the color of his skin, the Pirate outfielder couldn’t eat at the same restaurants or go to the same theaters as his white teammates. He was banned from participating in the team golf tournament, attending a welcome lunch hosted by a local encore club, and even playing an exhibition game in Birmingham, Alabama.

As one of the few Latino baseball players in the majors in the 1950s, Clemente also suffered slights to his Puerto Rican heritage. He was irritated when the media anglicized his first name as “Bob” and “Bobby” and called out his broken English by phonetically printing his quotes.

“He was deeply offended by the racism he encountered in the United States in a way he had never encountered in Puerto Rico where there is no this race binary,” says Ruck. “He wasn’t just going to accept it.”

After being forced to stay on the Pirates’ team bus when he entered restaurants on spring training trips, Clemente warned his black teammates that he would fight them if they ate food that their white teammates were bringing back on the bus. Ignoring calls from other Latino players to stay silent, Clemente confronted the Pittsburgh general manager and forced him to buy breaks so non-white players could get to and from games so they didn’t have to. to endure the indignity of bus travel.]

Given his activism, Clemente considered Martin Luther King Jr. one of his heroes. The couple have met several times and the baseball player even welcomed King to his farm in Puerto Rico. After King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Clemente insisted that the Houston Pirates and Astros postpone their two-day season opener until after King’s funeral.

Clemente’s Death: A Mission of Mercy Ends in Tragedy

Referee Doug Harvey hands Roberto Clemente his 3,000th batted ball.

Referee Doug Harvey hands Roberto Clemente his 3,000th batted ball.

Weeks after scoring his 3,000th hit in his last batting game of the 1972 regular season, Clemente traveled with his wife, Vera, to Nicaragua, where he led a Puerto Rican team to the World Championships. amateur baseball.

“He and Vera fell in love with Nicaragua, and Nicaragua fell in love with them,” says Ruck. “He and Vera would take a walk every morning, and Roberto would just talk to the kids and ask them what they had for breakfast and rummage in his pockets to give them money.” Clemente even agreed to pay for a boy he befriended to travel to the United States to receive prosthetic legs.

A few weeks after Clemente returned to Puerto Rico, a 6.5 magnitude earthquake struck the Nicaraguan capital of Managua on December 23, 1972. It killed thousands and left hundreds of thousands homeless. . Even though the disaster occurred in a country nearly 1,500 miles from Puerto Rico, Clemente felt a sense of duty to help his fellow Latinos.

Instead of just donating money, he followed reports of the disaster scene on his ham radio and formed a relief committee to help the earthquake-stricken country. Clemente used his fame to solicit donations on Puerto Rican television and door-to-door in affluent neighborhoods. He worked 14 hours a day, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Eve, touring the island organizing local relief campaigns and running baseball clinics. Clemente’s committee raised over $ 150,000 in donations and collected 26 tons of food, clothing and medicine.

To expedite the delivery of supplies to the disaster area, Clemente leased two planes, including a propeller-driven DC-7 which, unbeknownst to him, had recently been damaged. When received reports of corrupt Nicaraguan soldiers withholding cargoes of aid, a disgusted Clemente decided to accompany the relief supplies on a New Year’s Eve flight. As 1972 was waning, Clemente said goodbye to his wife and three sons and boarded the DC-7 loaded with boxes. The improperly loaded aircraft, with a maximum weight of 4000 pounds, struggled to take off from the runway as an engine failed during takeoff. The plane crashed off in the Atlantic Ocean. None of the five people on board survived. Clemente’s body has never been found.

Clemente’s philanthropic legacy continues

While baseball has lost a star, the world has lost a humanitarian. Clemente’s memory, however, has endured. From Puerto Rico to Pittsburgh to Germany, there are schools, bridges, parks and ball fields named in his honor.

After Clemente’s death, the Puerto Rican government donated 304 acres near the neighborhood where the baseball star grew up to fulfill his dream of a sports complex. Roberto Clemente Sports City has served over a million children, including future major leagues Bernie Williams, Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez and Benito Santiago.

As part of National Hispanic Heritage Month, Major League Baseball celebrates Roberto Clemente Day every September 15, and each year it presents the Roberto Clemente Award to a player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, the spirit sport, community involvement and the contribution of the individual to his team. “

Clemente’s sons continued their father’s charitable work through the Roberto Clemente Foundation, which provides disaster relief as well as baseball clinics and programs for underprivileged youth. The charities of the foundation keep alive the spirit of one of Clemente’s sayings: “If you have a chance to accomplish something that will make things better for the people who follow you, and you don’t, you are wasting your time on this Earth. . “

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