Today I am highlighting the accomplishments of Roberto Clemente.
Roberto Clemente Walker (August 18, 1934 – December 31, 1972) was a Puerto Rican baseball right fielder who played 18 seasons inMajor League Baseball (MLB) for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 through 1972. Clemente was awarded the National League (NL) Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award in 1966. He was a National League All-Star for twelve seasons (15 games), received 12 Gold Glove Awards, and led the National League in batting average four times. In 1972, Clemente got his 3,000th major league hit.
Off the field, Clemente was involved in charity work in Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries, often delivering baseball equipment and food to those in need. He died in an aviation accident on December 31, 1972, while en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims inNicaragua. Clemente was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame posthumously in 1973, becoming the first Latin American to be selected and one of only two Hall of Fame members for whom the mandatory five-year waiting period had been waived, the other being Lou Gehrig. Clemente is the first Hispanic player to win a World Series as a starter (1960), receive an MVP Award (1966), and receive a World Series MVP Award (1971).
Roberto Clemente was born in Barrio San Anton, Puerto Rico, to Don Melchor Clemente and Luisa Walker, the youngest of seven siblings, with five brothers and one sister. During his childhood, his father worked as foreman of sugar crops located in the municipality. Because the family’s resources were limited, Clemente worked alongside his father in the same fields, loading and unloading trucks. Clemente showed interest in baseball early in life and often played against neighboring barrios.
On November 14, 1964, he married Vera Zabala at San Fernando Church in Carolina. The couple had three children: Roberto, Jr., Luis Roberto and Enrique Roberto.
Clemente debuted with the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 17, 1955 in the first game of a double header against the Brooklyn Dodgers. At the beginning of his time with the Pirates, he experienced frustration because of racial tension with the local media and some teammates. Clemente responded to this by stating, “I don’t believe in color”. He noted that, during his upbringing, he was taught to never discriminate against someone based on ethnicity. Clemente was at a double disadvantage at both being a Latino who knew very little English as well as being a black Latino; the Pirates themselves only became the fifth team in the National League and ninth in the majors to break the baseball color line the year before when Curt Roberts debuted with the team, a full seven years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line with the Dodgers. Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, Roberts would befriend Clemente and help him adjust to life in the majors, as well as to get used to life in Pittsburgh.
Early in the 1960 season, Clemente led the league, batting an average of .353 and scoring Runs Batted In (RBIs) in 25 out of 27 games. Roberto’s batting average stayed above the .300 mark throughout the course of the campaign. The Pirates compiled a 95–59 record during the regular season, winning the National League pennant, and defeated the New York Yankees in a seven-game World Series. Clemente batted .310 in the series, hitting safely at least once in every game.
During the 1970 campaign, Clemente compiled an average of .352; the Pirates won the National League East pennant but were subsequently eliminated by the Cincinnati Reds. In the 1971 season, the Pirates won the National League pennant and faced the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. Baltimore had won 100 games and swept the American League Championship Series, both for the third consecutive year, and were the defending World Series champions.
During much of his career, Clemente was often called by the Anglicized name of “Bob Clemente” by the media and in baseball merchandise such as baseball cards, even though he clearly preferred being called by his given first name of Roberto. According to contemporary accounts, “Roberto” was too exotic of a name at the time. Although Clemente was largely called Roberto by the late 1960′s, he was called Bob as late as 1972, when he collected his 3,000th hit and Pirates announcer Bob Prince referred to him as “Bobby” while calling the game for KDKA
Clemente spent much of his time during the off-season involved in charity work. When Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, was affected by a massive earthquake on Saturday December 23, 1972, Clemente (who had been visiting Managua three weeks before the quake) immediately set to work arranging emergency relief flights. He soon learned, however, that the aid packages on the first three flights had been diverted by corrupt officials of the Somoza government, never reaching victims of the quake.
Clemente decided to accompany the fourth relief flight, hoping that his presence would ensure that the aid would be delivered to the survivors. The airplane he chartered for a New Year’s Eve flight, a Douglas DC-7, had a history of mechanical problems and sub-par flight personnel, and it was overloaded by 4,200 pounds. It crashed into the ocean off the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico immediately after takeoff on Sunday December 31, 1972. A few days after the crash, the body of the pilot and part of the fuselage of the plane were found. An empty flight case apparently belonging to Clemente was the only personal item recovered from the plane. Clemente’s teammate and close friend Manny Sanguillén was the only member of the Pirates not to attend Roberto’s memorial service. The catcher chose instead to dive into the waters where Clemente’s plane had crashed in an effort to find his teammate. Clemente’s body was never recovered.
In an interview for the ESPN documentary series SportsCentury in 2002, Clemente’s widow Vera Clemente mentioned that Clemente had told her several times that he thought he was going to die young. Indeed, while being asked by a reporter about when he would get his 3,000th career hit in July 1971, Clemente’s response was “Well, uh, you never know. I, I, uh, if I’m alive, like I said before, you never know because God tells you how long you’re going to be here. So you never know what can happen tomorrow.”
At the time of his death, Clemente had established several records with the Pirates, including most triples in a game (three) and hits in two consecutive games (ten). Clemente also tied the record for most Gold Glove Awards won among outfielders with twelve, which he shares with Willie Mays. He also is the only player to have hit a walk-off inside-the-park grand slam. He accomplished this historic baseball-event on July 25, 1956 in a 9–8 Pittsburgh win against the Chicago Cubs, at Forbes Field. In addition, he was one of four players to have ten or more Gold Gloves and a lifetime batting average of .317.
On March 20, 1973, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America held a special election for the Baseball Hall of Fame. They voted to waive the waiting period for Clemente, due to the circumstances of his death, and posthumously elected him for induction into the Hall of Fame, giving him 393 of the 420 available votes, or 92% of the vote. MLB presents the Roberto Clemente Award every year to the player who best follows Clemente’s example with humanitarian work.