Roberto Clemente’s effort on the field paled in his commitment to aid his fellow man.
Forty years ago Roberto Clemente Walker boarded a plane headed to earthquake-ravaged Managua, Nicaragua to deliver supplies to needy victims. The Douglas DC-7 carrying only Clemente, the pilot and supplies crashed into the ocean off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico moments after takeoff. Clemente’s body was never recovered.
In the decades following his untimely death, baseball and sports has been unsuccessful in filling the void left by this extraordinary man.
In the years following the integration in baseball in America, Roberto Clemente became its first great Hispanic player and sports’ greatest humanitarian. A native of Carolina, Puerto Rico, Clemente worked delivering milk cans in the barrios to earn money while his father worked as a foreman of sugar crops. These were the formative years of Clemente’s work ethic and committment to public service.
Clemente began his pro career in the Puerto Rican Professional League in the early 1950’s. He was offered a contract by the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate two years later. When Clemente joined the Montreal Royals, he struggled with colder weather and the obvious language barrier. Spanish-speaking teammate Joe Black helped Clemente adjust to life in Canada. The Royals played Clemente sparingly, but his talent could not escape the watchful eye of Pittsburgh Pirates scout Clyde Sukeforth.
Clemente was taken by the Pittsburgh Pirates with their first pick in the 1954 draft. He made his Major League debut on April 17, 1955. Once in Pittsburgh, Clemente endured his share of racism from the Pittsburgh media and some teammates — something he had been warned of growing up in Puerto Rico.
Clemente was involved in a car accident midway through his rookie season — which injured his lower back. The injury caused him trouble when it came to hitting certain pitches. Clemente batted a modest .255 in his rookie campaign, but his play in the outfield made him a standout. The Pirates were a squad consistently on the short end of victories and were looking to rebound with young talent. In 1959, the Pirates enjoyed their first winning season in a decade.
In an effort to strengthen his body, Clemente skipped winter ball and joined the United States Marine Corp Reserve. The rigorous training added ten pounds of muscle to his body and his back problems stemming from the car accident disappeared. He remained in a reserve status with the Marine Corps until 1964.
In the 1960’s, Clemente cemented himself as one of the game’s greatest players and forged a legacy lasting to this day. In 1960, the Pittsburgh Pirates would defeat the New York Yankees in seven games to win the World Series. Clemente enjoyed a breakout season at the plate, batting .314 with 16 home runs. Clemente became the first Hispanic player to win a World Series as a starting player. Since his back was no longer an issue, he sought to fine tune his hitting by using a heavier bat to slow down his swing. From 1961 through 1972, Clemente would bat under .300 only once. He was a 12-time All-Star, won four batting titles in six seasons and was named the National League MVP in 1966. In 1971, the Pirates defeated the Baltimore Orioles to win another World Series championship as Clemente was named MVP.
Clemente played only 102 games in the 1972 season due to injuries. He still managed to bat .312 with 10 home runs and 60 RBIs. On September 30, 1972, in his last regular season at bat, Clemente hit a double off Jon Matlack for his 3,000th career hit.
Clemente dedicated his off seasons to charities and humanitarian causes. Ironically, he visited Managua weeks before the quake. Upon news of the disaster, he immediately assembled relief flights to send aid to the victims.
The first three flights carrying aid had been intercepted by rogue officials of the Somoza government, those supplies never reached the quake victims. Clemente decided to accompany the fourth flight — hoping his presence might allow the aid to reach the victims. In order to compensate for the three previous trips the plane was overloaded by 4,200 lbs. causing the crash that claimed one of Puerto Rico’s most beloved sons. Who knows what fate might have awaited Clemente in Managua if he tried to reason with unreasonable men? Life has a way of protecting us from a greater pain than what already exists.
Clemente passed away in the same year I was born. Growing up in a community with Blacks and Hispanics his image was hard to ignore. I remember walking by murals of Clemente painted on the sides of gutted houses or maybe a faded picture in the front window of a home. Hispanic kids rocked the #21 like we cherish Jordan’s #23. Baseball honors Clemente’s memory with an award in his name given to the player who best exemplifies his humanitarian spirit. For those of us who could relate to Clemente, those tributes came much sooner.
Clemente’s effect on those around him can be summed up with the following: Pirates catcher Manny Sanguillen was the only player from the Pirates who skipped Clemente’s memorial service. He instead chose to swim the waters where the plane went down hoping to find his teammates body.
With so much going on in the world today, we need to look no further than our own front door to embrace and display the same spirit.