On the Fast Track: Duane Rieder

With 1,000 rare photos, clothing and trophies, Duane Rieder opens a museum with his personal collection of memorabilia dedicated to Roberto Clemente.

Photo by Rob Larson

In a former Lawrenceville firehouse complete with a fire pole, Duane Rieder is living out a childhood dream. Pittsburgh Engine House No. 25 on Penn Avenue, with its brick turrets and bright-red front door, is the 46-year-old photographer’s shrine for a collection of memorabilia—not of firefighters, but of his hero, Pirate baseball legend Roberto Clemente.

As a commercial photographer with a special interest in sports portraiture, Rieder loves the Clemente image, in all senses of the word. “I just love what he stood for. And I love photographs of him,” says Rieder, greeting a visitor in a black ball cap with the 21 logo on it. “With Clemente, every shot is a winner—he took great pictures, as if he knew they would be displayed one day.” His two-story collection of 1,000 rare photos, contracts, clothing and trophies, including two of Clemente’s 12 Gold Glove awards, will be the backdrop for the premiere screening of “Clemente,” a PBS documentary by director Michael Chin. It will air Mon., April 21, at 9 p.m., on “American Experience” on WQED-TV 13.

“I’m a fan of old baseball,” says Rieder. “I love the look of the old sepia-toned images.” When an assignment for a 1994 Clemente calendar took him to San Juan to meet Clemente’s widow, Vera, they kindled a friendship that has continued, sharing images, memories and stories of the right-fielder, whose plane, delivering relief to Nicaraguan earthquake victims, crashed on Dec. 31, 1972. The world mourned baseball’s first Latino Hall of Famer, who had been named World Series MVP just a year earlier.

“We see clips of him running the bases or catching a ball, but we don’t really know the man that he was,” says Rieder. Rieder hopes his collection, which opens officially in mid-April, should help to enhance Clemente’s standing in a city that has honored him since he first joined the Pirates in 1955.

Rieder’s personal collection is augmented by some items lent by Vera Clemente, who continues to live in the house her husband built in Puerto Rico. “She’s one of the best people I’ve met in my life,” says Rieder. Pittsburghers glimpsed images from the collection in a popular show at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Sen. John Heinz History Center last year. However, Rieder’s Penn Avenue collection is separate from both the sports museum and other Clemente charities. It is not connected to the Clemente Foundation, which operates only in the United States, or to Sports City, the 304-acre recreation complex Clemente’s widow had built on land in his hometown of Carolina, Puerto Rico, after his death.

Former Little Leaguer Rieder grew up in St. Marys, Elk County, playing on teams with his three brothers. “Right field,” he clarifies. “How about that?” Since 1996, when he bought the 1896 firehouse that once had served as a City of Pittsburgh parks department garage, his brothers have helped him remodel the space, which doubles as his studio, although he lives in the South Hills.

When he discovered recently that Lou Gehrig had once spent a night at the building in 1927, accepting an invitation from a firefighter friend, Zip Sloane, Rieder immediately saw a connection between two baseball legends. Gehrig and Clemente were the only players in history inducted during a special election separate from the one held each year to determine which players should be honored in the Hall of Fame.

Rieder’s enthusiasm for Clemente is a passion shared all over the region. Rieder thinks he knows why.

“There’s no negativity about Roberto Clemente. He is forever young. He’s our shining star.”

(3339 Penn Ave., Lawrenceville. Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. $10; children, $5. 412/621-1268)