Roberto Clemente: A Tribute to the Great One

Fifty years after his death, the legacy of Roberto Clemente endures — and that is certain to continue.
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PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE CLEMENTE MUSEUM

I connected with Roberto Clemente long before his name graced a bridge, a wall, schools all over the country, athletic fields from Puerto Rico to Germany, public parks, awards, statues, postage stamps and a crown jewel of a museum.

His autograph adorned my first baseball glove — a gift for my 12th birthday in 1961, the year he played in the first of his 15 All-Star games, won the first of his 12 consecutive Golden Gloves and earned the first of his four Silver Sluggers as a batting champion.

What’s more, the first Spanish word learned by this grandson of European immigrants was “Arriba!” — an exclamation that Pittsburgh Pirates announcer Bob Prince shouted whenever Clemente electrified fans with a clutch hit. Arriba translates to rise, ascend or soar — an apt term for a transcendent trailblazer who overcame racial and cultural barriers in his sport and rose to the occasion off the field to help youngsters and those in need.

Anniversaries trigger memories, and recollections surge back 50 years after Clemente delivered his 3,000th hit, appeared in uniform for the last time — and then disappeared on Dec. 31, 1972, aboard a doomed airplane on a mission of mercy.

You never know what you have until it vanishes.

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Ongoing Reverence

His golden legacy merits an Ode To Roberto, the original Great One, the first Pirate of the Caribbean, a swashbuckling pathfinder, peerless right fielder, husband, father of three sons, military veteran and humanitarian.

Having achieved a lofty orbit rarely reached by mere mortals, Clemente is revered more in death than he was in life. His stardom is frozen in time, unassailable. His regal face never wrinkled. No gray speckled his hairline. No paunch marred his waistline.

“His legacy keeps growing and growing and growing. New generations want to know more about him. His reach is international. He deserves every adulation,” says Duane Rieder, executive director and curator of the Clemente Museum in Lawrenceville. “He saw things differently than the rest of us. He had his eye on more than just the ball.”

In what was once Engine House 25, the museum features 600 framed photos and historical documents, racks of baseball bats, cases of baseballs and the Clemente family album.

The building itself is like a perpetual 21-gun salute to the man who wore No. 21, the ultimate hand in Blackjack. The building’s foundation is 21 inches thick. The structure’s frame is made of 21-inch steel beams manufactured by a Carnegie company. An effort is ongoing to retire No. 21 throughout baseball, similar to what was done for Jackie Robinson’s No. 42.

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Most Exciting Player 

Baseball tracks greatness with statistics. Clemente had a .317 batting average over 18 seasons and a .314 average in 26 postseason games, and he led the league five times in throwing out runners. The National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1966, he was the MVP of the 1971 World Series and was the first Latino enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

The measure of artistry is more subjective, however. Arguably, Clemente was the most exciting player in the game and the closest thing to nobility ever to enthrall a sports-obsessed city. He could create a spark at any time with his eye-popping catches, his gallop around the bases or the cudgel of a bat that he swung.

When teams such as the Phillies and the Yankees toured the museum this year, modern players marveled at Clemente’s lumber. His bat was 36 inches long and weighed as much as 39 ounces. That’s about 18% heavier than what today’s players swing.

The richness of his portrait is enhanced more by nuanced detail than broad brushstrokes. His eyes are windows that show grace and grit, finesse and fury, passion and pride; all are the complexities of a champion.

Remembered fondly are his mannerisms — the constant rolling of his neck to relieve a crick resulting from a 1954 car accident, the flair of his signature basket catch, the way he hustled to first base on a come-backer to the pitcher.

The islanders called his arm a gift from God, and his throwing motion was honed by the way he flung the javelin in high school. With that arm, he could turn an opponent’s base hit into an embarrassing out by picking off an unwary runner at first base, even if throwing behind a runner went against the grain of baseball orthodoxy.

Superstars do things that have never been duplicated, like the time in 1956 when Clemente won a game with an inside-the-park grand slam in the bottom of the ninth. He tripled three times in one game in 1958, no doubt outrunning his batting helmet on his race around the bases.

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He made it to the big leagues in 1955 when no major league franchise existed west of St. Louis, and Pittsburgh was a blue-collar, industrial hub pining for a winning baseball team.

Elsewhere in 1955, Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was approved for use. Disneyland opened in California. Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person in Alabama. Parks and Clemente both received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

The son of a working man who once chopped sugar cane with a machete, Clemente was the youngest of seven children who came of age in the barrio of his hometown of Carolina. Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, he was born an American citizen, but he never experienced racism until he came to the mainland.

In his first spring training with the Pirates in Fort Myers, Florida, Clemente had to live and eat separately from his white teammates under Jim Crow segregation laws. Blacks didn’t embrace him, either, due to his Puerto Rican accent.

Clemente reacted to slurs the same way he did when a Don Drysdale or a Bob Gibson would back him off the plate by zipping a fastball under his chin. He dug in with deeper determination to show the world he should be judged by his deeds, not the color of his skin or the way he spoke English.

His rookie year was like Caribbean spice meeting Heinz ketchup. At age 20, when he was 1,730 miles away from home, Clemente persevered even though he was called hot-blooded, a showboat and a hypochondriac, among other things. In 1971, when he was 37, Clemente was part of the first all-minority lineup fielded in the big leagues.

Clemente’s other uniform was issued by Uncle Sam. Drafted into the Armed Forces in 1958, he fulfilled his military commitment by enlisting in the Marine Corps Reserve, an arrangement that allowed him to keep playing baseball. He excelled even in boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. Clemente set what were then records for most chin-ups and fastest time through the obstacle course, and he is enshrined in the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame.

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Incalculable influence

No statistic exists for the number of people Clemente influenced.

As just one example, a young catcher named Felix Modesto Conde-Falcon saw Clemente play for the Ferdinand Juncos team in the Puerto Rican League in 1950. Inspired, Conde left the island for Chicago to try out with the White Sox. Although he didn’t make it in baseball, Conde did the next best thing and joined the Army. Killed in action in 1969 while serving with the 82nd Airborne in South Vietnam, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Clemente even broke ground in interviews. When he was voted MVP of the 1971 Series, he spoke the first Spanish words on U.S. network television, saying in post-game comments in his native language: “On the proudest day of my life, to my children I give my blessing, and from my parents, I ask their blessing from Puerto Rico.”

A continuous loop at the museum shows the video of Clemente’s 3,000th hit, a double that made him the 11th major leaguer in history to reach that milestone. Willie Mays, then with the New York Mets, broke protocol and came off the bench to congratulate him. Mays and Clemente are the only two players to win 12 consecutive Gold Gloves.

The freeze-frame image of Clemente is of a virtuoso in cleats at second base, doffing his cap to acknowledge the fans after his historic hit. He added four more hits in losing a playoff series with the Reds, but that final hit of the regular season was his crowning glory. Clemente may have had a premonition that he would die young, but nobody had an inkling the curtain had come down. It was just taken for granted he would come back and get more hits the next season.

Then, two months into the off-season, Clemente gathered medical supplies and other essentials to assist the victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. When the stuff wasn’t reaching those who needed it most because of government corruption, Clemente figured he could break the logjam by showing up in person.

On the last day of 1972, Clemente loaded supplies onto a four-engine cargo plane. Major League pitcher Tom Walker, who was playing winter ball, volunteered to go on the mission. Clemente insisted that he stay behind. If Walker had boarded that plane, he would never have fathered his son Neil, himself a former Pirate known as The Pittsburgh Kid.

Clemente’s plane, with four others aboard, plunged into the sea shortly after takeoff. His body was never recovered. There was no chance to say goodbye.

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Baseball writers waived the five-year eligibility rule and voted Clemente into the Hall of Fame in 1973.

While his legacy continues, a lifelong dream he had of creating a sanctuary for underprivileged youth in Puerto Rico, appears lost. Roberto Clemente Sports City is in ruins, battered by recent hurricanes after suffering years of neglect.

Clemente’s hope was to create a safe place for the kids to play sports. After Clemente’s death, the Puerto Rican government donated land and money to Vera Clemente, the grieving widow left to raise three sons on her own. She called Sports City her “fourth son,” but she had no experience in creating and managing such an endeavor.

Truth be told, the land was primarily wetlands, hardly ideal for athletic fields, and was inconveniently located. It fulfilled its mission for a time, but Sports City was down at the heels years before Hurricane Maria obliterated the grounds five years ago. In June of this year, the Puerto Rican Legislative Assembly voted to reclaim the 304 acres, and questions are being asked about where all the subsidies went.

“It was a robbery that the government wants to do against the legacy of Roberto Clemente,” says his son Luis Clemente, who took over Sports City after his mother’s death.

In another twist, the Clemente family filed a lawsuit against the government, claiming the unauthorized use of Clemente’s image on a postage stamp infringed on a copyright.

Rising above such discord will require some Clemente-like magic. Still, his eminence endures.

Clementeportraits6At the museum in Lawrenceville, new artifacts are constantly surfacing. Rieder also wants to install an elevator to make it accessible to those with mobility issues so more people can visit. He has no doubt the museum will enlighten generations of fans to come by keeping Clemente’s memory relevant for those too young to have seen him play.

Clemente’s name graces the award presented annually by Major League Baseball to its man of the year. Japan has a similar award bearing his name. Baseball also observes a day in his honor during the season. This year was the 21st year of Roberto Clemente Day, and his grandson tossed out the ceremonial first pitch when the Pirates played the Mets in New York.

Roberto Clemente III wore No. 21.

For a man who filled his time on Earth helping others, maybe more things should be named after him. Perhaps there’s room for another statue dedicated to philanthropy.

Fifty years on from his death, Roberto Clemente is still ascendant.


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Tributes

“His legacy keeps growing and growing and growing. New generations want to know more about him. His reach is international. He deserves every adulation.”
— Duane Rieder

“He was the greatest God-given talent I ever saw on a baseball diamond. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do as well as, if not better, than anybody in the game.”
—Dick Groat

“I can’t think of any other player that had that much pride. He was proud to be Roberto Clemente.”
— Al Oliver

“Clemente was the best human being I ever met.”
— Manny Sanguillen

“He was the essence of dignity and pride.”
— Steve Blass

“He was a complete athlete and a genuine superstar … But the greatest testimonial to how great Roberto Clemente was, was the tremendous interest he took
in the youth of Puerto Rico.”
— Wilmer (“Vinegar Bend”) Mizell, former teammate and U.S. congressman

“He was the Jackie Robinson of the Latins, the first to make it big.”
— Felipe Alou, former baseball player and manager

“Everybody who dreams of putting on a uniform in Puerto Rico dreams of being Roberto Clemente.”
— Sandy Alomar, former baseball player

“Clemente lived and played like a champion and died as a hero. Our hero.”
— Pedro Pierluisi, governor of Puerto Rico

“We treat him like a king in Nicaragua. He deserved that.”
— Dennis Martinez, former baseball player

“As long as athletes and humanitarians are honored, Roberto Clemente’s memory will live.”
— former President Richard Nixon

Robert Dvorchak is an author/historian and former Pirates beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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