Roberto Clemente: Baseball's Last Great Hero

Ryan DonahueContributor IMarch 20, 2009

PITTSBURGH - JULY 7: Fans look over Roberto Clemente memorabilia during opening day of Fan Fest for the Major League Baseball 2006 All-Star game at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center July 7, 2006 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images)

I just returned from visiting the Hoard Museum in Fort Atkinson, Wis., where today was the last day that the Roberto Clemente exhibit would be there, and I didn't want to miss it.  I called my friend Nick up and we drove over.

When we arrived we were met by a nice older couple who ran the place.  They gave us a bit of information and showed us the way to a small hall where a video from the PBS series American Experience would be shown about Clemente's life. 

Fifty minutes later, I was humbled and awestruck by the the God-send's life.  Clemente was unique and very ahead of his time spiritually and physically.  Long before the New Age movement took off in the West, Clemente was experimenting with various vitamin and supplement concoctions he believed would improve his physical prowess. 

Deeper than that, he also believed in mystical abilities, not least of which was an ability to connect between life and death.  His older sister died when he was just a baby.  He said that at various times throughout his life he felt his sister standing right beside him.  There was a melancholy about him which he carried his whole life.  

Being one of the first Latin Americans to break into the big leagues, he regularly had trouble with a cynical press.  They made fun of his accent and the way he would talk about his pain, both physical and emotional.  He broke the mold of the stoic player's kingdom; a feat with which the press, fans, and fellow players all had trouble grappling.

Having grown up poor and disenfranchised in Carolina, Puerto Rico, in life his heart was as big as his legend would become in death.  The season after he helped the Pirates win the World Series, Clemente batted his 3,000th hit on a double in 1972.  The fans cheered for minutes, so intensely that players stopped playing until the stands were quited.  In December that year there was a terrible earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Clemente bought tons of relief supplies and sent them to the disaster ridden country.  After vandals stole the relief supplies, Clemente boarded a plane carrying relief supplies from his native Puerto Rico to personally oversee their distribution.  A few minutes after the old plane took off it crashed into the sea, taking Clemente's life.  The current took almost all the wreckage out to sea and with it, his body.

This was a man who gave his life helping people.  He gave most of his money away to charities and to helping the poor in America, Puerto Rico and Nicaragua.  

Clemente once said, ''Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don't, then you are wasting your time on Earth.'' To complement that mantra, he also said,

"I am convinced that God wanted me to be a baseball player. I was born to play baseball."

There is no doubt about the validity of those two statements.  His life ripples through the ages, touching all who saw him, all who heard of him and all whom he has moved.  America and its past time is better for his American experience.