Roberto Clemente: Prejudice, Pride, Boasting and Greatness

Harold FriendChief Writer ISeptember 23, 2011

PITTSBURGH - OCTOBER 16:  Roberto Clemente statue outside Three Rivers Stadium is shown on October 16, 1994 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Roberto Clemente made his major league debut on April 17, 1955 with the Pittsburgh Pirates.  He batted third and played right field in the the first game of a Sunday doubleheader at Forbes Field.

Facing left-hander Johnny Podres, who would become Brooklyn's greatest World Series hero six months later, Clemente singled his first at-bat and scored on Frank Thomas' triple.

Roberto was called "Bob" because many Americans were uncomfortable with foreign names, but that was relatively mild. Baseball writers referred to "Bob" as a "dusky flyer" and a "chocolate-colored islander."

They ridiculed his English when they wrote that, when he was asked how the cold weather affected him, he said,  "I no run fast cold weather."

Clemente could not be intimidated. In 1955, a radio show host paid him a compliment when he said, "You remind me of another rookie outfielder who could run, throw and get those clutch hits. Young fellow of ours, name of Willie Mays."

Without being disrespectful, Clemente told the host, "I play like Roberto Clemente."

Later in his career, he boasted, "Pitch me outside," he would say, "I will hit .400. Pitch me inside, and you will not find the ball."

There were only between 20 and 25 Hispanic major leaguers in the mid-1950s. They were hardly treated with the respect they deserved.

In 1960, the Pirates won the pennant for the first time since 1927. Clemente batted .314/.357/.458 with 16 home runs and 94 RBIs. Teammate Dick Groat batted .325/.374/.394 with two home runs and 50 RBIs.

Groat was voted the MVP. Clemente finished a distant eighth, receiving one first place compared to Groat's 16.

In 1966, the Pirates finished third, but only three games behind the first place Los Angeles Dodgers. Clemente hit .317 with 29 home runs and 119 RBIs. He was the MVP.

From 1961-1972, Clemente averaged a .331 batting average, 17 homers and 81 RBIs.

Those who never saw Clemente play may not realize that he was as talented as Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

Casey Stengel, who was fired as New York Yankees manager following the 1960 World Series loss to the Pirates, claimed that Clemente was the best right fielder that he had ever seen.  Sandy Koufax, who won the Cy Young Award in 1966 when Clemente was MVP, was asked how to pitch to Clemente.

The greatest left-hander in modern history dryly replied, "Roll the ball."

After the Pirates beat the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series, Clemente skipped the team party to walk the streets of Pittsburgh to thank the fans.

His arm was better than Mays, Aaron or Mantle, who had a rifle for an arm before his right shoulder was injured in the 1957 World Series.

Clemente led the National League in assists five times despite the fact that almost no runner dared to challenge him. The few that did were usually thrown out. He once threw out Cincinnati's Lee May trying to score from third on a single.

Those who are familiar with Mickey Mantle's injuries might be surprised at Clemente's. During his career, he suffered from a bad back, headaches, stomach aches, malaria, insomnia, tonsillitis, bone chips in his right elbow, sore shoulders and pulled muscles.

One time, when he was asked how he felt, he gave a Stengelese response. "Well, my bad shoulder feels good, but my good shoulder feels bad."

Puerto Rican broadcaster and journalist Luis Mayoral summed it up best when he said, "Clemente was our Jackie Robinson. He was on a crusade to show the American public what a Hispanic man, a black Hispanic man, was capable of."

His desire to help others led to his death on Dec. 31, 1972 when he was on a plane carrying supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims crashed.



Wulf, Steve. "25 Roberto Clemente." Sports Illustrated. 19 Sept. 1994.