Last week Major League Baseball honored Jackie Robinson Day by allowing all of the players to wear his retired No. 42. Today, I would like to talk about a player who may have been just as important to the way baseball looks today—Roberto Clemente.
I have long been interested in Roberto Clemente largely because of Sammy Sosa. Recently I read a great book about Clemente entitled Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero by David Mariniss.
The book chronicles Clemente’s life and career in detail. it is about 350 pages long. But this is not a review of the book, but rather a brief look back at how great and important Clemente was as a baseball player and ambassador to the game of baseball.
Clemente and Robinson share similar pasts. Clemente was signed by Branch Rickey’s Dodgers and placed on their AAA team, the Montreal Royals. The same Royals that Robinson played for before he changed the course of history.
As a young, raw kid he did not make the major league Dodgers and thus was unprotected in the rookie Rule Five draft. The Dodgers tried to hide him; he wasn’t a regular starter and was used mainly off the bench. The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him with the first selection in the draft in November 1954.
His first spring training with the Pirates was difficult for him because their spring training home in Florida was segregated. Clemente couldn’t eat, sleep, or go out with his teammates. This persisted for many years until the Pirates became more and more diverse and the owner threatened to move to another city for spring training.
Clemente once said that he felt like a “double (n-word)” because he was both black and Latino. He felt alienated by the white players because he was black, and alienated by the blacks because he didn’t speak very good English.
Clemente's career stats include 12 All-Star games (in one of those games the outfield included Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Clemente) and 12 straight Gold Gloves. His career average was .317, with exactly 3,000 hits and four NL batting titles.
The Pirates won the World Series twice—once in 1960 and again in 1971. Clemente had a hit in all 14 World Series games he played and was the World Series MVP in 1971.
However great Clemente was on the field, he was equally—if not better—off the field. He loved his home country and the people of Latin America, playing winter-league ball even though the Pirates would pay him not to. And as he became older, he managed the Puerto Rican team.
There is one story in the book about how Clemente missed the team bus to the airport because he was signing autographs until everybody had an autograph. A teenage girl who was seeking an autograph while her dad was across the street was there when Clemente was told he had missed the bus.
She gladly offered him a ride and he greatly appreciated it. Clemente made it to the airport before the plane left and Clemente had a new member of his extended family.
He talked with the girl and her family numerous times over the phone and helped her with her Spanish; she later would study Spanish in college. She lived in New York and Clemente would buy her family tickets when the Pirates were in town to play the Mets.
Clemente invited her to visit him in Puerto Rico to stay at his home for New Year's in 1972. His home in Puerto Rico wasn’t in a gated community. People would come to his home and it was always open to them.
Days after Christmas, Nicaragua was hit with a huge and deadly earthquake. Clemente raised thousands of dollars in aid, and rented an airplane to send to Nicaragua.
However, the president of Nicaragua tried to hoard the supplies, and the pilot threatened to tell Clemente. And so the president, out of fear or out of respect, let those supplies go through.
When this happened again, Clemente decided to personally take the supplies to the Nicaraguan people. In the rush, the plane he was taking was overly and improperly loaded with the supplies and was not inspected before takeoff hours before the New Year.
The plane barely lifted off and crashed into the ocean just off the coast of Puerto Rico while everyone was celebrating the New Year. The news was heard early in the morning on the radio and Puerto Ricans feebly went to the shore to find Clemente, but they did not.
They found a sock and his wife Vera just knew it was Roberto’s, and that he was gone. The people and the numerous countries he had touched, mourned.
He was granted immediate consideration for the Hall of Fame. He and Lou Gehrig are the only ones to be granted immediate access to the Hall. He received 91 percent of the votes.
Today nearly 30 percent of MLB players are Latin American, and those who grew up in Puerto Rico likely played on a field with Clemente’s name. It was Clemente’s life goal to have a safe, quality sports complex for the children of his home country.
Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente left their mark both on and off the field. MLB should seriously consider retiring No. 21 throughout baseball—like Jackie’s No. 42—in honor of what Clemente has done for the game of baseball.