Roberto Clemente impact is still felt 50 years after his tragic death
The Hall of Fame baseball player was a humanitarian and a beacon of the cultural diversity of Blackness
Look back at what the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., did in August 2015 to learn all you need to know about the late Roberto Clemente.
The museum asked people to vote on whose portrait it should showcase in one of its exhibition halls. The voters had Clemente, Sandy Koufax and Babe Ruth — yes, the “Sultan of Swat” himself — to pick from.
And who did they pick?
Well, it wasn’t the Babe.
Clemente, a star right fielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates, beat the other Hall of Famers in a landslide (Clemente 2,034; Koufax 225; Ruth 190) in an online voting for the Smithsonian.
Surprising? Perhaps not. For when you strip away all the things the Babe did in life and understand how reclusive Koufax has been since his playing career ended, neither of them can match what Clemente did on the field and off.
One has to wonder if Koufax and the Babe would have gotten the votes that they did get had Clemente, a Black Latino, lived to see his 60s.
He didn’t. Clemente died on New Year’s Eve in 1972. He was 38.
On that fateful night 50 years ago, Clemente, three crewmen and another passenger boarded a Douglas DC-7 for Nicaragua, an impoverished country trying to recover from a series of catastrophic earthquakes.
Their cargo plane took off around 9:30 p.m. from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and people who witnessed the lift-off heard the engines misfire. The plane reached an altitude of 200 feet; it then exploded and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.
Clemente and the others were killed. Their bodies were never found.
In its New Year’s Day edition, The New York Times wrote:
SAN JUAN, P.R., Jan. 1 — Roberto Clemente, star outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, died late last night in the crash of a cargo plane carrying relief supplies to the victims of the earthquake in Nicaragua.
In the days that followed, government officials in Puerto Rico remembered their native son, the most celebrated and selfless figure in the island’s history. They ordered three days of mourning.
Meanwhile, they and others continued Clemente’s efforts to help Nicaraguans. He would never have let anyone or anything deter him.
His wife, Vera, tried. She expressed concerns about the aging aircraft and its heavy load. But Clemente insisted he must go. He wanted to make sure, he told Vera, that the medical supplies, the food and the clothing didn’t fall into the hands of profiteers.
“I think Clemente is who we all wish we would be or could be — which is a star in his own right but never forgetting other people,” said Rob Parker, a multimedia personality, former baseball writer and founder of the website MLBbro.com. “That’s a trait most people don’t have or most people can’t obtain.”
As Parker and the Smithsonian vote illustrated, Clemente proved a mythic figure. His heroism and his humanity have endured. Hispanics, Blacks and whites who followed the sport revered him.
On the road with the Pirates, he visited sick children in hospitals. In Pittsburgh and Puerto Rico, he organized baseball clinics to teach boys and girls how much fun the game was.
In the weeks before his death, he held a clinic for more than 300 youths in his homeland.
Like Buck O’Neil, Ernie Banks, Bob Feller and Minnie Minoso, Clemente was an ambassador for baseball.
Clemente the man
Five decades later, most people who follow baseball still remember how Clemente died. More people should remember how the man lived, too.
Born August 18, 1934, Clemente grew up in a tight-knit family. He was the youngest of seven and learned hard work from his father, who had him loading sugarcane onto trucks as a boy. Thanks to his mother, Luisa, he picked up a passion for baseball.
Before his late adolescence, Clemente was already a player who looked as if he had Major League potential.
At least one team thought so: the Brooklyn Dodgers
On February 19, 1954, the Dodgers signed the 18-year-old Clemente, a dark-skinned Puerto Rican with five-tool skills, to a $5,000 salary with a $10,000 bonus. They added him to their stable of Black talent, which included Jackie Robinson, catcher Roy Campanella, and pitchers Don Newcombe and Joe Black.
To open the 1954 season, the Dodgers sent Clemente to Montreal, which is where Robinson began his career in integrated baseball.
As if trying to hide his talent from another Major League ballclub, the Dodgers used Clemente sparingly. Still, his talent didn’t go unnoticed.
In the Nov. 1954 Rule 5 rookie draft, the Pirates plucked Clemente from the Dodgers farm system for $4,000.
He spent the next spring training in Fort Myers, Florida, where he faced the kind of bigotry and second-class treatment that followed ballplayers with Black skin. Limited by his poor English, Clemente denounced the racism, nonetheless.
On April 17, 1955, he made his Major League debut.
Though the color barrier had been technically erased, the reality was that dark-skinned ballplayers like Clemente had to take a slower road to the big leagues. Teams still had an “informal quota.”
Life for him was no easier than it was for Black Americans, particularly so because he couldn’t speak English well. Clemente often told of how he felt isolated from his white teammates and the city’s bigotry.
“I didn’t even know about [racism] when I got [to the United States],” he was quoted as saying in 1972.
Like Robinson, Larry Doby and Monte Irvin, Clemente worked hard to change people’s minds about hatred and prejudices, which he said hung over darker-skinned Latinos just as it did “Negroes.”
“Because they speak Spanish among themselves, they are set off as a minority within a minority,” Clemente once said of Black Latinos. “They bear the brunt of the sport’s remaining racial prejudices.”
Journalist and activist Dave Zirin agreed.
“Clemente’s affinity for [Rev. Martin Luther King] and the civil rights movement was rooted in his own experience with racism in the United States,” Zirin wrote.
As he matured, Clemente spoke candidly about the ridicule, his race and the racism, sharing views on the topics with pioneering civil rights figures like King, Robinson and Puerto Rican activist Luis Muñoz Marín.
Clemente never let racism affect his play on the field.
Instead, he treated Pirates fans — and everybody else who followed baseball — to some of the finest performances the game had ever witnessed.
No man ever played a better right field than Clemente, which his 12 consecutive Gold Gloves prove. Few hit a baseball better than he did. His all-round talent was visible to everybody.
“He played a kind of baseball that none of us had ever seen before,” said writer Roger Angell, whose words appear on Clemente’s Hall of Fame bio. “As if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field.”
Pirates general manager Joe L. Brown echoed Angell’s thoughts.
“The sad part is that there are not enough TV pictures of him,” Brown said shortly after Clemente’s death. “He made so many great plays that people can only talk about. You could never capture the magnificence of the man.”
Waxing nostalgic once, Clemente commented on how baseball fans viewed Ruth, whom most referred to as “the best there was.” A player would have to be extraordinary to earn comparisons to Ruth, Clemente mused.
“But Babe Ruth was an American player,” he said. “What we needed was a Puerto Rican player they could say that about, someone to look up to and try to equal.”
They got that someone in Clemente.
“I want to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all he had to give,” Clemente once said.
And he will be.
But that giving was as much off the field as on it.
He was Puerto Rican, but Clemente was also Black, an uneasy combination in a country where racism persisted despite the civil rights movement.
Clemente was a reminder of what some historians called a “hemispheric diaspora,” which included Canada, Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. His voice and his public persona made people aware of the cultural diversity woven into Blackness.
Yet even his son, Luis, admitted in an article in The Pittsburgh Tribune Review, that the Roberto Clemente legacy might stand tallest in the sport itself.
“My dad did stuff that still today no other player has done,” said Luis, who was 6 when his father died. “But his humanitarian side is what really perpetuated him in such a way that people who are not even sports or baseball fans still admire him for who he was as a human being.”