Roberto Clemente: 1934-1972: Baseball Player Biography
The first Puerto Rican member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Roberto Clemente broke down many of the barriers against Latinos in baseball. Puerto Rican broadcaster and journalist Luis Mayoral was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying, "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." Clemente was a right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates for 18 years, and had a lifetime batting average of .317, hitting 240 home runs.
Clemente was born in 1934, the youngest of Melchor, a sugarcane worker, and Luisa Clemente's seven children. He grew up in Carolina, Puerto Rico, near the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan. As a boy he played softball in neighborhood lots, and also participated in other sports. He won medals for the javelin throw and short distance races, and was was so skilled at javelin throwing that some observers felt he might make the 1952 Puerto Rican Olympic team. However, baseball was his real focus. He played with the amateur Juncos Double A Club and then played in the Puerto Rican Winter League with the Santurce Crabbers. His talent was soon noticed. Brooklyn Dodger scout Alex Campanis first saw Clemente at a try-out. "He was the greatest natural athlete I'd ever seen," Campanis once said, according to Sports Illustrated.
Just after graduating from high school in 1954, Clemente was signed with the Dodgers' and sent to play with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' minor-league affiliate in Montreal, Canada. He received a $5,000 salary and a $10,000 bonus. In the following year, however, a loophole in baseball signing rules allowed the Pittsburgh Pirates to draft him for $4,000. Clemente chose the number 21, the number of letters in his full name, for his jersey. When he made his major league debut on April 17, 1955, he was called "Bob Clemente" because management felt that "Roberto" was too foreign a name to appeal to American fans. That first season he batted .255, hitting five home runs and 47 RBIs. For his second season, Clemente batted .311.
According to the Latino Sports Legends website, "In the 1960s no other player dominated the entire decade like Roberto Clemente." There were four years—1961, 1964, 1966, and 1967—in which had over 200 hits. In 1961 and 1967, he batted over .350. Also during this decade, he was a four-time league leader in batting. It has been said, according to the Latino Sports Legends website, that his play was "something close to the level of absolute perfection."
Clemente was often taunted because of his Puerto Rican heritage. Sports writers made fun of his accent and his use of English. One writer even asked if he wore a loincloth back home in Puerto Rico. In Sports Illustrated, Steve Wulf noted that sports writers routinely described Clemente as a "dusky flyer" and a "chocolate-colored islander." According to George Diaz in the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, "Clemente responded with dignity, occasionally returning fire with the same passion he applied as he stepped into the batter's box, neck twitching with nervous energy.… Moments later, he would smash the dickens out of a baseball."
The first Hispanic player in the major leagues was a Cuban student named Esteban Bellan, who played in 1871, but Clemente was the first to speak out for minority rights. Manny Mota, a coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers, was quoted by the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service as saying, "He was a leader and controversial because he didn't permit injustice in regard to race.… He would not accept injustices with Latins nor with players of color. He was always there to defend them." Clemente himself, according to the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, noted, "I am Puerto Rican, I am black, and I am between the walls."
Prejudice against Clemente may have played a part in the National League's Most Valuable Player voting in 1960. Although he had a .314 batting average and 94 RBIs that year, Clemente finished eighth in the voting. The winner was teammate Dick Groat, who hit .325 but only had 16 home runs and 94 RBIs. In 1961 Clemente threw out 27 runners and won the first of his twelve straight Gold Gloves. By 1966 his talent could no longer be ignored, and he finally received an MVP Award.
Clemente met Vera Zabala in a drugstore in 1963, and the couple were married on November 14th of the following year. Their first son, Roberto, Jr., was born in 1965. The family later grew to include two more sons: Luis Roberto and Enrique Roberto. Clemente, proud of his Puerto Rican heritage, insisted that each of his children be born in Puerto Rico.
When Clemente was not playing, he dressed with relative formality, always wearing a coat and tie, unlike most men in blue-collar Pittsburgh. He was a private person, and often quiet. According to the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, former teammate Steve Blass said that Clemente seemed to feel, "I have a stature, and I have a responsibility to carry that stature."
Throughout his career, Clemente suffered a variety of injuries, including malaria, backaches, bone chips, insomnia, headaches, pulled muscles, and tonsillitis. Clemente freely complained about his injuries. When once asked how he felt, he responded, according to Sports Illustrated, "Well, my bad shoulder feels good, but my good shoulder feels bad."
On September 30, 1972, at the age of 38, Clemente made his 3,000th hit at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. When, during the fourth inning, this landmark ball was launched into a gap in left-center, a crowd of 13,119 fans leaped, cheering, to their feet. "I felt kind of bashful," Clemente later told the Sporting News about the crowd's enthusiastic reaction. "I'm a very quiet, shy person." Famed player Willie Mays shook his hand, and Clemente kept the ball as a souvenir of the hit. Clemente told the Sporting News, "I dedicated the hit to the Pittsburgh fans and to the people in Puerto Rico."
Clemente was the first Latin player to reach 3,000 hits, and only the eleventh player in history to do so. Teammate Nellie Briles recalled in Newsweek, "He had no more to prove—he'd won his batting titles and MVPs, and now he could play for the love of the game." Briles continued, "After the hit all he did was stand on second base and tip his hat. It was a very regal moment."
In December of 1972, a devastating earthquake hit Nicaragua, killing thousands and leaving 100,000 homeless. Driven by his concern for the victims, Clemente decided to help in the relief efforts. Two planes had been sent to deliver emergency goods, but the supplies had not reached the stricken areas—Nicaraguan soldiers were stealing the supplies. Clemente decided to accompany the next shipment, hoping that his celebrity would deter would-be thieves. On December 31, 1972, the plane carrying Clemente, a crew, and food supplies for the victims crashed into the ocean just off the Puerto Rican coast. Clemente and the four crew members were all killed. His body was never found.
Upon Clemente's death, Puerto Rican Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon, according to the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, said, "Our people have lost one of their great glories." Although there is normally a five-year waiting period for Hall of Fame eligibility, this rule was waived in Clemente's case, and he was inducted into the Hall in 1973, the first Latin player to receive this honor. That same year, baseball commissioner Bowie Kugh established the Roberto Clemente Award, given for sportsmanship and activism.
Clemente's sons have carried on his athletic and humanitarian legacy. His oldest son, Roberto, Jr., was first signed to a professional baseball contract by a Philadelphia Phillies scout in 1984. A 1986 knee injury kept him from the game for three years, and, during spring training with the Baltimore Orioles in 1989, a back injury ended his baseball career. Clemente's second son, Luis, also ventured into professional baseball. Signed in 1984 by the Pittsburgh Pirates, a shoulder injury necessitated his retirement after two years. Luis, has served as President and CEO of the Roberto Clemente Sports City in Puerto Rico, where 200,00 young people come each year to play sports and learn good citizenship, since the early 1990s. In 1993 Roberto, Jr. founded the Roberto Clemente Foundation. This organization reaches out to disadvantaged teenagers, providing baseball, softball, and educational opportunities. At a banquet in 1971 Clemente summed up his attitude to life, quoted in Sports Illustrated: "If you have an opportunity to make things better, and you don't do that, you are wasting your time on this earth."
Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.
Fresno Bee, July 5, 1998.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, March 5, 1998, p. 305K6854; March 30, 2002, p. K7277, K7278.
Newsweek, October 25, 1999, p. 63.
Pittsburgh Business Times, February 4, 2000, p. 1.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), August 19, 2000, p. A4.
Sporting News, October 14, 1972; October 27, 1997, p. 7; January 12, 1998, p. 9.
Sports Illustrated, December 28, 1992, p. 114; September 19, 1994, p. 110; April 6, 1998, p. 33.
—Kelly Winters and Jennifer M. York