For many athletes their personal stats and accomplishments are their ticket to success, fame, and in most cases, their league or sport’s hall of fame. Sometimes teams, cities and even countries are blessed by the presence of a genuinely good person who turns the entire city or country around, while helping out their team in the game at the same time. For the city of Pittsburgh, Latin America, and the entire United States, they were sent one of the greatest gifts of all, Roberto Clemente.
Born in Barrio San Anton in Carolina, Puerto Rico on August 18, 1934, Clemente was the youngest of seven children in a family that was barely able to afford to get by every day. With his father working as a foreman on a sugarcane plantation and his mother running a grocery store for plantation workers, money was tight for the family. With the state that the family was in, Roberto took jobs as a milk delivery boy and any other odd jobs that were available to earn some extra money for them. Although he started working at a young age, his hard work and perseverance were better displayed on the sandlots in his hometown.
While playing in the LBBPR (Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League), the Brooklyn Dodgers offered him a contract to play with their Triple-A squad in Montreal. Clemente accepted the offer to play in Montreal, but while he was with the team, his talent was overlooked. Pirates’ scout, Clyde Sukeforth, noticed that Clemente was being used as a bench player on the team and had a lot more potential than that. After discussing with the team’s manager, Max Macon, about the possibility of drafting the young right fielder, the possibility became reality as the Pirates took the right fielder with their first pick in the rookie draft.
On April 17, 1955, Clemente made his MLB debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first game of a double-header against the Brooklyn Dodgers. At the time, racial tension with the local media and teammates was a common thing for players who were not white or born in North America. Clemente made it known from day one what he thought about the issue, telling the media; “I don’t believe in colour.” He told them that while he was growing up, his parents taught him to never discriminate against someone based on ethnicity.
Clemente would continue playing baseball in Puerto Rico, playing with the Santurce Crabbers in the Puerto Rican Baseball Winter League in the off-season. By 1959 Clemente stopped playing in the winter league and, instead, served in the United States Marine Corps Reserves, who he would continue to serve for until September 1964.
In 1960, Clemente’s bat came to life in many ways. He finished the season with 16 home runs, 94 runs batted in, and had a batting average of .314. He helped lead the Pirates to a 95-59 record; the most wins by the organization in a single season since 1925 when they won their second World Series. That year the Pirates ended up meeting the New York Yankees in the World Series; a team that featured All-Stars such as Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, and finished with the best record in baseball that season. Despite being outscored by the Yankees 55-27, outhit 91-60, and out-batted .338 to .256 in the seven-game series, the Pirates took home the World Series that season as they defeated the Yankees 10-9 in the seventh game at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. Pirates second baseman, Bill Mazeroski, smacked the game winning home run over the left field wall in the bottom of the 9th inning. With Clemente and the Pirates winning the World Series, he became first Hispanic starter to win the grand prize.
The following season Clemente would hit over 20 home runs as he finished the season with 23 home runs, 89 runs batted in, and batted a cool .351. He would also take home his first Gold Glove Award that season; something he would continue to do for the next 11 seasons until his final season in 1972. Throughout the years Clemente would go on to win the 1966 League MVP and another World Series in 1971; where he was also named the World Series MVP. With Clemente being awarded both the league MVP in ’66 and the World Series MVP in ’71, he became the first Hispanic player to win both awards.
Throughout his career Clemente was always making trips back home to deliver items to those who were less privileged. He would bring food for the families who couldn’t afford to eat every day, as well as baseball equipment for the kids to stay busy and active. Clemente was hoping that by doing this the kids back home would work hard to achieve their goals and make their dreams reality one day, just like he was able to. He didn’t come from the wealthiest family so he knew what type of situation they were in back home.
In December of 1972, a massive earthquake hit Nicaragua that nearly destroyed everything. After hearing the news, Clemente immediately started arranging emergency relief flights. He later learned that the first three relief flights he sent out with the aid packages were diverted by corrupt officials of the Somoza government and the packages were never delivered to the quake victims. On December 31, 1972, about one week after the earthquake hit, Clemente decided to accompany the fourth relief flight hoping that his presence would make a difference and ensure that the aid would be delivered to the victims. The plane Clemente boarded had a history of mechanical problems and sub-par flight personnel, on top of already being overloaded by 4,200 pounds. Immediately after takeoff the flight crashed into the ocean off the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico. Clemente’s body was never found.
Roberto Clemente finished his successful career with 3,000 hits, 166 triples, 240 home runs, 1,305 runs batted in, and batted .317 over his 18-year career. He managed to hit an inside-the-park grand slam in his career, something that will most likely never happen again, and is one of four players to have 10 or more Gold Gloves with a lifetime batting average of .317. One year after his death, Clemente was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, becoming the first person to ever be excluded from the five-year waiting period due to the situation. There is now an award in Major League Baseball called the Roberto Clemente Award; which is handed out each year to the player who best follows his example of humanitarian work. When the Pirates moved into PNC Park, they made the right field wall 21-feet tall to honour Clemente and the number he made famous. They also placed the statue honouring him right outside the stadium on the corner nearest to the Roberto Clemente Bridge.
Pirate fans will never forget the man who brought their city together. He gave the city something to cheer about and a reason to come out to the ballpark every night. He helped rebirth America’s Pastime in Pittsburgh, and more importantly, he opened the door for Hispanic players, just like Jackie Robinson did for him when he broke the colour barrier in 1946. Roberto Clemente was one of a kind. His heart was bigger than his bat ever was and he was a role model in every aspect of life. He will always be remembered by Pirates fans and baseball fans everywhere, not just for what he accomplished on the field, but for the opportunities he created off of them.