Here’s Why Robert Clemente Remains As Relevant Today As He Was The Day He Died
If you’re Puerto Rican, you grew up knowing who Roberto Clemente was. You might even have a vela of him lit in your house right now. Roberto Clemente was a legend on the baseball field and truly saintly in his personal life.
Clemente’s life and career reads like every Latino mother’s dream: he was truly the best at everything he did. Here are just 21 of the hundreds of facts I could tell you right now.
Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker was born in 1934.
Let’s set the stage here. Clemente is an Afro-Puerto Rican born in Isla Verde, Carolina, Puerto Rico to Don Melchor Clemente and Luisa Walker. He’s from the same town as boxers Esteban De Jesus and Alfredo Escalera.
He was the youngest of seven kids.
His father worked in the sugarcane fields as a foreman, and, with such a big family, everyone chipped in a bit. Roberto would help load and unload trucks for his dad.
He started out as a track and field star in high school.
His dream was to compete in the Olympics for the sport, but Puerto Rico got to him. The national passion for the sport made him decide to redirect his attention to the game.
By the time he was 16 years old, he was on Puerto Rico’s amateur baseball league.
The story goes that Roberto Marín spotted Clemente playing baseball in his barrio and was recruited for softball. He played shortstop for two years at Julio Vizcarrondo Coronado High School. Then, Ferdinand Juncos found him.
He spent the first season on the bench.
By the next season, he was promoted to the Cangrejeros (“Crabbers”) starting lineup. He hit a .288 and became the leadoff hitter.
The Brooklyn Dodgers signed him with a $10k bonus.
That meant he had to move to Montreal. Apparently, the cold and the language barrier was a major culture shock to the islander and he made fast friends with bilingual teammates Chico Fernandez, Tommy Lasorda, and Joe Black.
The size of his bonus automatically put him on the Major League roster.
The Pittsburgh Pirates selected him first overall in 1954 after the Dodgers’ coach tried to hide him from recruiters. The Dodgers rarely played Clemente at all to continue hiding his raw talents from other recruiters, in hopes they could keep him for a season. Nope.
His first major league game was against the Dodgers.
Clemente ended up going 1-for-4 and scored a home run. Also, fun fact, Clemente was No. 13 until center fielder Earl Smith left the team in April 1955.
He was in a car accident during his first professional season and missed several games.
He had a lower back injury but still ended up playing in 124 games with a .255 batting average. Impressive, no? Five years into playing with the Pirates, he led them to a World Series.
Clemente is the first starting Latino to help win a World Series in 1960.
In all his firsts, he’s also the first Caribbean person, as well. If you’re wondering what the difference is, just think in terms of colonizers. Spain overtook Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic while other countries like the U.S. and France used their force and power to literally own other islands.
In 1958, Clemente enlisted in the Navy.
He spent six months on active duty at Parris Island, South Carolina and served until 1964. That means that while he was serving, he was also winning World Series.
Announcers kept calling him “Bob” and he kept insisting his name was Roberto.
Even baseball card companies like Topps made cards that red Bob Clemente. Clemente had the Latino burden of constantly combatting the colonization of even his name from Anglo-America.
Even his plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame used the incorrect name.
Instead of using the Latino naming customs of putting his mother’s maiden name after his father’s last name, they called him “Roberto Walker Clemente.” Decades later they corrected it in 2000 when it was recast properly.
He finished his career with exactly 3,000 hits.
The last one was against the New York Mets on September 30, 1972, and it ended in a double off. Clemente had been asked about this moment years before and in an interview, he doubted whether he would ever even live to see the day.
Clemente was widely honored for his humanitarian efforts during his life.
After the 1972 earthquake in Nicaragua, which decimated the country, Clemente was immediately sending shipments to aid the country. When he learned that the last three shipments had been diverted by the corrupt government, he decided that maybe his presence on the next shipment would make sure the goods got into the right hands.
Unfortunately, the plane crashed immediately after taking off from Puerto Rico.
Apparently, the plane he charted had a history of mechanical problems, and it was also overloaded by 4,200 pounds. Four other people were killed in the crash.
Clemente is the only Hall of Fame member who was inducted against the mandatory five-year waiting period rule.
He was elected posthumously just three months after his tragic passing and inducted three months later. The only Pirates member to not attend his funeral was on the dive team in Puerto Rico attempting to recover his body. It was never found.
Clemente continues to inspire young people y Boricuas to this day.
Bridges are named after him in Pittsburgh.
There’s a whole movie about him called Baseball’s Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories.
Directed by Richard Rossi, it was the first feature film on the player who was so often overlooked by the media at the time. Rossi feels that Clemente was just as important to baseball as Jackie Robinson and that his number should be universally retired.
Clemente was posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal of Honor for his humanitarian efforts.
His humanitarian efforts will never be forgotten, and neither will his commitment to his roots while paving the way for so many others to follow in his footsteps. Clemente was the first Latino to be named league MVP, World Series MVP and be elected to the Hall of Fame.
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