Today marks the 47th anniversary of Roberto Clemente’s passing. Tragically lost at the age of 38, Clemente was not only a superstar on the baseball field, he was a superstar off of the field.
❛ Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth. ❜Clemente
Born in Barrio San Antón, Carolina, Puerto Rico on August 18, 1934, Clemente would be the youngest of seven. With limited resources, he often worked in fields alongside his father Melchor, who was employed as a foreman of sugar crops.
An Olympic hopeful in the categories of track and field, Clemente would eventually focus fully on baseball. Often playing against neighboring barrios or neighborhoods as a young man. He was soon recruited in his first year of high school to play softball as a shortstop. Yes, softball. Roberto Marín recruited him to play with Sello Rojo after watching him play in San Antón.
We lost The Great One 47 years ago today, but Roberto Clemente’s legacy is eternal. pic.twitter.com/i5i0HxLskO— National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum ⚾ (@baseballhall) December 31, 2019
In 1950, Clemente joined an amateur league, playing for the Ferdinand Juncos. His professional career wouldn’t kick off until 1952 at the age of 18 with the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League. Although he was used as a bench player during his first season, he quickly rose to the starting lineup by his second season and hit .288.
While playing in the LBBPR, Clemente was offered a Triple-A contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He moved to Montreal to play with the Royals (not affiliated with Kansas City) after signing on February 19, 1954. The likes of Tommy Lasorda, Joe Black and Chico Fernández aided Clemente, who had to deal with climate changes and language barriers for the first time.
❛ I am convinced that God wanted me to be a baseball player. I was born to play baseball. ❜Clemente
Everything would change for him on June 1, 1954. During a scouting trip for the Pittsburgh Pirates, pitching coach Clyde Sukeforth’s original mission to see Joe Black but the electricity of Clemente stole the show during batting practice and throwing drills. Despite scarce playing time, Sukeforth wanted Clemente.
Sukeforth would later inform Pirates beat writer Les Biederman, “I knew then he’d be our first draft choice. In fact, I told Montreal manager Max Macon to take care of ‘our boy’ and see that he didn’t get hurt.”
❛ I don’t care if you never play him; we’re going to finish last, and we’re going to draft him number one. ❜Sukeforth to Macon
His first North American career home run came on July 25, 1954 in extra-innings as a walk-off. His playing time continued to increase as the season progressed — starting every game against left-handed pitching. He finished the 1954 season with an average of .257 in 87 games.
And as Sukeforth had promised, the Pirates made sure Clemente was their first selection of the rookie draft on November 22, 1954.
Clemente debuted with the Pirates on April 17, 1955 wearing number 13 in a doubleheader against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Unfortunately, Clemente experienced racial tension with local media and some teammates. Responding, “I don’t believe in color.” Taught by his family to never discriminate against someone based on the color of their skin or ethnicity.
With the help of teammate and friend Curt Roberts, Clemente became acclimated to Pittsburgh and life in the majors. The Pirates has broken the baseball color line the previous year with Roberts — seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the line with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Despite sitting out several games throughout his rookie season due to back problems (he had suffered the injury during the previous winter while in an automotive accident), he finished his rookie season with a .255 batting average and stellar defense.
In September 1958, Clemente joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve. He went on to serve his six month active duty commitment at Parris Island, South Carolina, Camp LeJeune in North Carolina and Washington DC. (He would become a Private First Class in the Marine Corps Reserve until the fall of 1964.)
Early into the 1960 season, Clemente led the league with a .353 batting average, 14 extra-base hits, and 25 RBIs recorded in May. This boosted him to be NL Player of the Month. His .314 batting average, 16 home runs, and defensive playing during the course of the season had earned him his first spot on the NL All-Star game — replacing Hank Aaron in right field for the 7th and 8th innings in the second All-Star game of the season.
On November 14, 1964, Clemente married Vera Zabala (March 7, 1941 – November 16, 2019) at San Fernando Church in Carolina. They had three children: Roberto Jr. born in 1965, Luis Roberto born in 1966, and Roberto Enrique born in 1969.
Clemente was an All-Star every season he played in the 1960s other than 1968—the only year in his career after 1959 in which he failed to hit above .300—and a Gold Glove winner for each of his final 12 seasons, beginning in 1961. In 1967 alone, Clemente registered a career high .357 batting average, hit 23 home runs, and batted in 110 runs.
The night of July 24, 1970, was declared “Roberto Clemente Night.” On this day, several Puerto Rican fans traveled to Three Rivers Stadium (the replacement for Forbes Field) and cheered Clemente while wearing traditional Puerto Rican attire. Several thousands of dollars were donated to charity work following Clemente’s request as well.
The 1972 season would be his last. He would play in 102 games and hit .312, win his 12th consecutive Gold Glove and appear in the All-Star game.
On September 30, 1972, he hit a double off of New York Mets pitcher Jon Matlack at Three Rivers Stadium for his 3000th hit. This would be his last regular season at-bat of his career. His final appearance in black and yellow would come on October 12, 1972 in Game 5 of the NLCS.
Throughout this life, Clemente believed there was good in all people. He spent most off-seasons working with charity and when Managua, a city of Nicaragua was affected by a massive earthquake, he found himself aiding in emergency relief.
He had decided to accompany the fourth relief flight, hoping that his presence would ensure that the aid would be delivered to the survivors. Unfortunately, the plane had a history of mechanical problems and was overloaded by 4,200 pounds. It would crash into the Atlantic Ocean on New Years Eve off the coast of Isle Verde, Puerto Rico, almost immediately after takeoff to due engine failure.
Manny Sanguillén, the Pirates catcher was the only member of the team to not attend Clemente’s funeral. Instead, he dove into the waters to find his teammates body. His efforts were lost and Clemente’s body was never found.
Pitcher Tom Walker was playing winter ball at the time and had helped Clemente load the plane. Clemente told Walker not to join him and to go enjoy New Years Eve as a single man.
Clemente’s widow Vera previously mentioned in an interview with ESPEN that her had told her several times that he thought he was going to die young. This tracks with an interview between Clemente and Richie Ashburn in July 1971 during the All-Star Game activities about when he would get his 3,000 career hit, Clemente’s response was “Well, uh, you never know. I, I, uh, if I’m alive, like I said before, you never know because God tells you how long you’re going to be here. So you never know what can happen tomorrow.”
After his untimely death, MLB changed the name of the Commissioner’s Award to the Roberto Clemente Award — which is awarded every year to a player with outstanding baseball playing skills who is personally involved in community work. A trophy and a donation check for a charity of the player’s choice is presented annually at the World Series.
On March 20, 1973, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America held a special election for the Baseball Hall of Fame, inducting Clemente posthumously due to the circumstances of his death.
Awards and achievements:
- NL MVP Award (1966)
- NL Player of the Month Award (May 1960, May 1967, and July 1969)
- World Series MVP Award (1971)
- NL Gold Glove Award (1961-1972)
- Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award (2006)
- NL All-Star (1960-1967, 1969-1972)
- NL leader in batting average (1961, 1964, 1965, and 1967)
- NL leader in hits (1964, 1967)
- NL leader in triples (1969)
- NL leader in putouts as a right fielder (1958, 1961, and 1966)
- NL leader in fielding advantage as a right fielder (1972)
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