On April 17, 1955, a baseball player listed on the roster as ‘Bob Clemente’ swung on a pitch, from Brooklyn pitcher Johnny Podres, at his first at bat, sending a single dribbling into right field. That player, more commonly known by his birth name, Roberto Clemente, not only started his major league career with a hit, but had established a vital part for all Latinos within the world of sports.
True, we’ve had Latinos in the game far before Clemente, dating back to 1902 when a second baseman named Luis Castro took the field for the Philadelphia Athletics, but perhaps none have had such a large impact as Clemente. He was a ball player through and through, posting a career .317 average and carrying the Pittsburgh Pirates to two World Series championships in 1960 and 1971. In addition to his storied performance on field, Clemente also dedicated much of his time to humanitarian efforts by aiding development in Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean. Clemente was one of the first players that we, as Latinos, could rally behind; our representative in a game that was so beloved by the entire nation. We had a piece of the national pastime.
Since Clemente’s untimely passing in 1972, the Latino impact in major league baseball has been undeniable. As of today, roughly 28 percent of major leaguers are Latino, and we remain the fastest growing demographic within the sport. The brightest stars in the sport are Latinos, with many waiting in the minor leagues to be the stars of tomorrow.
Clemente led the way for our place in something uniquely American, but also something that is very much Latino as well. From the very start of his career, when he encountered racism because of his ethnicity and the color of his skin, he responded quite simply, “I don’t believe in color… I always respect everyone and thanks to God, my mother and my father taught me never to hate, never to dislike someone because of their color.”
As a player and a man, Clemente contributed to our heritage – to our identity as an included part of the United States. It’s fitting that we look back now during Latino Heritage Month and during the finals days of the season, because Roberto Clemente truly has played an important part in developing what we are, as a people, within our country.