“Always, they said Babe Ruth was the best there was. They said you’d really have to be something to be like Babe Ruth. But Babe Ruth was an American player. What we needed was a Puerto Rican player they could say that about, someone to look up to and try to equal.”
National League Most Valuable Player, 1966
I was raised a Mets fan and was only a few weeks into my freshman year of high school when the Mets traveled to Three River Stadium to battle the Pirates. Despite our family’s allegiance, I could not guarantee that we were rooting for the Mets on that early fall day. It was the day that Roberto Clemente hit his 3,000 hit. It was the era before instant news, unless you were watching the game, and before sports figures were celebrities. National pride took over and Clemente was the man that day.
Roberto Clemente Walker, nicknamed Memen by his family, was a man who saw the best and the worst that the world can offer. The youngest of seven children, he found a softness in his parents that his older siblings did not see. He was actually allowed to play once his household chores were completed. And what did he play? Baseball, of course. He played in the sandlots of Carolina, Puerto Rico until he was offered the opportunity to play for Sello Rojo, while he was still in high school. His natural talent sent him to the Santurce Crabbers and later on to the Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal. It was in Montreal that Clemente faced in the inequalities in baseball. Forced to stay in sub-standard accommodations, with other players of color while their teammates stayed in decent hotels, opened his eyes to what he would face in major league baseball.
Clemente arrived in Pittsburgh in 1955 with absolutely no fanfare. He was a small fish in a big bowl and rode the bench for much of his first season there. It took a hot second for Pittsburgh, and National League baseball, to realize that the man was a star. Of course, Puerto Ricans already knew this. He was a hero to his people, not only for his talent on the field, but also for his actions in the off-season. Clemente played winter ball in Santurce until he signed up with the Marine Corps Reserve. He served as a reservist for five years until he resigned as a Private First Class in order to marry the love of his life, Vera Zabala. His “married man” focus remained on his wife and his growing family. Due to his life as a husband and father, he began looking at the life of children in Puerto Rico. Clemente used his personal funds, and his off-season time, to give back to the people who had always supported him. Baseball clinics and little league teams sprang up around the island, not as stepping stones to the MLB, but to let kids be kids.
I was actually in church, forty years ago, when we received word from a family member in Carolina, Puerto Rico, that Clemente’s plane had gone down shortly after takeoff. We were praying for the people of Nicaragua following a devastating earthquake. One woman in the congregation had children, that she left behind with her mother, and efforts had already begun to bring her daughters to this country.
Clemente had already sent three shipments of relief items, but upon discovering that Somoza’s government had appropriated the items, he decided to charter a plane and take a shipment personally, believing that if he was there the shipment would get to the people who needed it the most. It was a decision that would take his life, plunge Puerto Rico in deepest mourning, and exhibit the man that was Roberto Clemente Walker.
Roberto Clemente’s legacy is more that the baseball fields and schools named in his memory. He was a man who loved his island and his people, and worked at being an example for them. He walked the talk and even now, forty years after his passing, remains the gold standard of what a man should be.
Major League Baseball’s tribute to Clemente:
Smithsonian Institution’s interactive timeline of Clemente’s life can be found here.
Fun fact: Upon his arrival in Pittsburgh, Clemente chose the number 21 because his name Roberto Clemente Walker has 21 letters.
Personal note to MLB: Retire #21