Roberto Clemente: Baseball Legend and Latino Hero

Roberto Clemente's helmet, courtesy of Harold Dorwin NMAH/ SI

Roberto Clemente was born and raised in the small town of Carolina, Puerto Rico in the early 1930’s. He was the youngest of seven children.1 From a young age he excelled at baseball and at the track event Javelin. At age eighteen, he tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Roberto made the team with ease in 1952, but this is where his trials began. The Dodgers had five African-American players on the team already, including the famous Jackie Robinson. The owners saw no need for another “colored” player on the team.2

Roberto Clemente in 1966 MVP | Courtesy of Wikipedia

After his contract with the Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal expired, the young Pittsburgh Pirates organization picked up Clemente in order to rebuild their team. But the Pirates didn’t give him a lot of playing time either, so he decided to return to Puerto Rico.3 But in 1956, after dominating back in his home town, Roberto finally caught his break with the Pirates. He returned to the United States, and he began to rise in fame rapidly, gaining success in the League. In his first season he finished with a batting average of .255. This success didn’t smash the curveball that was thrown his way because of his race. On several occasions, his teammates called him a “nigger.” It was also common for Clemente to stay in separate hotels from the white players on the team, due to segregation laws. Young Clemente was not even treated as an equal in the sport that he had been working so hard for years to adapt to.4 Whether it was the law, or people’s racial prejudices, Clemente continued to remain the outsider.

The Pirates eventually won the World Series in 1960, and Roberto Clemente finished that season with the stellar batting average of .310. As Clemente began to rise in fame, and people began to realize his potential for greatness, he began to receive death threats in the mail. One of the letters read “Did you ever get shot before?”5 In fear for his family’s safety, Clemente moved them home to Puerto Rico in order to protect them from such bigoted Americans of the 1960’s. After moving his family back to Puerto Rico, Clemente told the media, “I don’t want to be put down because I’m Puerto Rican. I don’t stand for disliking someone because of their color. If this is the case, I don’t want to be living. I am a double nigger….. for my skin and my heritage.”6

After Clemente moved his family back to Puerto Rico, and bounced back from the serial experience of death threats, and he became the League’s MVP in 1966.7 Clemente refused to let others keep him down because of the color of his skin. Clemente was not only an inspiration to people on the field, but was so off the field as well. In his spare time he would visit Puerto Rico in order to spend time with his family. But he also gave back to the struggling community he grew up in by helping out in the local clinic in Carolina. He also opened youth baseball programs for kids in Puerto Rico.8 Roberto helped raise over $150,000 for his home town. Clemente’s love for others, and actions in order to help his people and the community, was recognized by people all over the United States. He was becoming one of the most well-known athletes not only for his incredible playing abilities, but for his devotion to his personal humanitarian aspirations.

Then suddenly, on New Years Eve in 1972, while flying to Nicaragua to drop supplies off after a tragic earthquake, Roberto Clemente’s plane crashed. There were no survivors and Roberto Clemente’s body was never found. The plane was allegedly 1,900 kilograms over the weight it could carry.9

Roberto Clemente Memorial | Courtesy of Wikipedia

Roberto Clemente finished his career with over 3,000 hits, 4 World Series titles, 12 Golden Gloves,  a two-time League MVP, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973.10 Roberto Clemente is remembered in Major League Baseball for so much more than these incredible stats. To this day, the MLB gives the Humanitarian Award to baseball players who best exemplify service to their team, community, and families.11 Clemente will forever be recognized for his love for others. And he fought for a sport he loved. There is much diversity in the MLB today, whether it is Yu Darvish from Japan, Didi Gregorius from the Netherlands, Arolodis Chapman from Cuba, or Carlos Correa from Puerto Rico. Clemente is a major reason for this diversity. He received death threats and experienced discrimination because of his color. But, most importantly, after all these trials, Clemente still managed to give back to his community and love others, which is why he’s an inspiration to Latinos and to people everywhere.

 

  1. Alan West, Roberto Clemente: Baseball Legend (Brookfield, Conn: Lerner Publishing Group, 1993), 6.
  2. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v.  “Roberto Clemente,” by Lynn C. Kronzek.
  3. Alan West, Roberto Clemente: Baseball Legend (Brookfield, Conn: Lerner Publishing Group, 1993), 10-12.
  4. Alan West, Roberto Clemente: Baseball Legend (Brookfield, Conn: Lerner Publishing Group, 1993), 10-12.
  5.  Roberto Clemente. n.p.: (Washington, D.C.): Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2003.
  6. Alan West, Roberto Clemente: Baseball Legend, (Brookfield, Conn: Lerner Publishing Group, 1993), 13.
  7.  Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Roberto Clemente,” by Lynn C. Kronzek.
  8. Alan West,  Roberto Clemente: Baseball Legend (Brookfield, Conn: Lerner Publishing Group, 1993) 19-25.
  9.  Madeleine White, “Baseball’s Roberto Clemente dies in a plane crash,” Globe & Mail , 2015, A2.
  10. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Roberto Clemente,” by Lynn C. Kronzek.
  11. Wes Lukowsky, “Clemente: The True Legacy of an Undying Hero,” Booklist 110, no. 1 (2013): 30.

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This Post Has 47 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I had never heard of Clemente prior to reading this article, so it was interesting to read of who he was and what he became. It’s unfortunate to hear of how prejudices got in the way of his baseball career, but his persistence was the key to his success. His baseball stats, humanitarian efforts, and great sense of self are what guided him to victory.

  2. Avatar

    I recently got into baseball this year while watching the world series game. Since I just started watching baseball I don’t know many baseball players. I really enjoyed this article because it talked about his success’s on and off the field. I believe you are right when you say that he along with other players of his generation paved the way for a better understanding of equality in the league today. I’m sure some players of today still face some discrimination just because some people will never understand that we are all equal, however the players of today will never experience the levels of discrimination that the players back in those days faced.

  3. Avatar

    I am a major baseball fan and still I had never heard of the whole background to the infamous Roberto Clemente. The fact that he overcame such adversity and hate is inspiring to say the least. From being put on the back burner with the Dodgers and eventually the Pirates for a while to seeking solace at home from so many death threats, Clemente still pushed through due to his love for the game. It is truly amazing to hear so many success stories of victims of discrimination, no-one deserves that amount of hate.

  4. Avatar

    Clemente seemed like an all-around great person. He was discriminated by his own team, sent death threats, and separated from his family at the peak of his career. For an average athlete, this would have torn them to pieces, but Clemente was no average baseball player. He continued to love his family and his roots and he always gave back to his hometown in Puerto Rico. Tragically, Roberto Clemente died in plane crash and his body was never found.

  5. Avatar

    This article was very interesting, I remember in middle school I had a project on him to do a biography. It is always crazy to me how athletes could take so much abuse from fans, other players or even teammates. I do not know how they stuck through it all, dealing with them. He was super talented, clearly he had a gift that deserved to be shown on the highest stage. This article was very good, I think you did a good job writing this piece.

  6. Avatar

    Being from Puerto Rico baseball is a part of our culture and Roberto Clemente is a big sports icon in the island. For us Clemente is the Jackie Robinson of Latin America. His jump to the big leagues broke barriers for people of color coming from Latin American countries and he is the main reason baseball is very popular in the Caribbean and Latin America. The Puerto Rican winter baseball league is named in his honor “Liga de Beisbol Profesional de Puerto Rico Roberto Clemente”. Despite all the challenges he faced throughout his life and his amazing big league career, Clemente is a role model not just for Puerto Ricans but for baseball fans all over the world.

  7. Avatar

    Baseball has never been anything to draw my attention, but the name Robert Clemente does. His name popped up numerous times on George Lopez except I didn’t understand why he was so beloved. You did a marvelous job to capture his image in baseball history as well as who he was off the field. I think you should devote more time writing articles because you did a fine job!

  8. Avatar

    It’s always nice to hear about these sort of stories given recent events in football. Players making it to the top to represent their people is always a wonderful story, especially in baseball. It’s such an American sport and I really didn’t come to appreciate it until I got older. I started to understand that it’s not just about watching a guy throw a ball and another to hit it. It’s about getting together with the family with hotdogs and fries to watch a fun competition! Truly American.

  9. Avatar

    It is always such a great honor to read, and to learn about a Hispanic or Latino Icons; as I am from Mexico im glad even in the US we represent are country with a bunch of honor. It is delightful to learn that Roberto Clemente not only astonished the world with his physical ability during sports but with his inspiration to minorities. Reading this articles makes me really proud of who Mexicans are becoming.

  10. Avatar

    This article was such an interesting one. The fact that I am such a huge baseball fan only because I grew up watching it. Roberto Clemente has been a baseball hero for a very long time now. He is such an inspirational person and player. Roberto was a very great and talented player he produced many stats within his baseball career. It is amazing how he was able to look passed all the hate and death threats just to continue to have funny playing the sport he enjoyed and loved the most.

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