Watching Roberto Clemente play baseball was to have seen the game at its best, but to have known him as a man, and appreciate him as a leader, was even better. Forty years after his death, in a tragic plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972, Clemente’s stature only continues to grow.
Born in Carolina, Puerto Rico on August 18, 1934, to Luisa and Melchor Clemente, Roberto was the youngest of seven siblings. At the time, the country was in a deep and prolonged depression. When Roberto turned six, “average income per person in Puerto Rico was about thirty cents a day,” notes biographer Kal Wagenheim:
The average life span was only forty-six years, as thousands of infants died of diarrhea, gastroenteritis, pneumonia, and influenza, and hundreds of thousands of adults were weakened by intestinal parasites. In Roberto’s barrio of San Anton, it was not rare to see the neighbors solemnly bearing a tiny wooden casket—a dead infant—to the cemetery.
The outbreak of Word War II provoked a blockade around the Caribbean, making the situation even worse. But it was precisely during those trying times that the future baseball star learned the value of faith, hard work, and family bonds. Luisa was a Baptist, Melchor a Catholic, and their home became a place “where sharp lines divided right and wrong,” writes Wagenheim. But it was a strictness imbued with exceptional love, designed to build character, and Roberto always appreciated that:
When I was a boy, I realized what lovely persons my father and mother were. . . . I learned the right way to live. I never heard any hate in my house. Not for anybody. I never heard my mother say a bad word to my father, or my father to my mother. During the War, when food all over Puerto Rico was limited, we never went hungry. They always found a way to feed us. We kids were first, and they were second.
His parents encouraged their children to excel in school and extra-curricular events. Roberto joined his first baseball team when he was eight, but local deprivations made his introduction to the game somewhat unusual: “His first bat was fashioned from the branch of a guava tree,” writes Wagenheim, “a glove was improvised from a coffee bean sack, and the ball was a tight knot of rags.” No matter; the youngster enjoyed the game all the more.
In fact, it became his abiding passion. His relatives and friends tried to temper his expectations, but Roberto was determined. “I wanted to be a ballplayer. I became convinced God wanted me to.”
When he was nineteen, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Clemente to play for their Montreal farm club; but when Brooklyn made the blunder of leaving him off their roster, the Pittsburgh Pirates swooped in to draft him. “I didn’t even know where Pittsburgh was,” Roberto would say. He soon would, and even more so, would the city come to know him.
His career reads like something out of a script. David Maraniss, his most recent biographer, summarizes:
Eighteen seasons in the big leagues, all with the Pittsburgh Pirates, two World Series championships, four batting titles, an MVP award, twelve Gold Gloves as a right fielder, leading the league in assists five times, and—with a line double into the gap at Three Rivers Stadium in his final at-bat of the 1972 season—exactly three thousand hits.
Even though Jackie Robinson had broken the color line almost a decade before, discrimination was far from conquered when Clemente entered the Majors (1955). He learned that every time he ate on the team bus, unable to enter segregated restaurants; and when certain sportswriters quoted his broken English verbatim, making him sound unintelligent, which he certainly wasn’t. But he was comforted by the support he received from sympathetic teammates, particularly those who shared his Christian faith and values. Among them was Frank Thomas, who played with the Pirates during Clemente’s first four years (1955-1958), and who was happy to share memories about Roberto: “He was shy and it took him time to deal with the new surroundings, but he knew he had our support, on and off the playing field.”
As he came into his prime during the 1960s, Clemente began to speak about civil rights, and against injustice anywhere. After his friend and personal hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was slain in 1968, Roberto asked his team to delay the start of their season, to honor the great civil rights leader during his burial. They obliged.
Clemente’s determination to prove the full equality of minorities, and inspire the underprivileged he did so much to help, propelled him to strive for even greater heights on the playing field. In the 1971 World Series, at the age of 37, Clemente led his team to a second world championship, hitting an amazing .414 against the heralded Baltimore Orioles pitching staff, which had four twenty-game winners. Boog Powell, the Orioles First Baseman, marveled: “Nobody hit .400 off our pitching staff. Maybe off of one pitcher . . . a guy might have one guy’s number, but not our whole pitching staff.”
In one memorable game, Clemente hit the wall head first, caught the ball, tumbled down, and held on. When one sportswriter told him, “Roberto, I’ve seen you play a lot of games, and that’s the best catch I’ve ever seen you make,” Clemente replied, with quiet confidence, “If the ball is in the park, and the game is on the line, I will catch the ball.”
Yet in all the discussions about Clemente that have marked the anniversary of his death, there has been one thing largely missing from these otherwise moving tributes—the centrality of his faith to his life and work.
“My husband was a very religious man,” his wife Vera told the Pittsburgh Catholic. “His faith guided him to help others.” Father Alvin Gutierrez, who knew the Clementes well, and concelebrated a memorial Mass several days after Clemente’s sudden passing, underscored that, and stressed the importance of Roberto’s “Catholic ethos” to me.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in the jubilant locker room after the 1971 World Series. When he was awarded the Series MVP, he thanked the presenter in English, then immediately spoke in Spanish, blessing his family, thanking his parents, and asking for their blessing as well on “the most important day of my life.” It was a moment all Latinos who saw remember with pride and emotion—and still moves anyone who watches it today. “With Roberto it was always faith and family first, everything else second,” said Father Gutierrez. Just like his parents had taught him, back in Puerto Rico.
In fact, it was the Hall of Famer’s faith that led to him to offer his life for the sake of others. After an earthquake struck Nicaragua and caused mass suffering, Roberto was determined to rush relief supplies to the country, and he wanted to take them in person, to make sure they got to the victims. But his plane crashed shortly after takeoff, and he died at sea, on his humanitarian mission.
Christians don’t often think of athletes as witnesses for their faith—especially these days in a sports world marred by greed, illegal drugs and scandal—but if ever there was one, it was Roberto Clemente. He was not just a baseball star, but one of Heaven’s as well.