This year marks the 50th anniversary of Roberto Clemente’s final Major League Baseball season.
Nineteen seventy-two was another year of achievement for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ star right fielder: He won his 12th Golden Glove and notched his 3,000th-career hit. But at his professional apex, Clemente’s life ended prematurely. When an earthquake devastated Nicaragua in late 1972, he joined relief efforts. After supplies were diverted, allegedly by corrupt officials, Clemente boarded a plane on New Year’s Eve to personally ensure that the supplies would get to the intended recipients, but the aircraft he chartered was overloaded and crashed shortly after takeoff from Puerto Rico. Clemente’s remains were never found.
“When he died, it impacted the world,” said Clemente friend and fellow Puerto Rican Luis Rodríguez Mayoral, a former sports broadcaster and official for ballclubs in mainland United States and Puerto Rico. “To me, Clemente is a constant inspiration. I think of him almost every day.”
Since 2014, the historic winter league on the island where Clemente got his start bears his name, La Liga de Béisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente.
Now, as Major League Baseball gears up for spring training and the 2022 season, Jorge Colón Delgado, the official historian of the Puerto Rico league, noted that there are many other Clemente tributes, including 19 statues, two more than another Latin American sports legend – Pelé. There’s even a bridge, along with several schools that bear his name.
A Singular Legacy
“Roberto Clemente is the most noble player in the world because of the way he died, because of the humanitarian part,” Colón Delgado said.
His humanitarian efforts coincided with a deepening interest in the nation’s civil rights movement.
Clemente played just one season in baseball’s minor leagues, in Montreal in 1954. Two years later, in his second MLB season with Pittsburgh, he hit .311. By 1960, he was a World Series champion. Yet he continually faced prejudice on the mainland. This included sports journalists who, mockingly, quoted him verbatim in newspaper stories. English was not Clemente’s first language.
“He found out what racism was when he went to Canada in 1954, when he had to go to the USA in 1955,” Rodríguez Mayoral said. “He had no notion what racism was. But he was a smart man.”
“He confronted racism from the first day he went to spring training,” Colón Delgado added. “Newsmen and reporters at the time did not accept him, maybe because just to see a Latino Black player being so outspoken. He fought every day of his life against racism.”
Clemente met with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Pittsburgh in the early ‘60s. After King was assassinated, Clemente led efforts to suspend play on the day of the civil rights leader’s burial. “
He was not afraid to speak what he thought, which made him very different and very special,” Colón Delgado said.
Major League Baseball celebrates Roberto Clemente Day at each of its stadiums every Sept. 15, the start of Hispanic Heritage Month. Washington, D.C.-based lawyer and San Juan native Flavio Cumpiano took part in one such ceremony at Nationals Park in 2008. Clemente’s son Luis threw out the first pitch and Cumpiano called out, “Play ball!”
Cumpiano says he takes pride in contemporary Puerto Rican MLB stars who’ve inherited the Clemente legacy. Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals, in Cumpiano’s view, is one of baseball’s best-ever catchers. He also mentioned two managers with recent World Series rings – Alex Cora of the Boston Red Sox and Dave Martínez of the Washington Nationals.
“There have been a number of very good Puerto Rican baseball players in the majors, and Clemente, of course, was a pioneer, the one who opened the door,” Cumpiano said.
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Yet baseball in Puerto Rico goes way back, even before Clemente.
The first official game on the island was played on Jan. 9, 1898, when it was still a Spanish colony. Rain suspended the 3-3 tie between the Almendares and Borínquen teams. Months later, organized play was halted for a longer period for a different reason – the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War.
“There are pictures of battleships entering San Juan Bay, bombarding San Juan,” Colón Delgado said. “People got afraid. Everything halted.”
Play soon resumed and in the early decades of the next century, a diverse group of individuals contributed mightily to Puerto Rican baseball: Boricuas who collectively represented Spanish, Black, and Taíno heritage; U.S. servicemembers stationed on the island; people from Cuba, another island passionate about baseball; and Black players from the Negro Leagues who were barred from the mainland’s segregated Major Leagues.
“Since then, almost every winter, different Negro Leaguers tried coming to Puerto Rico,” Colón Delgado said. “We can say Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Martin Dihigo, Oscar Charleston, José Méndez – all of them Hall of Famers.”
In 1938, the winter league was officially founded. Pedro “Pedrín” Zorilla, the owner of one of its most famous teams, the Santurce Cangrejeros, was the one who signed Clemente to his first contract in 1952; his teammates would include future Hall of Famer Willie Mays. The first Puerto Ricans to play major-league ball were white players in the early 1940s – Hirám Bithorn, of Swedish ancestry, for the Chicago Cubs, and Luis Olmo for the Brooklyn Dodgers. After the MLB became integrated in 1947 with Jackie Robinson, Black Puerto Ricans joined big-league rosters, including Luis Márquez, Carlos Bernier, Nino Escalera, and Clemente.
Early in Clemente’s career, he vied for attention with a fellow Black puertorriqueño, Orlando Cepeda of the San Francisco Giants. Cepeda’s father, Pedro “Perucho” Cepeda, was one of Puerto Rico’s greatest stars – although he refused to play on the mainland because of the racism there. His son had a dominating first season in the majors in 1958, the first of many.
“Orlando Cepeda, when he first began, was a bigger star than Clemente in the big leagues,” Colón Delgado said. “He was the Rookie of the Year with San Francisco, unanimously, (and) the first Puerto Rican to start the All-Star Game … Clemente and Cepeda became rivals, icons, represented us in the big leagues, made us very proud.”
In 1961, the two athletes combined for the Triple Crown in the National League: Clemente won the batting championship while Cepeda won the home run and RBI titles. Five years later, Clemente was named Most Valuable Player in the NL.
“Clemente, as time began to progress, got bigger and bigger and bigger, a huge star,” Colón Delgado said. “Clemente was in a league of his own.”
When Clemente won his second world championship in 1971, he was ready to make a statement when Pirates broadcaster Bob Prince interviewed him in the clubhouse.
He said, “‘Bob, if you allow me, I want to bless my boys and to my parents in Puerto Rico I ask for their blessing,” Rodríguez Mayoral recalled. “And he said it in Spanish. To this day, I say, perhaps in (U.S.) professional sports, it’s a scene that’s so big – no one ever spoke (on television in another) language directly to his parents and family members.”
Just over a year later, after Clemente’s death, 92.7% of the Baseball Writers Association of America voted him into the Hall of Fame, forgoing the traditional five-year waiting period. He became the first Latino inducted.
“Maybe, maybe, if they made Roberto Clemente wait the five-year period, he would have been the first unanimous election,” Colón Delgado said. “The other percent who didn’t vote for him wanted him to wait the five-year period.” Yet, he asked, “how can you not vote for a man (given) he was a great ballplayer, the way he died?”
More posthumous honors followed, including the renaming of a New York City state park after Clemente, notable because of its location in the epicenter of the Nuyorican community. (The Pirates have retired Clemente’s number 21, and a number of current MLB players have called for the entire Major Leagues to do the same.) Each season, Major League Baseball also presents the Roberto Clemente Award. The award is presented “to the player who best represents the game of Baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy, and positive contributions, both on and off the field.”
It shows you (Clemente) still has a lasting legacy,” Cumpiano said. “People who are not connected to Puerto Rico, who are not Latino, who don’t know Spanish, who don’t know anything about Latinos, Latin America, white Americans from Missouri, you ask who’s their favorite player … they’ll tell you, ‘Roberto Clemente.’”