"I like people that suffer because these people have a different approach to life from the people that have everything and don't know what suffering is."
Roberto Clemente was a baseball star well-loved by Puerto Ricans. As a right-fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1972, he won four National League batting titles, twelve Golden Glove awards, and was named the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1966. He was a proud man who demanded more respect for Hispanic players. His lifelong dream was to build a youth sports facility in Puerto Rico for poor children. In 1972, while flying relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, his plane went down off the coast of Puerto Rico.
Clemente was born on August 18, 1934, in Carolina, Puerto Rico, the youngest of the seven children of Melchor and Luisa Clemente. His father was a foreman on a sugarcane plantation, and his mother ran a grocery store for plantation workers. The young Clemente was raised to respect honesty, generosity, and his elders. "When I was a boy," he was quoted as saying in Smithsonian, "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."
Another lesson Clemente learned from his parents was the value of working hard. When he was nine years old, he wanted to buy a bicycle. In order to earn money, he began delivering milk to his neighbors. He earned a penny a day. After three years, he had saved enough money for the bicycle. The experience of having to work hard for what he wanted stayed with Clemente all his life. "I am from the poor people," he said. "I represent the poor people. I like workers. I like people that suffer because these people have a different approach to life from the people that have everything and don't know what suffering is."
Clemente excelled at baseball as a child. He worked constantly and intensely at perfecting his skills. Even though his father told him he was too old to keep playing ball, he played amateur softball on the sandlots of his hometown of Carolina until he was eighteen years old. At that time he was spotted by a scout from the professional hardball team in the Puerto Rican town of Santurce. He signed with the club for forty dollars per month, plus a five hundred dollar bonus.
Clemente was a star with the Santurce team for two seasons before he caught the attention of major league scouts. In 1954 the Los Angeles Dodgers signed him up and sent him to their minor league team in Montreal. At the time, a player who was not kept on a major league team's roster could be picked up by another team. When Clemente was not called up to the Dodgers by the end of the season, the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him. He started the 1955 season as the Pirates' official right fielder.
Clemente's career began without great fanfare as he slowly learned the routine in the big leagues. One major obstacle for him was the English language. "He found it difficult to make his feelings clear," said Joe L. Brown, who worked for the Pirates at the time. "He was an emotional person, a very sensitive person, and he was not understood."
In 1960, however, Clemente began to make his presence known on the field. He hit .314 with 16 home runs and 94 runs batted in. He helped lead the Pirates to win both the National League pennant and the World Series.
Over the next twelve seasons, Clemente was a dominant force in professional baseball. He was famous for his incredible fielding skills, swift running, and powerful throwing. He thrilled fans by throwing out runners from remote spots in the outfield. Many times he threw strikes to home plate from more than four hundred feet in the outfield. He was fearless in pursuit of the ball, diving into the grass and crashing into the wall.
Clemente's batting statistics were impressive as well. He trained to become a "spray hitter," scattering line-drive doubles and triples into the gaps between fielders. He was only the eleventh player in major league history to collect 3,000 hits in a career. His lifetime batting average was .317. For his heroics in the field and at the plate he was elected to the National League All-Star team twelve times. After leading the Pirates to victory in the 1971 World Series, he was honored with the series's outstanding player award.
In spite of his achievements, Clemente had disappointments during his career. He suffered from numerous injuries and ailments, including back pain, stomach disorders, and tension headaches. Even after diligent study, he never completely mastered English. American sports writers had trouble understanding him, and his quotes in newspapers often contained grammar errors that he found embarrassing and insulting. Because of the language barrier, he believed he and other Hispanic players did not receive the recognition or respect they deserved.
Clemente always promoted Hispanic players and Hispanic pride. He took young Hispanic players under his wing, helping them with their game. His large home in Puerto Rico, where he lived with his wife and three children, often was open to admiring fans. During the off-season he traveled around the island giving baseball clinics for children. "I go out to different towns, different neighborhoods," he said in Smithsonian. "I get kids together and talk about the importance of sports, the importance of being a good citizen, the importance of respecting their mother and father."
Clemente's dream was to build a sports complex to give Puerto Rican children opportunities to learn and to grow. At the end of the 1972 baseball season, he contemplated retiring from baseball to work full-time to develop his hometown sports camp for kids. Late that year, he was distracted from his decision by a massive earthquake that caused widespread disaster in Nicaragua. After organizing relief efforts from Puerto Rico, he went along to deliver the supplies in person. On December 31, 1972, Clemente died in the crash near San Juan, Puerto Rico, in a cargo plane that was carrying food to Nicaragua.
The world mourned the death of the great athlete and humanitarian. The Baseball Hall of Fame waived its five-year waiting period after a player's retirement and immediately elected Clemente to membership. His family continues to work on his Sports City in Carolina, Puerto Rico. The 304-acre complex provides children with baseball, basketball, swimming, and track training. Future plans include programs in drama, music, dance and folklore.
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Gilbert, Thomas W., Roberto Clemente, Chelsea House, 1991.
O'Connor, Jim, The Story of Roberto Clemente, All-Star Hero, Dell, 1991; reprinted, Garrett Stevens, 1995.
Walker, Paul Robert, Pride of Puerto Rico: The Life of Roberto Clemente, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1988.
Smithsonian, September 1993, pp. 136+.