Roberto Clemente: Baseball Legend and Philanthropist
Roberto Clemente is recognized as a legend in the game of baseball. During his career, he played in fifteen All-Star games. Clemente also won the Gold Glove Award for twelve straight seasons starting in 1961 until 1972. He was voted as the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1966.
For thirteen seasons, his batting average was more than .300. Clemente was the National League leader in batting during the MLB seasons 1961, 1964, 1965, and 1967. During his career, Clemente had 3,000 hits. He was also part of two World Series championship teams.
Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker was born in Barrio San Antón, Carolina, Puerto Rico on August 18, 1934. He was the youngest in his family with six older siblings. When he was young, his father was a foreman responsible for managing sugar crops in the local municipality. The family struggled financially. As a young boy, Clemente worked with his father in the fields. During this time, he spent his day loading and unloading trucks.
From Neighborhood Baseball to the Amateur League
Clemente demonstrated his interest in playing baseball at an early age. He often played in street baseball games against neighboring barrios. Clemente went to school in Carolina at Julio Vizcarrondo Coronado High School. A local coach saw him play baseball in the barrio San Antón. Clemente was then recruited to play softball by Roberto Marin during his first year of high school.
Clemente played for two years for the Sello Rojo team as a shortstop. When he was 16, Clemente was able to join Puerto Rico's amateur baseball league and was a player there from 1952 to 1954.
Beginning of Professional Baseball Career
Roberto Clemente began his professional baseball career when he was 18 years old. On October 9, 1952, he signed a contract with a winter league team known as Cangrejeros de Santurce. They were part of the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League (LBBPR). He was a starting player during his second season with the team.
During the time he was playing in this league, Clemente was offered a contract by the Brooklyn Dodgers to play for one of its triple-A teams. On February 19, 1954, Roberto Clemente signed a contract with the Dodgers.
Playing Minor League Baseball
Playing for this team required Clemente to move to Montreal in Canada and play for the Royals baseball team. It was a struggle for him. Clemente had a difficult time with the climate as well as the language. Other teammates, including Tommy Lasorda, Chico Fernandez, and Joe Black, helped Clemente deal with his language challenges.
Clemente played well and had impressive statistics. On his 20th birthday, the Pittsburgh Pirates made him their first selection during the rookie draft that occurred on November 22, 1954.
On April 17, 1955, Roberto Clemente played his first game with his new team. It was a doubleheader against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was wearing a uniform with the number 13 on it. This was a time when he experienced racial tension between some of his teammates and the local media. He would tell anyone who would listen that his parents taught him to never discriminate against any person due to their ethnicity.
Another black player on the Pirates team was Curt Roberts. When Clemente arrived in Pittsburgh, he and Roberts became friends. Curt Roberts helped Clemente with the adjustments he had to make to be in the major leagues as well as living in the city of Pittsburgh.
During his rookie season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Clemente was forced to sit out a number of games because he had a back injury. This was an injury he experienced during the previous winter in Puerto Rico. A drunk driver hit Clemente's car at an intersection. He still ended the season with a .255 batting average. His ability to play defense was the highlight of the season.
United States Marines
Roberto Clemente joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve in September 1958. He went through boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. He trained with Platoon 346 of the 3rd Recruit Battalion. He then did his active duty commitment in Camp LeJeune in North Carolina.
Clemente benefited from the intense training of the Marine Corps. He did add strength as well as gain ten pounds. The back troubles he had from his car accident went away. He remained in the Marine Corps reserves until September 1964.
1960 World Series Champions
Clemente led the National League with a .353 batting average during the 1960 MLB season. During the month of May, Clemente was selected and Player of the Month by the National League. His batting average would remain above .300 for the entire season.
His Famous Catch
Clemente hit the right field wall during an August 5 game against the San Francisco Giants while making a game-changing catch. It deprived Willie Mays of an extra base hit. The Pittsburgh Pirates won the game 1-0. Clemente was injured from the play and had to get five stitches to his chin. His catch was considered one of the best of all time.
During the season, the Pirates won the National League pennant. They went on to the World Series. They were able to defeat the New York Yankees in seven games. During the series, Clemente batted .310 and did get at least one hit in each World Series game. His play earned him a spot on the National League All-Star team. During this time, there were two All-Star games played. Roberto Clemente played in both of them that year.
1971 World Series Champions
This season the Pirates had a record of 97 wins and 65 losses. They were able to beat the San Francisco Giants in four games and win the National League pennant. The Pirates then played the Baltimore Orioles for the World Series. Baltimore was posting their third season in a row of 100 or more wins. They also had four pitchers who had won 20 or more games. The Orioles were also the defending World Series champions.
During the course of the seven-game series, Clemente had a .414 batting average. His defensive play was impressive. During the deciding seventh game of the series, Clemente hit a solo home run. The Pirates won the game 2-1 and the World Series. He was awarded the 1971 World Series Most Valuable Player Award.
Roberto Clemente was always busy doing charity work during the off-season. On December 23, 1972, a huge earthquake hit the city of Managua in Nicaragua. Clemente immediately began working on providing emergency relief flights for the devastated city. He learned the first three flights had been taken by the dictatorship known as the Somoza government in Nicaragua. They diverted the flights. The emergency relief supplies never reached the earthquake victims.
Roberto Clemente decided he would accompany the fourth relief flight. He hoped his presence would cause the relief flight to reach its destination. The airplane he chartered had a history of problems with its mechanics. There were not enough flight personnel, and it was 4,200 pounds heavier than what it should have been.
On December 31, 1972, the plane with Roberto Clemente on it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean almost immediately after its takeoff. Its engine failed. Everyone onboard the plane were killed. There was an empty flight case owned by Clemente that was the only personal item of his recovered.
Roberto Clemente viewed baseball as a way to help Latin Americans. He felt it was a way for the underprivileged, especially those in Puerto Rico, to have a better life.
"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
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