Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Roberto Clemente: A tribute to a proud Puerto Rican

"I want to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all I had to give."
- Roberto Clemente

Today marks the 42nd anniversary of the death of Roberto Clemente.  On the evening of December 31st, 1972, Roberto lost his life in a plane crash while en route to Nicaragua in Central America.  Shortly after takeoff from San Juan International Airport, his DC-7 plane slammed into the Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico.  All five people aboard the aircraft were killed, including the crew of three, Roberto Clemente and another passenger.

The wreckage of the plane was not found until the next day when divers located part of the fuselage.  A corpse removed from the site of the crash was identified as the pilot, Jerry Hill of Miami, Florida.  Although U.S. coast guard rescue and recovery teams searched the area for almost two weeks, Clemente's body was never found.

During the baseball offseason, Roberto had frequently involved himself in charity work in Puerto Rico and Latin American countries.  On the day of his death, the 38-year-old was delivering some much-needed aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.  This is indicative of the kind of man he was and the high quality of his character.  Clemente was more than a professional baseball player. He was a true humanitarian.

If Roberto Clemente were alive today, he would be thrilled that his Pittsburgh Pirates won a berth in post-season play last season for the first time since 1992.   He would have cheered them on enthusiastically.  After all, Clemente's number was 21 and it's only fitting that the Pirate's finally reached the playoffs after a 21-year drought.

Roberto Clemente was born August 18, 1934 in the San Anton barrio of Carolina, Puerto Rico.  He was the youngest of eight children raised by Melchor Clemente and Luisa Walker.  Lusia, who was left a widow by her first husband, had already borne three children (two sons and a daughter) before marrying Roberto's father.  Her five children by Melchor included three sons - Matino, Andres and Osvaldo - and a daughter, Ana Iris, who died at the age of five after her dress accidentally caught fire.  Melchor was a foreman on a sugarcane plantation and Luisa was a laundress and a cook.

As a child, Clemente displayed great athletic prowess in track and field.  During his first year at Vizcarondo High School in Carolina, 14-year-old Roberto played softball with men on the Sello Rojo team.  At 16, he joined a team in Puerto Rico's highly competitive amateur league called Ferdinand Juncos. Although his mother hoped that he would pursue a career in engineering, young Roberto had other ideas. His passion was baseball and his education would have to be put on hold.  Before he had even completed high school, he was offered a professional baseball contract.with the Santurce Cangrejeros (“Crabbers”), a winter league franchise in the Puerto Rico Baseball League.  During his first season with the Crabbers, the teenager spent a great deal of time sitting on the bench.  By his second season, however, he had become a starting player and the team’s leadoff hitter with a batting average of .288.

Roberto was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers as an amateur free agent in 1952.  He played for the Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate, the Montreal Royals, for one season, as did Jackie Robinson before him.   Clemente spent the 1954 season in Canada with the Royals of the International League.  His season in Montreal was rather disappointing because he was not given much playing time and was used as a bench player.  It seems the Dodgers tried to conceal his talent from other teams.

In an article entitled "Roberto Clemente's Entry into Organized Baseball: Was He Hidden in Montreal?" (2006 The National Pastime, published by the Society for American Baseball Research), author Stew Thornley states that "What has been written about Clemente in Montreal contains an assertion that the Dodgers and Royals tried to hide him - that is, play him very little so that other teams wouldn’t notice him. The claim was expressed by Clemente at least as early as 1962 in an article by Howard Cohn in Sport magazine.  'Clemente, on the other hand, felt - and still does - that the Royals kept him out of the regular lineup so big-league teams would think him a weak prospect and ignore him in the post-season draft for which he’d be available as a bonus player if he weren’t elevated to the Brooklyn roster,' wrote Cohn."

Roberto Clemente playing for Montreal Royals

The Dodgers' tactics didn't work.  Roberto was drafted first overall by the Pittsburgh Pirates of the National League in the 1954 MLB  rookie draft.  He then signed with the Pirates for a reported salary of $5,000 as well as a bonus of $10,000, later admitting that at the time, he didn't even know where Pittsburgh was located.   The young slugger, however, soon became acquainted with the city, and he spent his entire major league career there.  Clemente played 18 seasons for the Pirates from 1955 to 1972.  The immensely gifted right fielder is arguably the greatest Hispanic player of all time.

Roberto played his first major league game on April 17, 1955 at the age of 20, in the opening game of a double header against the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He recorded a single against the Dodgers during the first game, hitting 1-for-4 at the plate and scoring a run.  During the second game, he hit 2-for-4 with a double and a run.  The Pirates lost both games by scores of 10-3 and 3-2, respectively.

Roberto's rookie season was difficult in many ways as he tried to adjust to life in a new city and communicate in a non-Spanish speaking environment.  He faced discrimination due to his mixed African ancestry and his difficulty with the English language.  During mid-season, Clemente was involved in car accident caused by a drunk driver and was forced to miss some games due to a lower back injury. Nevertheless, he finished his rookie season with a .255 batting average in 124 games.

A proud Latino, Roberto clearly disliked being called "Bobby" or "Bob."  In his book Roberto Clemente: The Great One, author Bruce Markusen describes the Puerto Rican's attitude:

Clemente did not appreciate another practice of the media.  Some writers and broadcasters insisted on calling him "Bob" or "Bobby."  Several teammates used similar names in addressing or referring to him.  Even most of his baseball cards listed him as  trend that continued as late as 1969.  Clemente did not encourage such Americanization of his given name, a disrespectful practice that occurred mostly during the late fifties and early sixties.  He said, 'My name is Roberto Clemente,' not 'Bobby Clemente' or 'Robby Clemente.'  My name is 'Roberto Clemente." 

According  to Markusen, if Clemente's teammates insisted on assigning him a nickname, "Roberto preferred that they call him "Momen," an untranslatable Spanish moniker that he had acquired as a youngster."

1959 Topps baseball card

After the 1958 season, Clemente joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.  For the next six months, he engaged in active duty at Parris Island, South Carolina and Camp LeJeune, North Carolina.  He served in the Marines until 1964 and was admitted into the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.

On November 14, 1964, Roberto married Vera Cristina Zabala at San Fernando Church in Carolina. The couple had three children: Roberto Jr., Luis Roberto and Enrique Roberto.  Here's how Vera remembered her first date with the baseball legend.

The morning [he asked me on our first date], I was at my desk, and suddenly, he took me by surprise, and then I accepted the invitation. When I hanged up… I said, oh my god, just what have I done. I mean, I just had said yes. And then I felt worried. Then, at lunch day, I don’t know how people found out at the bank… they did not let me work that morning. At noon, they all just walked outside, everyone, auditors and all the executives. To try to take a look at him… I walked outside, on time. And we went for lunch.

Clemente's major league statistics are quite impressive.  His career batting average was 3.17.  He recorded 3,000 hits, 240 home runs and 1,305 RBIs.  He also played on two World Series championship teams - the 1960 Pirates and the 1971 Pirates.  In 1960, he was the first Hispanic to win a World Series as a starting player. In 1971, he was selected as the Most Valuable Player in the October Classic, becoming the first Latino to earn the honour.  He batted a remarkable .414 in that World Series (between the Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles) and he hit safely in all 7 games.

Clemente was a great defensive outfielder with a strong, accurate throwing arm. How good was his throwing arm?  As former major league catcher and sportscaster, Tim McCarver, put it, some right fielders have rifles for arms but Clemente had a howitzer.

Roberto Clemente's last major league appearance took place on October 3, 1972 at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio.  His Pittsburgh Pirates were defeated by the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Championship Series and eliminated from World Series competition.  In late November, Clemente managed the Puerto Rican team that competed in the Amateur World Series that was held in Managua, Nicaragua's largest city and its capital.  The Puerto Ricans finished fifth out of the 16 teams in the tournament.

On December 23, 1972, Managua was devastated by a massive earthquake. Roberto immediately began organizing emergency relief flights to the ravaged capital.  Unfortunately, corrupt officials of the Nicaraguan government interfered with the first three flights and the aid was never delivered to the victims of the disaster.  Roberto, however, was so determined that the supplies would actually reach the earthquake survivors that he decided to accompany a fourth flight himself.

Why did the baseball star's plane crash?  A U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigation later determined that the four-engine Douglas DC-7 Clemente charted for his New Year's Eve mission of mercy had a record of mechanical problems.  It was also greatly overloaded and lacked a qualified co-pilot and flight engineer.

A month after Roberto's death, journalist William Grimsley visited the "House on the Hill," the Clemente family's Spanish-style home in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Grimsley interviewed Roberto's widow, Vera, and she showed him her late husband's trophy room in the basement.  It contained hundreds of silver and bronze awards and walls full of plaques. Vera explained that "Roberto was proud of his trophies - not so much because of himself but because of the recognition he thought it brought Puerto Rico and Latin players."

In 1973, Robert Clemente was inducted posthumously into the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York.  He was selected by 92.per cent of the voters on the first ballot and became the first Latin American to be enshrined in the Hall   He was only the second Hall of Fame member (the first being the great Lou Gehrig in 1939) for whom the mandatory five-year waiting period was disregarded. That same year, Major League Baseball established an award in Roberto's honour.  The award is given to the player who best exemplifies Clemente's humanitarianism and sportsmanship ideals.

According to an Encyclopedia Britannica, Latin Americans have played in the major leagues since the 19th century.  At the beginning of the 2000 season, of some 1,200 players in the major leagues, 169 (about 15 per cent) were from Latin America. There were also many players U.S.-born baseball professionals of Latin descent.  Now, in the 21st century, Hispanic players are more numerous and more dominant than ever before.  At the beginning of the 2013 Major League Baseball Season, MLB officials informed Fox News Latino that 27.1 per cent of its players are of  “Hispanic background."  It was Clemente who blazed the trail for Latin players.  He was the first Latino baseball superstar.

Roberto Clemente's wish has come true.  He is remembered as a great ballplayer and also as a man who gave all he had to give.  In the words of Puerto Rican broadcaster Luis R. Mayoral, here is what Clemente's legacy means to his compatriots.

In Puerto Rico, we remember Roberto Clemente as a national hero, an outstanding humanitarian, an inspiration for the needy as well as a man who was able to solve the human, social and political challenges that life presented to him.  He gave Puerto Rico a sense of identity, new concepts as to hope and respect, and above all, his biggest legacy is that he is still an inspiration 33 years after his death.


* When Roberto Clemente joined the Pitttsburgh Pirates at the beginning of the 1955 season, his original uniform number was 13.  At the time, Pittsburgh's centre fielder, Earl Smith, wore number 21.  When Smith left the team in April 1955, Clemente claimed that number and wore it for the rest of his baseball career.  He selected 21 because it is the number of letters in his full name - Roberto Clemente Walker.  On April 6, 1973, Clemente's number 21 was retired by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

* Clemente received 12 consecutive Gold Glove Awards for his excellent play in right field.  He shares the record of 12 Gold Gloves with the great Willie Mays.

* On July 25, 1956, Roberto Clemente became the first (and only player to date) to hit a walk-off inside-the-park grand slam.  He accomplished this feat in a 9-8 Pittsburgh Pirate victory over the Chicago Cubs at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.

* Clemente was named to the National League All-star team 12 times (1960-1972) and made 14 All-star appearances.  In 1960, 1961 and 1962, he participated in both of the two All-star games that were played during those years.

* Roberto was the National League's batting champion four times (1961, 1964, 1965 and 1967).  In 1966, he was chosen the NL's MVP, the first Latino to win that award.

* Clemente had exactly 3,000 hits in his major league career. On September 30, 1972, he  recorded his 3,000th and final major league hit at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.against the New York Mets.  It was a double off pitcher Jon Matlack.

* Clemente had a reputation for being  a hypochondriac. When he was hurt, he let it be known, an uncommon practice during his playing days.  Yet, despite a severe back injury in 1954, an arm injury in 1959, and an attack of malaria in 1965,  Roberto played 140 or more games in eight consecutive seasons from 1960 to 1967.

* In a 2002 interview for the ESPN documentary series SportsCentury,Vera Clemente revealed that her husband had told her several times time that he thought he would die at a young age. Just before Roberto's death, some members of his family had a premonitions about him. According to writer William Grimsley, on the night Roberto Clemente died, seven-year-old Roberto Jr. told his maternal grandfather that "Daddy is leaving for Nicaragua, but he is not coming back." Clemente's own father, Melchor, had a similar eerie premonition. He claimed he had a dream that he saw the plane crash and his son go down with it."

- Joanne

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