Forty-five years ago today, baseball fans woke up to the news that the Pittsburgh Pirates’ star outfielder Roberto Clemente had been killed in an airplane crash on December 31 on his way to Nicaragua to deliver disaster relief after an earthquake.
A few months earlier, on September 30, 1972, Clemente had pulled a curveball from New York Met and Rookie of the Year Jon Matlack into the gap for a double. It was his 3,000th hit, and he had become only the 11th player in nearly a century of Major League Baseball to reach that milestone. It was also the last at-bat of his life.
The dramatic and tragic end of Clemente’s career capped a story that is uniquely American and uniquely baseball. While today Latin American players dot Major League lineups like marks on a successful bingo card, when Clemente began his career in 1955, this was not the case. While not exactly the trailblazer that Jackie Robinson was in breaking the color barrier, Clemente nonetheless came to represent the foot in the door for Latino players.
One of the World’s Finest Players
Clemente, born in Puerto Rico in 1934, was the quintessential five-tool player. He could hit for power and average, was fast as lightning on the bases, and could catch anything hit. As Vin Scully once put it, he also “could field the ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania.” He can be spoken of in the same breath as Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and had the pedigree and championships to back it up.
As a relatively young player, Clemente was on the 1960 Pirates team that miraculously beat the mighty Yankees in the World Series. Eleven years later, he would be the Most Valuable Player on the Pirates team that defeated the Baltimore Orioles in seven games. His home run, with two outs in the fourth inning of game seven, propelled steel town to victory.
As a player, Clemente brought rare elegance to the game of baseball. While his contemporary Pete Rose was slapping hits with a tight closed stance, seemingly fighting the pitches off, Clemente had a smooth stroke, driving balls to the gap, often making triples out of obvious doubles. In every aspect of the game, he was stylish.
Throughout his career, which lasted from 1955 to 1972, his greatest struggle was never hitting the ball. It was getting people to say his name. Baseball cards and announcers were more comfortable with Bob or Bobby Clemente than they were with Roberto. This Anglicizing may well have been seen as a compliment in his time. But he didn’t see it that way and insisted his name was the Spanish: Roberto.
A Baseball Great Gives Back to America
In 1958 Clemente joined the Marine Corps reserves, and served until 1964. For the modern baseball fan, such a choice seems unfathomable for a top-tier player. But these were different times, before the age of the multi-millionaire athlete. Clemente, who had come to fame in the United States of his Puerto Rican birth, chose to give back to it.
Throughout his career and in the events leading to his death, Clemente was a dedicated servant of Latin American causes. We look askance sometimes now at the contributions of athletes to important causes. After all, they are rich beyond belief, right? Yet Clemente’s salary in in 1972 was $150,000. It was a lot of money back then, but not so much that it would make for no big deal chartering a plane to fly Nicaragua money.
There is a movement afoot to retire Clemente’s number 21 throughout baseball, just as Robinson’s number 42 was retired. It’s a long shot, but has the support of future Hall of Famer Alex Rodriguez, who said, “Absolutely, I love Roberto…what he did for me and many, many others…he paved the way for guys like me and he was one of my heroes. He was an incredible player and even better person.”
Tragedy is often beautiful. Tears shed at a thing we should have respected and understood without the clarifying calamity of too-soon death help us see the world for what it is. Clemente was a beautiful example of this. On the anniversary of his death, we should think about what his legacy means. We take for granted that a bunch of ballplayers on our favorite teams grew up in Latin America speaking Spanish. But that was not always true. Clemente blazed that path.
Clemente said, “If you have a chance to accomplish something that will make things better for people coming behind you, and you don’t do that, you are wasting your time on this earth.” Clemente didn’t waste time. He didn’t waste at-bats. He didn’t waste his modest wealth. As we ring in 2018, it’s good to give a thought to Clemente, and wonder if we can live a little bit in his example.