Roberto Clemente – Caring
“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.”
Baseball dignitaries and players annually determine the one Major League Baseball player who that year “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement, (as well as) the individual’s contribution to his team.” This award is not given to the best baseball player. Instead it is focused on a ball player’s life off of the field. It used to be called the Commissioner’s Award. In 1973, its name was changed to The Roberto Clemente Award. And it’s a big deal.
Make no mistake about it – Roberto Clemente was one of the best baseball players during his era. He played 18 seasons from 1955-1972. In those seasons no one had a higher batting average; his lifetime average was .317. Clemente also has been awarded 12 Gold Gloves. These recognize the best fielding at each position in a given year and his dozen Gold Gloves ties him for the most in history at his position. Clemente also played in 15 all-star games in his career. His team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, won two World Series Championships and Clemente got at least one hit in all 14 games he played. He also was the MVP of the 1971 series. Finally, Clemente was the 11th Major League Baseball player ever to get 3,000 hits. Ironically, he got his last hit in the last game of the 1972 season, which turned out to be his last game. Nevertheless, despite all of his accomplishments in professional baseball, Roberto Clemente is best remembered for the way he lived his life and for the noble-but-tragic circumstances of his death.
Roberto was born and raised in the U. S. Territory of Puerto Rico, an island about 1,000 miles south of Florida. He was born three years into the Great Depression and Puerto Rico was already one of the poorest regions in the Western Hemisphere. For most of his childhood he played baseball on a vacant lot with his friends. They used whatever they could find to play: Brooms were used as bats, old coffee bags were bases, and wadded-up rags, cans, and milk cartons sometimes served as balls. Roberto’s mother never had to worry about his whereabouts. If he was not in school, he could be found playing baseball.
At the age of 14, a local coach asked Roberto to try out for a neighborhood softball team. Roberto made the team and played very well. He caught the attention of several baseball coaches and at the age of 16 he signed with the Santurce Crabbers for $40 a week. This was a small fortune in Puerto Rico at that time. Soon a scout from the Brooklyn Dodgers discovered Clemente. The Dodgers wanted to sign him right away, but he had to wait until he was 18. On his 18th birthday, Clemente received a $10,000 signing bonus and was sent 2,000 miles north to play for the Dodger’s Triple-A affiliate in Montreal, Canada. The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired him a year later under a now-defunct rookie draft.
Imagine for a minute the extreme culture shift Clemente experienced as a teenager. Everything was foreign to him: the food, the customs, the people, and the language. He was also dark-skinned and all the stereotypes of a black man were placed on him. After all, just seven years earlier Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to sign a major-league baseball contract. Although Clemente was not the first Latino to play MLB, he has special significance. According to Orlando Cepeda, “Roberto Clemente is the Jackie Robinson of baseball for Latino ball players.”
Clemente struggled to adjust to the culture. His teammates didn’t know how to communicate with him and he didn’t know how to communicate with them. The press viewed him as ignorant because he spoke “Broken English.” Newspaper writers often quoted him phonetically. For example, they would quote him as saying “I got a heet,” or “I feel very goot afta win.” Clemente took offense to this mockery. He really just wanted people to treat him with respect.
As Clemente grew more comfortable in his surroundings, his game came around. Win or lose, this man played the game with enthusiasm and passion. He hustled every play. He never trotted to first base on a routine grounder. He dove into fences to catch balls and he gunned down runners when they tried to snag an extra base. According to sports essayist Roger Angell, Roberto Clemente “played a kind of baseball that none of us had ever seen before… As if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field.” He had the full package. As Clemente himself once said:
“I want to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all he had to give.”
“Roberto Clemente played the game of baseball with great passion,” said teammate Manny Sanguillen. “That passion could only be matched by his unrelenting commitment to make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate and those in need.” When Clemente was not on the baseball field he was helping disadvantaged children in Pittsburgh or traveling back to Puerto Rico to give time and money to help needy kids. “I am from the poor people. I represent the poor people,” Clemente said emphatically. “I like people that suffer because these people have a different approach to life.”
Clemente also donated money and goods to help the starving people of Nicaragua, in Central America. When he learned drug cartels were seizing the relief funds that he was donating and auctioning off whatever medicines, food, and material goods he sent, Clemente was outraged. He decided that he was going to personally accompany his next donation to Nicaragua. However, his cargo plane was 20 years old with a history of mechanical failures. Loading it with thousands of pounds of food and medical supplies didn’t help either. None of this mattered to Clemente. On New Year’s Eve, he struggled to find a qualified pilot.
His son begged him not to go. His wife didn’t want him to go. However, at 9:22 A.M. on New Year’s Eve, Clemente boarded his chartered plane. He was going to help those in need. Roberto Clemente and four others on board were never seen again. The plane vanished from radar and, after an intense search, their bodies were not found.
The loss of Clemente hit people hard. “It was the loss of a national hero. The only thing I can liken it to is the death of John F. Kennedy,” said biographer Jim O’Brien. “It sent a wave of sadness throughout the whole country.” Baseball great, Hank Aaron said, “I was listening to the 5 o’clock news and they reported on the plane crash. It was probably one of the saddest days of my life.” Out of respect for Clemente, Puerto Rico declared three days of mourning and delayed the inauguration of their new governor.
The Pittsburgh Pirates immediately retired his number – no Pirate will ever wear the number 21 again. They erected a statue of him outside the stadium and named the bridge nearby after him. Then, waiving their long-standing five-year-after-retirement rule, the U. S. baseball writers voted Clemente into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Clemente also is only the 2nd baseball player to appear on a U.S. Postal Stamp and numerous schools in the continental U.S. and Puerto Rico are named after him. Finally, as stated previously, Major League Baseball decided to forever recognize the player who does the most to their community as the “Roberto Clemente Man of the Year.”
As his son, Luis Clemente said, “We always miss him, that’s never going to change. Every day we try to live up to his name.” How can anyone disagree? If we all tried to live up to the great example set by Roberto Clemente, the world would be a far better place.
Check out the Student Athlete Program
Roberto Clemente is one of the 144 “Wednesday Role Models” featured in the Student Athlete Program. This program is designed to improve the character, leadership and sportsmanship of high school athletes. To learn more about this program and how you can implement it in your school: