One of my fondest memories of childhood revolves around sports – more specifically, baseball. The voices of Jack Brickhouse, Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek fill my mind. Ernie Banks, Reggie Jackson, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, and Johnny Bench filled my playground mind. But there is one who never gets enough credit for how ferocious of a talent he was – Roberto Clemente.
In today’s world, Pittsburgh is the backwater of the Major League Baseball Circuit. Its the place where prospects go to die but do so in what is arguably one of the finest stadiums in baseball. For Roberto Clemente,he played 18 years in Pittsburgh. He had 3000 hits, 12 gold gloves, 4 batting championships, 2 World Series Championships, an MVP in 1966, and a 12 time All-Star. However, in the Pittsburgh press, it was never good enough.
Born in Puerto Rico, Clemente broke in with the Pirates in 1955. Playing in Forbes Field, he was able to showcase his immense range and even more immense arm. His rookie season only saw Clemente bat .255. Over the next 12 years, Clemente worked on that. He hit over .300 for 12 consecutive seasons.
“He gave the term ‘complete’ a new meaning. He made the word ‘superstar’ seem inadequate. He had about him the touch of royalty.” Former MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
“Clemente is a great hero for all Latin players especially Puerto Ricans.” “Not only was he one of the best baseball players ever, but he was a great human being as well.” Juan Gonzalez, Texas Rangers.
“Growing up in Puerto Rico we got to learn a lot about his character, it was obvious that not only was he one of the greatest players, but a great human being as well.” Bernie Williams, New York Yankees.
“He’s the strangest hitter in baseball, figure him one way and he’ll kill you another.” Sandy Koufax, former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher.
“I would be lost without baseball. I don’t think I could stand being away from it as long as I was alive.” Roberto Clemente.
His impact on the game is not as great as his impact on the region of the Greater and Lesser Antilles. He would be the first Latino inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and his play, and generosity, would inspire a generation of players from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Along with Luis Tiant and Luis Aparicio, the trio paved the way for the explosion of Latinos we see today. Clemente’s tragic death on December 31, 1972, summed up how he lived away from the game. While trying to help Nicaraguan earthquake victims with food and supplies, the plane he was on crashed and killed all aboard. His body never was found.
When I was a boy, there were few players who played harder than Clemente. Pete Rose played as hard, but no one played harder than Roberto. I can remember the 1971 World Series as plain as day. It’s as if I am 8 years old all over again spending the late afternoons watching Clemente single-handedly destroy my beloved Baltimore Orioles. At the time, I may not have liked him but I could respect him. I have seen a few players with his arm skills – Vladimir Guerrero, Shane Victorino, Dwight Evans – but no one who matches his tenacity for the game on the field and his love for the community of the field.
Today, he is a beloved figure in Pittsburgh and in all of Latin America. But during his playing time, he never got the respect due a player of his caliber from the Pittsburgh press. That respect would not come until the 1971 Series. And sadly, but honorably, after his death.