Roberto Clemente is one of only seven players to have his number retired for the Pittsburgh Pirates (the other two were managers). And he was so magnificent the Baseball Hall of Fame waived the six-month waiting period required after an athlete’s death before being inducted. Who is this guy?
Well, “Roberto” sounds likes a non-American name. Not so impressive these days but given Roberto played professional baseball from 1952-1972, the perspective shifts as you realize he played during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. So, yes, Roberto was Puerto Rican (and of African descent), and went on to become the first Latin American and Caribbean to be inducted to the Hall of Fame. Suffice it to say, he had some obstacles, as all “Firsts” do, including language barriers, cultural differences, and rampant racism. Boy, he persevered!
One might wonder how his career might be different had Pittsburgh not embraced him. He had signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and had a brief stint with the Montreal Royals but it was a Pirate scout (Clyde Sukeforth) who paid the most attention and disregarded comments like, “You mean you want him?!” (Clyde Sukeforth deserves his own blog, as he is best known for signing Jackie Robinson, the first black MLB payer.) So Clemente gets noticed and scouted by a man who can see past skin color to a team housed in a city built upon immigration and diversity. What a chance to flourish!
And flourish he did:
- Played in 102 games
- Played in 14 of 15 All-Star games
- Made the annual National League All-Start roster 12 times
- Received 12 Gold Glove Awards
- Participated in 2 World Series Championships and received a World Series MVP Award
- Made over 3000 hits
- Played 2,433 games with the Pirates
“Wow, what a great sportsman!” you’re thinking. But he was also a fabulous human being:
- Embraced his responsibility as a role model and boundary-breaker for all Latin Americans
- Hosted free baseball clinics for underprivileged youth
- Provided baseball clinics to youth in Puerto Rico during the off-season
- Delivered financial aid to Latin American countries
- Headed relief efforts in Puerto Rico after a massive earthquake hit Nicaragua
As a result, Pittsburgh loves Clemente and was devastated when he died while en route with earthquake-relief supplies on 12/31/1972. Yes, he helped the Pirates athletically, but he was also loyal (17 years, quite rare), kind, accepting, unique, diverse, and multi-faceted. Pittsburgh, too, represents these qualities after housing immigrants and melding cultures for its entire history. Although born in Puerto Rico, Pittsburgh insisted on sharing him if it couldn’t claim him for itself, and proudly commends him with the Roberto Clemente Bridge, a statue in PNC Park, and the Roberto Clemente Museum.
Next time you’re in Pittsburgh, get your picture taken with that statue and feel inspired to be more like Clemente, more like Pittsburgh itself.