Roberto Clemente — a selfless hero whose actions transcend time
On the last day of 1972, the sports world lost one of the finest humanitarians it will ever see. Roberto Clemente died doing what he felt he was put on this Earth to do: serving others in need.
An earthquake had ripped through Managua, Nicaragua, on Dec. 23, depriving thousands of people the necessities for survival. Clemente had already sent three cargo planes full of supplies to those affected by the disaster, but he learned that the planes never made it to the suffering people. Corrupt government officials overseas had been ransacking the planes.
So he left his family in San Anton, Puerto Rico, and boarded a rickety old cargo plane Dec. 31, to make sure that the pilfering didn’t happen again. The plane crashed in the ocean just off the shore of Puerto Rico, en route for Nicaragua.
This was just one of many courageous acts Clemente performed during his lifetime, but is often the one that sticks out because he died trying to help others. Clemente devoted his life to changing the world.
“He had a special trait, and certain people are just able to do those types of things and not give it a second thought. It was natural instinct for him,” said UNK Athletic Director Jon McBride.
Clemente had the same influence on the game of baseball after he signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1955 for $6,000. Clemente entered Major League Baseball as the first Latin American to play baseball professionally in the United States.
Growing up in a sugar cane field was not an easy row to hoe for the youngest of seven children. Clemente began working when he was 8 years old alongside the rest of his family. Putting food on the table for his family was his number one priority, but baseball was in his blood.
“Baseball was it for Clemente from an early age. People in his neighborhood in San Anton said they always saw him throwing something against the wall. It could be a sock or a bottle cap or something, but he always had that motion of throwing,” biographer David Maraniss said. Many people believe that he had the best arm the MLB has ever seen.
On the baseball field, anyone could see why he was the first to cross barriers, as McBride recalls about seeing him play in the early 60s at Crosley Field, home of the Cincinnati Reds. “He [Clemente] was a real physical specimen in great shape. He was like a gazelle because he covered ground so quickly and anticipated things so well— which allowed him to play the outfield better than anybody.”
Still, to the prejudiced world of the time, Clemente was physically “black” in a restricted society. He didn’t understand the racial prejudice he had to endure on the road in a South still “white only” for housing and dining. Along with having to eat and sleep across the tracks with three other black and Latino players while on road trips, he struggled to be accepted by the people of Pittsburgh.
“You were black or you were white in Pittsburgh. You weren’t Latin. You weren’t Puerto Rican. On the other hand, I suspect that both black and white Pittsburghers had a hard time understanding Clemente. They had little experience with people from Latin America, with Latin American culture, with that sense of Latin pride,” said historian Robert Ruck.
Clemente was a complicated person with very strong opinions about civil rights, but because Clemente’s native language was Spanish, it was even harder for the community to comprehend such a complex individual. “He told me that, that it was very lonely for him because of communication — he couldn’t communicate, and that’s why — we have two strikes: being black, and being Latin,” said Orlando Cepeda of the San Francisco Giants.
Despite all of the cultural hurdles, Clemente went on to be the best Latin American baseball player in the history of the game and still stands as the only Latino to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. During the 60s, he received every conceivable award given out to players in the MLB for his outstanding play on the field. He is regarded as one of the best players ever to roam the outfield.
Along with the physical tools to be a great player, Clemente possessed an inner drive that enabled him to accomplish everything that he did. “He played hard; he went and got the ball. If there was a wall between him and the ball, he would have knocked it down trying to catch it,” McBride said.
During the offseason, Clemente would spend most of his time and money on mission trips in Puerto Rico and other various places that called out for his assistance. Although the contracts he signed to play baseball were exponentially smaller than those of players today, Clemente was able to do charitable work unlike any other sports figure before or after him.
McBride said the right fielder gave everything he had when he played, as well as in his humanitarian efforts. “It was a different era, the mindset was to get the job done, and doing whatever it takes. I don’t think you get that as much today.”
“He was genuinely affected by the fact that others were needy and hurting in the world and he knew that he could help them. He wasn’t making millions and millions of dollars at that time, and he still found time to do all the charitable work that he did, so you have to admire that,” McBride said.
During the 60’s when society was concerned with individuality and various group revolutions, Clemente’s main goal was to help others who were fighting to survive.