Through incredible grace, talent, and a firm belief that God wanted him to play baseball, Roberto Clemente is celebrated as his day is once again upon us and the former Pirates’ legacy on and off the field are recognized across the league.
The Pirates are taking on the Mets at Citi Field in a late season series where players and coaches from both clubs will don Clemente’s iconic number 21, along with teams across the league wearing a 21 patch on their uniform sleeves.
The 2022 MLB season marks 50 years since Clemente’s tragic death in which he was on a plane with earthquake relief supplies bound for Nicaragua. Fifty years later and baseball fans can’t help but reminisce over a storied career with other worldly stats.
Just seven months after his passing, he was the first Latin-American player inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame with a career stat line of 3000 career hits, 15 All-Star Team selections, 12 times a Gold Glove winner, along with being named a National League and World Series MVP.
Those all-time stats put Clemente in rare company as one of the game’s all time great players, and he should be remembered for such highlights. However, Clemente’s greatest impact came off the field as an incredible ambassador for baseball in Latin America.
Roberto Clemente was born August 18, 1934 in Carolina, Puerto Rico where he would find an early love for the game of baseball. Following a Minor and professional league career in Puerto Rico, Clemente would play for the Dodgers’ Minor League affiliate in Montreal, before eventually signing with Pittsburgh and playing for the Pirates for the rest of his career.
The stats, the highlights, the awards, and the championships were all amazing, but while baseball fans were tuning in and watching ‘The Great One’ during the season, in the offseason, Clemente was doing much more than getting ready for Spring Training.
In his native Puerto Rico, Clemente would host free baseball clinics for underprivileged children, seeing baseball as a way of bettering children’s lives in Puerto Rico just as it had done for him. All across the island, the game of baseball was passed down to the youth while also maintaining the importance of good citizenship.
In the states, Clemente would face oppression as an Afro-Latino player during the segregated 1950s. Clemente would speak out about Jim Crow laws and advocated for black and Latin baseball players facing mistreatment, even going as far as advocating the Pirates and Astros game be postponed following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. of whom he met on several occasions.
Of course, his most famous story of heroism is also the saddest. In December of 1972, Nicaragua was struck with a huge earthquake, leaving the island divided and without proper support. Clemente was already donating large amounts of money, but upon realizing it was not being distributed in the proper way, took it on himself to travel to Nicaragua with supplies. Clemente and his team raised $150,000 in eight days with 26 tons of food, clothes, and medicine. On December 31, 1972 Roberto Clemente’s plane crashed and disappeared off the coast of Puerto Rico en route to the earthquake victims.
50 years later and Clemente’s legacy lives on now through his family, who continue to organize charitable events and baseball clinics for the less fortunate. His legacy also lives on in a profound impact on the players on the field.
In 2022 28 percent of the players in Major League Baseball are of Latino or Hispanic descent, far outreaching the amount of Spanish speaking players in Clemente’s heyday. Some of the game’s biggest stars of today are of Latin heritage, including Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Ronald Acuna, and Francisco Lindor.
As we celebrate the great player that is Roberto Clemente, it is important to note the impact he had off the field as an incredible humanitarian and barrier breaker for Latin-American baseball players. Without him, many of these players may not have gotten the opportunities and resources they needed to pursue this game.
For that, and all that he has done for the game, Major League Baseball is incredibly fortunate to have had someone as special as Roberto Clemente.