In both Puerto Rico and Pittsburgh, more than four decades after his untimely death at the age of 38, the name of Roberto Clemente brings a smile to almost every face.
Wearing the number “21” on his jersey, he played 18 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates, from 1955 to 1972.
He was one of the greatest right fielders in baseball history. He could run, hit, and throw better than almost anybody who ever played the game.
Black and Puerto Rican by birth, he transcended race, nationality and culture to become Major League Baseball’s first Latino superstar.
He was born in 1934. Growing up, he worked in the sugarcane fields with his father.
“I learned the right way to live from my parents,” he said years later. “I never heard any hate in my house. I never heard my father say a mean word to my mother, or my mother to my father, either.”
Roberto showed an early love of baseball, Puerto Rico’s favorite sport. In 1955 he was picked up by the Pirates.
Calvin Coolidge had been president the last time Pittsburgh won a world championship (1925).
Going to Pittsburgh seemed like a one-way ticket to the cellar. Aside from his barely passable English, Clemente faced a daunting personal obstacle in his rookie year: A car accident caused by a drunk driver left him with lower-back pain that plagued him for the rest of his life.
He always played hard, whether he hurt or not. “When I put on my uniform, I feel I am the proudest man on Earth,” he said. “The players should pay the people to come and see us play.”
He even joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve, spending his six-month active duty in the Carolinas and Washington, DC.
Thanks in part to Clemente, the Pirates won the World Series in 1960 for the first time since almost a decade before he was born.
“If we have respect for our fathers and we have respect for our children, we will have a better life,” he said. “I watched on TV when America sent men to the moon, and there were a lot of people whose names weren’t given who helped make it possible… but they worked together and this is what you have to have—Chinese, American, Jewish, black and white, people working side by side. This is what you have to do to make this a better life.”
In 1971, the Pirates took the World Series again, and Clemente was named its Most Valuable Player. “Accomplishment is something you cannot buy,” he declared. “If you have a chance and don’t make the most of it, you are wasting your time on this Earth. It is not what you do in baseball or sports, but how hard you try. Win or lose, I try my best.”
Roberto Clemente quietly helped needy people all the time. Within hours of the devastating earthquake in Nicaragua in December 1972, he gathered relief supplies and organized flights to carry them. He boarded the fourth flight himself, but it never made it. Mechanical trouble forced the plane into the sea on New Year’s Eve, 1972. Clemente’s body was never found.
He left behind his beloved wife Vera and three boys, all under the age of seven, and millions of loving fans.
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education. Each week, he writes about exceptional people, including many from his book, “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction.”