Roberto ClementeJun 22nd, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Sports
1934-1972 Roberto Clemente rose through the amateur leagues in his native Puerto Rico and the minor leagues in the United States to become one of the most accomplished hitters and fielders in the history of baseball. His career highlights include four National League batting titles, 12 Golden Glove Awards, and National League and World Series Most Valuable Player distinctions. He was one of very few players to achieve 3,000 hits in his lifetime.
From the Island to the Mainland
Clemente was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, on August 18, 1934. He was the youngest of seven children. His father was a foreman on a sugarcane plantation, and his mother ran a grocery store for the workers. He learned the value of hard work, thrift, and generosity early, delivering milk from the ages of nine to 12 in order to buy a bicycle. His parents instilled a sense of humanitarian values, too. As he later said, “I never heard any hate in my house. Not for anybody.”
Clemente showed athletic talent from boyhood, distinguishing himself in track and field. Puerto Rico’s tropical climate offered year-round baseball, and as he became interested in the game, he trained religiously. He played sandlot baseball in the amateur leagues of Carolina until the age of 18. In 1952, a scout from a professional team based in the Puerto Rican town of Santurce recruited him, and Clemente became a professional player with a $500 signing bonus and a salary of $40 per month.
In 1954, after two successful seasons with Santurce, Clemente was spotted by a major league scout from the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was signed with a $10,000 bonus; but due to an excess of talent on its roster, the Dodgers assigned him to their leading minor league affiliate, the Montreal Royals. The rules at that time stipulated that any player receiving more than $4,000 as a signing bonus who was not placed in the major leagues within one year could be drafted by another team. The following year, the Pittsburgh Pirates exercised their number one draft pick to bring Clemente to Pittsburgh, where he started as right fielder in the 1955 season.
Clemente’s first several years were competent but undistinguished. The challenges of learning the major league routine were compounded by his poor English, a language he never mastered despite a lifetime of effort. A sensitive and emotional person, Clemente was troubled by his inability to make himself clearly understood. He also suffered from tension and back troubles.
Beginning in 1960, Clemente began performing at an exceptional level. In that year, he achieved a batting average of .314, and hit 16 home runs with 94 runs batted in (RBIs), and helped the Pirates win the National League Pennant and the World Series. He excelled in fielding as well, with spectacular catches made by leaping to the ball or off the wall, and rocket-like throws from the outfield to catch runners out at base. His hitting style was to drive doubles and triples into his opponents weak spots in the field.
A Triumph and a Tragedy
With time, he also seemed to overcome the ailments that afflicted him earlier in his career. In the 1961 season, his average was .351, earning a batting title at 201 hits. During the 1964-1967 period, he won three additional batting titles and was voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player. In 1964, he married Vera Cristina Zabala in Puerto Rico, with whom he would have three sons. Clemente continued to feel underappreciated as a Hispanic, and felt that other Spanish-speaking players were also denied the recognition they deserved. His weak English led to misunderstandings, and quotes in newspapers that reflected embarrassing errors on his part. This may have been part of the motivation that propelled him to increasingly great achievements on the field, reaching their apex in the 1971 World Series. Clemente exploded on national television as a triumphant hitter and fielder, leading his team to victory in seven games over the Baltimore Orioles. He was named Most Valuable Player of the Series.
At the same time, Clemente devoted considerable energy to supporting Hispanic colleagues and mentoring young Puerto Rican players. His house in Puerto Rico was often open to fans, and he would travel the island during off-season, giving classes and clinics for children. As he put it: “I like people that suffer because these people have a different approach to life from the people that have everything and don’t know what suffering is.”
At the end of the 1972 season, he began considering retirement so as to devote himself to his life-long dream of creating a sports camp in Puerto Rico. A massive earthquake struck Nicaragua late that year. Clemente organized shipments of food, clothing, and medical supplies. But on learning that shipments had been diverted from their intended beneficiaries by corrupt forces, he decided to deliver the next batch himself. Clemente and four others boarded a cargo plane for Nicaragua on December 31, 1972. It crashed shortly after takeoff, and his body was never recovered from the ocean.
Puerto Rico declared a three-day memorial holiday. And the Baseball Hall of Fame immediately waived its usual requirement for a five-year retirement period, and elected Clemente to membership. He was only the 11th person in history to reach 3,000 hits. His overall batting average was .317 with 240 home runs and 1,305 RBIs. His work and his legacy are continued by his wife and children, who completed the 304-acre Sports City he’d dreamed of in his hometown of Carolina, Puerto Rico. A 12-foot tall statue of Clemente greets those arriving at the complex, a fitting tribute to a towering athlete and great humanitarian.