Roberto Clemente’s impact is still being felt 50 years after his tragic death — Andscape

Take a look back at what the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC did in August 2015 to learn everything you need to know about the late Roberto Clemente.

The museum asked people to vote to choose which portrait it should display in one of its exhibition halls. Voters had Clemente, Sandy Koufax and Babe Ruth – yes, the “Sultan of Swat” himself – to choose from.

And who did they choose?

Well, it wasn’t the baby.

Clemente, a star right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, beat the other Hall of Famers in a landslide (Clemente 2,034; Koufax 225; Ruth 190) in online voting for the Smithsonian.

Surprising? Maybe not. Because when you strip away all the things Babe has done for a living and understand how reclusive Koufax has been since the end of his playing career, none of them can match what Clemente has done on the court and in outside.

One has to wonder if Koufax and the Babe would have gotten the votes they got if Clemente, a black Latino, had lived to his 60s.

He did not do it. Clemente died on New Year’s Eve in 1972. He was 38.

Roberto Clemente before the National League playoff opener.


On that fateful night 50 years ago, Clemente, three crew members and another passenger boarded a Douglas DC-7 for Nicaragua, an impoverished country trying to recover from a series of earthquakes. catastrophic land.

Their cargo plane took off around 9:30 p.m. from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and people who witnessed the takeoff heard the engines misfire. The aircraft reached an altitude of 200 feet; it then exploded and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.

Clemente and the others were killed. Their bodies were never found.

In its New Year’s edition, The New York Times wrote:

SAN JUAN, PR, January 1 — Pittsburgh Pirates star outfielder Roberto Clemente died last night in the crash of a cargo plane carrying relief supplies for earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

In the days that followed, Puerto Rican government officials remembered their native son, the most famous and selfless figure in the island’s history. They ordered three days of mourning.

During this time, they and others continued Clemente’s efforts to help Nicaraguans. He would never let anyone or anything talk him out of it.

His wife, Vera, tried. She expressed concern about the aging of the plane and its heavy load. But Clemente insisted that he leave. He wanted to make sure, he told Vera, that medical supplies, food and clothing didn’t fall into the hands of profiteers.

“I think Clemente is what we all wish we were or could be – who is a star in his own right but never forgets others,” said Rob Parker, a media personality, former baseball writer and website founder . “It’s a trait most people don’t have or most people can’t get.”

As illustrated by Parker and the Smithsonian’s vote, Clemente has proven to be a mythical figure. His heroism and humanity endured. Hispanics, blacks and whites who followed the sport revered him.

On the road with the Pirates, he visited sick children in hospitals. In Pittsburgh and Puerto Rico, he held baseball clinics to teach boys and girls how fun the game was.

In the weeks leading up to his death, he held a clinic for over 300 young people in his native country.

Like Buck O’Neil, Ernie Banks, Bob Feller and Minnie Minoso, Clemente was an ambassador for baseball.

Roberto Clemente opens second base in a game circa the early 1970s.

Sports Zoom/Getty Images

Clement the man

Five decades later, most people who follow baseball still remember Clemente’s death. More people should also remember how the man lived.

Born August 18, 1934, Clemente grew up in a close-knit family. He was the youngest of seven children and learned about hard work from his father, who made him load sugar cane onto trucks as a child. Thanks to his mother, Luisa, he is passionate about baseball.

Before his late teens, Clemente was already a player who seemed to have Major League potential.

At least one team thought so: the Brooklyn Dodgers

On February 19, 1954, the Dodgers signed 18-year-old Clemente, a dark-skinned Puerto Rican with five-tool skills, for a salary of $5,000 with a bonus of $10,000. They added him to their stable of black talent, which included Jackie Robinson, catcher Roy Campanella and pitchers Don Newcombe and Joe Black.

To open the 1954 season, the Dodgers sent Clemente to Montreal, where Robinson began his career in integrated baseball.

As if trying to hide his talent from another Major League baseball club, the Dodgers used Clemente sparingly. However, his talent did not go unnoticed.

In the November 1954 Rule 5 rookie draft, the Pirates took Clemente out of the Dodgers’ farm system for $4,000.

He spent the following spring training in Fort Myers, Florida, where he encountered the kind of bigotry and second-class treatment that followed dark-skinned ballplayers. Limited by his bad English, Clemente nevertheless denounces racism.

On April 17, 1955, he made his Major League debut.

Although the color barrier had technically been erased, the reality was that dark-skinned baseball players like Clemente had to take a slower path to the big leagues. The teams always had an “informal quota”.

Life for him was no easier than for black Americans, especially since he did not speak English well. Clemente has often spoken of how he felt isolated from his white teammates and the city’s bigotry.

“I didn’t even know [racism] When I got [to the United States]”, he was quoted as saying in 1972.

Like Robinson, Larry Doby, and Monte Irvin, Clemente worked hard to change people’s minds about hatred and prejudice, which he believed plagued darker-skinned Latinos just like “Negroes.”

“Because they speak Spanish to each other, they’re considered a minority within a minority,” Clemente once said of black Latinos. “They carry the brunt of the sport’s remaining racial biases.”

Journalist and activist David Zirin agreed.

“Clemente’s affinity for [Rev. Martin Luther King] and the civil rights movement was rooted in his own experience of racism in the United States,” Zirin wrote.

As he matured, Clemente spoke candidly about ridicule, his race, and racism, sharing views on the topics with pioneering civil rights figures like King, Robinson, and Puerto Rican activist Luis Muñoz Marín.

Roberto Clemente (right) returns to first base as Baltimore Orioles first baseman Boog Powell (left) attempts the throw during the 1971 World Series at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.

Focus on Sports/Getty Images

Clemente never let racism affect his game on the court.

Instead, he gave Pirates fans — and anyone who followed baseball — some of the best performances the game had ever seen.

No man has ever played a better right field than Clemente, as evidenced by his 12 straight Golden Gloves. Few people hit a baseball better than him. His versatile talent was visible to all.

“He played a kind of baseball that none of us had ever seen before,” said writer Roger Angell, whose words appear on Clemente’s Hall of Fame biography. “As if it was a form of punishment for everyone on the pitch.”

Pirates general manager Joe L. Brown echoed Angell’s thoughts.

“The sad thing is there’s not enough television footage of him,” Brown said shortly after Clemente’s death. “He made so many great games that people can only talk about. You could never capture the magnificence of man.

Having once become nostalgic, Clemente commented on how baseball fans viewed Ruth, who most called “the best there is.” A player would have to be extraordinary to win comparisons with Ruth, Clemente mused.

“But Babe Ruth was an American player,” he said. “What we needed was a Puerto Rican player that they could say that, someone to look up to and try to match.”

They have that someone in Clemente.

Pittsburgh Pirates’ Sean Rodriguez walks past a sign honoring Roberto Clemente as he walks to the dugout before the start of the game against the St. Louis Cardinals on Roberto Clemente Day at PNC Park on September 7, 2016 in Pittsburgh.

Justin Berl/Getty Images

His legacy

“I want to be remembered as a baseball player who gave it his all,” Clemente said.

And it will be.

But that gift was as much off the field as it was on it.

He was Puerto Rican, but Clemente was also black, a difficult combination in a country where racism persisted despite the civil rights movement.

Clemente was a reminder of what some historians have called a “hemispheric diaspora,” which included Canada, Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Her voice and public persona made people aware of the cultural diversity woven into the darkness.

Yet even his son, Luis, admitted in a Pittsburgh Tribune Review article that Roberto Clemente’s legacy may be greatest in the sport itself.

“My father did things that no other player has done today,” said Luis, who was 6 when his father died. “But his humanitarian side is what really perpetuated him in such a way that people who aren’t even sports or baseball fans still look up to him for who he was as a human being.”

Judge B. Hill grew up and still lives in Cleveland. He practiced journalism for over 25 years before settling into teaching at Ohio University. He left on May 15, 2019 to write and globetrot. He does both.

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