By Nathalie Alonso
For 50 years, Roberto Clemente’s legacy has been largely defined by the final act of his life. When the plane he chartered to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua crashed off the coast of his native Puerto Rico shortly after takeoff on New Year’s Eve 1972, Clemente’s reputation as a selfless humanitarian became legend.
“Obviously, everyone knows what he did on the field, but off the field, the work he did to help the people — not only in Puerto Rico, but in other Latin countries — this guy is unbelievable,” said Cardinals catcher and Puerto Rico native Yadier Molina. “You can learn from it.”
Clemente, the first player from Latin America inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, is also remembered as a magnificently talented baseball player. During his 18-year career with the Pirates, Clemente was a two-time World Series champion, 12-time Gold Glove Award winner in right field and 15-time All-Star. The 1966 National League MVP was also the first Latin American player to reach the hallowed 3,000-hit mark. Yet numbers hardly do justice to the exhilarating sight of Clemente tearing around the bases or his breathtaking throws from right field.
On Roberto Clemente Day, which coincides with the start of Hispanic Heritage Month in the U.S., we remember Clemente’s altruism and his athletic prowess. But there’s another element of Clemente’s legacy that deserves acknowledgment on this day, and it is the way he stood up to bigotry and racism throughout his career in the hopes that those who came after him wouldn’t have to.
Clemente arrived in the Major Leagues in 1955, eight years after Jackie Robinson became the first Black player in the history of the American and National Leagues, and nine years before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. It seems fitting that Clemente made his debut against Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers, as he would continue the struggle for racial equality within the game.
Being Afro-Latino made Clemente subject to Jim Crow laws, notably in Fort Myers, Fla., where the Pirates held Spring Training. Like the other Black players of his era, Clemente was not allowed to stay at the same hotels or share meals with his white teammates at restaurants. Yet legalized segregation was foreign to Clemente, who had grown up in a much more integrated society in Puerto Rico.
“My mother and father never taught me to hate anyone, or to dislike anyone because of their race or color,” Clemente said in a television appearance in October 1972, which is considered his final interview with English-language media. “We never talked about that.”
In that interview, the former U.S. Marine Corps reservist described becoming so indignant about having to wait on the team bus while his white teammates dined that he demanded Pirates general manager Joe Brown provide the team’s Black players with a car of their own to travel in.
Clemente also had no problem calling out the mainstream media, which anglicized his name to “Bob” despite his objections and quoted him using phonetic spelling in abhorrent mockery of his accent. He challenged stereotypes about Latino players while demanding to be treated with respect and dignity, even as some of his peers urged him to keep his head down and remain quiet.
“They told me, ‘Roberto, you better keep your mouth shut because they will ship you back,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t care one way or the other. If I’m good enough to play here, I have to be good enough to be treated like the rest of the players.’”
“[Clemente’s] influence on the culture of leadership in baseball is what gets lost,” says Adrian Burgos Jr., professor of history at the University of Illinois, who focuses on the participation of minorities in American professional sports. “Clemente was a figure who was not satisfied, was not acquiescent to those who refused to treat his people, Black and Latino, less than [they] treated the other individuals in baseball.”
It wasn’t until 1960, his sixth season in the Major Leagues, that Clemente’s career really took off. He was selected to his first All-Star Game and he helped the Pirates beat the Yankees in a seven-game World Series. Yet even as he rose to stardom, Clemente remained a humble man who saw himself, as he put it, as belonging to “the common people of America.”
Clemente’s fierce pride in his Puerto Rican roots never wavered. It was never more evident than in 1971, when he slashed .414/.452/.759 in the Fall Classic to become the first Latin American player to be recognized with the World Series MVP Award. His performance included two home runs, the second a solo shot in the fourth inning of Game 7 that proved crucial in the 2-1 win that gave Pittsburgh the series victory over Baltimore.
To those following in Latin America, what Clemente did immediately after — ask his parents in Puerto Rico for their blessing, in Spanish, on national television — was just as heroic. In what he called the “biggest day of his life,” Clemente asserted that he was still, above all, puertorriqueño.
“He was not embarrassed about being Puerto Rican, Latino, Black,” Red Sox manager and Puerto Rico native Alex Cora said in Spanish. “On national television, he asked for a moment to speak Spanish. No one does that. He taught us resolve and conviction. In many ways, he showed the world that we have to fight for what we believe in and we have to stand up for our rights, and he did it the right way.”
Clemente’s efforts to make the game more welcoming for people like him is largely why he is a hero to the legions of Latin American players who followed in his footsteps and who get to wear their names on the backs of their jerseys complete with accent marks and tildes. It’s why so many of MLB’s Puerto Rican players were thrilled to join the Pirates in wearing Clemente’s No. 21 on Roberto Clemente Day 2020, an opportunity that MLB has extended to all players.
Yet perhaps no one reveres Clemente more than his friend and former Pirates teammate, Panamanian-born catcher Manny Sanguillén.
Clemente and Sanguillén were part of the first all-Black and Latino lineup in AL/NL history on Sept. 1, 1971. Clemente, Sanguillén recalls, would often say that he strove for excellence because he wanted to create a path to the Majors for others like him by demonstrating players from Latin America had the skills and makeup to be difference-makers on the field.
“I have to take care of myself and play well so that one of these days, the Major Leagues will be full of Latinos,” Sanguillén remembers Clemente saying.
Clemente, who was 38 at the time of the fatal plane accident, did not live long enough to see his vision fulfilled. But his impact endures.
“My dad taught me the game that way,” Mets shortstop and Puerto Rico native Francisco Lindor said of Clemente’s influence on his life. “Being aggressive, having fun, and then after you do all that, you go out there and help others and you become a great person off the field.”
So on Roberto Clemente Day, we honor a great humanitarian and an extraordinarily gifted baseball player. But we also pay tribute to a man whose commitment to fairness, equality and inclusion changed the culture of our game for the better.