Roberto Clemente as influential as ever 50 years after loss of life

When Roberto Clemente Jr. woke on the morning of Dec. 31, 1972, he instantly tiptoed to his mother and father’ bed room to see whether or not his father was up.

The elder Clemente, one among baseball’s greatest stars, suffered from insomnia, so Roberto Jr., then 7, was all the time cautious to not wake him — not to say his father had been busy organizing reduction efforts for victims of a catastrophic earthquake in Nicaragua. Clemente’s spouse, Vera, had put in room-darkening window shades to assist her husband sleep, so Roberto Jr. felt round on the mattress to ensure his father wasn’t there.

He discovered his mother and father on the eating room desk and supplied them the standard greeting that Puerto Rican kids give their mother and father: “Bendicion.” A request for a blessing.

The elder Clemente responded as he all the time did: “Que Dios te bendiga.” Could God bless you.

For causes Roberto Jr. nonetheless doesn’t perceive, he then advised his father, “Dad, don’t get on the plane, because it’s going to crash.”

Roberto Clemente holds son Roberto Jr. whereas standing along with his spouse, Vera, and their two older sons Luis, left, and Enrique earlier than a sport July 25, 1970, in Pittsburgh.

(Uncredited / Related Press)

“There was no way for me to know he was flying,” he mentioned. “He hadn’t told me that he was flying and there was no sign in our house that he was flying.

“I said it again, and he told me not to worry, but I walked out and was crying, and he followed me and said, ‘I will see you when I get back.’ And that was the last time I talked to him.”

That night, 50 years in the past Saturday, the airplane Clemente had organized to fly provides to Nicaragua crashed simply off the coast of San Juan. His physique was by no means discovered. The grief over his loss of life at age 38 was undoubtedly most acute in his native Puerto Rico, however the shock and disappointment prolonged nicely past the island.

Throughout his 18-year main league profession, all with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Clemente had turn into a legend, a Nationwide League most dear participant, a World Sequence MVP, a four-time batting champion and a 12-time Gold Glove winner who completed with precisely 3,000 hits. He additionally was blessed with maybe the strongest, most correct arm of any proper fielder who performed the sport.

However it was off the sphere the place Clemente stood aside much more. He was a humanitarian who devoted numerous hours to serving to individuals in want, significantly in Latin America, and to instructing kids at baseball clinics that had been about way more than hitting, catching and throwing. He additionally was instrumental in serving to youthful Latino gamers navigate life within the large leagues and was one of many early leaders of Main League Baseball’s gamers’ union.

“He was always trying to make the world a better place, and when you’re from Puerto Rico, you have a little bit of that in your DNA. You try to find ways to help people.”

— Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor on Roberto Clemente

Three months after Clemente’s loss of life, the Baseball Writers’ Assn. of America elected him to the Nationwide Baseball Corridor of Fame and Museum after waiving its customary five-year ready interval. Lou Gehrig is the one different participant to be inducted below these circumstances.

“His presence at the Hall of Fame is so important that that’s one of the three statues that we have when you walk in because it defines character and courage,” mentioned Corridor of Fame President Josh Rawitch. (The opposite statues are of Gehrig and Jackie Robinson.) “And that’s what makes Roberto Clemente different from so many others, what he did off the field as well. And from our standpoint, it’s just an incredible honor for him to be one of the first faces you see when you walk in the door.”

Clemente’s and Robinson’s legacies are intertwined due to their large affect on baseball and American tradition, with Robinson breaking Main League Baseball’s coloration barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Clemente creating into MLB’s greatest Latino star.

“There are so many parallels between Jackie and Roberto,” mentioned former Dodgers common supervisor Fred Claire, who knew Robinson. “They are exceptional in a historical way, not just as players but in what they stood for and for who they were as people.

“They should never be forgotten. Fans and players should understand how better served the game is because of them. You simply can’t do too much to honor them. Like Jackie, Roberto’s greatest legacy is how he served others and what he believed in.”

What he believed in, mentioned Luis Clemente, the second of Roberto’s three sons, was aiding the much less lucky, individuals who didn’t obtain a lot consideration from society, whether or not it was due to their race, a scarcity of formal training or their financial circumstances.

Roberto Clemente photo illustration

Throughout his 18-year main league profession, Roberto Clemente was a Nationwide League most dear participant, a World Sequence MVP, a four-time batting champion and a 12-time Gold Glove winner.

(Photograph by Related Press; Photograph illustration by Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Instances)

“Dad knew he had a mission when he started playing,” Luis Clemente mentioned. “He always said that he was going to represent those that didn’t have a voice. … He knew he was representing the underdog in life and I think that resonated with many people. He was a real person and there was nothing fake about him.”

Clemente shared that philosophy with the nation’s main civil rights determine, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. King was impressed with Clemente’s activism and requested if he might see him at his farm in Puerto Rico when King visited the island. That somebody of King’s stature needed to speak with an expert athlete about social justice speaks volumes about Clemente’s affect.

“Dad was re-energized because Dr. King wanted to sit down with him,” Roberto Clemente Jr. mentioned. “It reinforced for him that he was here for a reason, and that was to help people.

“We had a massive mango tree on our farm, the biggest mango tree I’ve ever seen, and I have no doubt that Dad and Dr. King sat under that tree and had a very interesting conversation.”

Whereas he was utilizing his superstar to impact social change, Clemente by no means stopped working to turn into one of many main leagues’ high gamers and, above all, assist his staff win. Manny Mota noticed that firsthand as one among Clemente’s Pirates teammates from 1963 to 1968, earlier than he performed for the Dodgers and developed into top-of-the-line pinch-hitters in MLB historical past.

“He was proud to be one of the best players in the major leagues and he worked very hard at it all the time,” Mota mentioned. “He was a man of great pride who cared a lot about the game.”

In a sport at Forbes Subject, the Pirates’ ballpark on the time, a batter hit a ball down the right-field line and it took an odd bounce and eluded Clemente, Mota mentioned. What ought to have been a single changed into a double.

“After the game, Roberto said, ‘Manny, I want you to meet me at the ballpark early tomorrow and get a bag with 75 balls.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? Why do you want to do that?’ He said, ‘I want to figure out how that guy hit the ball past me.’

“So the next day we got to the ballpark early and he goes out to right field and says, ‘I want you to try to hit the ball to me just like last night.’ I hit him 40, maybe 45 balls and he calls me out to right field. He had found a small piece of wood that the ball had bounced off the night before and that was why he missed it. He said, ‘Go ahead and hit me the rest of the balls. I want to make sure that never happens again.’ And that’s why he was the best right fielder in baseball.”

Within the early Nineteen Seventies, when Clemente was within the twilight of his profession however nonetheless an all-star, he supplied further motivation to a Pirates outfield prospect, Dave Parker, once they performed collectively throughout spring coaching. Parker ultimately succeeded Clemente because the Pirates’ proper fielder, gained two NL batting titles and was the NL most dear participant in 1978.

“When he threw a bullet to third, I threw a bullet to third. When he hit a home run, I wanted to hit a home run,” Parker mentioned. “He influenced me a lot and it drove me to be great.”

Pirates fans walk past a statue of Roberto Clemente at the end of his namesake bridge outside Pittsburgh's PNC Park

Pirates followers stroll previous a statue of Roberto Clemente on the finish of his namesake bridge outdoors the center-field gate to Pittsburgh’s PNC Park on Sept. 9, 2018.

(Gene J. Puskar / Related Press)

The Pittsburgh Pirates wear No. 21 on Major League Baseball's Roberto Clemente Day on Sept. 9, 2020.

The Pittsburgh Pirates put on No. 21 on Main League Baseball’s Roberto Clemente Day on Sept. 9, 2020.

(Gene J. Puskar / Related Press)

5 a long time after his loss of life, Clemente’s affect continues to be being felt within the baseball world and past. Streets, bridges, parks and colleges are named for him, and never solely in Puerto Rico and Pittsburgh. MLB’s Roberto Clemente Award is given yearly to the participant who “best represents the game of Baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.”

Clemente continues to encourage the game’s present stars too. Francisco Lindor, the four-time all-star shortstop who performs for the New York Mets, grew up in Puerto Rico studying concerning the “Great One” at school.

“He’s a part of our history. We talk about him all the time; we would talk about him in class,” Lindor mentioned. “Everybody in Puerto Rico knows about Roberto Clemente.

“He was always trying to make the world a better place, and when you’re from Puerto Rico, you have a little bit of that in your DNA. You try to find ways to help people.”

“He has become almost a saint. Because of the way he died and his body never being found, he lives forever in the minds of the fans.”

— Amaury Pi-Gonzalez, Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum Corridor of Fame co-founder

Lindor mentioned that when he’s on the sphere, “I feel like I’m not only representing Clemente, but also the greats who came after him who were probably inspired by Clemente.”

Danny Torres, a contract journalist and highschool instructor from the Bronx, N.Y., began a podcast in 2020 known as “Talkin’ 21,” which is dedicated to Clemente and named for his uniform quantity. He first heard of Clemente when he was 6 years outdated and he watched his father, carrying that day’s New York Day by day Information, method his mom within the kitchen of their house and say softly, “Do you know that Roberto died?”

“I could tell by my mom’s reaction and the looks on their faces that this was a really big deal,” mentioned Torres, whose mother and father moved to New York from Puerto Rico within the early Fifties. “Later, the door to their bedroom was partially open and I saw my dad sitting there with the newspaper on his lap, crying. That was the first and only time I saw my dad cry.”

To today, followers converse of Clemente with a reverence bordering on the spiritual. Amaury Pi-Gonzalez, vice chairman and co-founder of the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum Corridor of Fame, has witnessed this phenomenon within the Bay Space.

Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh, Prates Baseball team looks down a bat

Roberto Clemente in 1967

(J. Spencer Jones / Related Press)

“The museum had an exhibit on Clemente some time ago at the San Francisco Main Library and people would kneel and pray in front of it,” mentioned Pi-Gonzalez, a longtime Spanish-language broadcaster at present with the Oakland Athletics. “He has become almost a saint. Because of the way he died and his body never being found, he lives forever in the minds of the fans.

“Roberto Clemente is the first Hispanic superstar in Major League Baseball. For us, he’s like Babe Ruth and Ted Williams all wrapped up in one.”

Maybe there’s motive to consider that Clemente was not solely of this world. In 1994, photographer Duane Rieder purchased a former firehouse in Pittsburgh that he would ultimately flip into the Clemente Museum. Twenty-one years later — 21, Clemente’s quantity — he realized that the Pittsburgh hearth division had shut down its operations there at 9 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1972, simply as Clemente was making ready to board the fateful flight.

“I couldn’t believe it,” mentioned Rieder, who continues to be the museum’s government director. “It’s like this was all just meant to be. I think Clemente is looking down at us and smiling.”

One different eerie notice: Gehrig, one other baseball legend who died in his late 30s, spent the night time in that firehouse throughout the 1927 World Sequence when he was visiting a good friend who was a firefighter, Rieder mentioned.

4 days earlier than he died, Clemente held a youth baseball clinic in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. Sooner or later, he stepped into the batter’s field in opposition to a neighborhood pitcher, about 18 years outdated, remembers Roberto Jr., who was there. Individuals within the stands yelled to Clemente, “Roberto, bet you can’t hit a homer.”

On the teenager’s fifth pitch, within the final at-bat of his life, Clemente swung and despatched the ball hovering over the outfield fence 350 toes away. The “Great One” handed the bat to the younger pitcher as a memento, mentioned goodbye to the youngsters after which ready for his journey to Nicaragua.