Roberto Clemente was one of the finest people to ever play the game of baseball both on and off the playing field. Clemente’s baseball cards will always be heavily collected and highly prized.
Roberto Clemente Walker (August 18, 1934 – December 31, 1972) was a Puerto Rican baseball right fielder who played 18 seasons in Major League Baseball (MLB) for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 through 1972. Clemente was awarded the National League (NL) Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award in 1966. He was a National League All-Star for twelve seasons (15 games), received 12 Gold Glove Awards, and led the National League in batting average four times. In 1972, Clemente got his 3,000th major league hit.
Off the field, Clemente was involved in charity work in Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries, often delivering baseball equipment and food to those in need. He died in an aviation accident on December 31, 1972, while en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Clemente was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame posthumously in 1973, becoming the first Latin American to be selected and one of only two Hall of Fame members for whom the mandatory five-year waiting period had been waived, the other being Lou Gehrig. Clemente is the first Hispanic player to win a World Series as a starter (1960), receive an MVP Award (1966), and receive a World Series MVP Award (1971).
Roberto Clemente was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, to Don Melchor Clemente and Luisa Walker, the youngest of seven siblings, with four brothers and two sisters. During his childhood, his father worked as foreman of sugar crops located in the municipality. Because the family’s resources were limited, Clemente worked to earn money, including delivering milk cans to neighbors.
Clemente showed interest in baseball early in life and often played against neighboring barrios. He attended Vizcarondo High School in Carolina. During his first year in high school, he was recruited by Roberto Marin to play softball with the Sello Rojo team after Marin saw Clemente playing baseball in Barrio San Anton. He was with the team two years as shortstop. Clemente joined Puerto Rico’s amateur league when he was 16 years old, playing for the Ferdinand Juncos team, which represented the municipality of Juncos.
On November 14, 1964, he married Vera Zabala at San Fernando Church in Carolina. The couple had three children: Roberto, Jr., Luis Roberto and Enrique Roberto.
Clemente’s professional career began when Pedrín Zorilla offered him a contract with the Santurce Crabbers of the LBBPR. He was a bench player during his first campaign, but was promoted to the team’s starting lineup the following season. During this season he hit .288 as the team’s lead-off hitter. While Clemente was playing in the LBBPR, the Brooklyn Dodgers offered him a contract with the team’s Triple-A subsidiary. He then moved to Montreal to play with the Montreal Royals. The climate and language differences affected Clemente early on, but he received the assistance of his teammate Joe Black, who was able to speak Spanish. In 1954, Clyde Sukeforth, a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates, noticed that Clemente was being used as a bench player for the team and discussed the possibility of drafting Clemente to the Pirates with the team’s manager, Max Macon. The Pirates selected Clemente as the first selection of the rookie draft that took place on November 22, 1954.
Clemente debuted with the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 17, 1955 in the first game of a double header against the Brooklyn Dodgers. At the beginning of his time with the Pirates, he experienced frustration because of racial tension with the local media and some teammates. Clemente responded to this by stating, “I don’t believe in color”. He noted that, during his upbringing, he was taught to never discriminate against someone based on ethnicity.
During the middle of the season, Clemente was involved in a car accident; this caused him to miss several games with an injury in his lower back. He finished his rookie season with an average of .255, despite confronting trouble hitting certain types of pitches. His defensive skills, however, were highlighted during this season.
During the off season, Clemente played with the Santurce Crabbers in the Puerto Rican baseball winter league, where he was already considered a star. The Pirates experienced several difficult seasons through the 1950s, although they did manage their first winning season since 1948 in 1959. During the winter season of 1958–59, Clemente didn’t play winter baseball in Puerto Rico; instead, he joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve. He spent his six month active duty commitment at Parris Island, South Carolina, Camp LeJeune in North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. At Parris Island, Clemente received his basic training with Platoon 346 of the 3rd Recruit Battalion. The rigorous training programs helped Clemente physically; he added strength by gaining ten pounds and said his back troubles had disappeared. He was a Private First Class in the Marine Corps Reserve until September 1964.
Early in the 1960 season, Clemente led the league, batting an average of .353 and scoring Runs Batted In (RBIs) in 25 out of 27 games. Roberto’s batting average stayed above the .300 mark throughout the course of the campaign. In August, he missed five games as a result of an injury to his chin that he suffered when he crashed into the outfield wall. The Pirates compiled a 95–59 record during the regular season, winning the National League pennant, and defeated the New York Yankees in a seven-game World Series. Clemente batted .310 in the series, hitting safely at least once in every game. His .314 batting average, 16 home runs, and defense during the course of the season earned him his first participation in the All-Star game, where he served as a reserve player.
During 1961 spring training, following advice from Pirates’ batting coach George Sisler, Clemente tried to modify his batting technique by using a heavier bat to slow the speed of his swing. During the 1961 season, Clemente was selected as the National League starting right fielder in the All-Star game. He hit a triple on his first at-bat and scored the team’s first run. With the American League ahead 4–3 in the tenth inning, Clemente hit a double to give the National League a decisive 5–4 win.
Following the season, he traveled to Puerto Rico along with Orlando Cepeda, who was a native of Ponce. When both players arrived, they were received by 18,000 people. On November 14, 1964, Clemente married Vera Zabala. The ceremony took place in the church of San Fernando in Carolina and was attended by thousands of fanatics. During this time, he was also involved in managing the Senadores de San Juan, as well as playing with the team during the Major League off-season. During the course of the winter league, Clemente was injured and only participated as a pinch hitter in the league’s All-Star game. He experienced a complication on his injury during the course of this game and underwent surgery shortly after being carried off the playing field.
This condition limited his role with the Pirates in the first half of the 1965 season, during which he batted an average of .257. He was inactive for several games during this stage of the campaign before being fully active; when he returned to the starting lineup, he hit in thirty-three out of thirty-four games and his average improved to .340. Roberto and Vera had their first son on August 17, 1965, when Roberto Clemente, Jr. was born; he was the first of three children, along with Luis Roberto and Enrique Roberto. During the 1960s, he batted over .300 in every year except 1968, when he hit .291. He was selected to every All-Star game, and he was given a Gold Glove every season from 1961 onwards. He led the National League in batting average four times (1961, 1964, 1965, and 1967), led the National League in hits twice (1964 and 1967), and won the Most Valuable Player award in the 1966 season, when he hit .317 while setting career highs in home runs (29) and RBI (119). In 1967, he registered a career high .357 average and hit 23 home runs and 110 runs batted in.
The 1970 season was the last one that the Pittsburgh Pirates played in Forbes Field before moving to Three Rivers Stadium; for Clemente, abandoning this stadium was an emotional situation. The Pirates’ final game at Forbes Field took place on June 28, 1970. That day, Clemente noted that it was hard to play in a different field, saying, “I spent half my life there.” The night of July 24, 1970, was declared “Roberto Clemente Night”; on this day, several Puerto Rican fans traveled to Three Rivers Stadium and cheered Clemente while wearing traditional Puerto Rican indumentary. A ceremony to honor Clemente took place, during which he received a scroll with 300,000 signatures compiled in Puerto Rico, and several thousands of dollars were donated to charity work following Clemente’s request.
During the 1970 campaign, Clemente compiled an average of .352; the Pirates won the National League East pennant but were subsequently eliminated by the Cincinnati Reds. In the off-season, Clemente experienced some tense situations while he was working as manager of the Senadores and when his father, Melchor Clemente, experienced medical problems and was subjected to a surgery.
In the 1971 season, the Pirates won the National League pennant and faced the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. Baltimore had won 100 games and swept the American League Championship Series, both for the third consecutive year, and were the defending World Series champions. The Orioles won the first two games in the series, but Pittsburgh won the championship in seven games. This marked the second occasion that Clemente had won a World Series with the Pirates. Over the course of the series, Clemente batted a .414 average (12 hits in 29 at-bats), performed well defensively, and hit a solo home run in the deciding 2–1 seventh game victory. Following the conclusion of the season, he received the World Series Most Valuable Player award. Struggling with injuries, Clemente only managed to appear in 102 games in 1972, but he still hit .312 for his final .300 season. On September 30, in a game at Three Rivers Stadium, he hit a double off Jon Matlack of the New York Mets for his 3,000th hit. It was the last at-bat of his career during a regular season, though he did play in the 1972 NLCS playoffs against the Cincinnati Reds. In the playoffs, he batted .235 as he went 4 for 17. His last game ever was at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium in the fifth game of the playoff series. He and Bill Mazeroski were the last Pirate players remaining from the 1960 World Series champions.
Major League highlights
- National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) (1966)
- World Series MVP (1971)
- National League batting title (1961, 64, 65, 67)
- National League leader in batting average (1961, 64, 65, 67)
- National League leader in hits (1964, 67)
- National League leader in triples (1969)
- National League leader in fielding average as right fielder and outfielder (1972)
- 12-time National League All-Star (15 games)
- 12 Gold Glove Awards
Death in airplane accident
Clemente spent much of his time during the off-season involved in charity work. When Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, was affected by a massive earthquake on Saturday December 23, 1972, Clemente (who had been visiting Managua three weeks before the quake) immediately set to work arranging emergency relief flights. He soon learned, however, that the aid packages on the first three flights had been diverted by corrupt officials of the Somoza government, never reaching victims of the quake.
Clemente decided to accompany the fourth relief flight, hoping that his presence would ensure that the aid would be delivered to the survivors. The airplane he chartered for a New Year’s Eve flight, a Douglas DC-7, had a history of mechanical problems and sub-par flight personnel, and it was overloaded by 4,200 pounds. It crashed into the ocean off the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico immediately after takeoff on Sunday December 31, 1972. A few days after the crash, the body of the pilot and part of the fuselage of the plane were found. An empty flight case apparently belonging to Clemente was the only personal item recovered from the plane. Clemente’s teammate and close friend Manny Sanguillén was the only member of the Pirates not to attend Roberto’s memorial service. The catcher chose instead to dive into the waters where Clemente’s plane had crashed in an effort to find his teammate. Clemente’s body was never recovered.
At the time of his death, Clemente had established several records with the Pirates, including most triples in a game (three) and hits in two consecutive games (ten). These include tying the record for most Gold Glove Awards won among outfielders with twelve, which he shares with Willie Mays. He also is the only player to have hit a walk-off inside-the-park grand slam. He accomplished this historic baseball-event on July 25, 1956 in a 9–8 Pittsburgh win against the Chicago Cubs, at Forbes Field. In addition, he was one of four players to have ten or more Gold Gloves and a lifetime batting average of .317.