As Team Puerto Rico makes a run for the 2017 World Baseball Classic championship, I’m reminded of perhaps the greatest Puerto Rican Major League Baseball who ever laced up a pair of cleats, Roberto Enrique Clemente. The list of all-time great ballplayers from La Isla Del Encanto is substantial. It includes the likes of Roberto Alomar, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Bernie Williams, Carlos Beltran, Edgar Martinez, and Orlando Cepeda , among many others. No Puerto Rican however, including the aforementioned greats, nor any other past, current, or future Boricua Major Leaguer will tell you that any from the island is more mythical, more respected, and held in a higher esteem than Clemente. His induction into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, back in March of 1973, cemented his place among baseball’s all-time greats.
To Puerto Ricans in particular however, he’s much more than that. He’s a role-model, king, legend, hero, and then some. Truth be told however, those terms fall short of fully capturing his lore. For starters, his career statistics over 18 Major League Baseball seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, spanning from 1955 to 1972, speak for themselves. He finished his career with exactly 3,000 hits, becoming the first Latin American Major Leaguer to reach that hallowed milestone. He had a career .317 batting average, .359 on base percentage, and tallied 1,305 RBI, 240 home runs, 440 doubles, and 166 triples. He led the league in hits twice, in batting average four times, was a 15 time All-Star, racked up 12 Gold Gloves, and was the 1966 National League Most Value Player. He was a member for two World Series winning teams, first in 1960, and then again in 1971, when he was named the World Series MVP having batted .414 while racking up 22 total bases.
He was the first Latino to be inducted in the MLB Hall of Fame. Simply put, he was a beast, both on offensively and defensively. And while he wasn’t the first Latin American born MLB player, he was certainly one of its first Latin American superstars. Accordingly, his stardom and influence helped paved the way for future Latin American baseball players. But his on field greatness is just part of his story.
Roberto Clemente was a great philanthropist and a humanitarian. He was renowned for his charity work and took it to heart. He gave a damn. He took great pride in his Latino roots and used his platform as a perennial All-Star to do his part to improve the lives of those less fortunate. In 1966 he was quoted as saying, “always, they said Babe Ruth was the best there was. They said you’d really have to be something to be like Babe Ruth. But Babe Ruth was an American player. What we needed was a Puerto Rican player they could say that about, someone to look up to and try to equal.” Robert Clemente loved and cared for children very deeply. He held baseball clinics for kids from low-income families.
He aimed to provide the facilities, coaching, and motivation underprivileged children needed to thrive. He pushed hard to make Puerto Rico a stronger, healthier, and more enjoyable place. He saw imbalances in the quality of life of many in Latin America when compared to those in the United States, and tried his best to level the playing field. In his own words, “everyone knows I’ve been struggling all my life. I believe that every human being is equal, but one has to fight hard all the time to maintain that equality.” Tragically, On Dec. 31, 1972, en route from Puerto Rico to Nicaragua on a humanitarian mission to provide food and supplies to earthquake victims, Clemente died in plane crash. He died fulfilling his mission in life; not hitting game winning doubles or making a spectacular catch in the outfield, but rather, assisting the less fortunate.
Clemente’s legacy is not just of a phenomenal baseball player, but more so as a phenomenal, exemplary human being. Former MLB commissioner once said about Clemente, “he gave the term ‘complete’ a new meaning. He made the word ‘superstar’ seem inadequate. He had about him the touch of royalty.” It’s no surprise that every year Major League Baseball allots the Robert Clemente Award to the player who “best represents the game of baseball through sportsmanship, community involvement and positive contributions, both on and off the field.” Roberto Clemente is a God of sorts to Puerto Ricans, but in all honesty, anyone and everyone can learn from his altruistic nature. He was a bright, talented, hard-working, driven, unselfish, and loving man. In a day and age where too many millionaire athletes are plagued by pettiness and too much of our society is sullied by fierce divisiveness, it’s both uplifting and motivational to remember a man who gave so much of himself both on and off the field. To once again use Robert Clemente’s own words, “I want to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all he had to give.”
You are, Roberto. You are absolutely remembered as such. Que viva Puerto Rico, y que viva Clemente!