Baseball great Roberto Clemente was honored in his native Puerto Rico and around Major League Baseball in the 50th anniversary of his death Credit: Clemente Museum photo

This has been a momentous year for those who evoke the name of the Afro-Puerto Rican baseball great Roberto Clemente, a 12-time Gold Glove winner, five-time National League batting champion, two-time World Series champion (1960 and 1971) and 1971 World Series most valuable player in his 18 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955-1972.

Clemente achieved his historic 3,000th hit on Sept. 30, 1972, at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium versus the New York Mets, the first Latino to reach that milestone. Tragically, three months later, on Dec. 31, Clemente and four other people died when their DC-7 plane crashed as they tried to bring food and medical supplies to the people of earthquake-stricken Nicaragua. Clemente posthumously became the first Latino player inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The government of Puerto Rico officially named 2022 as the “Year of Roberto Clemente” and with this past July’s passage of law 61-2022, the island’s legislature approved the placing of Clemente’s name on its list of national heroes. He is remembered as one of the greatest baseball players the game has ever seen, a compassionate humanitarian, and an ardent advocate for racial and social justice. 

As an activist who encouraged sports activities among youth, Clemente admired Martin Luther King Jr. and once had King spend an afternoon with him at his farm in Puerto Rico. Major League Baseball was scheduled to open its season four days after King was assassinated in 1968. “When Martin Luther King died,” Clemente later commented, “they come and ask the [Black] players if we should play. I say if you have to ask [Black] players, then we do not have a great country.” 

“What to me remains powerful,” said Adrian Burgos Jr., professor of history at the University of Illinois and author of “Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line,” “is like how Clemente inspired other players.

“The one that really comes to mind is Carlos Delgado, who was outspoken about Vieques and the [U.S.] Navy and the bombing they were doing in Vieques, and his not standing for the national anthem. He pointed out himself,” Burgos expanded, “that Clemente was his inspiration because these are the kinds of things that Clemente wanted to give voice to; to those who didn’t have a platform. Yeah, he literally said this is what we’re supposed to do.”

Born on Aug. 18, 1934, to Melchor Clemente and Luisa Walker in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Roberto noted that his family was working class-poor—his father worked as a foreman at the sugar mill—and they instilled in their children a strong sense of morality.
“When I was a boy, I realized what lovely people my mother and father were. I was treated real good. I learned the right way to live,” he was quoted as saying. When Clemente grew into adulthood and started his own family, experiencing racism in the United States, he adamantly refused to accept being disrespected.

Noted Puerto Rican lawyer Diego Alcala recalled Clemente was one of the best athletes ever to come out of Puerto Rico who, while playing in a basically segregated sport in a city, Pittsburgh, that had its own racial problems, overcame many of the obstacles facing Latinos, especially Black Latinos. “He wasn’t ‘Bobby,’ he was Roberto,” continued Alcala, “as he would correct the press whenever he was interviewed.

“When you think about Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico doesn’t just think of him as another baseball player or one of their best—they certainly also remember his charity work and the fact that he was proud of being Black.”

This past Sept. 15, Major League Baseball celebrated “Roberto Clemente Day” with ceremonies across the league. Roberto Clemente Jr. and Roberto Clemente III threw the ceremonial first pitches at Citi Field where every player on both the Pirates and Mets wore Clemente’s No. 21. 

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