Roberto Clemente Walker (August 18, 1934 – December 31, 1972) was a Puerto Rican professional baseball player. He was a Major League Baseball right fielder who played 18 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 through 1972. He was a National League, Most Valuable Player once, All-Star twelve times (15 games), batting champion four times, and Gold Glove winner twelve times. In 1972, Clemente got his 3,000th major league hit.
Clemente was involved in charity work in Puerto Rico and Latin American countries during the off seasons, 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 posthumously to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, becoming the first Latin American to be enshrined. He was also one of only two Hall of Fame members for whom the mandatory five-year waiting period had been waived, the other being Lou Gehrig in 1939.
Clemente is the first Latino player to win a World Series as a starter (1960), to receive an MVP Award (1966), and to receive a World Series MVP Award (1971).
Roberto Clemente was born in Barrio San Anton, Puerto Rico, to Don Melchor Clemente and Luisa Walker, the youngest of seven siblings, with five brothers and one sister. During his childhood, his father worked as foreman of sugar crops located in the municipality. Because the family’s resources were limited, Clemente worked alongside his father in the same fields, loading and unloading trucks. 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.
Puerto Rican Baseball (1952–1954)
Clemente’s professional career began when Pedrín Zorilla offered Clemente, 17, a contract which he signed on October 9, 1952, with the Cangrejeros de Santurce, a winter league team and franchise of the LBBPR. He was a bench player during his first campaign but was promoted to the Santurce Cangrejeros (“Crabbers”) starting lineup the following season. During this season he hit .288 as the Crabbers leadoff hitter. While Clemente was playing in the LBBPR, the Brooklyn Dodgers offered him a contract with the team’s Triple-A subsidiary.
Minor League Baseball (1954)
Clemente moved to Montreal to play with the Montreal Royals after signing with the Dodgers on February 19, 1954. The climate and language differences affected him early on, but he received the assistance of his teammate Joe Black, who was able to speak Spanish. Clyde Sukeforth, a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates, noticed that Clemente was being used as a bench player for the Royals and discussed the possibility of drafting Clemente to the Pittsburgh Pirates with the team’s manager, Max Macon. Clemente hit .257 in 87 games that summer. The Pirates selected Clemente as the first selection of the rookie draft that took place on November 22, 1954.
Major League Baseball
Pittsburgh Pirates (1955–1972)
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.
Clemente was at a double disadvantage at both being a Latino who knew very little English as well as being a black Latino; the Pirates themselves only became the fifth team in the National League and ninth in the majors to break the baseball color line the year before when Curt Roberts debuted with the team, a full seven years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line with the Dodgers. Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, Roberts would befriend Clemente and help him adjust to life in the majors, as well as to get used to life in Pittsburgh.
During the middle of the season, Clemente was involved in a car accident due to a drunk driver; 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.
Marine Corps Reserve
During the off season, Clemente played with the Santurce Crabbers in the Puerto Rican baseball winter league, where he was already considered a star. He was traded to the Criollos de Caguas team (Caribbean baseball) and played for them during the 1957-1958 season. The Pirates experienced several difficult seasons through the 1950s, although they did manage a winning season in 1958, their first since 1948.
During the winter season of 1958–59, Clemente didn’t play winter baseball on the Caguas team; 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 with a .353 batting average, 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. His .314 batting average, 16 home runs, and defense during the course of the season earned him his first selection to National League All-Star roster (reserve player). He participated in both of the two All-Star games that were played that season.
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. In the 1960s, he batted over .300 every year except 1968, when he hit .291. He was a National League All-Star player every season he played beginning in 1960 and won the Gold Glove Award for outfielder every season beginning in 1961. He won the National League batting title four times: 1961, 1964, 1965, and 1967, and won the MVP Award in 1966, hitting .317 with 29 home runs and 119 RBIs. In 1967, he registered a career high .357 batting average, hit 23 home runs, and batted in 110 runs.
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 occurred 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 offseason, 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.
Clemente, struggling with injuries, played in 102 games in 1972 and hit .312 in his final season. On September 30, he hit a double off Jon Matlack of the New York Mets at Three Rivers Stadium 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.
During much of his career, Clemente was often called by the Anglicized name of “Bob Clemente” by the media and in baseball merchandise such as baseball cards, even though he clearly preferred being called by his given first name of Roberto. According to contemporary accounts, “Roberto” was too exotic of a name at the time. Although Clemente was largely called Roberto by the late 1960s, he was called Bob as late as 1972, when he collected his 3,000th hit and Pirates announcer Bob Prince referred to him as “Bobby” while calling the game for KDKA.
- National League All-Star (1960-1967, 1969-1972; 15 AS games)
- National League MVP Award (1966)
- World Series MVP Award (1971)
- National League Gold Glove Award (1961-1972)
- Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award (2006)
- National League leader in batting average (1961, 1964, 1965, 1967)
- National League leader in hits (1964, 1967)
- National League leader in triples (1969)
- National League leader in putouts as right fielder (1958, 1961, 1966)
- National League leader in fielding average as right fielder and outfielder (1972)
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 Pirates 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. Tom Walker helped Clemente load the plane, but either because of the plane’s weight load or because he wanted Walker, who was single, to go enjoy New Year’s, Clemente told him not to join him on the flight. Walker’s son is Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman, Neil Walker.
In an interview for the ESPN documentary series SportsCentury in 2002, Clemente’s widow Vera Clemente mentioned that Clemente had told her several times that he thought he was going to die young. Indeed, while being asked by a reporter about when he would get his 3,000th career hit in July 1971, Clemente’s response was “Well, uh, you never know. I, I, uh, if I’m alive, like I said before, you never know because God tells you how long you’re going to be here. So you never know what can happen tomorrow.” Clemente’s older step brother, Luis, died on December 31, 1954 and his step sister a few years later.
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). Clemente also tied 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.
Hall of Fame
On March 30, (1973), the Baseball Writers’ Association of America held a special election for the Baseball Hall of Fame. They voted to waive the waiting period for Clemente, due to the circumstances of his death, and posthumously elected him for induction into the Hall of Fame, giving him 393 of the 420 available votes, or 92% of the vote. Clemente’s Hall of Fame plaque had originally read “Roberto Walker Clemente”. In 2000, the plaque was recast to express his name in the proper Hispanic format, “Roberto Clemente Walker”.
Roberto Clemente Award
Beginning in 1973 (1971), MLB presents the Roberto Clemente Award (named Commissioner’s Award, 1971 & 1972) every year to a player with outstanding baseball playing skills who is personally involved in community work. A trophy and a donation check for a charity of the player’s choice is presented annually at the World Series. A panel of three makes the final determination of the award recipient from an annual list of selected players.
Roberto Clemente was posthumously presented three civilian awards of the United States government from the President of the United States including the first Presidential Citizen’s Medal:
- President Richard Nixon, May 14, 1973: Roberto Walker Clemente Congressional Gold Medal
- President Richard Nixon, May 14, 1973: Presidential Citizens Medal
- President George W. Bush, July 23, 2003: Presidential Medal of Freedom
Citizens Medal Citation
“All who saw Roberto Clemente in action, whether on the diamond or on the front lines of charitable endeavor, are richer for the experience. He stands with the handful of men whose brilliance has transformed the game of baseball into a showcase of skill and spirit, giving universal delight and inspiration. More than that, his selfless dedication to helping those with two strikes against them in life has blessed thousands and set an example for millions. As long as athletes and humanitarians are honored, Roberto Clemente’s memory will live; as long as Citizens Medals are presented, each will mean a little more because the first one went to him.”
Other awards, honors, namings, and statues
- 1971: Babe Ruth Award from the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWWA).
- 2006: Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award (MLB award): On July 11, 2006 at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, many of the players on both teams wore yellow wristbands with the initials “RCW” in honor of Clemente. The award was presented and accepted at the end of the 4th inning by Clemente’s widow. The Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig stated during the award presentation that “Roberto was a hero in every sense of the term”.
Honors, namings, and statues
- 1973: Clemente’s uniform number 21 was retired by the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 6.
- 1984: The United States Postal Service issued a Roberto Clemente postal stamp on August 17, 1984. The stamp was designed by Juan Lopez-Bonilla and shows Clemente wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap with a Puerto Rican flag in the background.
- 2003: Clemente was inducted into the United States Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame.
- 2005: Clemente was named a member of Major League Baseball’s Latino Legends Team.
- 2007: Clemente was selected for the All Time Rawlings Gold Glove Team (50th anniversary of the Gold Glove award; 1957).
- 2010: Clemente was inducted into the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum Hall of Fame.
- PNC Park, the home ballpark of the Pirates which opened in 2001, includes a right field wall 21 feet (6.4 m) high, in reference to Clemente’s uniform number and his normal fielding position during his years with the Pirates. The Pirates originally erected a statue in memory of Clemente at Three Rivers Stadium, an honor previously awarded to Honus Wagner. The statue was moved to PNC Park when it opened, and stands at the corner near the Roberto Clemente Bridge. An identical smaller statue was unveiled in Newark, New Jersey’s Branch Brook Park in 2012. The team considered naming PNC Park after Clemente, but despite popular sentiment the team chose instead to sell the naming rights to locally based PNC Financial Services, with the bridge being renamed after him considered a compromise.
- The coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico was named the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in 1973; two baseball parks are in Carolina, the professional one, Roberto Clemente Stadium, and the Double-A. There is also the Escuela de los Deportes (School of Sports) that has the Double-A baseball park. Today, this sports complex is called Ciudad Deportiva Roberto Clemente. The Pittsburgh Pirates is one of the most popular baseball teams in Puerto Rico due to Clemente.
- In Pittsburgh, the 6th Street Bridge was renamed in his memory. The City of Pittsburgh maintains Roberto Clemente Memorial Park along North Shore Drive in the city’s North Side which includes a bronze relief by sculptor Eleanor Milleville. In 2007, the Roberto Clemente Museum opened in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh. Near the old Forbes Field where he began his pro career the city of Pittsburgh has renamed a street in his honor.
- Champion thoroughbred horse Roberto, bred in 1968 and owned by then-Pirates owner John W. Galbreath, was named for Clemente. The horse would go on to become a champion in Britain and Ireland, and in June 1973, following Clemente’s passing, won the Group I Coronation Stakes at Epsom.
- The state of New York opened Roberto Clemente State Park in The Bronx in 1973. Some schools, such as Roberto Clemente High School in Chicago the Roberto Clemente Charter School in Allentown, Pennsylvania and Roberto Clemente Academy in Detroit, were named in his honor. There’s also a Roberto Clemente Stadium in Masaya, Nicaragua. There’s also a middle school in Germantown, Maryland called Roberto W. Clemente Middle School and the Roberto Clemente Little League in Branch Brook Park in Newark, New Jersey is named after him as well.
- In 1999, Clemente ranked Number 20 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, the highest-ranking Latino player on the list. Later that year, Clemente was nominated as a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
- During the 2003 and 2004 MLB seasons, the Montreal Expos (who at the time were owned by MLB due to an aborted contraction attempt) played 22 home games each season at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Although the Pirates played their annual road series against the Expos in Montreal for 2003, the two teams did meet in San Juan for a four-game series in 2004, the last series the Expos hosted in San Juan before moving to Washington, D.C. and becoming the Washington Nationals the following season. During one of those games, in a tribute to Clemente, both teams wore throwback uniforms from the 1969 season, the Expos first season and, at the time, Clemente’s 15th with the Pirates. The Pirates throwbacks, replicas of what Clemente wore from 1957-early 1970, were similar to their then-current uniforms, except that the road jerseys they wore for the game read “Pirates” instead of “Pittsburgh”, and last names were absent from the backs of the jerseys. The Expos won the four-game series three games to one.
- Clemente’s #21 remains active in Major League Baseball, and is worn by multiple players. Sammy Sosa wore #21 throughout his career as a tribute to his childhood hero. The number is unofficially retired in the Puerto Rico Baseball League. While the topic of retiring #21 throughout Major League Baseball like Jackie Robinson’s #42 has been broached, and supported by groups such as Hispanics Across America, Jackie Robinson’s daughter disagrees, believing that Major League Baseball should honor him another way.
- In June 2013, at aforementioned Clemente Park in The Bronx, a statue of the Hall-of-Fame icon, sculpted by Cuban-American Maritza Hernandez, was finally installed. It depicts Clemente doffing his cap after notching his 3,000th hit on Sept. 30, 1972.
Biographies & documentaries
Clemente’s life has been the subject of numerous books, articles and documentaries:
- 2006: Clemente: The Passion and grace of Baseball’s Last Hero by David Maraniss.
- 2008: “Roberto Clemente“: One-hour biography as part of the Public Broadcasting Service history series, American Experience which premiered on April 21, 2008. The film is directed by Bernardo Ruiz, narrated by Jimmy Smits and features interviews with Vera Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and George F. Will. The production received an ALMA Award.
- 2010: Chasing 3000 a movie based on a true story of two kids named Mickey (played by Ray Liotta, Trevor Morgan), and Blake Woodyard and Roger (played by Jay Karnes, Rory Culkin, and Nicholas Brady) as they go on an adventure to travel across the United States to see Clemente’s 3,000th hit.
- 2011: 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente was released, a graphic novel by Wilfred Santiago (published by Fantagraphics) detailing Clemente’s life in a comic-book format. In their USA Today Magazine article titled “Saluting Pittsburgh’s Finest” Richard E. Vatz and Lee S. Weinberg said Clemente was “arguably the best in the history of the game” and stated that “understanding the magnitude of Roberto Clemente requires an appreciation of the gestalt of his presence, which was greater than the sum of his statistics”.
- 2011: DC-7: The Roberto Clemente Story, a bilingual musical about Clemente’s life, had its world premiere in November 2011 with a full house at the Teatro SEA in Manhattan before moving to New York’s Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre for a successful seven-week run. The show ran from December 6 through December 16, 2012 at Puerto Rico’s Teatro Francisco Arrivi.
- 2013: “Baseball’s Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories,” the first feature dramatic film on Clemente’s life was finished by California filmmaker and Pittsburgh native Richard Rossi. Rossi returned to Pittsburgh to premiere his film on Roberto Clemente’s birthday, August 18, 2013, before exhibiting the film in New York and other cities.