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Roberto Clemente A Vocal Leader For Equality

As Player, He 'Could Do Everything'

The Clemente Years

Roberto Clemente A Vocal Leader For Equality

By George Diaz

March 31, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

Portraits of a hero

His legacy resonates everywhere, from sandlot fields in Puerto Rico where children hit tin cans with sticks to lavish major-league stadiums where his proteges play for multimillion-dollar paychecks.

Roberto Clemente is a ubiquitous presence in baseball, a player who fought gallantly to cut through racial lines with a prideful and defiant touch.

He endured insulting taunts fueled with ignorance and bigotry. He was once asked if he wore a loincloth back in Puerto Rico. Sports writers would often quote him in broken English ("Let me peetch, I theenk . . ."). Some would cast him as a malcontent and malingerer, labeling him a "Puerto Rican hot dog."

Through it all, Clemente responded with dignity, occasionally returning fire with the same passion he applied as he stepped into the batter's box, neck twitching with nervous energy like a man possessed with chiropractic demons. Moments later, he would smash the dickens out of a baseball.

In 18 years as a right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Clemente would rise as one of the greatest players in the game in the 1960s and set an even higher standard as a Hispanic role model for those who followed.

Thirty years after his death, as a new season begins today, his impact continues to touch our nation's pastime.

"For me he is the Jackie Robinson of Latin baseball," said Ozzie Guillen, a Venezuelan and former major-leaguer who is now a coach with the Florida Marlins and owns an extensive collection of Clemente memorabilia.

"He lived racism. He was a man who was happy to be not only Puerto Rican, but Latin American. He let people know that. And that is something that is very important for all of us."

Look around, and see, hear and touch the Latin accent in America's game:

    *More than 20 percent of the players in the majors -- and 40 percent of all pro baseball players -- are from Latin America. A third of them are Hispanic but born in the United States, like Alex Rodriguez, who played at Miami's Westminster High School. As late as 1987, the number of players from Latin America was only 8 percent in the majors.

    *Since 1996, Hispanic pitchers have won three Cy Young Awards (all by Pedro Martinez) and four league MVPs that includes the unprecedented 1998 sweep by former Texas Ranger Juan Gonzalez of Puerto Rico in the AL and the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa of the Dominican Republic in the NL.

    *Four of the eight highest-paid players in baseball are Hispanic. Perhaps Rodriguez ($25.2 million per year), Manny Ramirez ($20 million), Sammy Sosa ($18 million) and Carlos Delgado ($17 million) can all cut Clemente's family a royalty check.

Beyond checking accounts, you can hear the Spanish vibe in clubhouses throughout America, where high-energy salsa music blends into the red-white-and-blue Americana landscape.

Click onto ESPN Deportes and hear various broadcasts of games in Spanish radio, or tour the Hispanic Baseball Museum in San Francisco.

Hispanic baseball players have a voice now, thanks to the man who tried like Don Quixote to stab at those windmills that stood in the way of progress.

What about "Bob"?

He was not the first Hispanic to reach the major leagues -- that distinction belongs to a Cuban college student named Esteban Bellan in 1871 -- but Clemente certainly was the first to find the courage to speak while others cowered.

"He was a great person, a good human being, a person who would defend minorities," said Manny Mota, a former Pittsburgh Pirates teammate who is now a coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers. "He was a leader and controversial because he didn't permit injustices in regards to race. He was very vocal, and that was difficult. He was very misunderstood. But he would not accept injustices with Latins nor with players of color. He was always there to defend them."

Just listen.

"Latin-American Negro ballplayers are treated today much like all Negroes were treated in baseball in the early days of the broken color barrier," Clemente once told Sport magazine. "They are subjected to prejudices and stamped with generalizations. Because they speak Spanish among themselves, they are set off as a minority within a minority, and they bear the brunt of the sport's remaining racial prejudices. 'They're all lazy, look for the easy way, the short cut' is one charge. 'They have no guts' is another. There are more."

You needn't look very far to find the skeletons buried in baseball's dirty closet of social missteps. For most of Clemente's career, the Topps Co. published his name as "Bob Clemente" on those baseball card packs kids would buy for a nickel or dime that included a piece of cardboard-like pink bubble gum.

"Bob" Clemente? Sounds like a nondescript guy from Des Moines, Iowa. No, Roberto Clemente was baseball royalty, and his roots stretched deep into the heartland of Puerto Rico.

Clemente would never get to see the walls of ignorance come down in his lifetime. He died on Dec. 31, 1972 -- at the apex of his career -- just three months after he reached the indelible milestone of 3,000 hits. He would gain mainstream acceptance as the years trickled by and the world looked at him without the blinders of a different era.

Roberto Clemente Walker -- his full name, keeping with the Hispanic custom of including the mother's maiden name last -- was born Aug. 18, 1934. He was the youngest of five sons born to Melchor and Luisa Clemente in Carolina, a quaint town of 15,000 near Puerto Rico's capital of San Juan.

Turn the calendar page with us, and watch Clemente hitting tin cans and bottle caps as a youth in the neighborhood. Smell the air thick with the scent from a sugarcane mill where his father works as a foreman and once made 45 cents a day as a field hand.

Roberto is the gangly kid in the outfield with only natural fences. Stick a ball into the branches of the mango trees, and it's a double. Clemente runs with the dazzling speed, catches balls as if he were holding a basket at his side, and has an uncanny stance and bat speed that allows him to flick the ball to all fields.

It isn't long before others beyond the tree lines notice.

Hispanic Yogi Berra

Scouted by Brooklyn's Al Campanis, Clemente signed with the Dodgers' minor-league affiliate in Montreal in February 1954 shortly after graduating high school. He received a $5,000 salary and $10,000 bonus.

The following year, the Pittsburgh Pirates snatched him on a technicality: There was a rule stating that any player who received a bonus of at least $4,000 had to be placed on the major-league roster within a year or he could be drafted for $4,000. Still on Montreal's roster and not Brooklyn's, the Pirates were able to draft Clemente for a bargain price.

He wore No. 21 to account for all the letters in his full name, reflecting a fiercely proud man who demanded a louder voice in a strange country that judged him unfairly. Clemente had to deal with the various social insults of restaurant doors slammed in his face because of his color, a press that didn't understand him and sometimes chose to mock him and sarcastic shrugs from some teammates who considered him a hypochondriac.

Clemente was an eccentric bird. He kept a detailed list of his injuries, constantly complained of insomnia and used a witches' brew of remedies that included a funky form of electric muscle stimulation on his shoulders with a contraption that set off sparks in the clubhouse.

"Holy [bleep], the lights are dimming!" former Pirates teammate Steve Blass joked.

Shortly before his death, Clemente had become so engrossed in sports medicine that he was planning on getting a chiropractic license and opening a clinic in Puerto Rico. Clemente used to treat friends and neighbors in the middle of the night during the off-season, when they came knocking on his door with various ailments.

"That part of his life helped him to be able to help other people," said his son, Roberto Clemente Jr.

Maybe it had something to do with his translation of the language, but Clemente showed a touch of Yogi Berra irreverence while describing his own ailments:

"My bad shoulder, it feels good. But my good shoulder, it feels bad."

"Sometimes when I wake up, I am still asleep."

"Who can argue with that?" Blass said.

There would be no quibbles with Clemente's game. Despite the physical quirks, he averaged 135 games a year during an era when most seasons stretched 154 games. He stockpiled 12 Gold Glove awards for his defensive ability, four silver bats for his four National League batting titles, two World Series championship rings from 1960 and 1971, and a Most Valuable Player Award from the '71 Series.

Those numbers were etched in a distinct air of confidence, cockiness if you will. Clemente -- blessed with one of the most dazzling arms in baseball history -- would purposely hold the ball at his side at times when someone poked a single to right field.

The momentary hitch was a challenge.

Come on, try me.

John Roseboro, a catcher for the Dodgers, could never resist.

No one remembers Roseboro ever sliding in safely at second.

"Will you keep your [butt] still and stay on the base?" Maury Wills, the Dodgers shortstop, would tell his roommate.

"I'll . . . I'll get him . . . next time!" Roseboro fumed.

Dignity above all else

Blass, a pitcher from Canaan, Conn., found a special bond with Clemente through the eight years they were teammates (1964-72). He prodded Clemente from the bottom of the trainer's table, joked with him in an irreverent clubhouse where nothing was sacred.

Yet Clemente remained detached, at times a distant stranger in the world of male bonding. He stayed in his room on the road, ordering room service.

Clemente always wore a coat and tie, striking an air of royalty in working-class, blue-collar Pittsburgh. Coupled with a serious look that gave the impression he was aloof, people sometimes feared approaching him.

Teammates included.

"He was just a private person," said Wills, who played with Clemente in the 1967 and '68 seasons after he was traded to the Pirates. "When you don't know a person, and a person is quiet or private, it's human nature to think he's moody. You think maybe he doesn't like you, but I don't think it was that at all. But I don't think he was a very happy person. I don't think he was content. I think he realized that he was under-rated and didn't get the credit or the acclaim that he deserved."

Maybe it was the walls that Clemente built for himself as a natural line of defense. Or maybe it goes back to pride and royalty again.

"You can lose everything else," Clemente would tell his close friends, "but you must never lose your dignity."

"He lived that every day," Blass said. "It's was like, 'I have a stature, and I have a responsibility to carry that stature.' I always felt when he got out he could have been the governor of Puerto Rico if he wanted to because he had that kind of clout, and he had the common sense that he could cut through a lot of bull and see issues."

Clemente would never rise to a greater platform in his lifetime. His death was preceded by a poignant moment of closure three months before a fateful plane ride.

On Sept. 30, 1972, Clemente drove a double off New York Mets pitcher Jon Matlack at Three Rivers Stadium for hit No. 3,000. Willie Mays shook his hand, and Mets third baseman Jim Fregosi handed him the ball to commemorate the moment.

It would be the final hit of Clemente's career.

After an earthquake in Nicaragua killed about 6,000 people and left another 100,000 homeless, Clemente felt compelled to help. Driven to help by his unconditional love, Clemente ignored an eerie premonition from his son Roberto Jr., then 7.

"Daddy's going to Nicaragua but he's not coming back," he said. "Don't let him go."

Trying to deliver eight tons of emergency goods, a four-engine, propeller-driven DC-7 went down in the Atlantic Ocean, a mile off the Puerto Rican coast, about 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1972. The plane, determined later to be overweight, had engine failure during takeoff. The crash killed all five passengers -- Clemente, the pilot, and a three-man crew.

In the ensuing days of emotional chaos, Clemente's wife, Vera, stood for hours heartbroken on the beach as U.S. Navy divers searched the waters for remnants of the plane. Manny Sanguillen, his beloved Pirates teammate, plunged into the waters incessantly, looking for his friend.

Clemente's body was never found, only a sock and his briefcase.

He was 38.

Blass was hosting a New Year's Eve party in Pittsburgh when he got a call around 2 a.m. A handful of players went to the house of Joe Brown, then Pittsburgh's general manager, but information remained vague. From there they went to first baseman Willie Stargell's house. They finally got confirmation as the rest of the East Coast was waking up from its New Year's slumber.

"We then proceeded to get drunk about 8 in the morning," Blass said.

Days later, Blass would provide a moving eulogy -- adapted from Lou Gehrig's funeral with the permission of the New York Yankees -- before an audience that included Puerto Rican Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon.

"Our people," Colon said, "have lost one of their great glories."

The five-year mandatory waiting period for Hall-of-Fame eligibility was waived, and Clemente -- who hit .300 or better in 13 seasons -- was inducted in 1973. He was the first Latin player to be elected to baseball's Hall of Fame and the first Latin American player -- and only the 11th man in history at the time -- to reach 3,000 hits.

Clemente has since been joined in Cooperstown, N.Y., by six other Latin Americans: Luis Aparicio, Juan Marichal, Rod Carew, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Perez and Martin Dihigo (a Negro League star).

The Pirates retired Clemente's uniform No. 21, and they placed a statue of him at Three Rivers Stadium on July 11, 1994. The statue now stands outside the Pirates' new home, PNC Park.

Always admired

Clemente's spirit remains immortally beloved. He is baseball royalty in the Caribbean and beyond. Guillen named a son after him. He also has a room -- called the No. 21 room -- filled with videos, books, T-shirts, cards, bats, and even a piece of the tail section from Clemente's plane.

"He will always be admired in all Latin America, not just Puerto Rico, for his generosity, for his personality," said Venezuela's Bobby Abreu, a talented right-fielder with the Philadelphia Phillies. "He was one of the keys for us. Now we are playing and triumphing in this game."

Thirty years after his death, Clemente's home runs are measured far beyond the fences at Pittsburgh's old Forbes Field and Three Rivers Stadium. His legacy includes a sports complex for underprivileged kids in Puerto Rico, a foundation supporting the development of disadvantaged youth in the Pittsburgh area, and a national award recognizing the professional baseball player who exemplifies sportsmanship and community involvement.

His son Luis is in Puerto Rico, working with the Roberto Clemente Sports City complex. His son Roberto Jr. runs the foundation in Pittsburgh and works as an announcer for ESPN Deportes. He is also working on an independent documentary on his father's life, hoping it will "open more eyes."

"When people talk to me about him, they are talking about someone who is vivid in life," Roberto Jr. said. "I have come to the conclusion that I do believe in the work of angels and that they do live among us. He was one of the chosen ones."

There are so many memories, from those who loved him as a brother, from those who hated him as a competitive thorn in the lineup, to today's players who have crossed into North American borders, thanks to the road map drawn with Clemente's sacrifices.

"When I was playing baseball, I always heard that Roberto Clemente was the best player out of Puerto Rico, and I wanted to follow his footsteps," said New York Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams, a Puerto Rican. "And just like me, there are many others who are playing today because they followed his dream."

Clemente's dream is a vibrant one, rich in textures far beyond the dreary black and white landscape of a time when a man was judged by his skin color or the name on the back of his jersey.

It was a time when you could stick "Bob" Clemente in a pack of cheap baseball cards, oblivious to the majestic presence of Roberto Clemente, a man who always remained true to himself, and a heritage laced with the rich scent of Puerto Rico's sugar cane fields.

As Player, He 'Could Do Everything'

By John McCollister

March 31, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

Had ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov elected to become a professional baseball player, he would have played right field like Roberto Clemente. Those fans fortunate to have seen Clemente during his 18-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates saw artistry in motion whenever he outran a long fly ball or rifled a throw back to the infield.

During his rookie season in 1955, Clemente caught the attention fans not because of an overwhelming batting average (.255) but because of his unique way of playing the game. He shagged fly balls, for example, using a "basket catch," just like Willie Mays.

He was also unorthodox in his approach to hitting. When he stepped to the plate, he moved his shoulders around in tiny circles and twisted his body like a person who had spent the night on a bad mattress. Constantly moving while in the batters' box, he often swung at pitches 10 inches outside the strike zone, and laced them to right field for hits.

After he hit a home run off Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale, Drysdale was asked what pitch he had thrown to Clemente. Said Drysdale, tersely, "Ball four."

Not only was he gifted with sure hands and gazelle-like quickness that reduced obvious extra-base hits to outs, he possessed a powerful throwing arm that often caught runners who attempted to advance from first to third on a single. While an opposing runner was on base, and a batter stroked a hit to right field, Pirate fans stood, cheered and hoped that base runner would be foolish enough to attempt to advance more than one base and fall victim to a cannon-like throw from Roberto.

"Clemente could field the ball in New York," announcer Vin Scully said, "and throw a guy out in Pennsylvania."

Clemente played without a net, often forsaking potential harm to himself when he dove at low line drives or ran into a wall when chasing a fly ball.

Pirates shortstop and team captain Dick Groat said about Clemente: "He had the greatest God-given talent I ever saw. There was nothing in the game he couldn't do if he wanted to."

For those outside of Pittsburgh, the Clemente myth came mostly by word of mouth.

"I never really saw Clemente play a lot, being an American League guy. I did see him when I was in the '66 All-Star Game," said former Minnesota pitcher Jim Kaat, now a television analyst for the New York Yankees. "But you'd hear stories about him, and still do.

"I was talking this spring with some guys about Ichiro [Suzuki of Seattle] and they said they hadn't seen a right fielder with an arm like that since Clemente.

"Clemente's reputation was universal -- in any league."

During the 1960 World Series -- when the Pirates defeated the New York Yankees -- Clemente finally received recognition from the national press. Clemente, the most exciting player in baseball that year, hit .314, with 16 home runs and a club-leading 94 RBIs.

During his 18 years with the Pirates, Clemente topped the .300 mark 13 times, won four National League batting crowns, batted .317, hit 240 home runs and knocked in 1,305 runs. He also won 12 Gold Glove awards. He hit safely in all 14 World Series games he played. He was selected 12 times to the All-Star team and voted the National League MVP in 1966.

"Clemente could hit home runs. He was a hard line-drive hitter. He could steal bases if he wanted to. He could do everything," said former Dodger Maury Wills.

Clemente was a "five-tool" player before scouts ever invented the term.

"Many times if you were to ask me who was the best player you ever saw, for a long time I said Roberto Clemente," said Wills, serving as a special assistant for the Dodgers this spring. "When you get to play with a guy every day, you get to know how great he really is. You get a whole different perspective than when you play against him. That's saying a lot when you have players like Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline."

Clemente stood 5 feet 11 and weighed 185 pounds, but he performed with the grace of a ballet dancer and ferociousness of a linebacker. And there was even a little Deion Sanders bravado in him. "Nobody in baseball does anything better than me," he once said before the 1971 World Series.

That Series, between the Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles, would be known as "the Clemente Series." He hit an astonishing .414 during the seven games, slugged two doubles, a triple and two homers. He also played a flawless right field. Jerry Isenberg, a writer for the Newark Star-Ledger observed: "After 17 major-league seasons, Roberto Clemente is an overnight sensation."

Clemente battled various ailments and injuries through his career, and he was often a victim of unrealistic expectations placed on him by media and fans.

Joe Garagiola, the former Pirates catcher and broadcaster, recalls talking to Clemente before a game. "He told me he had a sore arm, his legs were tired and he had no energy. That night he hit two home runs and threw a runner out at third by three feet. When Clemente felt the worst," Garagiola said, "it seems he played his best."

Wrote the late, great Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times: "The thing about Clemente is that he's the only guy to receive get-well cards after going five-for-five, throwing two runners out at the plate and stealing second standing up."

Clemente guaranteed his place in Cooperstown on Sept. 30, 1972, when he slammed a double to left-center field off Jon Matlack of the New York Mets. It was the 3,000th hit of his illustrious career. The lasting image is one of Clemente standing on second base, waving his hat in response to the five-minute standing ovation by the fans at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.

On Dec. 31, 1972, he was on board a DC-7 cargo plane in San Juan that crashed just after taking off with 16,000 pounds of relief supplies. It was en route to earthquake-torn Nicaragua. The plane burst into flames and veered left into the ocean. Clemente's body was never found. He was 38.

His epitaph on a memorial plaque in Puerto Rico reads: "I want to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all he had to give."

When Commissioner Bowie Kuhn heard about Clemente's death, he described baseball's premier right fielder in just eight words: "He had about him a touch of royalty."

That was Roberto Clemente.

Staff writer Brian Schmitz contributed to this story. Dr. John McCollister was born and raised in Pittsburgh. He is the author of 17 published books, including The Bucs! The Story of the Pittsburgh Pirates and The Tigers and Their Den. His newest baseball book--The Best Baseball Games Ever Played (Citadel Press) -- debuts in May. McCollister lives at Spruce Creek.

The Clemente Years

March 30, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

'55: .255 BA, 5 HRs, 47 RBIs

Arrived with a bad back and reinjured it in a spring-training car accident, starting career-long back woes.

'56: .331 BA, 7 HRs, 60 RBIs

Played in 147 games, including two at second and one at third, the only games in his career not in the outfield.

'57: .253 BA, 4 HRs, 30 RBIs

Suffered through his worst season as his back pain forced him to wear a brace much of the time.

'58: .289 BA, 6 HRs, 50 RBIs

Bounced back nicely, hitting 24 doubles and 10 triples. The Pirates rose, too, from last place to second.

'59: .296 BA, 4 HRs, 50 RBI

Clemente missed two months with injuries. He was criticized by the media, fans and his manager, Danny Murtaugh.

'60: .314 BA, 16 HRs, 94 RBIs

Clemente's breakout season. He silenced his critics and helped lead the Pirates to a world championship.

'61: .351 BA, 23 HRs, 89 RBIs

Won his first batting title and his first Gold Glove. Drove in the winning run in the All-Star Game.

'62: .312 BA, 10, HRs, 74 RBIs

His average dipped nearly 40 points, and he was roundly criticized for a disappointing season.

'63: .320 BA, 17 HRs, 76 RBIs

Played more than 150 games. Despite criticism about his injuries, he played at least 140 games every year from 1960-67.

'64: .339 BA, 12 HRs, 87 RBIs

Had 211 hits -- a career high -- marking the second of four seasons during which he'd surpass 200 hits.

'65: .329 BA, 10 HRs, 65 RBIs

Clemente was stricken with malaria, yet still played in 152 games, totaled 194 hits and won his third batting title.

'66: .317 BA, 29 HRs, 119 RBIs

Clemente finally was recognized for his stellar play with the NL MVP award -- the only one of his career

'67: .357 BA, 23 HRs, 110 RBIs

Continued to flourish offensively in an age of dominant pitchers, winning his fourth and final batting title.

'68: .291 BA, 18 HRs, 57 RBIs

This was the only season in the 1960s in which Clemente did not make the All-Star Game.

'69: .345 BA, 19 HRs, 91 RBIs

Clemente narrowly missed his fifth batting crown, losing out by three points to Cincinnati's Pete Rose.

'70: .352 BA, 14 HRs, 60 RBIs

The Pirates got a new home -- Three Rivers Stadium -- and returned to the playoffs for the first time in 10 years.

'71: .341 BA, 12 HRs, 66 RBIs

The Pirates won their second World Series in 11 years and Clemente was the Series MVP, hittting .414.

'72: .312 BA, 10 HRs; 60 RBIs

He became the 11th player to reach 3,000 hits with a double Sept. 30; it was his last regular-season hit.

'73: Clemente, who was killed in a plane crash on New Year's Eve in 1972, was granted early induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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