When Puerto Ricans sing about Roberto Clemente, they want the rest of the world to understand their pride, solidarity, and culture.
For them, Clemente represents the height of what it means to be a true Puerto Rican. His name appears in their songs, and students learn about his life in school. Many Latino ballplayers have his photo on their walls.
“When we’re being challenged, and they’re trying to figure out who we are, the answer is we all wear No. 21,” said Roberto’s middle son, Luis Clemente. “We are Roberto Clemente, so you know who we are. This is the face of what makes a Puerto Rican.”
Fifty years after his death, Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ talented outfielder, remains one of the most admired people in Puerto Rico and Latin America. His beautiful flare and powerful arm were unparalleled in his period, but his humanitarian activities may be his most lasting legacy. Many of today’s Latino baseball players credit him for leading the road half a century after he played.
“The name Roberto Clemente is something that fills us with passion and admiration,” Miami Marlins pitcher Sandy Alcantara, who was born in the Dominican Republic, said. “Since he was one of the Latin players that did so much for us here in America, not only here but in all of Latin America, I think he is a living legend.”
Roberto Clemente passed away on December 31, 1972, at the age of 38, when his plane crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico while bringing relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
He died a potential Baseball Hall of Famer, with exactly 3,000 hits, four National League hitting crowns, 12 Gold Gloves, an MVP award, two World Series championships, and 15 All-Star appearances.
He was proud of his Puerto Rican heritage, and he was outspoken about the injustice he faced as a Black Latino throughout a career that mirrored the civil rights struggle.
“That was an expression of Clemente’s angst of how many saw him,” baseball historian Adrian Burgos Jr., who focuses on Latinos in baseball, said. “Outside of that superstar ballplayer, they saw a Black man, a Black Latino, when he began to speak.”
Clemente broke into the major leagues after Jackie Robinson broke down the color barrier in baseball, and he was unprepared for what he encountered when he departed Puerto Rico.
White players made up 90.7% of MLB players when Pittsburgh took Clemente from the then-Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1954 Rule 5 draft, according to data provided by the Society for American Baseball Research. African American players accounted for 5.6% of the total, while Latino players accounted for 3.7%.
When Clemente arrived in Florida for Pirates spring training, black players were not permitted to dine at the same restaurants as their white colleagues after games, and they frequently had to wait for food to be carried back to them on the bus.
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Clemente refused to be considered a second-class citizen, and he expected his Black teammates to do the same.
“He would even tell the rest of his teammates, ‘Those of you who eat food from this place, we’re gonna go at it,'” he claimed. “And they’d say, ‘Roberto, we’re starving. We have to eat something.’ He’d say, ‘I don’t care. … If I’m not good enough to be served food at that restaurant, then that food is not good enough to feed ourselves.'”
Clemente realized the power of his voice, which he utilized to condemn racism, frequently in his native Spanish. His words were rendered in shaky English. His arrogance and manner were sometimes misread.
“There’s all kinds of cultural dissonance in terms of a sense of who he is and the more traditional take on ballplayers for these taciturn, tobacco-spitting white guys,” said Rob Ruck, who is the author of “Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game.”
Today in 1972, the great Roberto Clemente tragically dies in a plane crash while attempting to take needed supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims. Nearly 50 years later, his name remains a shining example that your good character matters. May he rest in peace. pic.twitter.com/EYKGrQ6IIE
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) December 31, 2020
Clemente and Martin Luther King Jr. discussed political and social concerns. He was deeply committed to ensuring equitable access for Latinos and frequently returned to Puerto Rico to give free baseball clinics for impoverished children.
Every year, a player receives the Roberto Clemente Award for community service. This year’s winner was Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner.
Clemente’s humanitarianism is carried on by his family and the Roberto Clemente Foundation, which donated food and relief to families in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Fiona devastated the island earlier this year.
“That is the true Clemente legacy,” said Clemente, who added, “is how you help others and how you make others understand how important they are in society.”
The same can be said of today’s Latino athletes, he noted, because he believes their devotion to their home countries began, in part, with his father.
“Dad set the example of being thankful for what God provides,” Luis Clemente remarked, “for the opportunity of becoming a Major League Baseball player. … These players for the most part, they have had it rough. They understand what living in need is and they know how to share their blessing.”
Although the MLB and cultural scene have changed since Clemente’s time, diversity challenges persist.
50 years ago today, 12/31/72, 38 year old Pittsburgh Pirates superstar Roberto Clemente dies in the crash of a four-engine plane while supervising the delivery of relief supplies to earthquake victims of Managua, Nicaragua. He ends his HOF career with exactly 3000 hits. RIP. pic.twitter.com/yz0aR7ejkv
— Spiro’s Ghost (@AntiToxicPeople) December 31, 2022
According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 38% of active 30-man roster players on the opening day of 2022 were people of color. The percentage of African American players (7.2%) is the lowest in almost 30 years, while the amount of Hispanic and Latino players (28.5%) continues to rise.
On Roberto Clemente Day, September 15, the Tampa Bay Rays set MLB history by starting nine Latin American players against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Latino stars such as Ronald Acua Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. have helped usher in a more vibrant era for MLB, one in which noisy Latino players are more comfortable than ever showing off the energy and flare that is more common in their native countries than in the United States.
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Nonetheless, Latino players continue to face long-standing critiques that any eccentricity they offer is excessive.
“The continuing tension that Latino players encounter is this notion that is rooted in an imagined past,” Burgos said, “and that is ‘Play the game the right way.’ Much of that comes out of the culture of Major League Baseball during its segregated era, where it was only white American players that were in the league.”
Many individuals believe Clemente’s No. 21 should be retired league-wide because of his effect. Only Robinson’s No. 42 has been retired by each MLB franchise.
“For me, Clemente was a figure of political resistance,” Ruck said. “He was also a figure to me that captured what sport can be in its best-case scenario, which is a democratic arena accessible to all.”