Died: December 31, 1972 in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Occupation: Baseball player
Gold Glove, outfield, National League, 1961-1972; Most Valuable Player, National League, 1966; Baseball Hall of Fame, 1973.
A dazzling baseball superstar of surpassing skills, Roberto Clemente (1934-1972) was the first great Latin American player to captivate the major leagues. His life was cut short when his plane, delivering relief supplies to earthquake-devastated Nicaragua, crashed on the last day of 1972.
A Puerto Rican national hero, Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente spent his sparkling 18-year baseball career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He enchanted fans with his powerful throwing arm, graceful outfield defense, and superb hitting. Clemente won Gold Glove Awards, symbolizing defensive supremacy, every year from their inception in 1961, until his death in 1972. He also was elected to the National League All-Star team 12 times. Clemente was an outspoken advocate for Hispanic rights and a humanitarian. His untimely death came while he was leading a mission of mercy.
Clemente's ancestors were Puerto Rican laborers who worked on the island's coffee and sugar plantations. His father, Melchor Clemente, was in his mid-50s when Roberto was born in the Puerto Rican town of Carolina on August 18, 1934. Roberto was the last of six children for him and his wife, Dona Luisa. Melchor Clemente was a foreman at a sugar cane mill and ran a small grocery. His wife rose early to do the family laundry for the owner of the mill. She was very religious, and often fed poor children who came to her house. Clemente's parents instilled in him the values of hard work, respect, dignity, and generosity. "I never heard any hate in my house," Clemente said. "Not for anybody. I never heard my mother say a bad word to my father, or my father to my mother." He revered his parents throughout his life.
Even in his childhood, Roberto was an organizer. He once led a group of boys in raising money to build a fence to protect his school, and another time rescued a driver from a burning car. Beginning at the age of nine, he got up daily at six o'clock to deliver milk for a penny a day, saving his earnings for three years in order to buy a bicycle. From an early age, Clemente developed a passion for baseball. "I wanted to be a ballplayer," he said. "I became convinced God wanted me to." He would hit bottle caps with a broomstick, throw tennis balls against walls, and practice his skills endlessly.
At the age of 18, Clemente attended a tryout camp conducted by Brooklyn Dodgers scout and future general manager Al Campanis. Among 70 players, Clemente stood out. "He was the best free-agent athlete I have ever seen," Campanis recalled. After playing with Santurce in the Puerto Rican winter league, Clemente signed with the Dodgers for a $10,000 bonus and a $5,000 salary. He played in 1954 with the Dodgers' Montreal farm club. But when Brooklyn didn't protect him on its roster, he wasdrafted by Pittsburgh. "I didn't even know where Pittsburgh was," Clemente later confessed. The Pirates installed him as their right fielder
Pride of Puerto Rico
"Clemente was our Jackie Robinson," said Puerto Rican journalist Luis Mayoral. "He was on a crusade to show the American public what a Hispanic man, a black Hispanic man, was capable of." Robinson had broken baseball's color bar in 1947 with the Dodgers. Clemente was not baseball's first Hispanic player - others such as Minnie Minoso preceded him--but he was the first to make a major impact on the game.
When Clemente made his major league debut on April 17, 1955, he was listed as "Bob" on the Pirates roster because Roberto sounded too foreign. He made an immediate impression with his skills, his style, and his bearing. Though less than six feet tall and weighing only 175 pounds, Clemente swung an imposing 36-ounce bat. He...