By Kevin Stoda
The very last evening this past September, ESPN ran a program entitled THE ENDOURING SPIRIT OF ROBERTO CLEMENTE. That evening program on September 30th commemorated many things about the humanitarian--including the 35th anniversary of the 3000th hit of the Puerto Rican Superstar made by world citizen, Roberto Walker Clemente.
I have several personal memories of Roberto Clemente’s life and death because of the fact my father was a life-long Pittsburgh Pirate fan and I had come to love the elegant playing and hitting of Bobby Clemente during the late sixties and seventies. I’ll share some of those memories below. In the meantime, I want to state that I’m still waiting on Spike Lee or Oliver Stone (or another high caliber director) to do a film on this humanitarian Latin American baseball player and elegant leader of the campaign to integrate baseball with blacks and Latinos in the 1950s and 1960s.
For years the outspoken Latin player failed to get along with much of the American press because he called a spade a spade. He spoke up when he felt racism was at play in how he or any other player was treated—such as in the 1960 MVP campaign where he was voted number eight and behind three other teammates in the year the Pirates took the World Series from the New York Yankees.
Clemente also told the press that he was playing hurt and would go out and get three or four hits or throw out a runner at third base. This led to incredulity by the journalists who in those days expected baseball heroes to be as tough as nails, i.e. to play when they are hurt and to shut up about it. (Having suffered from back and neck pain since I myself was 25 years, I can really empathize with Clemente on the unfair show-us-the-pain type of macho baseball reporting undertaken in the pre-designated hitter era of major league baseball.)
The Pittsburgh Pirate fans in that hard-working blue collar town on the Three Rivers, though, starting in the 1950s warmed to this young Puerto Rican immediately due to Clemente’s great hustle. Clemente played hurt a great part of his career suffering consistently from back pains following a road accident early in his career. Nonetheless, in one fine 24 hour period in late August 1970, Roberto Clemente had 10 hits in two games—he only played the second game, it was reported, because his teammate Willie Stargell was out injured for the week and Clemente’s bat was needed in the line-up.
Coming from a large and impoverished family, Roberto Clemente was not only a natural athlete but a man willing to speak out against racism and on behalf of younger Latino ballplayers. [He would have been in the 1952 as a triple jumper, but he had turned professional athlete by that date.] The ESPN program interviews of Latino player after Latino player who were counseled by the elder Clemente as they got settled in the major leagues were many on ESPN that night. Some of these players Clemente helped were those who he had lent his own car to in order to learn to drive or whom he had taken out to a tailor and had had good clothes made for.
Clemente saw himself as a teacher to his Latino brothers and some 200 Puerto Rican players have been active in the major leagues since Clemente first put on a Pirate uniform.
MEMORIES AND MEMORIALS
The Roberto Clemente Sports City in Puerto Rico, which was a center created through the inspiration and leadership of Roberto Clemente, has spawned many past and present day major league stars, including Carlos Beltran and Ivan Rodriguez. The sports complex focuses on providing a place for youth throughout the island to not only learn the art of baseball at various camps held there, but aids swimmers and participants in many different individual and team events to train. Youth learn teamwork, discipline and how to meet lifelong goals. On ESPN several lawyers and other professionals throughout Puerto Rico were interviewed about there experiences attending the Robert Clemente sports city over the recent decades in Puerto Rico.
Naturally, the big financial boost to the Sports City project envisioned by Roberto Clemente just prior to his untimely death on December 31, occurred after knowledge of Clemente’s death had swept the world on January 1, 1973.
I recall well that morning myself.
I was only 10 years-old at the time. My dad, my brother and I drove to early morning New Year’s Day mass 1973 at the local catholic church in Wentzville, Missouri. On the way to mass, my dad announced with sadness that Roberto Clemente’s plane had gone missing during the night. Naturally, a candle was lit for him at the church that morning. After the mass, we drove around in the rain and the fog listening in vain to the St. Louis Sports radio station to provide the hoped for news of the discovery of Roberto Clemente alive.
Meanwhile, Manny Sanguillen, a Puerto Rican teammate of Clemente’s on the Pittsburgh Pirates, was joining diving teams off the coast of Puerto Rico looking for the overloaded submerged plane that had taken Clemente to his early grave the night before.
Why was Clemente on that plane?
The First Answer: World events forced Clemente to be on an overloaded cargo plane that night. On Christmas Day 1972 a major earthquake had shaken downtown Managua, Nicaragua. Roberto Clemente volunteered to lead the effort in the Caribbean to raise aid for the beleaguered citizens of Nicaragua.