In the spring of 1955, around the same time I was trying my hand at my high school baseball team and dreaming of becoming a big league ball player, the Pirates caught up with a flashy rookie outfielder from Puerto Rico.
By all accounts, Roberto Clemente was a natural. Pittsburgh sports journalists described its arm as a “rifle”, its speed as “electrifying” and its base hits as “frozen ropes”. He was still a raw talent, but fun to watch even if he made a mistake. Long-time Pittsburgh columnist Al Abrams wrote: “Every time we looked up, we saw Roberto showing off his shiny heels and white teeth to the loud screams of the spectators in the stands.”
Clemente’s only problem was that he began his career in a city with fixed racial attitudes and barriers. As a Latin American, he soon found that he was faced with prejudice not only because of the color of his skin, but also because of his origins and accent. The Pittsburgh sports journalists went out of their way to exploit Clemente’s “broken English”. If Clemente was having a good day, it was because he was “watching his stomach”. If he started the season slowly, which he usually did, it was because he had “no fast running and no plaything” until the weather got “very hot”.
1960 was the turning point in Clemente’s career. After having the best year of his career leading the Pirates to a World Series championship, he returned to Puerto Rico believing he had overcome racial barriers and gained acceptance from sports journalists and fans.
Less than two months later, his joy turned to anger when he learned that his teammate Dick Groat had been named a National League MVP. Missing the final month of the season with a broken wrist, Groat had won the NL batting title by an average of .325 while Clemente, who had beaten .314 in 144 games against Groats 122, led the team in runs and finished second in the runs achieved.
Refusing to wear his 1960 World Series ring, Clemente carried his resentment and bitterness into the next season and seasons, playing the game as if it were some form of revenge on those who offended him and his Had hurt pride and spirit. By the late 1960s, Clemente had won four hit titles, nine gold gloves and was named MVP of the National League in 1966.
Eventually, Clemente drew national attention for his brilliant game and also began speaking out against racial prejudice. He believed that Latin American ball players were a minority within a minority who were treated in the 1960s the way African American ball players were treated in the 1950s.
In a decade of political turmoil, he became the most outspoken sports figure in Pittsburgh. When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, Clemente was an outspoken critic of Major League Baseball’s decision to ask players and teams if they wanted to resume scheduled games: “When Martin Luther King died, they came and asked Negro players if we should play. I say if you have to ask Negro Players, we don’t have a great country. “
Roberto Clemente’s performance in the 1971 World Series was electrifying and extraordinary. After seeing Clemente, Roger Angell, who wrote for The New Yorker, claimed that “Clemente played a kind of baseball none of us had ever seen before – throw and run and hit at a level of perfection, play to hit win, but the game almost as if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field. “
Given the sports journalists and cameras in the pirates’ clubhouse after the World Series win, Clemente asked for justification. After 17 years he finally proved his greatness: “Now people all over the world know how I play.”
A little over a year later, on December 31, Roberto Clemente boarded a DC-7 cargo plane filled with supplies for the victims of a devastating earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua that plunged into the sea after takeoff, and all killed on board, including Clemente. His tragic death at the age of 37, so shocking at the time, became the stuff of baseball legends and turned Clemente into a popular figure in Pittsburgh.
The real Clemente, however, had started his career in 1955, proud of his ballplay skills and Latin American heritage, but emotionally alienated from the American national game by race and ethnicity. Seventeen years later, after dominating the World Series, when the baseball world finally honored his greatness, that same Clemente recognized his love for baseball and family as the source of his emotional strength and asked his parents, not the press or fans, for their blessings .
(Richard “Pete” Peterson is the author of “Growing Up With Clemente” and editor of “The Pirates Reader”)