Clemente was an elite right fielder, who died too early. He was originally from Puerto Rico but moved to the US and joined the Pittsburgh Pirates to start his major league baseball career.
Despite the move, Clemente never forgot where he came from and continued to do charity work in Latin American and Caribbean countries during the off-season.
Life Before Baseball
Clemente was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, as the youngest child of seven. His father would look after the sugar cane crops on a farm, and because their family didn’t have a lot of money, Roberto would also work in the fields with his siblings.
At school, Clemente was a track star, even an Olympic hopeful, but the first scouts to turn their heads toward their young boy were baseball players.
Clemente always had a love for baseball. He was on the school team and soon got the attention of the local amateur league.
Playing In Puerto Rico
At 16 he was playing in an amateur league, but at 18 he was snapped up by the Cangrejeros de Santurce – a team in the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League.
He was benched during his first season, so didn’t manage to play until his second season. He started with a 0.288 hit – the best hit the team had ever seen.
He did so well that American teams started to take notice.
Joining The Minor League
The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Clemente in 1954, but the transition wasn’t smooth. They stayed in Montreal and the climate differences alongside the language barrier made life very hard at first.
Soon Clemente settled in, and teammates Joe Black, Tommy Lasorda, and Chico Fernandez acted as translators for Clemente and the rest of the team.
The team watched his throwing and batting skills. He did so well that they tried to sneak him under the radar and prevent a draft draw. The Dodgers were quickly found out, and Clemente was put into the drafts.
The Pittsburgh Pirates bagged the new player. Saying goodbye to the Dodgers (a team he technically never played for), they told the Pirates to take good care of Clemente. He was a special one.
Joining The Major League
Clemente asked for the number 21 when he first joined the major league. His full name was Roberto Clemente Walker which has 21 letters, so that was his reasoning.
He played for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1972. In the beginning, the team didn’t do well. To make matters worse, Clemente’s first-ever match was against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The team blamed Clemente’s ethnicity for their failing games, despite them doing badly before his arrival. The racism angered Clementine, but he always responded by saying “I don’t believe in color” and “I wasn’t brought up to discriminate”.
Clemente had back issues which meant that most of the season he had to be benched.
Joining The US Marines
In 1958, Clemente joined the US marine reserve for a 6-month deployment. When he came back he was muscular, had a lot more strength, and explained that his back pain was removed.
Back To The Pirates
By the 1960s, Clemente’s batting average was an impressive 0.353. He had an RBI record of 25 and created 14 extra-base hits.
His stats were outstanding. He had a whole section of the NL’s database dedicated to his Player of the Month records.
Injury Affected His Game
During the August game of 1960, Clemente made a pivotal play against San Francisco. In that move, he made an extra-base hit, and in doing so helped the Pirates win the game.
However, the win was so dramatic that Clemente was injured. He needed 5 stitches on his face and couldn’t play for the next 5 games.
He still finished the season with a batting average of 0.314 and 16 home runs, but the injury was so intense that onlookers were appealed by the drama.
Emotional Distress As The Pirates Move Stadiums
In 1970, the team moved from Forbes Field to the Three Rivers Stadium. For Clementine, it felt like abandonment.
In a moment now called Roberto Clemente Night, fans came to the stadium and cheered Clemente on while wearing the traditional Puerto Rico outfit.
Money raised from that night was sent to Puerto Rico charities.
Clemente’s 3,000th Career Hit
In 1971, The Pirates won the championships after just 7 games. Clementine’s batting average had jumped to 0.414 and he won the World Series Most Valuable Player Award.
His injuries from previous games were frustrating him, but they did nothing to stop his growing talent. And in September of that year, Clemente achieved his 3,000 hits. Only 33 batters have reached this achievement in MLB history.
Roberto Clemente’s Awards And Achievements
Throughout his career, Clemente won the World Series twice and was the NL MVP and the World Series MVP. He was the NL Batting Champion and won the Gold Glove Award 12 times.
Roberto Clemente’s Untimely Death
Along with being an amazing player, Clemente was a strong charity worker. In 1973, the capital city of Nicaragua was hit by a devastating earthquake.
Clemente sent emergency relief to the areas, but he soon realized that corrupt officials were taking his finances and aid packages.
On the 4th aid trip, Clemente joined the flight hoping his presents would stop officials from taking the aid from the survivors. Unfortunately, the plane had mechanical issues and it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.
On his death, the team retired the 21 number, in his honor.
Injury, racism, and poverty all tried and failed to stop Clemente from becoming a baseball star (see also “Why Baseball Is Purposely Boring?“). And even when he dominated the field, Clemente never became corrupt or selfish.
He continued to help the people of Puerto Rico and showed that being a first-class player doesn’t mean losing who you are.