Known the world over as "The Great One," many believe Roberto Clemente was the greatest right-fielder ever to play the game of of baseball. In his eighteen seasons with the Pirates, Roberto Clemente led the team to two World Series championships, won four National League batting titles, received the Most Valuable Player award, and earned twelve consecutive Gold Gloves. Born in Puerto Rico, Clemente was an exceptional baseball player and humanitarian whose career sheds light on larger issues of immigration, civil rights and cultural change.
Born in small barrio San Anton in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Roberto Clemente was the youngest of seven children and was raised in a modest home with mother Luisa and father Melchor. His family was poor, and Clemente worked hard as a youngster, delivering milk and taking other odd jobs to earn extra money for the family. Even as a child Roberto Clemente loved baseball, often playing in the sandlot near his home.
Attending Vizcarondo High School, a public school located in Carolina, Roberto Clemente was recruited while still a freshman to play softball with the Sello Rojo team. He was with the team two years, playing shortstop. Clemente joined Puerto Rico's amateur league when he was sixteen years old playing for the Ferdinand Juncos team, which represented the municipality of Juncos.
At the young age of 17, Roberto was playing for the Santurce Cangrejeros in the Puerto Rican Winter League where big-league scouts came to watch him play. Although he was originally drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers, Clemente ended up being picked up by the Pittsburg Pirates in for $4,000 a year. Roberto Clemente was to spend his entire professional baseball career in Pittsburg. Clemente debuted with the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 17, 1955 in the first game of a double header against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Roberto Clemente was offended by the racism he encountered in the United States, an injustice he had not experienced growing up in Puerto Rico’s relaxed racial climate. After signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Clemente often felt estranged in the blue-collar steel town, where the white majority saw him as a black man, but the African-American community labeled him a foreigner. The sports press often took jabs at the rising star by quoting him in broken English.
During the winter season of 1959, Clemente served in the United States Marine Corps Reserves. He spent six months in his military commitment at Parris Island, South Carolina, and Camp LeJeune in North Carolina, serving as an infantryman. The rigorous training program helped Clemente physically, he added strength ten pounds of muscle. Clemente had been in a car accident his rookie year and back pains had plagued him since then, but he stated the training eliminated all the aches and pains, and his back was better than ever.
Clemente's hard work paid off and his 1960 season finished with a trip to the All Star game. he batted .314 for the year, hit 16 homeruns, and played such tough defense, he even injured his chin crashing into the outfield wall trying to catch a hard hit fly ball.
During 1961 spring training, Clemente tried to modify his batting technique by using a heavier bat in order to slow the speed of his swing. During the 1961 season, Clemente was selected as the starting right fielder for the National League in the All-Star game. In this game, he batted a triple on his first at-bat and scored the team's first run. With the American League ahead 4-3 in the tenth inning, Clemente hit a double that gave the National League a decisive 5-4 win.
On November 14, 1964, Roberto Clemente married Vera Cristina Zabala in Carolina, Puerto Rico. The ceremony took place in the church of San Fernando and was attended by thousands of fans. They had three sons: Roberto Jr., Luis Roberto and Roberto Enrique, each born in Puerto Rico to honor their father's heritage. Roberto Clemente would spend his winters in Puerto Rico playing and managing in the Puerto Rican League, and was quick to donate time, money, and supplies to different Latino causes.
In the 1960's, no other player dominated baseball like Roberto Clemente did. A rare player who could both hit and field with ease Roberto Clemente set records and pushed the Pittsburg Pirates to the World series. Roberto Clemente was known a five tool player; He could hit for average, hit for power, was a strong baserunner, and was excellent at throwing and fielding. In 1967, he registered a career high .357 average and hit twenty-three home runs and racked up 110 RBI's. In addition, he was one of four players to have ten or more Gold Gloves and a lifetime batting average of over .300.
On December 31, 1972, Roberto Clemente, a thirty-eight-year-old baseball player for the Pittsburgh Pirates, boarded a DC-7 aircraft loaded with relief supplies for survivors of a catastrophic earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua. Concerned over reports that the Nicaraguan dictatorship was misusing shipments of aid, Clemente, a native of nearby Puerto Rico, hoped his involvement would persuade the government to distribute relief packages to the more than 300,000 people affected by the disaster. Shortly after take off, the overloaded aircraft plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, just one mile from the Puerto Rican coast. Roberto Clemente’s body was never recovered.
Roberto Clemente received many honors and awards including four National League batting championships, twelve Gold Glove awards, the National League MVP in 1966, and the World Series MVP in 1971, where he batted .414. After his death, the Baseball's Writer Association of America immediately waived the customary five-year wait and voted Roberto Clemente into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on August 8, 1973, making him the first Latino to be inducted.