I didn’t want to start 2018 off with a sad post, so to the best of my abilities, this will not be one. This will not be in mourning of Roberto Clemente, who died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 45 years ago, but a celebration of his life, legacy, and impact on baseball.
Roberto Clemente played Major League Baseball from 1955-1972; 18 seasons, all with the Pittsburgh Pirates. His accolades are numerous; his stats, impressive. A lifetime batting average of .317, 240 home runs, and 1,305 RBIs. Clemente was also one of 31 batters to reach the 3,000 hits milestone, and one of only 10 to do it while playing their entire career on one team. Sadly, his 3,000th hit was also the last at-bat of his life.
Clemente was a 12-time All-Star, National League MVP, and 4-time National League batting leader. Clemente also won 12 consecutive Gold Glove Awards between 1961 and 1972, the most ever by a right-fielder. Vin Scully once said, “Clemente could field the ball in New York and throw a guy out in Pennsylvania.” (Baseball Almanac) During his tenure, the Pittsburgh Pirates won two of their five World Series championships, in 1960 and 1971. They’ve only won one since.
But Roberto Clemente’s legacy is not only one of baseball prodigy, but of progress. In a game that is today dominated by Spanish-speaking players, Clemente was one of the first Latinos in the league. Players like Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz, Carlos Beltran, and now rookies like Rafael Devers owe, in large part, their careers to him. From things as simple as working to get announcers to call him ‘Roberto’ instead of the anglicized ‘Bobby’ to his performances at the plate and on the field, Clemente blazed a trail for generations of future players.
Off the field, he was a philanthropist until the day he died. He’d joined the Marine Corps reserves in 1958, and continued to serve until 1964. For years, he’d spend his off-seasons doing charity work on various Caribbean islands and in Latin America, including personally delivering baseball equipment and food. In an era when baseball players were making much less than $1 million, Clemente could be found chartering planes to fly supplies to countries in need. Pirates teammate Manny Sanguillen said that Clemente’s “passion could only be matched by his unrelenting commitment to make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate and those in need.” On December 31, 1972, the 38-year-old Clemente died in a plane crash. He was on his way to Nicaragua to bring supplies to earthquake victims.
In 1973, Clemente was posthumously inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the first Latin American and Caribbean player to receive the honor. With his untimely passing, the league established the rule that a player who has been deceased for at least six months may be eligible for the Hall. It is a rule that will likely apply to Roy Halladay next year.
Roberto Clemente died years before I was even born, but his legacy is the kind I always try to showcase on this website. He was a baseball star, but more importantly, a good human being who gave as much as he could to others. There’s a reason that the MLB awards the Roberto Clemente Award to the player who best exemplifies service off the field each year: Roberto Clemente gave everything he had, on and off the field. I can think of no more fitting way to end this tribute than with Roberto Clemente’s own words:
“Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.”
Who better to emulate in 2018?