Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker, known as Roberto Clemente, is revered as one of the greatest Latino athletes in professional baseball history and an outstanding humanitarian. His story is one of triumph, resilience and compassion. From his early days in the Puerto Rican amateur league to his illustrious career in Major League Baseball (MLB), Clemente's journey was marked by exceptional athleticism, unwavering dedication and a profound commitment to humanitarian causes.
Clemente was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, on August 18, 1934, to a laundress named Luisa Walker and a sugarcane plantation worker named Melchor Clemente. Growing up, he exhibited an all-around talent for sports. While he excelled in track and field in high school, baseball was always his true passion. At the age of 17 and with the support of his family, he began his career with the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League. He played for the Santurce Crabbers for a year before being scouted by Al Campanis of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Campanis noted that Roberto was the “best free-agent athlete I’ve ever seen” (Roberto Clemente Foundation). He signed with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ minor league team, for the 1954 season and moved to Montreal. After his first season with the Dodgers, he was picked up by the Pittsburg Pirates in the Rule 5 draft (National Baseball Hall of Fame).
It was a trying transition for him from the Dodgers to the Pirates due to factors of experience and race. He was incredibly fresh when he was signed and bypassed the standard league tiers, which give players a chance to hone their skills before moving into the big leagues. He spent the first five seasons finding his stride while simultaneously navigating racial segregation and discrimination in America. Despite Jackie Robinson having broken the color line 8 years prior to his arrival in the league, the Jim Crow laws and deliberate disregard of Negro League players in the industry came as an abrupt awakening (Roberto Clemente Foundation). However, his unrelenting embracement and pride of his Puerto Rican Latino roots coupled with the visibility that came from his career success would help break down barriers in the industry for minority players.
In 1960, Clemente emerged as a force to be reckoned with. He solidified himself as an agile right fielder with a cannon throw who could bat .312. He helped the Pirates reach a team-high 94 RBI and they advanced to the World Series. He’d go on to dominate the game throughout the 60’s and leave a lasting mark. He achieved a career batting average of .317, 240 home runs, 3,000 hits, and 1,305 RBI (National Baseball Hall of Fame). He received numerous awards for his athletic accomplishments, including 12 Gold Glove Awards, 4 Silver Bat Awards, and World Series Most Valuable Player, amongst many more (Baseball Almanac).
Off the field, Clemente carried a strong commitment to humanitarian work. He donated his earnings, time and efforts to those under-served and less well-off, particularly in Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries. He spearheaded fundraisers that contributed to children’s hospitals, created baseball clinics in Puerto Rico for children who could not afford to play and exemplified a hands-on compassionate approach to charity. Following the earthquake that devastated Nicaragua in December 1972, he arranged to personally fly supplies to the country, a decision which would ultimately lead to his demise. On December 31, 1972, Clemente departed on the plane which crashed shortly after takeoff.
His death shook Puerto Rico, the baseball community and fans alike who admired Clemente’s athletic achievements and philanthropic endeavors. In 1973, Roberto Clemente was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Roberto Clemente Award, established in his honor, recognizes MLB players who demonstrate outstanding sportsmanship and community involvement. The award serves as a reminder of Clemente's enduring legacy and the importance of using one's platform for the betterment of society. Additionally, his son, Roberto Clemente Jr., founded The Roberto Clemente Foundation, which still operates under the supervision of his three sons, Roberto Clemente Jr., Roberto Enrique Clemente Zabla and Luis Roberto Clemente.
His legacy serves as a beacon of hope and a reminder that true greatness is measured not just by athletic achievements but by the positive impact one leaves on the world.
"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." – Roberto Clemente
"When I put on my uniform, I feel I am the proudest man on earth." – Roberto Clemente
"I dedicated the hit (his 3,000th) to the Pittsburgh fans and to the people in Puerto Rico and to one man (Roberto Marin) in particular. The one man who carried me around for weeks looking for a scout to sign me." – Roberto Clemente
"If I could sleep. I could hit .400." – Roberto Clemente