Momen is a name one of his sisters gave him when he was little, and it stuck. Pronounced MO-men, it has no real meaning except as a term of endearment, like Snookums or Mookie. Born in 1934, Roberto was the last of the seven children born to Luisa Walker de Clemente. His father, Melchor, worked as a foreman for a sugarcane mill. And while the Clementes never lacked for food and clothes in the Barrio San Antón, they were often touched by tragedy. One daughter, Ana Iris, was five when she died after her silk dress caught fire. Two brothers died young of cancer, and Roberto's eldest sister, Rosa, the one who named him Momen, died in childbirth.
By all accounts Roberto was a good kid, devoted to his parents, attentive in school, the first one chosen on playing fields. He was such a fine javelin thrower in high school that there was talk he might make Puerto Rico's 1952 Olympic team. But it was baseball he truly loved: he hardly ever missed a chance to watch his favorite player, Monte Irvin, in the outfield for the Santurce Cangrejeros.
By the time Clemente was 18, people were coming to watch him play. One day a Brooklyn Dodger scout named Alex Campanis—yes, that Al Campanis—held a tryout for 71 players, one of whom was Clemente. After Campanis watched them all hit and throw and run, he sent the other 70 home. "He was the greatest natural athlete I have ever seen," Campanis has said. The Dodgers eventually offered Clemente $10,000 to sign, and he agreed. But the Dodgers elected to put Clemente on their Triple A roster, which meant he could not be promoted during the season and that he could be drafted by another major league team at the end of the '54 season. The last-place Pirates did just that, selecting him first for $4,000. Pirate general manager Branch Rickey delighted in stealing Clemente away from Rickey's former club and denying them an outfield of Clemente, Duke Snider and Carl Furillo.
On April 17, 1955, Bob Clemente—as he was sometimes called—made his major league debut for the Pirates, batting third and playing rightfield, against the Dodgers. The Pirate manager at the time, Fred Haney, wasn't sure how good Clemente was. "He's an adequate fielder, has a great throwing arm," Haney said. "I am a little concerned about his hitting." Clemente ended up hitting .255 that season; Haney ended up being fired.
Clemente may have been only a rookie, but he had already developed his fierce sense of pride. A New York Giant broadcaster, interviewing him after a game, tried to pay Clemente compliment by saying, "You remind me of another rookie outfielder who could run, throw and get those clutch hits. Young fellow of ours name of Willie Mays." After a suspenseful pause Clemente replied, "Nonetheless, I play like Roberto Clemente."
In 1956 he began to hit like Roberto Clemente, batting .311 for the first of his baker's dozen .300 seasons. Back in those unenlightened, cliché-ridden days, sports-writers would refer to Clemente as "the dusky flyer" or the "lashing Latin" or the "chocolate-colored islander." Even I worse, they would ridicule his speech in print, as if he were a cross between Señor Wences and Tarzan: "Me like hot weather, veree hot. I no run fast cold weather. No get warm in cold."
The slighting of the Latin player by American writers was never more evident than after the 1960 season. The Pirates won the pennant that year as Clemente hit .314 with 16 homers and 94 runs batted in, and then in the World Series they stunned the heavily favored New York Yankees. The MVP of the National League that season was Pirate shortstop Dick Groat, who hit 11 points higher than Clemente but had only two homers and 50 RBIs. Clemente could live with Groat's selection—he was, after all, a teammate—but he was deeply stung when he found out that he had finished eighth in the voting.
The Pittsburgh fans appreciated him, though. Spurred on by Pirate announcer Bob Prince, they cried "!Arriba!" every time he came to the plate with men on base, and arise he often did. Arriba even became his nickname for a time. Clemente appreciated the fans too. While his teammates attended an all-night party following the Pirates' World Series victory in 1960, Clemente walked the streets, thanking the fans for their support.
He didn't do it for show; he just liked people. He befriended inmates at a prison in Puerto Rico to which he had been invited for a softball game. His closest companion in Pittsburgh was a postal worker named Phil Dorsey. For 10 years in Pittsburgh he lived not in a house of his own but with a middle-class family, the Garlands. He usually ate his meals with another family, that of accountant Henry Kantrowitz, his wife, Pearl, and their two young sons. "Roberto was like another son to us," says Pearl, now 80. "A friend of ours brought him to our house when he was a rookie because he thought we might have an extra winter coat for him, and he became part of our family. He would call us late at night from the West Coast to let us know he'd be home for breakfast."
As Vera says, "Because he was close to his mother and father, many of Momen's friends were older people, both here and I in Pittsburgh." But he had a feel for the younger generation as well. In the off-season in Puerto Rico, Clemente would sharpen his eye by having local kids pitch batting practice to him with bottle caps. Toward the end of his career he went into a store in Pittsburgh to buy ceramic supplies, only to have the proprietor refuse his money. "Clemente, you won't remember this," the man told him, "but when I was a kid, 10 or 11 years old, I was sitting in the rightfield seats at Forbes Field while you were out there. I went for a foul ball, but an older man grabbed the ball away from me. I sat there, crying. The next inning you came over and said. 'Here's a ball for the one they took away from you.' I keep that ball in a place of honor in my home. That's why I can't charge you."