He was actually a man of ordinary size, 5'11", 175 pounds. but he wielded an improbably large bat—36 ounces—and a profoundly important influence that is felt even today, some 22 years after his plane plunged into the sea.
When he made his major league debut, on April 17, 1955, batting third and playing rightfield for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was called Bob Clemente because many North Americans were still uncomfortable with a name as foreign as Roberto. Back then the young Puerto Rican was referred to by sportswriters as a "dusky flyer" and a "chocolate-colored islander," and his speech was regularly rendered in print as a subject for ridicule: "I no run fast cold weather." The slighting of Latin American players, who numbered only about two dozen in the major leagues of the late '50s, became even more obvious after the 1960 season when Clemente, who hit .314 with 16 homers and 94 RBIs for the world champion Pirates, finished eighth in the voting for the Most Valuable Player award won by teammate Dick Groat, who hit .325, but with two homers and 50 RBIs. Clemente's abilities as a player—his sensational throwing, his acrobatic fielding, his relentless hitting—overpowered the prejudice, however, and in 1966 he won the MVP. From 1961 until 1972, his average season was worthy of an MVP award: .331, 17 homers and 81 RBIs. No less an authority than Casey Stengel said Clemente was the best rightfielder he had ever seen. No less a pitcher than Sandy Koufax, when asked how to pitch Clemente, said, "Roll the ball."
Clemente also knew just how good he was. In 1955 a New York radio interviewer tried to pay him a 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." Clemente's reply was, "Nonetheless, I play like Roberto Clemente." Nobody had ever seen an arm like his. He led National League outfielders in assists five times, an amazing achievement considering that no runner in his right mind chose to challenge him. He once threw out Lee May of the Cincinnati Reds trying to score from third—on a single to right. As for his hitting, well, Clemente never saw a ball he didn't like. "Pitch me outside," he would say, "I will hit .400. Pitch me inside, and you will not find the ball."
He performed while suffering from—and freely complaining about—myriad injuries. At one time or another, Clemente had backaches, headaches, stomachaches, malaria, insomnia, tonsillitis, bone chips in his right elbow, sore shoulders and assorted pulled muscles. Asked how he felt one spring, he said, "Well, my bad shoulder feels good, but my good shoulder feels bad." But as Clemente often pointed out, "If I was a hypochondriac, I wouldn't be playing." And his back problems gave us the characteristic Clemente gesture: the rotating of the neck as he stepped into the batter's box, his attempt at getting his troubled vertebrae into proper alignment.
Clemente was, among other things, a poet, a musician, a ceramic artist, a chiropractor and, above all, a gentle humanitarian. His wife, Vera, once said, "He would rather be late for a meeting with the governor than pass by a stranger who needed help with a tire." After the Pirates beat the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series, Clemente skipped the team party to walk the streets of Pittsburgh and thank the fans. In his first pronouncement after the Pirates beat the Baltimore Orioles in the '71 Series, he addressed his parents in Puerto Rico, and said, in Spanish, "On this, the proudest day of my life, I ask for your blessing."
According to Puerto Rican broadcaster and journalist Luis Mayoral, " Clemente was our Jackie Robinson. He was on a crusade to show the American public what a Hispanic man, a black Hispanic man, was capable of." At a banquet in Houston in 1971, Clemente received a standing ovation from a largely white, Texan audience after saying, "If you have an opportunity to make things better, and you don't do that, you are wasting your time on this earth."
That desire to help others led to his death. On Dec. 31, 1972, he insisted on flying to Nicaragua to deliver supplies to victims of an earthquake. For whatever reason—engine trouble, an overload of cargo—the prop-driven DC-7 in which he was traveling crashed into the Caribbean soon after takeoff. The Pirate family, the city of Pittsburgh, the island of Puerto Rico felt a tremendous loss. But as a Pittsburgh nun wrote in a letter to Vera, "He fell into the water so that his spin! could be carried by the ocean to more places."
A few months after his death Clemente, whose 3,000th hit on Sept. 30, 1972, turned out to be his last, was elected to the Hall of Fame. But his baseball legacy extends far beyond a plaque in Cooperstown. As early as 1965 Clemente had talked of his dream of building a "sports city" for the kids of Puerto Rico. After a hesitant start Ciudad Deportiva Roberto Clemente is now thriving under the directorship of Vera Clemente, and its baseball program continues to produce a veritable major league All-Star team: Sandy and Roberto Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, Benito Santiago, Ruben Sierra and more. Today, one in every seven major league players is a Latin American, and for virtually all of them, Roberto Clemente stands as their most beloved pioneer.
Several of those players were at the '94 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, where Clemente was honored with the unveiling of a bronze statue. Among those who raised funds for the statue was the Pirates' current rightfielder, Orlando Merced, who happened to grow up across the street from the Clemente family in Rio de Piedras. Says the 27-year-old Merced, " Roberto Clemente means a dream to me, and to a lot of kids and people. I never met him, but I played baseball inside his house, around the Gold Gloves, the silver bats, the trophies, the pictures. He has pushed me to be a better player and a better person. When they unveiled the statue, I was crying. It made me proud to be who I am and to be a Puerto Rican."