How World Series Champion Roberto Clemente Served Impoverished Puerto Ricans
Did you know that Roberto Clemente is the athlete with the most sculptures in the world?
In the United States and Puerto Rico alone, he has 11 statues.
Roberto Clemente is one of the most iconic sports figures of the last century thanks to his brilliant baseball career, but also because of his humanitarian work and help for those in need within and outside Puerto Rico. He’s so popular that, to this day, his baseball card costs hundreds of dollars!
Let’s learn today about Roberto Clemente’s life and work inside and outside the baseball diamond, and what makes him the most loved baseball player in Puerto Rico to this day.
Who was Roberto Clemente?
Let’s begin with the biography of this amazing athlete. Roberto Clemente was born on August 18, 1934, in el barrio San Antón (San Antón neighborhood) in Carolina, Puerto Rico. He was the seventh and youngest son of Melchor Clemente and Luisa Walker.
Roberto Clemente’s childhood wasn’t easy. Because of his family’s limited resources, he and his siblings worked with their father, who was a foreman for sugar cane crops in the northeastern part of the island. They used to work in the fields, loading and unloading the sugar cane in trucks.
Roberto showed his talent for sports from a young age, and he had an early interest in baseball. But it wasn’t until high school that he began to stand out. During his first year, he was recruited to play softball with the Sello Rojo (red seal) team. He played with them for two years.
At 16, Roberto Clemente began to play in Puerto Rico’s amateur league. But it wasn’t until 1952, when Roberto was 18, that he began his professional baseball career. He played for los Cangrejeros de Santurce—better known as the Crabbers. Even though he began as a bench player in his first season, he was quickly promoted to the starting lineup for the next season.
He was quickly recruited by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954. After signing with them, he went to play in Montreal for the Royals—an affiliated team of the Brooklyn Dodgers. During that time, he played with other important figures like Chico Fernandez, Tommy Lasorda, and Joe Black.
In 1955, Roberto Clemente was recruited by the Pittsburgh Pirates, for whom he was a regular member during 18 seasons, from 1955 to 1972. During his time with the Pirates, Clemente:
- Played 2,433 games
- Had 9,454 at-bats
- Scored 1,416 runs
- Made 3,000 hits
Roberto participated in two World Series. He was batting champion four times, the MVP (Most Valuable Player) in 1966, and 12-time Golden Glove winner. In 1971, he was named the MVP of the World Series.
In his career, Clemente had a batting average of 0.317; 1,305 runs batted in; and 240 home runs. His last game was the fifth and final game of the National League Championship Series on October 11, 1972.
In 1958, Clemente joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve, where he served six months of active duty during the off-season every year until 1964. In 2003, he was inducted into the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame. Fifteen years later, in 2018, he was inducted into the Puerto Rican Veterans Hall of fame.
In 1964, he married Vera Cristina Zabala and they had three children together: Roberto Jr., Luis Roberto, and Roberto Enrique.
Roberto Clemente was a devoted Catholic and that devotion drove him to help in humanitarian causes, to which he spent most of his time during his off-seasons. He was known for his charisma and his genuine interest in those less fortunate.
On December 23, 1972, a major earthquake hit Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, a place Clemente had visited just three weeks prior. Moved by the needs of the people, he sent help, but that help was redirected for the use of corrupt government officials.
Roberto Clemente rented a plane to be sure the aid packages were distributed to those in need.
Sadly, the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico after the take-off on December 31, 1972. Roberto Clemente died in the crash.
His fans across Puerto Rico, Latin America, and the world were shaken by Clemente’s death. Clemente’s family, friends, sports community, and fans were grieving.
Puerto Rican governor Luis Ferré issued a three-day mourning period on January 1. Some of Clemente’s friends and teammates visited his widow and kids. Puerto Rican radio stations canceled their regular programs to play somber music.
Roberto Clemente was a beloved Puerto Rican. He was a superhero for those kids who, like him, dreamed of a better future and a career in sports. He made his people proud with his service to the nation and to his neighbors.
Check this New York Times article on Clemente’s impact. This Spanish article shares how Puerto Ricans still honor Clemente on the date of his death.
To this day, Roberto Clemente is considered one of the greatest Latin American athletes. He was known for his ethnic pride, for being a Latino American player and a Puerto Rican representative. He embraced that responsibility with dignity and grace in his actions and attitude.
Clemente saw his career as a way to help Latin America and its inhabitants make their lives better. He wanted to be an inspiring figure (like Babe Ruth) for Hispanic people.
Roberto Clemente was a philanthropist. He was known for giving financial aid to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and other Latin American countries.
He also promoted accessibility and equality for Latin Americans. He hosted baseball clinics for disadvantaged youth and gave free baseball lessons for children in Puerto Rico.
He was a hero for his people, but he never forgot his roots. And thanks to that he is still remembered and honored in Puerto Rico and Latin America as one of the best athletes in history.
Roberto Clemente has also received several posthumous honors and recognitions. September 9 is Roberto Clemente Day, a day to celebrate his legacy and remember his baseball career.
In April 1973, the Pittsburgh Pirates retired Clemente’s jersey number 21 from their rosters. In August of the same year, he became part of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
In Puerto Rico, in 1973, authorities dedicated the first stadium in San Juan to Clemente. It’s one of the largest indoor event facilities on the island.
In 2000, his hometown of Carolina, Puerto Rico opened the Roberto Clemente Stadium. The stadium seats 12,500 people and hosts baseball and soccer games.
Learn the Language of Roberto Clemente
If you’re a baseball fan, you have to visit Roberto Clemente Stadium and Colosseum at least once in your life. And taking a trip to Puerto Rico is a great motivation to practice your Spanish!
According to CNN, 41 million native Spanish speakers in the United States speak Spanish in their homes. Many are Puerto Ricans who are passionate about their heritage and their hobbies, including baseball.
Take the opportunity to learn what Puerto Ricans think and feel about Roberto Clemente on your next visit. Learn and practice your Spanish to be able to hold meaningful conversations in the native language of Puerto Rico. Sign up for a free 1-to-1 class at Homeschool Spanish Academy to prepare for your trip!
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