On August 18th, 1934, Melchor Clemente and Luisa Walker gave birth to a baby boy. Little did they know, their son, Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker would become one of the greatest baseball players to play the game. Little did they know that he would also become a symbol of humility and benevolence globally.
Roberto Clemente played baseball during a time when our country was dealing with a racial divide; segregation was prevalent in most of the cities he visited. He had an additional “Strike” against him because of his heavy accent and the language barrier that existed between him and the press. He was often quoted in articles phonetically, to ridicule or humiliate him.
Despite the obstacles he faced, he stepped on the field season after season and performed at the highest level. A perennial All-Star and Gold Glove Award recipient, Clemente was the foundation for the 1960 & 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates World Championships.
As a child growing up in the Bronx, I spent countless hours with the elderly residents who lived in my building. They intrigued me by their first-hand accounts of the events that shaped our world. I learned about the Great Depression and the Holocaust from people that lived through it. Even at a young age, I deeply appreciated collectibles, and I collected as many narratives as I could, knowing that I could one day share these stories.
There was an elderly man who was bound to a wheelchair. His wife would wheel him outside every day around noon during the summer months. He was scrappy and most of my friends kept clear of him, but I knew he had a treasure chest of information. I also knew by his weathered Yankee cap that he was an expert on one of my favorite subjects- Baseball. We would talk for hours about his visits to the Original Yankee Stadium and how he saw Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig play. He described, in great detail, the sound of the bat when Gehrig hit a home run. One summer day he mentioned the physical ability of a young man from Pittsburgh. He talked about the strength of his arm and his ability to put the ball in play all over the field. I knew the player he was describing was special because he used the same emotions when he described Ruth, Gehrig, Mays, and Mantle. His story would end with a mention of exactly 3000 hits and a plane crash. He referred to him only as “Clemente”. That was the only piece of information that I needed to find out more.
I researched “Clemente” at my local library and quickly discovered, like me, he was Puerto Rican. Buried in some obscure passage was mention of his service to the United States as a Marine. Despite the racial divide, he proudly served our country. I learned about his amazing feats of athleticism on the diamond, but what intrigued me was his benevolence off the field. Every book I read, every article I researched, there was some mention of his selflessness and generosity to others-No matter the color of their skin. I learned that he would visit hospitals in most of the cities he played and would distribute money to the less fortunate in his hometown of Puerto Rico during the offseason. His love for humanity made him larger than life, and despite his tragic passing a year before I was born, he inspired me. Most of my friends wanted to play professional sports, I just wanted to help my neighbors and make a small contribution to our world. I was impressed by Roberto Clemente’s accomplishments as a baseball player but I was proud of the mark he left on humanity.
On December 31st, 1972, Roberto Clemente took off in a plane filled with supplies to help aid the victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. A plane he chartered and filled with his own money. He left his family on one of the most significant holidays of the year to help strangers from another country. Minutes after take-off, the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. With that crash, our world lost a special human being.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve made it a point to share Clemente’s story with a younger generation. It’s important to provide some context about his contributions to our world and why so many schools, hospitals, and playgrounds bear his name. He was a minority to the press, a legend to the fans, a hero to the people.
My mother always told me as a child, “Robert, it’s not what you have, but what you leave behind…That’s what matters”. I never really understood that lesson until I learned about Roberto Clemente.