The first baseball player from Latin America to collect 3,000 hits, Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente won four batting crowns, 12 Gold Glove Awards and the 1966 National League Most Valuable Player Award during his iconic career. A 15-time All-Star, the Puerto Rico native led the Pittsburgh Pirates to two championships and was named Most Valuable Player of the 1971 World Series at the age of 37.
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The superstar outfielder dazzled fans with his powerful bat, fleet feet and rocket arm, but Clemente gained just as much acclaim off the diamond for his generous heart, charitable contributions and spirited fight for social and economic justice.
“Clemente had a deep sense of empathy for other people, and this was particularly true in terms of class and socioeconomics,” says University of Pittsburgh history professor Rob Ruck, author of Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game. “He always identified with people at the bottom, the underdogs.”
Clemente saw baseball as a means for bettering the lives of Puerto Rico’s children—just as the sport had done for him. He took baseballs and gloves to sick fans and staged baseball clinics across the island that instructed thousands of children, particularly those from poorer households, in more than just baseball. “I get kids together and talk about the importance of sports, the importance of being a good citizen, the importance of respecting their mother and father,” Clemente said. “Then we go to the ballfield and I show them some techniques of playing baseball.”
Throughout his baseball career, Clemente sought land and investors for what he called “the biggest ambition in my life”—a “sports city” where Puerto Rican children of all classes could live for short periods of time and learn various sports.
Roberto Clemente Confronts Jim Crow
After signing a big-league contract as a teenager, Clemente came to the United States and first encountered Jim Crow segregation during spring training in Florida. Forced to stay in a rooming house instead of Pittsburgh’s team hotel because of the color of his skin, the Pirates’ outfielder couldn’t eat at the same restaurants or go to the same movie theaters as his white teammates. He was prohibited from playing in the team golf tournament, attending a welcome luncheon hosted by a local boosters club and even playing in an exhibition game in Birmingham, Alabama.
As one of the few Latino ballplayers in the majors in the 1950s, Clemente also endured slights to his Puerto Rican heritage. He chafed as the media Anglicized his first name as “Bob” and “Bobby” and called out his broken English by printing his quotes phonetically.
“He was deeply offended by the racism he encountered in the United States in a way he had never encountered in Puerto Rico where there isn’t that binary of race,” Ruck says. “He’s wasn’t just going to accept it.”
After being forced to remain on the Pirates’ team bus when it pulled into restaurants during spring training road trips, Clemente warned his Black teammates that he would fight them if they ate any food that their white teammates brought back to the bus. Ignoring pleas from fellow Latino players to stay quiet, Clemente confronted Pittsburgh’s general manager and forced him to buy station wagons for the non-white players to travel to and from games so they didn’t have to endure the indignity of the bus trips.
Given his activism, Clemente considered Martin Luther King Jr. to be one of his heroes. The pair met several times, and the ballplayer even hosted King at his farm in Puerto Rico. After King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Clemente insisted the Pirates and Houston Astros postpone their season-opening series by two days until after King’s burial.
Clemente’s Death: A Mission of Mercy Ends in Tragedy
Weeks after notching his 3,000th hit in his final at-bat of the 1972 regular season, Clemente traveled with his wife, Vera, to Nicaragua, where he managed a Puerto Rican team in the world amateur baseball championships.
“He and Vera fell in love with Nicaragua, and Nicaragua fell in love with them,” Ruck says. “He and Vera would walk around each morning, and Roberto would just talk to children and ask what they had for breakfast and reach into his pockets to give them money.” Clemente even agreed to pay for a boy he befriended to travel to the United States to receive prosthetic legs.
Weeks after Clemente’s return to Puerto Rico, a 6.5-magnitude earthquake struck the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, on December 23, 1972. It killed thousands and left hundreds of thousands homeless. Even though the disaster happened in a country nearly 1,500 miles away from Puerto Rico, Clemente felt a sense of duty to help his fellow Latinos.
Instead of merely donating money, he tracked reports from the disaster scene on his ham radio and formed a relief committee to aid the quake-stricken country. Clemente used his fame to solicit donations on Puerto Rican television and door-to-door in wealthy neighborhoods. He worked 14-hour days, including Christmas Eve and Christmas, circling the island to stage local relief drives and conduct baseball clinics. Clemente’s committee raised more than $150,000 in donations and collected 26 tons of food, clothes and medicine.
To hasten the delivery of supplies to the disaster zone, Clemente leased two airplanes, including a propeller-driven DC-7 that, unbeknownst to him, had been recently damaged. When he received reports of corrupt Nicaraguan soldiers holding up aid shipments, a disgusted Clemente decided to accompany the relief supplies on a New Year’s Eve flight. As the final hours of 1972 dwindled, Clemente said goodbye to his wife and three sons and boarded the DC-7 laden with boxes. The improperly loaded airplane, over the maximum weight by 4,000 pounds, struggled to lift off from the runway as an engine failed on takeoff. The airplane crashed offshore into the Atlantic Ocean. None of the five people aboard survived. Clemente’s body was never recovered.
Clemente’s Philanthropic Legacy Endures
While baseball lost a star, the world lost a humanitarian. Clemente’s memory, however, has endured. From Puerto Rico to Pittsburgh to Germany, there are schools, bridges, parks and ballfields named in his honor.
Following Clemente’s death, the Puerto Rican government donated 304 acres near the barrio where the baseball star grew up to fulfill his dream of a sports complex. The Roberto Clemente Sports City has served more than one million children, including future major leaguers Bernie Williams, Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez and Benito Santiago.
As part of National Hispanic Heritage Month, Major League Baseball celebrates Roberto Clemente Day every September 15 , and each year it hands out the Roberto Clemente Award to a player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.”
Clemente’s sons have continued their father’s charitable work through the Roberto Clemente Foundation, which provides disaster relief as well as baseball clinics and programs for disadvantaged youth. The foundation’s charitable works keep alive the spirit of one of Clemente’s sayings: “If you have a chance to accomplish something that will make things better for people coming behind you, and you don’t do that, you are wasting your time on this Earth.”