Roberto Clemente holding a bat

Learning history—as any student in one of my classes at FRCC has heard countless times—need not be about only powerful politicians or economic theories.

Popular culture, such as sports or music, provides illuminating lenses with which to uncover dramatic details and analyze significant issues from history. 

The story of Roberto Clemente, a devoted human rights activist and superstar outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, demonstrates how African American history can be multi-ethnic and international, as well as tragic… and inspiring. 

On the Field—A Superstar 

A “Five-Tool” Player 

Clemente played for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 until 1972, leading them to two World Series titles. He was a classic example of what is known as a “five tool” player, meaning he: 

  1. Batted for a high average. 
  1. Hit with power. 
  1. Ran the bases well. 
  1. Fielded the ball skillfully. 
  1. Threw with power and accuracy.  

Indeed, his fearsome arm may have been his greatest attribute. Some of his most significant accomplishments on the field were winning the 1966 Most Valuable Player award, earning 12 straight Gold Gloves as best right fielder, topping the National League in batting average four times, and notching his 3,000th hit in 1972.

“He gave the term ‘complete’ a new meaning. He made the word ‘superstar’ seem inadequate. He had about him the touch of royalty. ” 

~Former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn

Unforgettable Performance in the World Series 

The apex achievement by Clemente the ballplayer came in October 1971, when at 37 years of age, he almost single-handedly beat the best pitching staff in baseball in the World Series. The Baltimore Orioles pitchers, headlined by future Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, were among the best mound ensembles in the sport’s long history.  

Undeterred, Clemente lined 12 hits in the seven-game series, including two doubles, a triple, and two home runs. His prodigious blast in the final game led Pittsburgh to a 2-1 triumph and the championship.  

This incredible performance is immortalized in many documentaries, including the 1970s-1990s segment of Baseball by Ken Burns and the PBS American Experience episode Roberto Clemente. This remarkable footage—no matter how many times I watch it while showing students—gives me goose bumps and brings a tear to my eye. 

Off the Field—A Humanitarian 

Yet the actions by Clemente that made him so special as a person, and not only an athlete, were those he undertook off the ballfield. From the early years of his career until the very end he committed an incredible amount of time to helping the needy, especially youngsters.  

A Heart for Kids 

In every city where the Pirates played, Clemente visited sick children in hospitals. He put his heart and soul into training clinics, providing baseball lessons and fun for boys and girls in Pittsburgh, his home island of Puerto Rico, and throughout Latin America. While participating in one such clinic in Nicaragua, he developed a particularly close bond with the youth in that Central American nation.  

Crisis in Nicaragua 

In December 1972, a horrific series of earthquakes devastated Nicaragua. Clemente immediately began raising money, gathering supplies, and organizing shipments.  

“Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on earth.” 

~Roberto Clemente
Newspaper headlines the day after Clemente died

When he heard that the corrupt dictator of Nicaragua was prohibiting the supplies from getting to the people in need, he chartered a plane to fly to Managua and personally deliver supplies to the needy. The aircraft took off from Puerto Rico on December 31, 1972, but never reached Nicaragua. It crashed into the Atlantic instead, and the great Clemente was dead at the age of 38. (insert newspaper photo here) 

Baseball Honors Clemente 

The baseball Hall of Fame waived its traditional requirement that players must wait five years after retirement before being considered for membership, inducting Clemente in a special ceremony in 1973.  

The Commissioner’s Award to honor sportsmanship and community service, established in 1971, was renamed the Roberto Clemente Award in 1973 and is still awarded annually—a fitting tribute to a true humanitarian

Leaving Puerto Rico, Encountering Racism 

Regardless of his legendary exploits in the stadium and heroic efforts in the community, Clemente faced racism and discrimination throughout his career. With dark brown skin, Clemente encountered Jim Crow segregation for the first time when he left his home island of Puerto Rico and flew to Florida for spring training with the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had drafted him.  

Playing for Brooklyn’s top minor league team, the Montreal Royals, in his first professional game on April 1, 1954, in Vero Beach, Clemente led them to victory with three hits and great outfield play. But Florida—and the southeastern USA in general—enforced strict racial segregation in the 1950s. 

Segregation—Strike One 

Clemente never forgot being required to wait on the bus when his team stopped at a restaurant, staying in inferior hotels away from his white teammates, or being described with hurtful stereotypes in the newspapers. He had never seen any racism of this sort in Puerto Rico, which was a part of the United States that some mainland whites considered less developed.  

In terms of race relations, however, the island was way ahead of the mainland. Clemente’s class and grace on the field—along with that of African Americans already in the big leagues such as Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays—would do much to begin challenging the racist thinking prevalent in the US. 

Language Discrimination—Strike Two  

On top of being classified as black—and thus being subjected to segregation—Clemente was a native Spanish speaker who knew little English when he began playing for the major league Pittsburgh Pirates in 1955. Fans and media in blue-collar Pittsburgh did not know what to make of Clemente, and quickly tried to change his name to Bob or Bobby. The proud Clemente insisted on Roberto.  

His relations with the media were strained from the beginning, and it didn’t help that few or none of the journalists spoke Spanish. Players such as Clemente rightly believed that they were starting out with two strikes against them—their skin color and their language.  

This is now referred to as “intersectionality,” in other words being simultaneously part of two or more minority or disadvantaged groups. Intersectionality is an important theme in African American history and telling the story of Clemente is a great way to emphasize it to students today. 

Adjusting to Life on the Mainland 

Additionally, being from Puerto Rico meant life in Pittsburgh would be challenging for Clemente, regardless of his race or ethnicity. As my wife Heather, who is from Zambia, will tell you, it is immediately shocking, and in many ways difficult and frustrating, to move to the USA.  

Being hundreds or thousands of miles away from your extended family and childhood friends, can be downright depressing. Moreover, learning that many people on the American mainland do not put nearly as high a priority on family life is confusing.  

An American Treated as a Foreigner 

Because Puerto Rico had been a US territory since 1898, Clemente was a US citizen from birth. However, he was treated like a foreigner, disparaged for his Spanish language and discriminated against for his skin color. Clemente was from a place that perhaps could teach the rest of the USA a thing or two about equality and respect. 

Cultural Diversity 

Finally, Clemente embodied another important aspect of African American history, which is the fact that Black Americans do not live only on the mainland USA, but rather in a hemispheric diaspora that includes Canada and Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean islands.  

Clemente started to make the public more aware of the cultural diversity among African Americans, providing another warning against generalizing and stereotyping. He was proud of his ethnicity and culture, and came to represent a larger identity—not just for Puerto Ricans but for all Latin Americans. The Pirates’ star was complicated and complex. 

His legacy, however, as a human rights champion shines as clear as crystal. And there have been few, if any, African Americans—or just plain Americans, period—greater than Roberto Clemente. 

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