Major League Baseball honored Roberto Clemente on Thursday night, paying tribute to a player who arguably did more to expand access to the sport for people of color than anyone but Jackie Robinson.
Both players faced discrimination — Robinson, after he broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, and Clemente, as a Black Latino who made his major league debut in 1955 and often spoke out against Jim Crow segregation.
Clemente, a Pittsburgh Pirates star outfielder, died in a plane crash at the age of 38 on New Year’s Eve 1972, when the cargo plane he had chartered to take relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua crashed in the Atlantic Ocean shortly after taking off from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
His death came just two months after Robinson’s on Oct. 24, 1972, at the age of 53.
In 1973, Clemente, who was born and grew up in Puerto Rico, became the first Latino player inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame, 11 years after Robinson became the first African American inducted. The Hall of Fame waived the normal five-year wait for Clemente; the only other player it did that for was Lou Gehrig. At the induction ceremony that summer, Clemente’s widow, Vera Clemente said, “This is Roberto’s last triumph.”
“As the patron saint of Latino baseball,” wrote Clemente biographer David Maraniss, “the first to reach the Hall of Fame, he ranks only behind Jackie Robinson among players whose sociological significance transcended the sport itself.”
Baseball retired Robinson’s number, 42, in 1997, on the 50th anniversary of his debut, but has resisted calls to do the same for Clemente. Commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN a few years ago that the sport honored Clemente through its Roberto Clemente Award, presented to the player who best represents baseball “through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.”
“We thought it was the most appropriate way to honor him,” Manfred said. “We do not think that we should have a one-size-fits-all approach to honoring our stars.”
On Thursday, the start of National Hispanic American Heritage Month, MLB celebrated its 21st annual Roberto Clemente Day, featuring retired players who had won the Clemente Award at Citi Field in New York, along with members of the Clemente family.
Roberto Clemente’s humanitarian streak has been well documented. He led Puerto Rican efforts to aid the Nicaraguan earthquake victims, and decided to travel there himself because he suspected profiteers were getting the supplies, the New York Times reported at the time. After the crash, Puerto Rico’s governor proclaimed three days of mourning for Clemente, who was beloved on the island.
He had capped a brilliant career just three months earlier with his 3,000th hit on Sept. 30 — a double into the left-center-field gap at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh against the New York Mets — becoming just the 11th player to achieve the feat. Mets star Willie Mays came over to the Pirates dugout to offer congratulations when Clemente came out of the game.
Clemente decided to rest the final three games of that season to prepare for the playoffs (although he did appear as a defensive replacement in one of those games), freezing his career total at 3,000. His career batting average of .317 was the highest among active players at the time. The Pirates lost the National League Championship Series to the Cincinnati Reds.
He had made his debut two decades earlier as a 20-year-old in 1955, and had some decent but not spectacular seasons early on. Clemente began his peak years in 1960, when he hit .314 with 16 home runs and led the Pirates to a World Series title over the Yankees, batting .310 in the Fall Classic.
The following year, he won the batting crown with a .351 average — the first of four batting titles in a seven-year span — hit 23 home runs, and claimed the first of a dozen straight Gold Glove awards. He was one the best defensive right fielders of all time, with a howitzer for an arm.
“He played a kind of baseball that none of us had ever seen before. … As if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field,” wrote Roger Angell.
Clemente’s performance didn’t decline with age. In 1971, when he turned 37, he hit .341, then won the World Series MVP by hitting .414 in the Pirates’ seven-game win over the Baltimore Orioles. The next year, his final season, he hit .312.
He achieved these feats while adjusting to a society that wasn’t always welcoming.
In a 2015 story on Clemente, presidential historian Michael Beschloss wrote: “Clemente was not only Latino but also black. Encountering mainland American culture after what he considered to be the more racially harmonious Puerto Rico, he later said he felt like a double outsider.”