In Spanish, Clemente means merciful. Roberto Clemente lived up to his name.
In the same way that Americans of a certain age will say to each other, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” Baseball fans will ask one another, “Where were you when you heard that Roberto Clemente died?”
Roberto Clemente was that important--to Pittsburgh and to baseball, and to the world of sports and beyond.
As we end this year, one that has seen money and drugs foul the world of baseball, we can remember a ball player who allowed us to see athletes as honorable. The word “hero” is often misused—especially in sports--but the true meaning is “one who gives his life to help others”, and that is what Clemente did on December 31, 1972, thirty-five years ago tonight.
Clemente is remembered as one of the best arms in baseball. Many believe he was the greatest right-fielder ever, shining in the outfield, tracking down every ball in range often making spectacular leaping and diving catches. And then there was that throw—all the catcher had to do was stand there.
Known as “The Great One”, Clemente’s lifetime batting average was .317. He earned four National League batting championships, twelve Gold Glove awards, and was National League MVP in 1966 and World Series MVP in 1971. He was the first Latin American player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. In addition to his hard work on the field Clemente worked between games and in the off season helping the poor and visiting sick children in every major league city. He did none of it for media attention.
Bob Prince, colorful announcer for the Pittsburgh Pirates, used to sing out, “Arriba!” when Clemente came up to bat. In Spanish arriba means “get going” or “get there” and Clemente could get there. December 31, 1972 he was going to Nicaragua to ensure that the relief supplies he gathered would reach the starving victims.
The qualities mentioned by those who played with Clemente or who saw him play are: Pride, fury, grace and always dignity. The poet, Enrique Zorilla, wrote: “What burned in the cheeks of Roberto Clemente was the fire of dignity”.
On September 30, 1972 Clemente drove a double off Met pitcher Jon Matlack for his 3,000 career hit. Three months later, on New Year’s Eve, his life ended when the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. There were no survivors.
Even if you care nothing for baseball, or even if you are a Yankee fan who still cringes at the mention of 1960, you can borrow from Clemente’s legacy as you consider your New Year’s resolutions. Roberto Clemente often said, “Any time you have the opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t do it, you are wasting your time on this earth.”
Roberto Clemente died that night in a plane crash en route to Nicaragua bringing relief supplies to victims of an earthquake. He was 38 years old. No time wasted.