When Puerto Ricans pronounce the name Roberto Clemente, they want the whole world to know their pride, unity, and culture.
To him, Clemente represents the pinnacle of what it means to be a true boricua. His name is in his songs. The children read the story at school. His image is displayed in the homes of many Latin American baseball players.
“If someone challenges us to find out who we are, the answer is that we are all number 21,” said Luis Clemente, one of Roberto’s sons. “We are Roberto Clemente. You know who we are. It’s the face that makes you Puerto Rican.
Fifty years after his death, Roberto Clemente, the talented outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, remains one of the most respected figures in Puerto Rico and Latin America.
His graceful style and his arm power were unmatched in his time. But his humanitarian efforts are perhaps his greatest legacy.
Half a century after he played, many Latin American baseball players today thank him for paving the way for them.
“Roberto Clemente’s name is something that fills us with passion and admiration,” said Dominican Sandy Alcantara, pitcher for the Miami Marlins. “Since he was one of the Latin Americans who did so much for us here in the United States, I think he is a living legend not only here but throughout Latin America.”
Clemente died on December 31, 1972, at the age of 38, when the plane he was traveling in crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico. The star sought to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
When he passed away, he already had numbers worthy of a future Hall of Famer, with exactly 3,000 hits, four National League batting titles, 12 Gold Gloves, a Most Valuable Player Award, two World Series championships, and 15 -Star game appearance.
He passionately defended his Puerto Rican roots and spoke out vehemently against racism as a black Latin American during a career that spanned the civil rights movement.
Baseball historian Adrian Burgos Jr. said, “It was an expression of Clemente’s concern about the way many people viewed him.” “Beyond that superstar ballplayer, when he started talking he was looking at a black and Latino guy.”
Clemente came to the big leagues after Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier, and he was unprepared for what he encountered when he left Puerto Rico.
According to demographic data compiled by the Society for American Baseball Research, white players represented 90.7% of the total in Major League Baseball when Pittsburgh selected Clemente from the Brooklyn Dodgers in the so-called Rule 5 draft in 1954.
African Americans represented 5.6% while Latinos were 3.7%.
When Clemente joined the Pirates for spring training in Florida, black players could not eat in the same restaurants as white players after games. They often had to wait for food to be brought to them on the bus.
Clemente refused to be treated as a second class citizen. He demanded the same mindset from his fellow blacks.
Luis Clemente confirmed, “He also said to the rest of the comrades: ‘Those of you who eat from this place will see it with us’.” “They told him: ‘Roberto, we are starving, we have to eat.’ And he would reply: ‘I don’t care… If I am not fit to serve food in that restaurant, then the food is not good enough for us to eat.’
Clemente understood the impact of her voice, and used it to denounce racism, several times in Spanish. His statements were translated into English, sometimes with some inaccuracies. His arrogance and demeanor on many occasions were not understood properly.
“There’s all kinds of cultural dissonance in terms of perception between who he is and the image of these cool, white, tobacco-chewing, spitting ballplayers,” said Rob Ruck, author of “Raceball: How to Measure.” Leagues colonized the Black and Latin game.
Clemente discussed political and social issues with Martin Luther King Jr. He was passionate about creating equal opportunities for Latinos and often returned to Puerto Rico to conduct free baseball clinics for underprivileged children.
The Roberto Clemente Award is given each year to a baseball player for his charitable work in the community. Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner won the award this year.
Clemente’s dedication to humanitarian work carried over to his family and the Roberto Clemente Foundation, which distributed food and other aid to families in Puerto Rico this year when Hurricane Fiona devastated the island.
“This is Clemente’s true legacy,” his son insisted. “It is the way in which you help others and in which you make them understand their importance in the society”
He believed the same could be said of today’s Latino players. He believes that his devotion to his home nation partly began with his father’s influence.
Luis Clemente said, “Dad exemplifies being grateful for what God has given us and the opportunity to be a major league player.” “These players, for the most part, have gone through hardships. They understand what it means to be in need and they know how to share their blessings.”
Major League Baseball and the cultural landscape today look different than when Clemente was playing. But diversity issues remain.
On the opening day of the 2022 season, 38% of the players on the 30-member active roster were people of color, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
The proportion of African-American players (7.2%) is the lowest in 30 years, while the number of Hispanic and Latino players (28.5%) continues to rise
On September 15, as the majors celebrated Roberto Clemente Day, the Tampa Bay Rays made history by starting nine Latin American players against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Latino stars, such as Venezuelan Ronald Acuna Jr. or Dominican Fernando Tatis Jr., have given dynamism in the majors to the current era. Now, the typically more outgoing Latin American ballplayers seem more comfortable displaying the energy than they often display back home.
But he has to face criticism for certain behaviors which are considered eccentricities.
Burgos said, “The tension that Latinos have is rooted in this belief in an imaginary past.” “It tells you to ‘play it the right way’. And a lot of that comes from the culture of Major League Baseball during a segregated era where there were only white players.”
Due to its impact, many believe that Clemente’s number 21 should be retired by all major league teams. So far, that honor has only been awarded to Robinson.
“For me, Clemente was a figure of political resistance,” Ruck said. “He was also to me a person who captured sport in this desirable landscape, a democratic arena accessible to all.”