Roberto Clemente Biography

Roberto Clemente was born August 18, 1934, in San Anton, Carolina, Puerto Rico to foreman Don Melchor Clemente and Luisa Walker, and began playing baseball at a young age. He often played against neighbors growing up.

Clemente’s first year of high school, he was recruited by Roberto Marin to play for the Sello Rojo Rice Softball Team – he stayed with them for two years as a shortstop. At 16, Clemente joined Puerto Rico’s amateur league, joining the Ferdinand Juncos team.

Roberto Clemente Baseball Career

Clemente’s professional career began at age 17 when he was signed to the Cangrejeros de Santurce. He was benched his first season but promoted to starting lineup his second. He played in the league from 1952-1954. In early 1954, he moved to Montreal to play with the Montreal Royals after signing with the Dodgers. He had difficulty with the climate and language change, but teammate Joe Black helped him. In November 1954, Clemente was recruited to the Pittsburgh Pirates as their first selection in the rookie draft.

Clemente debuted with the Pirates in April 1955. He faced racial prejudice – the Pirates were only the fifth team in the National League and ninth in the majors to break the race barrier — but battled on, saying he was taught not to discriminate based on skin color. He was often referred to as “Bob Clemente,” likely because “Roberto” was too exotic at the time, which Clemente was not fond of.

Clemente was involved in a drunk driving accident in the middle of the season which caused him to miss several games.

During the off-season, Clemente played in the Puerto Rican baseball winter league with the Santurce Crabbers. He was traded to the Caribbean team, Criollos de Caguas, and stayed with them through the 1957-1958 season. 1958 was their first winning season in 10 years. The next winter season, however, he joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve. He spent his six months at Parris Island, South Carolina, Camp Le Jeune in North Carolina, and Washington DC. The training he received helped him gain ten pounds and get rid of his back troubles.

In 1961 Clemente was selected as the National League right fielder in the season’s All-Star game. He scored a triple at his first-at-bat, and also scored the team’s first run of the game. The American League had a 4-3 lead in the tenth inning, but Clemente hit a double at his next-at-bat, giving the National League a 5-4 win.

Clemente hit his 3,000th hit – a double – in September 1972 off John Matlack of the New York Mets.

Roberto Clemente Activism

Clemente did experience bigotry at hotels and restaurants during the time he played. So his teammates decided that they didn’t want to go places where Clemente would not be allowed with them. Clemente became an activist for equality. “He would not take things very easily when it came to discrimination,” his son Luis told Uinterview exclusively. “He spoke his mind, he truly let people know how he felt. He said he was not asking to be treated better, he was asking to be treated equally.”

Roberto Clemente Family Life

Not much is known about Clemente’s personal life, other than that he married Vera Zabala in 1964 in Carolina, Puerto Rico. His wedding was attended by thousands of fans. The two had three children together – Roberto Jr., Luis Roberto, and Enrique Roberto.

In 1973, Clemente was the first Latino accepted into the Baseball Hall Of Fame, which honors exceptional baseball players. “He made it look easy, but he worked at it a lot,” Roberto Jr. told Uinterview exclusively. “He was a perfectionist.” His plaque originally read “Roberto Walker Clemente,” but in 2000 it was switched to the correct Hispanic format – “Roberto Clemente Walker.”

Roberto Clemente Awards

Clemente has earned numerous awards and honors over the years, including – induction into the United States Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame, and the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum Hall of Fame, and was named a member of Major League Baseball’s Latino Legends Team. He has also won the National League MVP Award, World Series MVP Award, and the National League Golden Glove Award, and was named the National League All-Star several times. Post-mortem, he owns the 2006 Commissioners Historic Achievement Award. In terms of non-baseball-related awards, Clemente also, post-humously, won the Roberto Walker Clemente Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Citizens Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 1973, the San Juan, Puerto Rico coliseum was named the Roberto Clemente Coliseum, and many schools in the U.S. were named and opened in his honor. That same year, the MLB began presenting the Roberto Clemente Award —previously the Commissioner’s Award in 1971 and 1972 — to players with outstanding basic skills who are also personally involved in community service.

Roberto Clemente Charities

In addition to playing baseball, Clemente was very active in several charities. “He devoted a lot of time to visiting hospitals,” Luis told Uinterview. “I have a favorite picture which is – there’s some fan mail, you see a box and you see some letters underneath his leg. That meant those letters were the patients that he was going to be traveling the cities to play next, and he would go visit all these places without cameras, without the press – he did it because he truly felt the passion to be and help others, and that distinguished him from the rest of the players.”

Clemente died December 31, 1972, in a plane crash. After the city of Managua, Nicaragua was devastated by a massive earthquake, Clemente started arranging emergency relief flights. However, he soon found out that corrupt officials of the Somoza government were diverting the flights. He accompanied the fourth flight, in hopes that his presence would ensure that aid would be sent to those affected. Taking a plane overloaded by more than 4,000 pounds, and with a history of mechanical problems and sub-par personnel, the flight crashed into the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico, soon after takeoff. Teammate Manny Sanguillén was the only member of the Pirates not to attend Clemente’s funeral – he instead dove into the waters where Clemente’s plane had crashed in hopes of finding his teammate’s body — Clemente’s body was never recovered.

Roberto Clemente Personality

Clemente was a force off the field as well. “Dad was a very, very charming guy. He liked to crack a lot of jokes, and around the people in his family he was also aware of what he represented and the way he handled himself,” Luis said. “Even going to the ballpark back then he would wear suits while the rest of the players were wearing shorts, or jeans and flip-flops. He was always well-dressed and he would open the door for others, the female players coming behind him. As a father, as a man, a friend, he was very well-loved by everyone and he shared that and gave a lot of love as well.”

His family created the Roberto Clemente Foundation to continue his legacy. “We want to be able to create a Clemente network where all of these organizations [associated with the Roberto Clemente Foundation], and we help whenever there’s a natural disaster,” Luis said. “We will have students from all the different schools help us in collecting aid and sending it to where it’s needed. That’s what we’re currently working on. “

In 2013 Clemente’s family wrote a book, Clemente: The True Story Of An Undying Hero. It documents his life through photos, stories, and quotes from those who knew him.

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