While Roberto Clemente was an extraordinary baseball player, his passion for helping the underprivileged and marginalized and his love of his family and heritage are why he is so well remembered today.
The first Hispanic superstar in Major League baseball, Clemente died on New Year’s Eve in 1972 on his way to assist victims in earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua. Clemente, 38, a former U.S. Marine Corps reservist, was widely known for his compassion and charitable works. He was transporting supplies when the airplane carrying him and three others crashed into the ocean off his native Puerto Rico.
“My father’s compassion for others was innate. It was who he was as a human being,’’ says Roberto Clemente Jr. “He was empathetic as a child. In the sixth grade, he started a collection to fix a fence at school.”
As a baseball player, the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder was idolized, especially in Puerto Rico, which remained his home with his wife and three sons. His 18-season Hall of Fame career produced dozens of records. He was the first Hispanic player to be awarded the National League MVP (1966) and World Series MVP (1971). Clemente was nicknamed “The Great One.”
“The numbers speak for themselves,’’ says Clemente Jr. “How you impact the team doesn’t always show up in the box score. His influence on Hispanic players extended to reaching out and connecting with those players. He made sure they understood that they had to reach out to younger players coming into the league. He would speak to them about the importance of pulling everyone up. The odds were against them, and he knew that.”
Expanding economic opportunities for minorities and fighting for social justice and against prejudice were major focuses of Clemente’s life. A meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. further inspired him to pursue his humanitarian goals. “Anytime you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth,’’ Clemente said.
Jon Saraceno, courtesy of AARP.org
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