On Tuesday, Major League Baseball announced the winner of the Roberto Clemente Award, given annually to a player who best exemplifies Clemente’s dedication to humanitarian work.
For those of you who don’t know about Clemente, he was one of the greatest baseball players (and arguably the greatest rightfielder) of all time. Famous baseball broadcaster Vin Scully had one of the most famous descriptions of the Pittsburgh Pirate: “Clemente could field the ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania.”
According to the book “Clemente” by David Maraniss, pro scout Al Campanis had this to say about the 18-year-old high schooler:
“Arm: A+ (Good Carry) Accuracy: A
Fielding: A (Good at his age)
Hitting: A (Turns head but improving)
Running speed: +
Base running: A
Definite prospect?: Yes
Physical condition: Well built, fair size, good agility
Remarks: Will mature into big man. Attending high school, but plays with Santurce. Has all the tools and likes to play. A real good looking prospect.”
It was clear Clemente was destined for greatness. And he went on to prove Campanis right. During his first World Series in 1961 Clemente batted .310 and hit safely in each game.
Solid numbers for someone playing in his first World Series.
And although he didn’t return to the Fall Classic until 1971, he made the most of his second opportunity, hitting .414 and knocking a solo home run that provided the winning margin in Pittsburgh’s 2-1 Game 7 win. He also became the first Latino ballplayer to earn a World Series Most Valuable Player award (five have won the award since).
Over his 18-year career, Clemente amassed 12 straight gold gloves (1961-1972), four National League batting titles, 12 All-Star selections, a career .317 batting average and collected exactly 3,000 career hits, all while playing during a time in America’s history when racism was prevalent.
But what set Clemente apart from most ballplayers wasn’t his gaudy batting numbers or smooth fielding. Clemente is most remembered for being a humanitarian.
He loved to give back to the community, especially those in his native Puerto Rico.
When my father (who was born and raised in Puerto Rico) was 11, he attended a skills clinic held by Clemente. Clad in his Pittsburgh Pirates uniform, Clemente used the clinic to instill the proper baseball techniques in young children. What stood out the most to my father was that Clemente didn’t just stand up in front of the children and talk down to them. He stood amongst them, right in the middle.
Just Clemente and the kids.
One of the greatest players of all time, chatting it up with a collection of Little Leaguers.
Unfortunately, Clemente couldn’t continue his humanitarian efforts beyond his playing career. On Dec. 31, 1972, while flying relief supplies from Puerto Rico to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua, Clemente’s plane crashed just off the Puerto Rico’s coast.
Clemente’s contribution to baseball can be seen today. The Detroit Tigers alone have 10 Latino players on their active playoff roster. It’s not because he was the first Latino Major Leaguer. It’s because he was the first Latino superstar. His accomplishments provided thousands of young Latino ballplayers a hero to look up to.
Stars like Albert Pujols, Pedro Martinez and Detroit’s own Ivan Rodriguez may not have become the superstars they are today without Clemente’s success. And not only did he inspire many MLB stars, but he was my hero as I played baseball through my senior year of high school.
Now that I’ve traded in a bat and ball for a pen and notepad, Clemente’s legacy no longer pushes me to become the next Pudge. (I came to grips with that reality a while ago). But his legacy as a humanitarian has and will always inspire me to be a better person.
So as I celebrate my Tigers’ appearance in the World Series, I want to step aside and congratulate this year’s recipient of the Roberto Clemente Award, New York Met Carlos Delgado (himself a Puerto Rican).
Delgado fills the shoes of a great man with his foundation, Extra Bases, which is “a non-profit Puerto Rico-based charity that assist under priviledged and deserving children,” according to MLB’s website.
While I may never have the means to start my own charity, I hope to do Roberto Clemente’s memory justice. And maybe one day, just like my hero, I can be a positive influence for a budding Latino journalist.
– Bosch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.