Time to give Roberto Clemente his place with Jackie Robinson

An article in the Lexington Herald-Leader by Ray Buck makes the case for recognition of Roberto Clemente’s role in breaking the race barrier in baseball. Since he was my childhood hero, I am happy to see him valued as a groundbreaking figure. Here is the article.

Roberto Clemente’s body was never recovered, but his legacies as a ballplayer and a humanitarian live on.

I’m not sure which one looms larger, at times.

Baseball’s first Latin American superstar died on a mission of mercy in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico nearly 38 years ago.

He was proud, passionate, outspoken. He refused to ignore inequities and indignities around him, and not just those that pertained to baseball, either.

When relief aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims fell into corrupt hands shortly after a Christmas Day disaster, Clemente boarded a piston-powered aircraft filled with food, water and supplies, and a promise to deliver them personally.

The 38-year-old star rightfielder of the Pittsburgh Pirates kissed his wife, Vera, and three young boys goodbye. It was New Year’s Eve 1972.

The ’72 baseball season had ended happily with Clemente collecting his 3,000th hit to become only the 11th major leaguer and first Latino player to reach the milestone. Now he was aboard a DC-7 loaded down with relief aid, taking off from San Juan International Airport just after 9 p.m., and headed to the capital city of Managua, Nicaragua. The plane climbed, banked once to the left, then went down in choppy waters less than two miles offshore. The wreckage wasn’t found until the next day. The pilot had tried to radio for help . . . but too late.

What isn’t too late is for MLB to do the right thing and retire Clemente’s No. 21. Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 was retired by baseball in 1997.

“Please, let’s not have another 50-year wait to make good on baseball history.”

These two men faced similar struggles against racial prejudice in a sport that was slow to make amends, finally did, and now has what I believe is an obligation to display Nos. 42 and 21 side-by-side at every major league ballpark.

Rangers president Nolan Ryan, in the late ’60s, as a young New York Met, struck out Clemente twice – first looking, then swinging – during a Sept. 14, 1969, game at Forbes Field. “You never could find a comfort level on where to pitch Clemente, so you just tried not to develop a pattern,” said Ryan. “He and Willie Mays were probably the most aggressive hitters I ever pitched to.”

Time to retire No. 21, baseball-wide?

“I never really thought about it,” Ryan said. “But I do think the impact Clemente had on the game, and the way his life ended, it’s an interesting idea.”

Would retiring Clemente’s uniform number diminish Robinson’s iconic status in baseball?

“No, I don’t think so,” Ryan replied. “Their contributions were different.”

Different . . . yet similar. Both men exhibited a strong social conscious and an impenetrable set of ideals.

Both were human-rights advocates and trailblazers for racial equality. Both endured death threats because of the color of their skin, as did Hank Aaron before breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974.

Clemente was supposed to die on Sept. 29, 1972 – one day before he collected hit No. 3,000. A letter sent anonymously to the Pirates, care of Clemente, read: “On September 29th, Friday at Three Rivers Stadium in the top of the second inning you will be shot while playing right field. P.S. Did you ever get shot with a shotgun before”

Clemente didn’t flinch. P.S. Clemente never flinched.

He was a .317 career hitter. Chiseled body. Regal mannerisms. A gazelle in right field. A cannon for an arm. All the cliches fit.

Running the bases, he had a distinct hop that quickly turned into a gallop. Late Hall of Famer Robin Roberts called it an “odd” look until you realized everyone should be running that way.

“If you have a chance to accomplish something that will make things better for people coming behind you,” Clemente once said, “and you do don’t do that, you are wasting your time on Earth.”

He lived by those words.

Just as Jackie Robinson was the right man to break baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Clemente was a pioneer for proud Latinos a decade later. Today, MLB rosters are roughly 28 percent Hispanic players, with a heavy Dominican Republic dominance. Clemente opened doors for Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Venezuelans, Mexicans and Dominicans alike. Latin American players of the ’50s and ’60s were frequently mocked for how they spoke English, criticized for their frequent flamboyance on the field, even accused of taking someone else’s job by playing on the cheap. Oh, wait, that was in March.

Clemente was the first Latin American player to (1) win a Most Valuable Player award, (2) crack the 3,000-hit barrier and (3) be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Only he and Lou Gehrig were exempted from Cooperstown’s five-year wait rule.

Clemente won four batting titles, 12 Gold Gloves, two World Series rings, and always looked as if he slept on a bad pillow when he stepped to the plate or took his position in right field.

MLB annually recognizes one player for his off-field contributions with what was renamed the Roberto Clemente Award in 1973.

Now it’s time to take the next step. Baseball isn’t lily white today because of major breakthroughs by Nos. 42 and 21, each in his own unyielding way.

For the original story go to http://www.kentucky.com/2010/07/20/1356849/time-to-give-roberto-clemente.html#ixzz0uGZIKQc4

3 thoughts on “Time to give Roberto Clemente his place with Jackie Robinson

  1. Thanks for writing this.

    Clemente does deserve a special place along side Jackie for all the reasons you stated and more.

    Although Clemente was not the first Latin to break into the pro’s successfully, he was indeed the first Latin players to speak up about the injustices against latinos and blacks. It’s ironic that Clemente had the reputation early in his career for being moody and aloof. It’s sad because when you think of how poorly he was treated by the writers who moronically made fun of Clemente’s english, painting him as an idiot. Clemente was an American, who served in the National Guard, but they treated him lke a foreigner. The Pirate fans were the first to warm up to him and may have mad life tolerable for Roberto who was not only isolated and ill-treated by the press, and Jim Crow which even existed in a northern city like Pittsburgh, but he was also ignored and ill-treated by his teammates in the early years. They called him moody, but they never reached out to him. When Elly Howard was the first black player to join the Yanks, he was embraced by the stars of the team. Not so for Roberto, who experienced racial and cultural swipes from all sides including when he played. It is a testament to his character and ability that he did as well as he did.

    Clemente not only paved the way for later generations of Latin stars, he helped his peers who shortly followed him like Cepeda, Pagan, the Alou brothers and Tony Oliva to name a few. He took all the abuse first then learned the hard way what to do and then actively helped these men and others.

    Clemente’s life was about giving and without the wanting of recognition. He went to visit countless children who were ill, with no press ever at hand.

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