When Puerto Ricans sing the name of Roberto Clemente in song, they want the world to understand their pride, unity, and culture.
Clemente, to them, is the pinnacle of what it means to be a true Puerto Rican. His name is in his songs and the children read about his story at school. His photo hangs in the homes of many Latino ballplayers.
“When they challenge us and try to find out who we are, the answer is that we all wear the number 21,” said Luis Clemente, Roberto’s middle son. “We are Roberto Clemente, so you know who we are. This is the face of what makes a Puerto Rican.”
Fifty years after his death, Roberto Clemente, the skilled outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, remains one of the most revered figures in Puerto Rico and Latin America. His graceful flash and powerful arm were unrivaled in his day, but his humanitarian efforts are perhaps his greatest legacy. Half a century after he played, many of today’s Latino ballplayers credit him for paving the way.
“The name of Roberto Clemente is something that fills us with passion and admiration,” said Miami Marlins pitcher Sandy Alcantara, who was born in the Dominican Republic. “As he was one of the Latino players who did so much for us here in America, not just here but throughout Latin America, I think he is a living legend.”
Clemente died at age 38 on December 31, 1972, when his plane crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico while he was delivering relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
He died a future member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, with exactly 3,000 hits, four National League batting titles, 12 Gold Gloves, one MVP award, two World Series championships, and 15 All-Star Game appearances.
He was passionate about his Puerto Rican roots and spoke out loud about the racism he experienced as a black Latino during a career parallel to the civil rights movement.
“That was an expression of Clemente’s anguish over the number of people who saw it,” said baseball historian Adrián Burgos Jr., who focuses on the Latino experience in baseball. “Outside of that superstar baseball player, they saw a black man, a black Latino, when he started talking.”
Clemente entered the majors after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the sport, and he was not prepared for what he faced when he left Puerto Rico.
According to demographic data compiled by the Society for American Baseball Research, white players made up 90.7% of MLB players when Pittsburgh selected Clemente from the then-Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1954 Rule 5 draft. African-American players made up 5 .6%, while Latino players made up 3.7%.
When Clemente reported to the Pirates’ spring training in Florida, black players were not allowed to eat at the same restaurants as their white teammates after games and often had to wait for food to be delivered. on the bus.
Clemente refused to be treated like a second-class citizen and demanded the same mentality from his fellow blacks.
“He even told the rest of his classmates: ‘Those who eat food from this place, let’s go for it,’” said Luis Clemente. “And they said, ‘Roberto, we are starving. We have to eat something. He would say, ‘I don’t care. … If I’m not good enough to be served food in that restaurant, then that food is not good enough to feed ourselves.’”
Clemente understood the impact of her voice, which she used to denounce racism, often in her mother tongue, Spanish. His statements were translated into broken English. His pride and demeanor were often misunderstood.
“There’s all kinds of cultural dissonance in terms of who he is and the more traditional version of baseball players for these taciturn, tobacco-spitting whites,” said Rob Ruck, author of “Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Game.” Latin”.
Clemente discussed political and social issues with Martin Luther King Jr. He was passionate about creating equal access for Latinos and often returned to Puerto Rico to host free baseball clinics for underprivileged children.
The Roberto Clemente Award is given each year to a player for their charitable work in the community. Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner was this year’s winner.
Clemente’s dedication to humanitarianism lives on today through his family and the Roberto Clemente Foundation, which provided food and aid to families in Puerto Rico. when hurricane fiona ripped through the island at the beginning of this year.
“That is Clemente’s true legacy,” Luis Clemente said, “it is how you help others and how you make them understand how important they are in society.”
The same can be said for today’s Latino players, he added, as he feels his dedication to their home countries began, in part, with his father.
“Dad set the example of being grateful for what God provides,” Luis Clemente said, “for the opportunity to become a Major League Baseball player. … These players, for the most part, have had a rough time. They understand what it is to live in need and they know how to share their blessing.”
Today’s MLB and cultural landscape looks quite different from when Clemente was playing, but diversity issues still exist.
On Opening Day 2022, 38% of players on active 30-man rosters were people of color, by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. The percentage of African American players (7.2%) is the lowest in over 30 years, while the number of Hispanic and Latino players (28.5%) continues to rise.
On September 15, when the league celebrated its annual Roberto Clemente Day, the Tampa Bay Rays made MLB history by starting nine Latin American players against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Latino stars like Ronald Acuña Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. have helped usher in a livelier era for MLB, one in which boisterous Latino players are more comfortable than ever displaying the energy and style more typical in their home countries than in the US.
However, Latino players still face longstanding criticism that any eccentricity they bring is too much.
“The ongoing tension that Latino players face is this notion that it’s rooted in an imaginary past,” Burgos said, “and that’s ‘Play the game the right way.’ Much of that stems from the culture of Major League Baseball during its segregated era, where only white American players were in the league.”
Because of his impact, many people believe that Clemente’s No. 21 should be retired league-wide. Only Robinson’s No. 42 is retired across all MLB teams.
“For me, Clemente was a figure of political resistance,” Ruck said. “He was also a figure for me who captured what sport can be at its best, which is a democratic arena accessible to all.”