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Roberto Clemente Biography

Chronology, Clemente, Clemente's Personality, Clemente's Legacy, Awards And Accomplishments

1934-1972

American baseball player

Hall of Fame baseball player Roberto Clemente was the first great Hispanic star in major league baseball. Playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he had a lifetime average of .317 and 240 home runs; had four seasons

Roberto Clemente

with 200 or more hits; and won twelve Gold Gloves in eighteen seasons. He also won the National League Most Valuable Player award in 1966. Clemente's stellar performance helped open the door for other Hispanic players to enter the sport.

Clemente was born in 1934 in Carolina, Puerto Rico, the youngest of seven children, six of whom were boys. His father, Melchor, was a foreman of a sugar plantation and worked long hours in the fields, receiving a dollar a day. When Clemente was young, he worked in the same fields, loading and unloading trucks.

Clemente began playing baseball with his friends at an early age, and continued to play through high school, where he starred in baseball and track. He was such a skilled javelin thrower that some thought he might make Puerto Rico's 1952 Olympic team. However, baseball was his favorite sport, and he devoted most of his free time to it. His high school coach, Robert Marin, told a scout for the Santurce professional baseball team to take a look at Clemente. The scout held tryouts for seventy-one players, and sent seventy of them home after watching Clemente. He offered Clemente a $5,000 bonus, a $60-per-month contract, and a baseball glove.

From 1952 to 1955, Clemente played for Santurce. Although Latin players, like African-American players, had been barred from the U.S. major leagues, this barrier was beginning to break down, and Clemente attracted the attention of major league scouts in the U.S. After he batted .356 for Santurce during the 1952-1953 winter season, Brooklyn Dodger scout Al Campanis chose him to attend a baseball clinic. In addition, Clemente was paid a $10,000 bonus.

When Clemente graduated from high school, ten teams, including the Dodgers, wanted to recruit him. Clemente, who had promised Campanis he would go with the Dodgers, was true to his word, despite the fact that the Milwaukee Braves had offered him $30,000. In 1953, at the age of 19, Clemente went to the Dodgers' top minor-league team, the Montreal Royals. He then ran into problems with red tape: baseball regulations stated that if a player received a bonus of more than $4,000, he had to be placed on the major league roster after one season. If he was not, another team could draft him for $4,000.

This caused a problem for the Dodgers, as their major-league roster was too crowded for them to use Clemente so soon. Although they tried to hide Clemente from other teams by using him very little, the Pittsburgh Pirates were not fooled, and drafted him on November 22, 1954.

Clemente made his major league debut on April 17, 1955, playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates. At the time, the Pirates were in last place, but by 1956, with Clemente batting .311, the Pirates moved up to seventh place. This was the first of thirteen seasons in which Clemente would bat at better than .300.

In 1958, Clemente made twenty-two assists, the most among outfielders. In 1960, the Pirates won the World Series.

Clemente's Puerto Rican heritage caused a great deal of commentary, much of it negative, despite his playing ability. Because many Americans were uncomfortable with the "foreignness" of Clemente's name, Roberto, he was introduced as Bob Clemente in games. In the press, writers emphasized his origins and appearance, calling him a "dusky flyer" and a "chocolate-colored islander." In addition, they regularly mocked his imperfect English, reprinting sentences such as "I no run fast cold weather," according to Steve Wulf in Sports Illustrated.

Although he constantly battled this prejudice, Clemente retained an inner sense of his own worth as a player. Wulf noted that in 1955, when a radio interviewer told him that he ran, threw, and hit as well as Willie Mays, Clemente replied, "Nonetheless, I play like Roberto Clemente." He also said, "Pitch me outside. I will hit.400. Pitch me inside, and you will not find the ball."

Racist feelings against Clemente became even more obvious in 1960, when he hit .314 with 16 home runs and 94 RBIs for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Despite this stellar performance, he came in eighth in the voting for Most Valuable Player. The award was given to Clemente's teammate Dick Groat, who hit .325 but only had two home runs and 50 RBIs.

Sportswriter Phil Musick, who spent years covering Clemente's career, was one of those who focused more on racist characterizations of Clemente than on his skills as a player. However, Musick later apologized in his 2001 book, Reflections on Roberto, writing, "There was a racial overtone to much of what was written about Clemente early in his career, and unfortunately it precluded much reporting on his baseball skills and how they were acquired. The author of this work (Musick) bears some of that responsibility."

From 1961 to 1972, Clemente's average season was.331. with seventeen home runs and eighty-one RBIs. Eventually this overwhelming talent became too difficult to ignore, and in 1966 he finally won the Most Valuable Player award.

In 1961, Clemente won the first of four batting titles, batting .351 with 201 hits.

In 1963, Clemente met Vera Zabula in a drugstore; she was 23, and he fell in love at first sight. She told Wulf, "On our first real date, he told me he was going to marry me. On our second date he brought pictures of houses."

Clemente won his second batting title in 1964. On November 14 of that year, he also married Zabula; they would later have three sons, Roberto Jr., Luis Roberto, and Enrique Roberto. He won his third batting title in 1965 with a batting average of .329, and took his final title in 1967 with .357 and twenty-three home runs. In 1969, the Pirates took the Eastern Division title; Clemente had an average of .352.

In 1970 the Pirates lost the National League playoffs to the Cincinnati Reds, but in 1971 they won both the National League title and the World Series. Clemente was named Most Valuable Player of the World Series.

Clemente was injured in 1972, but still batted .312. The Pirates won the division title, but lost to the Reds in the playoffs.

Clemente's last hit, his 3,000th, was on September 30, 1972. He was only the eleventh player ever to reach that number. After the 1972 championship, Clemente returned to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he had customarily spent his off-seasons working with youth programs.

Sketch by Kelly Winters

Additional topics

Famous Sports StarsBaseball