Clemente: Beyond Nicaragua

Hall of Famer touched lives throughout his remarkable career

October 06, 2010
Roberto Clemente was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

His storied name is synonymous with moral excellence, compassion and charitable work.

Whether it was in his adopted home of Pittsburgh, his native soil Puerto Rico or even the largest country in Central America, Nicaragua, the fans and followers have never forgotten this selfless living soul. Our memories are not only of a proud ballplayer who had an extraordinary career but also about the character and courage of a human being affectionately called "The Great One," Roberto Clemente Walker.

The final story is well known. The life led before the tragic end, however, reveals the depth of Clemente's strength. The people he touched are numerous.

On Dec. 23, 1972, Nicaragua suffered a devastating natural disaster: An earthquake. It left incredible damage throughout the capital of Managua. In only eight days, Clemente's impassioned pleas throughout Puerto Rico resulted in donations of $150,000, numerous boxes of food and clothing and medical needs. But Clemente had heard reports that the donations were not being distributed to those who needed them the most.

On the evening of Dec. 31, Clemente boarded a plane filled with relief supplies, but the overloaded plane would never reach its final destination. It plunged into the ocean off the shores of Puerto Rico.

Although millions were grief-stricken upon hearing the heartbreaking news, Clemente's family and intimate friends – even total strangers who Clemente befriended in his lifetime – weren't shocked by his actions. On the contrary, it's a side they already knew existed.

Juliet B. Schor, now a professor at Boston College, was 14 when she met Clemente. It was on July 24, 1970 at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium. It was quite a memorable night – not only for her, considering she would meet her idol, but also for Clemente. The Pittsburgh Pirates would honor their superstar in a brand-new stadium with his very own "Roberto Clemente Night." (During the ceremony, there was a life-size wax figure of Clemente on the field. In 1973, a replica of the figure was donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It's currently on display on the Museum's second floor).

Schor will be the first to admit that Clemente was someone who exemplified everything she appreciated in a public figure.

"I found Roberto (Clemente) really compelling as a figure. He was kind of like my first love in terms of baseball," Schor said over the phone from her home in Massachusetts. "He was incredibly talented, attractive... And for a young girl that was something important. I got interested in him because of his issues on social justice."

Clemente got his 3,000th hit on September 30, 1972. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)During the festivities honoring Clemente, Schor was on the field in a full body cast. As a child, she had a spinal curvature and was in the hospital for a number of months. Clemente would even sign her
body cast.

"Before I met Roberto, I was in the hospital and other parents happened to be at spring training," Schor said. "They told Roberto about a girl in the hospital. He signed a ball with a long inscription.
It said, 'To Juley, I hope that when you get this you are feeling much better. I hope to see you when I get to Pittsburgh. Love Roberto.'
I still have the ball."

That evening through all the emotions and tears, Clemente requested that in lieu of cash gifts on his behalf, donations be made
to the Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh.

Clemente knew suffering and poverty firsthand. Whether he witnessed it in his travels abroad or in his home in Puerto Rico, he also knew his own body wasn't always in tip-top shape. Throughout his career, he suffered with an arthritic neck, wrenched spine and insomnia. But, if you were to ask Tony Bartirome, Clemente's former trainer with the Pirates, he would say Clemente's drive to help others dwarfed even his own ability to play with pain.

"When Clemente came to spring training in 1969, the Pirates had just built Pirate City. It was basically for the minor league players," said Bartirome from his home in Florida. "All the major-league players stayed at Longboat Key (a popular island resort off Florida's west coast). Clemente wouldn't do that. He would stay at Pirate City. Believe me, the food was horrible. I asked, 'Why are you staying here?' He shrugged his shoulders. I made it my business to find out why."

As a rookie in 1955, Clemente knew about the struggles he encountered and didn't want his fellow teammates to go through the same difficulties.

"Clemente was staying there for the young Latin ballplayers. Every night after dinner, he would sit in the front of the building and teach the players how to order off a menu and to communicate with the other players. He did that every spring and no one knew about that," Bartirome said.

To his former teammate Al Oliver, Clemente was like family – for good reason.

"To hear Roberto was like listening to my Dad. He preached like a Baptist minister," said Oliver. "He would say, 'How can the rich have so much (money) and there are people starving?' This was his mindset... His spirituality."

Luis Rodriguez-Mayoral, baseball historian and former official with the Rangers and Tigers, met Clemente at a baseball clinic in 1961 when he was 16 years old. Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Luis Arroyo participated, and numerous children were present. He walked two miles to meet his idol and ironically – years later – the two would become close friends.

Mayoral was quoted in the book "Clemente!", published in 1973 and written by Kal Wagenheim about his dear friend. "His hands were large and beautiful and I believe that more than anything else, his hands reflected his spirit," he said. "On the field, he gripped the bat with the strength of a tiger. But when he saw a child and patted their head, his hands were extremely gentle."

Clemente touched so many people – and in so many ways. Along with her dad, Carol Brezovec-Bass embarked on a two-hour drive to Connie Mack Stadium to catch a Pirates-Phillies game. She followed baseball and most of the superstars of that era, but had never seen the Pirates or her idol, Clemente. After the game, she stopped by the visitors' clubhouse and patiently waited for Clemente to appear. As a number of fans moved forward to greet the players, a young Carol moved toward the back. As Clemente walked toward the group, she recalls her reaction.

"When he wrote his name, I almost died on the spot," she said. "I said, 'Gracias, Señor Clemente.'" With those tenderhearted words, Clemente continued to speak in his native language. Nervously, she acknowledged that she wasn't proficient in Spanish but was studying in high school. They laughed and from that moment a lifelong friendship was born. Forty-four years later Carol, who is now fluent in Spanish, is a foreign language supervisor in Northern Virginia. To this day, both families are still devoted to one another and reminisce about the wonderful times. In 1972, her family arrived in Puerto Rico to commemorate the New Year with Clemente. Sadly, there would be no celebration.

"He knew he would die young; it became his obsessive message he would interject casually in conversation. He believed these inner thoughts gave him a sense of urgency, especially to make a difference in the lives of children through his creation of a sports city," said Brezovec-Bass.

"He felt he had to go to Nicaragua on New Year's Eve. Only he could wrestle with the wrongdoings of how relief goods were being distributed. It was his mission and he had to be true to himself; humanitarian. And that's the Roberto I remember."

Danny Torres is a New York-based freelance writer.