Clemente’s legacy remains vibrant source of inspiration
Clemente himself was asked that question toward the end of his career. He responded: “I would like to be remembered as a player who gave all he had to give.” Given Clemente’s habit of playing the game with fury and passion, most fans would agree with that sentiment, but we should also remember him for so much more.
Clemente’s legacy is wide-ranging, and in some cases, complicated. It’s a legacy that involves a number of components: the increase in the number of Latino players over the past five decades, his remarkable perseverance, the issue of race and the story of what it means to be a true hero.
When Clemente last played in 1972, Latinos represented roughly 10 percent of the players in the major leagues. By the late 1990s, that percentage had increased to 20 percent. In 2021, the number is greater than 30 percent. While it would be naïve to credit most of that increase to the popularity of the Clemente name, there is no doubt that the following he has generated has motivated many youngsters in Puerto Rico and throughout Latin America to play the game and pursue it as a professional career. Certainly, without Clemente, Latinos would still have a strong presence in the game today. With him, their impact is even more substantial.
It was a classically tragic case of “the good dying young,” one that seemed to make no sense and had us all asking, “Why?” It’s a question that many of us continue to ask to this day.
The circumstances of Clemente’s death have only added to the legend and mystique of a baseball superstar.
“He’s become a mythic figure in Puerto Rico,” said longtime sportswriter and author Marcos Breton. “There’s no way that you can overstate that. People who were around, at the time of his death, recall it the way we here in the mainland would recall, say, when President John Kennedy was assassinated or when the space shuttle (Challenger) blew up. You remember; it becomes a touchstone event in your life. The people in Puerto Rico who were around at that time can tell you exactly where they were when they heard that his plane had gone down.”
I was only seven when I saw the news of the tragedy on television, so my memories are sketchier than those who were older and wiser at the time. In contrast, Clemente’s accomplishments are not so murky; they are clear, distinct, and many, and are perhaps better remembered today than the day that he died. Thankfully, we are in no danger of forgetting about the magnificent performance, the passionate style, and the generous compassion of the man named Roberto Clemente.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum