Clemente’s legacy transcends mere sport

Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series
Written by: Luis R. Mayoral

When Roberto Clemente comes to mind, I suppose many fans remember his majestic presence on the field, his chiseled face, or that wonderful physique with which he performed so marvelously. But there was much more to him than that.

His 18-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a stellar right fielder and magnificent hitter, along with his pronounced love for mankind, made him a most genuinely graceful player and man, one who is nearly impossible to forget. As a result, he paved his route to Cooperstown, earning posthumous induction on Aug. 6, 1973, and thus becoming Latin America’s first Hall of Fame inductee.

It might sound like a contradiction, but Clemente was both a private and public person, a man who in many ways had a much more relaxed lifestyle in his native Puerto Rico than he did in the United States. I’ve always been inclined to compare him in many ways with another Hall of Famer: Legendary New York Yankees outfielder Joe DiMaggio.

Both Clemente and DiMaggio possessed great personal values and work ethics while directly confronting the discomforts of discrimination based on their Hispanic and Italian backgrounds, respectively. The level of discrimination that each faced was at times rampant.

Away from the ballpark, Clemente was a gracious and happy man who loved to tell stories, His storytelling ability brings to mind the peculiar smile that he occasionally flashed. That smile was sometime difficult to decipher, perhaps an indication that he might have been joking. Or then again, he might have been absolutely serious in what he was saying.

For example, while driving his car one day in the Rio Piedras sector of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Clemente told me this story: “Once in San Francisco I hit a shot to right-center field which appeared to be a sure homer. The wind held it up in the air, and Willie Mays caught it.

“I got so mad that I threw the helmet up in the air and the wind blew it right out of the park.”

In silence I asked myself, “Did that really happen?

And then Roberto gave me that peculiar smile. I couldn’t tell if he was being serious, or just trying to make a humorous point about the wind at Candlestick Park.

Even though Roberto liked to be playful in his storytelling, he was very influential in my life, and a very practical, down-to-Earth person. He loved Puerto Rican and Chinese cuisine; he enjoyed playing pool, making ceramic objects, shining his shoes, listening to calypso music, and even though he never took a music lesson, he played the organ very well. It just came naturally to him.

Though he never said it outright to me, I could tell that Roberto, to a degree, felt that he represented Hispanics everywhere he went. For that reason, he was always well-dressed, preferably in coat and tie. Nothing was out of place.

Unquestionably, Roberto was proud of who he was as a man, and also proud of his profession. However, his pride never allowed him to demean anyone else. He was well aware that others were different from him, and he respected those differences. One thing I will never forget is what he told me several times: “No person is better than me, but I am not better than any person.”

To Roberto, the value of family was highly respected, and as such he always professed profound love for his wife, Vera, and their three sons: Roberto, Luis, and Ricky.

To this day it seems to me that Vera and Roberto did not allow the ills of society to contaminate them and their thoughts. Roberto always identified himself with the common people. “I feel for the needy, for the taxi driver, for garbage collector, for the hungry and the sick,” he used to say. “They are the ones who know the true essence and value of what it is to be alive.”

I think his philosophy came from his parents, Luisa Walker and Melchor Clemente, who were tremendous influences on him. They raised their family based on the principles of the Baptist religion, and it was those principles that seemed to guide the way he lived his life.

Those principles were evident in our friendship. It was a friendship that did not have baseball at its center. Instead, our conversations mostly dealt with world events, politics, and mankind in general, or simply chatting about life and what it meant to him. In him, I saw a genuine statesman who used his personal convictions and stature as a ballplayer to contribute to the betterment of relations among countries where baseball is played or known. He was truly an ambassador.

In our conversations, Clemente led me to comprehend that as a man and as a ballplayer he wanted to prove what a Hispanic person...a Black Hispanic person...was capable of accomplishing.

When I think deeper about Clemente, I think about a friend that God allowed me to have – a man who desired to help others understand that when you come from a different culture and speak another language, adapting to life in a new country can be a long and difficult process. He wanted people to know that not speaking or understanding a new language well does not make one arrogant or stupid.

Roberto’s peak days of fame and glory coincided with the 1960s and early 1970s, periods of great social changes in the United States, a time when Blacks and Hispanics desperately strove for equality. It brings to mind what Roberto said to me one Saturday afternoon in 1972, during Spring Training with the Pirates in Bradenton, Fla. He said, “I am very proud of being a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. I admired President John K. Kennedy for his Peace Corps work that benefited countries around the world. They wanted to make the world a better place.”

It was less than a year after making that comment that Roberto died. It was on the evening of Dec. 31, 1972, when the plane that he was on – filled with cargo destined to aid victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua days before – crashed into the Atlantic Ocean only minutes after takeoff from San Juan’s International Airport.

Upon being notified of Clemente’s death, Pirates general manager Joe L. Brown said: “You could never capture the magnificence of the man.” Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, in delivering the eulogy at Clemente’s memorial service on January 4 in Carolina, Puerto Rico, stated so beautifully, “He had about him a touch of royalty.”

The world has always been divided by social, political and religious reasons. And Roberto realized that. But in his native Puerto Rico, nonetheless, it seems that everyone has always been united when it comes to what his life meant – and continues to mean – to his people. His prowess on the playing field does not fully explain why his name still reverberates at international levels and how much he continues to mean to fans everywhere.

On a personal basis, Roberto Clemente lives in my mind to this day. His legacy reflects the goodness of his life, and his joys and sorrows as well. I still see a vision of him today, through a long corridor, where I see him standing with his trademark dignity and that stylish defiance with which he always carried himself.

I have always looked up to him as a kind of older brother, as a mentor and as a dear friend. He made me a better person in so many ways, and continues to do so, even all these years after his untimely death.

Luis Mayoral is a longtime baseball executive and journalist who has worked in the game for five decades. A close friend and confidante of Roberto Clemente, Luis was the first person hired by a major league team to serve as a liaison for Latin American ballplayers, helping them to adapt to American culture and custom.

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Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series