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Remembering Roberto Clemente

Dec 31, 2009, 10:51 AM EST

Clemente AP.jpgWhen I was little I was given a biography of Roberto Clemente. It wasn’t a tome or anything. It was one of those little Scholastic Readers, probably bought at an elementary school book fair. Though I would later come to appreciate Clemente’s game, his arm, his
bat and his unique and colorful personality a bit more objectively than the saintly and perfect way he was portrayed in the book, he did become a favorite of mine upon reading it. How couldn’t he have? He was a goddamn hero.

And unlike so many people who are called heroic and brave for facing down challenges, Clemente was truly heroic and brave precisely because he didn’t have to face anything at all if he didn’t want to. He could have ushered in 1973 in what I’m sure were very comfortable circumstances in his native Puerto Rico. He could have written checks to some relief fund to help those earthquake victims.  He could have organized a benefit or something.  But he didn’t. When he realized that the relief supplies he was sending to Managua were being pilfered by crooked officials, Clemente got on board the next flight himself to ensure that they got to those who needed them the most.  It was the last decision he’d ever make.

The plane took off a little after 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve with five on board. The plane — overloaded and in poor mechanical condition to begin with — encountered problems almost immediately.  The
pilot tried to return to the airport but it was too late. It crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about a mile
from the coast, killing all aboard. Clemente’s body was never recovered.  Not a New Year’s Eve goes by when I don’t think about him and the sacrifice he made. A sacrifice he didn’t have to make for people he didn’t even know.

Thirty-seven years is a bit too long to keep on mourning of course, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to think about Clemente. About both his heroism and his baseball career, the specifics of which have long been overshadowed by the circumstances of his death. But if you’re going to remember someone, you’re best served trying to remember everything.

A good place to start? This excellent mini-biography by Stew Thornley of the Society for American Baseball Research.  It’s worth it just to learn about the time Clemente claimed he was kidnapped in San Diego, set free and then proceeded to get three hits against the Padres the next day.  The story stinks to high heaven, and a lot of the other Clemente anecdotes make you realize that he could be a real pain the keister, but it’s the kind of stuff that adds a bit of life to a life story.

Anyway, you’ve got time today. Go check it out. And give a few thoughts to old Arriba before you go out tonight.

  1. Nick - Dec 31, 2009 at 11:22 AM

    Clemente — STILL the greatest player I ever saw play ball!!!!

  2. Ron - Dec 31, 2009 at 11:26 AM

    This post needs a ‘like’ button.

  3. YankeesfanLen - Dec 31, 2009 at 11:41 AM

    Happy New Year to you Craig. I’m annointing you to the “Frank Capra of Baseball Blog Writers”. It’s always better to talk about people, motivations, personalities and achievements on and off the field than dwell on f/x stats or whatever that stuff is.

  4. Matt - Dec 31, 2009 at 12:05 PM

    I was born in ’64 so all those ’68 deaths didn’t register. This was the first one for me; in Catholic school we had fundraisers (here’s my dime) for Guatemala and then that happened. I carried his card in my first wallet until ’77.
    I like him because everyone else thought he was a jerk (some kids are like this). He wasn’t really popular amongst the white folk until he was getting to 3000 (or more likely the 71 Series). He got to 3k and then, Happy New Year.
    I know you know Maraniss wrote a big old book about him. And there was a documentary on PBS. Both good sources. But not as good as the card in the wallet.

  5. Ken Arneson - Dec 31, 2009 at 12:06 PM

    Whenever I drag my kids to an A’s game, they always take something to read to pass the time, because they aren’t terribly interested in the game itself.
    One time, my oldest daughter brought that very same Scholastic book about Roberto Clemente to the game. A foul ball was hit and landed in the row right in front of her. The guy sitting there caught it, and then turned around and handed it to my daughter. His reason: “I was impressed with her choice of reading material.”

  6. J. McCann - Dec 31, 2009 at 12:06 PM

    3 things even though I was only 4 when he died.
    1. I really wish there was a DVD with nothing but highlights of his best throws as that would sure be entertaining.
    2. I fully support the effort to retire 21 throughout MLB. (I would not support it if his uniform number was lower, but 21 is unique enough and there are plenty of other numbers.)
    3. My father in law told me a story where Clemente was asked who the best player in baseball was. (Almost anyone would agree it was Mantle, Mays, Aaron or Koufax). But Clemente’s answer was “ME!” I can just picture that and it brings a smile to my face.

  7. J Biedenbach - Dec 31, 2009 at 12:39 PM

    A true story about Roberto (aka The Great One)
    Whe I was 10 years old the Pirates clinched the 1960 pennant when they were in Milwaukee. My father took us to the airport to see them return as NL Champions. An airport worker showed us a good place to stand so that we could watch the players enter the building. As the players came in, they walked by us over to the throng of fans to sign autographs, while we stood in our little corner.
    Roberto spotted us and came over to shake hands and ay hello, then he brought other players over to where we were since we couldn’t get to where they were. He was and always will be my favorite player, but he was a better person than he was a ball player.
    Arriba, Roberto!

  8. Steve Watson - Dec 31, 2009 at 12:48 PM

    Good won, Craig. Followed you over here from The Hardball Times.
    Clemente’s always been on my mental team of favorite ballplayers I’ve (mainly) never seen play: guys that had personality and drive and were fiercely competitive without being total jerks about it, guys with athleticism who could feel well and hit with at least some gap power. Team looks something like this:
    1) Richie Ashburn, CF
    2) Jackie Robinson, 2B
    3) Honus Wagner, SS
    4) Stan Musial, LF
    5) Roberto Clemente, RF
    6) Vic Power, 1B
    7) Clete Boyer, 3B
    8) Tony Pena, C

  9. GimmeSomeSteel - Dec 31, 2009 at 1:37 PM

    Roberto was my favorite player ever, which is natural considering my family lived in suburban Pittsburgh in the mid-Sixties. He could do it all, on and off the field. What a man, what a player, and what a tragedy that his life (not his career, which was starting to wind down) was cut so short.

  10. Brad Z - Dec 31, 2009 at 2:53 PM

    I have been to Nicaragua a number of times and even got a tour of Roberto Clemente Stadium in Masaya. He is revered as a national hero. Well deserved.

  11. James - Dec 31, 2009 at 2:54 PM

    The 1971 World Series was the first one I ever glued myself to watching on TV. It also happened to be the year night baseball was introduced for the World Series. Clemente was magnificent in that series, but he and his whole team had already captured my interest earlier that year when I saw him and Stargell and others play. Even though I was an Angels fan, the Pirates became my favorite NL team that year.
    Clemente captured my imagination and my heart that year becoming my favorite baseball player of all time – even more so than Bobby Grich, who’s name inspired the name of my blog.
    Your post is a great tribute and a fine reminder. We should never forget his contributions on and off the field. Thanks for writing this.

  12. Beat Em Bucs - Dec 31, 2009 at 3:08 PM

    Growing up near the Burgh and going to bed at night listening to Bob Prince (The Ol’ Gunner) on the transistor radio calling the game and describing Roberto’s throws is one of my all time great memories. Watching my 17 year old son marvel at highlights of Roberto wherever we can find them is my new favorite memory!

  13. JiuJitsu - Dec 31, 2009 at 3:46 PM

    As a six year old Nicaraguan boy I remember the terror of this earthquake and all of the misery that came with it, afterwards I heard of Roberto Clemente’s death but as a small boy it didn’t mean much to me then. Now living in the US for the past 30 years I consider him my biggest hero for what he did prior to his death. Happy new year Roberto, I hope you are proud of the legacy you’ve left behind.

  14. ssweeps - Dec 31, 2009 at 4:36 PM

    As a child I remember watching a Pirates vs. Reds game in ’72 and Clemente catching a ball next to the fence in right field, wheel and throw it to home ON A LINE to nail the runner trying to score from third…no bounces! Probably the best outfield arm ever. I enjoyed watching him hit, too! Like a snake all coiled up ready to swing. Ahhhhhh, memories.
    I also got a kick out of Topps baseball cards for calling him Bob one year. Bet you Roberto Alomar was named after Clemente…
    R.I.P. You will always be missed!

  15. larry marcs - Dec 31, 2009 at 5:05 PM

    I grew up in sururban Pittsburgh during the early 1950’s…
    The Pirates were always the perrenial doormats of the National league during this time…
    Then things began to change…
    Starting with Dale Long’s 8 consecutive home runs in 8 games streak during 1956…and ending with Bill Mazeroski’s home run in the 1960 World Series…
    I always made sure to sit in the right field stands at Forbes Field and marvel how Roberto Clemente could make acrobatic catches and gun a baseball with relative ease…he would inevitably make spectacular plays to a standing ovation and sometimes gesture to the right field fans in appreciation…
    What a marvelous man, athlete and humanitarian..
    Pittsburgh’s baseball fans still idolize and miss you!

  16. Francisco - Dec 31, 2009 at 5:29 PM

    The best one – being from Puerto Rico I am bias. Seen him play for the Pirates and in San Juan => it was a pleasure to watch him do the things that he did – hit, run, throw runners out, and those basket catches. Still remember that day… when he was lost to the sea just off the coast and the days that followed by ‘decimas’ (puertorican songs) that remembered him and all his achievements on and off the field. Thanks for remembering Roberto and bringing all those fantastic memories back to me. Best wishes to everyone during this Holiday Season and in the New Year.

  17. Dick - Dec 31, 2009 at 8:05 PM

    All I know is that Clemente was the greatest Right fielder I have ever seen and he was an even greater human being for trying to help others when he tragically died. I hope current major league players learn something from this man.

  18. Omega in Colorado - Dec 31, 2009 at 8:52 PM

    I think I read that same book when I was in grade school. It turned a fledgling minor interest in baseball into a fullblown lifetime obsession with the game.
    R.I.P. Mr. Clemente’

  19. Justin - Dec 31, 2009 at 9:05 PM

    #21 will never be forgotten…

  20. Jeff - Dec 31, 2009 at 11:15 PM

    I’ve watched thousands of games and have seen many great ones come and go. But, for my money, Roberto Clemente, with the exception of Willie Mays, was the greatest Outfielder I ever saw. There was nothing that he could not do. He was a “5-tool player” before the phrase “5-tool player’ was ever used.
    All hail his greatness as a man and as a baseball player, number 21, the great Roberto Clemente.

  21. Old Gator - Jan 1, 2010 at 1:31 PM

    That LA kidnapping scam still amuses me all these years later. If he had lived, I suspect Clemente would have become Manny. No wonder Steinbrenner traded Munson’s contract to the Pirates for the fishing rights.

  22. XTrust_No1X - Jan 1, 2010 at 7:54 PM

    It still saddens me today, when I think about Roberto Clemente. I am a life long New York Yankees fan, but, I am also a true fan on the game. That being said, I appreciated the players that played this game, and not just the ones on my favorite team, but, the ones on those, “Other” teams.And, I consider myself very lucky, because I have watched & enjoyed some of the games greatest players, and Roberto Clemente was one of the very best of the best! He had a percice rocket arm,played the field and covered more ground than just about any who had ever played the game. And, boy, was he a clutch hitter, and what a offensive force. I always wished he was on my Yankees, cuase I felt he was one of those rare players, that with every at bat, fans were in for a special treat, and young players like my self at that time, learnt from watching him take an at bat. I was very saddened at his untimely passing, and MLB lost a true legend that New Years day! One could only imagine just how many records the man would’ve broken if he was able to finish his career. And, they probably would still be standing today. Here’s an idea for coaches of Little League teams or the local school coaches, have your players come over your houses, or sit in a classroom, and play footage of this legend playing the game, cause I’m sure, that now a days, you could probably be able to get just about every game he played on DVD. Sit the kids down, and go over every at bat, and every play he made in the field, and, I gauratee, that if you take the time and do this, it will help your kids playing ability greatly!

  23. PamellaMarchena - Jan 26, 2010 at 3:14 PM

    Your posting really landed right on the mark. great work, I look forward to your next story.

  24. DionDollyhigh - Jan 26, 2010 at 3:30 PM

    Your article really hit right on the mark. wonderful work, I look forward to your next story.

  25. URSULACompton - May 24, 2010 at 8:54 AM

    Some time ago, I needed to buy a good house for my corporation but I did not earn enough money and couldn’t buy anything. Thank heaven my mate proposed to try to take the credit loans at creditors. Thence, I acted so and was happy with my financial loan.

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