Baseball is a historic game that dates back to the late 1800s, and it's full of legends like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Cy Young, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron. Because their careers came before the era of ESPN, instant replay, and YouTube, though, we don’t get to watch much of what made them so special.
For as great as those players were, and for as many home runs as they hit and games that they won, I would still prefer to have more footage of Roberto Clemente than any one of them.
The other day, a video of him throwing a ball from the right-field fence to home on a line appeared on my Twitter feed. There was no crow hop or running start. He simply fielded the ball off the fence, turned, and launched.
I’m sure I’ll see thousands of home runs and strikeouts before I die, but I’m not sure I’ll ever get to experience an arm quite like his (though Ichiro had a pretty great throw this spring). But more importantly, outside of Jackie Robinson, I’m not sure there was an athlete who meant more to his community.
“It would be difficult for an American to measure the importance of Clemente’s name in Latin America,” said former Sports Illustrated writer, William Nack, in an ESPN SportsCentury documentary about Clemente’s life. “He’s been deified. He’s a larger-than-life saint.”
Clemente’s play certainly helped him garner influence, but not at first. For years, he was criticized by the media for his poor English and propensity to miss games due to injuries — injuries that some said were mythical.
But he always spoke up for what he believed was right and played hard when he was on the field. And over his 18-year career, as he amassed 12 Gold Gloves, 15 All-Star appearances, four NL batting championships, an MVP, and a World Series MVP, people began to respect him, including the pool of always-cynical old and stodgy sportswriters.
His performance on the field alone set him apart, but it’s his respect and admiration for those living in poverty that helped him earn his true legacy.
“He told me more than once, ‘People who struggle are the people who know the true essence of what to be alive is,’” said Clemente’s friend, Luis Mayoral, in the documentary.
In the offseason after his final game when he earned hit number 3,000, Clemente was at his home in Puerto Rico when a major earthquake hit Nicaragua. There was a rumor going around that aid being sent from Puerto Rico was being sold by the Nicaraguan National Guard. Clemente knew that if the rumor was true, his presence and reputation would be enough to stop this injustice.
So he helped organize a shipment, working around the clock. When the supplies were gathered and loaded onto the relief plane, he joined the crew. The plane took off on New Year’s Eve, 1972, but never made it to its destination. Due to technical malfunctions and a cabin overloaded with supplies, the plane crashed into the ocean and Clemente’s body was never found.
Americans, Puerto Ricans, and the Latin community mourned his death. One sportswriter said the only other death during his lifetime that had that type of national impact was President John F. Kennedy’s. Three months later, on a special ballot, Clemente was voted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame — nearly five years before he was eligible.
“Everybody knew Clemente, the ballplayer,” said another friend of Clemente’s, Osvaldo Gil, who also participated in the documentary. “But the way he died, it was for people to know the man. He had to die like that for all the world to know what kind of a man he was.”
Interestingly, other than Nack referring to him as a saint, Clemente’s faith is never mentioned directly or indirectly in the documentary. It seems like a significant oversight because he let his Catholic faith and his relationship with God guide him through everything he did, from playing baseball to putting others before himself — just like he did when he got on that plane on the last day of the year in 1972.
Clemente’s example is one that Major League Baseball wants all of its players to follow, which is why each year the league gives an award named after the Hall-of-Famer to the player who most exemplifies a commitment to his community and helping others. The Vatican also values the contributions Clemente made. Though rumors of his canonization are premature, he is someone the Church believes young people should aspire to be like. Even if you don’t have his once-in-a-generation arm, you can still serve others and support dignity in those who suffer.