Roberto Clemente Played in an Era Dominated by the Likes of Willie Mays

?Roberto Clemente played in an era dominated by the likes of Willie Mays, MickeyMantle and Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente was usually overlooked by fans discussinggreat baseball players. Not until late in his 18-year career did the public appreciate thetalents of the 12-time All-Star of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Even though he was arguably thebest baseball player at that time he was also a devote humanitarian which ultimately ledto his death. Roberto Clemente Walker was born in Barrio San Anton in Carolina, Puerto Rico,August 18, 1934. Growing up he helped his father, who worked as a foreman on a sugarplantation and manager of a grocery store, load and unload trucks. The youngest of fourchildren, Roberto excelled in track and field, winning medals in the javelin throw andshort distance races. Despite his great success in the other sports his real love wasbaseball.

He took advantage of the weather in Puerto Rico to play baseball year-round. Hebecame consumed with the game. He squeezed a rubber ball to build up his throwingarm. While in high school, he signed a $60-a-month contract and he also received a$5,000 bonus and a new glove to play for Santurce, a professional team in the PuertoRican league. He was 18 then and hit .356 in the winter of 1952-53. The next season, Brooklyn Dodgers scout Al Campanis held a baseball tryout clinic. Heimpressed Campanis enough that he offered him a $10,000 bonus. The 18 yr old had towait until he graduated from high school before he could sign with a major league team.

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So he gave his word to Campanis that he would sign with the Dodgers. Later other teamswere ready to offer him more money. The Milwaukee Braves were willing to give him a$30,000 bonus. But being a man of his word he stuck to his agreement and signed withThe Brooklyn Dodgers.

The talent-laden Dodger organization of the mid-1950s knew it would be difficultfor the teenager to break into the majors with the Dodgers, therefor they tried to hide himin the minors. They were afraid that another team would draft him after the 1954 season.

(There was a rule stating that any player who received a bonus of at least $4,000 had tobe placed on the major league roster within a year or he could be drafted for $4,000.)Though he batted only 148 times for the Montreal Royals. There fears came true thePittsburgh Pirates drafted him thatNovember. Though only 20 and still learningthe English language, He became a starterfor the Pirates in 1955.

He was rightfully Pittsburgh’s prideand joy. The fans laugh at his antics, ooh-and-ah at his spectacular plays, roar inanticipation of his performance, and ingeneral love the man.

The Pirates, who were awful in his first three seasons, gradually built a strong club. In1960 they won the National League pennant, with him hitting .314 with 16 homers and ateam-high 94 RBI and making his first All-Star team. He continued his awesome play inthe World Series, hitting .310 as the Pirates defeated the New York Yankees on BillMazeroski’s famous ninth-inning homer in Game 7. But He never wore his 1960championship ring. Feeling snubbed by the writers because he only finished eighth inMVP balloting, he wore an All-Star ring instead. His performance in 1960 was just the beginning of his All-Star, Hall of Famecareer. In 1961 he was in the best shape of his life, finally getting over the chronic backproblems that had bothered him since his rookie season. With his improved health, He hit.351 to win his first batting title, producing 201 hits. On November 14, 1964, he married Vera Cristina Zabala in Carolina, Puerto Rico.

They had three sons. Roberto Jr., Luis Roberto and Roberto Enrique. Proud of hisheritage Roberto insisted that Vera give birth to all three sons in Puerto Rico.

From 1964 through 1967, He won three more batting titles. And in the year hedidn’t win one, he was voted the National League’s MVP. He had a career best .371batting average in 1967. The year he won the MVP, he finished fifth in batting at .317 buthad career-highs with 29 homers and 119 RBI (second best in the league). The Piratescame in third, three games behind the first-place Dodgers. In 1971, Clemente (.341) led the Pirates to another pennant. Though one of thegame’s finest players. He hadn’t received much national media attention. That changed inthe World Series when he became a one-man wrecking crew against the BaltimoreOrioles, chasing down fly balls, and making it hard on his opposing pitchers with a .414average in the World Series. His home run in Game 7 provided the Pirates with their firstrun in a 2-1 victory. He was voted the World Series MVP.

In 1972, at the age of 38, he batted .312. On Sept. 30, He doubled off New YorkMets left-hander Jon Matlack. It was his 3,000th hit. Nobody knew it at the time, but itwould be his last regular-season hit.

During the winter of 1972, Clemente began work on a sports city for theyoung people of San Juan. But on Dec. 23, the city of Managua, Nicaragua, was rockedby an earthquake that killed thousands, and left many more homeless. Clemente workedorganizing a relief effort for the quake victims. On New Year’s Eve the plane was takingmedical, food and clothing supplies to an earthquake stricken Nicaragua. Vera and friendsbegged him not to take the trip (poor weather and a unstable cargo plane) but He wasdetermined. He was infuriated that the previous supplies had not made it to the victims.

Roberto was going to personally see to it that the victims received the much neededsupplies. Unfortunately, the plane went down off the coast of Puerto Rico. His body wasnever found. Just months after he had joined an elite group of players with 3000 hits, hewas gone. Clemente’s death shocked the world as well as the people of Puerto Rico, where athree-day mourning period was declared. The Baseball Writers Association of Americaheld a special election and the mandatory five-year waiting period for the Hall of Famewas waived. On Aug. 6, 1973, Clemente, who had a lifetime .317 average with 240homers and 1,305 RBI, was honorably inducted into the Hall. He was the first Hispanicelected to the shrine. In memory of Clemente, the player and humanitarian, the Pirates in1973 wore uniform patches with his No. 21 on them. It has been just over 28 years since his unfortunate death and still today Roberto isremembered as one of the greatest athletes and humanitarians of all time. One of hisdreams, the Roberto Clemente Sports City, is one part of the legacy he left behind.

Visitors to Carolina, Puerto Rico are greeted by a twelve-foot statue as they enter into a304-acre sports complex. Roberto Clemente’s legacy is continued by his wife Vera, LuisRoberto and Roberto Enrique, who have been instrumental in continuing Roberto’sDream.

Roberto Clemente Walker was one of the bestbaseball players ever and it is very tragic how it had to endfor him. I believe he was very generous in his ways andunfortunately led to his death. But he will always beremember by his children and their efforts to keep him alivethrough them.

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