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But baseball was his passion.
At the age of 14, little more than a boy, Clemente played softball with men on the Sello Rojo team, sponsored by a large rice-processing company. He quickly moved up to a very competitive amateur baseball league, playing for a team known as Ferdinand Juncos.
Roberto's mother wanted him to seek a career in engineering and hoped he would pursue the profession. But in 1952, before he finished high school, Roberto was offered a professional baseball contract. Engineering would have to wait.
At age 18, Clemente made the huge leap from amateur status to the Puerto Rican professional league. He signed with the Santurce Cangrejeros in 1952 for $40 per week, with a signing bonus of $400. The Cangrejeros were good. Although Roberto played sparingly, they won the Puerto Rican championship in his rookie year. In his is second year (1953-54), Roberto was able to concentrate on his growing skills by playing every day. His game improved. He hit a respectable .288 for the season and attracted the attention of major league scouts.
In February of 1954, Clemente signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and reported for duty to their top minor league team, the Montreal Royals. The man who signed Clemente, scout Al Campanis, had pleaded with Dodger management to place him on the major league roster right away. Otherwise, Roberto might be lost to another major league team after only one season. The Dodgers would come to regret their decision.
After a disappointing season in Canada, Clemente returned to Santurce to play in the winter league of 1954-55. The Cangrejeros brought together a constellation of stars headed by Willie Mays. They leveled the competition in Puerto Rico and went on to win the Caribbean World Series. Dubbed "Murderers Row" and "Escuadrón del Pánico (The Panic Squad)," the 54-55 Cangrejeros are considered by many to be the best Caribbean baseball team of all time.
Playing in left field and batting second in the lineup, Roberto was one of only four Puerto Ricans on the team. He responded to the challenge by hitting a stellar .
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During his one season in Montreal, Roberto Clemente didn't play much. There were two basic and interrelated reasons: he had vast ability, and the Dodgers wanted to hide that immense talent from other interested teams.
In 1947 the Dodgers made history by signing Jackie Robinson, at last breaking the color barrier in professional baseball. By the time Clemente signed in 1954, there were several starting-caliber black players on the roster in Brooklyn. Because of an unstated quota system that was in place, Dodgers management resisted fielding more blacks than whites, thus was in no hurry to move Clemente up from Montreal. Meanwhile, hidden in the minors, his talent was off the market for the competitionif only for one season.
The Dodgers tried to keep Clemente under wraps, but his talent was difficult to hide.
When he did play, he often excelled. When he excelled, he was benched. Before season's end, Roberto was so frustrated he was nearly ready to quit.
Legendary baseball executive Branch Rickey moved from the Dodgers to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1951 and immediately nabbed Clemente from Brooklyn. Roberto heard the news back in Puerto Rico and later admitted, "I didn't even know where Pittsburgh was."
Clemente's true baptism into the majors came on April 17, 1955, when he connected for a singleagainst the Dodgersin his first game.
But playing the game was only part of Clemente's major league experience. He found himself surrounded by the racial politics, the brutal scrutiny of the press, and the business of the big leagues.
As if a strange language and a new culture were not challenges enough, Clemente also met racism and discrimination in their crudest forms. He quickly became an active defender of his rights and the rights of others. In one of his first games as a professional, he protested angrily when fans yelled racial insults at one of his teammates.
He became a union leader in the incipient Major League Baseball Players Association and defended players' rights to demand better working conditions and benefits.
Clemente's relationship with the press was marked by racial tension. Some members of the press were rude or scornful simply because he was black and Latino. Some made fun of his heavy Latin accent, quoting him with phonetic spelling rather than merely reporting what Clemente said.
From 1955 to 1972, Clemente played eighteen seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates and participated in fifteen seasons of Caribbean baseball. At a late career stage when the performance of most players begins to wane, Clemente was still setting records.
Clemente's bat and base running mastery made him an offensive powerhouse. He racked up a lifetime batting average of .317 and a season average of over .300 in twelve of his last thirteen seasons. He notched four 200-hit seasons, twice leading the National League in hits and once in triples. In one game, he achieved the near impossible: three triples. Of his 3,000 career hits, 846 were for extra bases (440 doubles, 166 triples, and 240 home runs).
Clemente tied the National League record by ripping a total of ten consecutive hits over the course of two consecutive games.
His speed was always a threat, both on offense and defense. On the base paths, Clemente combined speed with aggressiveness and cunning, lengthening many hits into extra bases. He studied the way balls bounced off fences in various parks so that he could stretch his hits into doubles and triples unlike other, more ordinary baserunners.
Clemente's right-field defense was unrivaled. With lightning-quick reflexes and footspeed, he repeatedly robbed batters, by tracking down drives into the gap between right and center field.
Of all his gifts, Clemente's throwing awed fans and observers most. He possessed one of the most powerful and accurate arms in the history of the game, leading the league in assists by outfielders in five different seasons.
In fifteen seasons with the Santurce Cangrejeros, Caguas Criollos, and San Juan Senadores, Clemente compiled a batting average of .323. He competed in five championships: two with Santurce, two with San Juan and one with Caguas. In the 1956-57 season, he captured the league batting title with an astounding .396 mark, the decade's highest batting average. Clemente played for Puerto Rican teams that won the Caribbean Series on two occasions, and as manager, led the San Juan team to two playoff appearances in two seasons. Shortly before his death in 1972, he coached the Puerto Rico National Team in the World Series of Amateur Baseball in Nicaragua.
Roberto Clemente lived in two worlds. One was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Pirates, the major leagues, awards, fans, and media. The other was Carolina, Puerto Rico, Caribbean baseball, home, family, leisure, and personal dreams.
His first great sense of accomplishment was being able to give his parents a house in the El Comandante development in Carolina. It was back in Carolina, after nearly ten years and a World Series Championship with the Pirates, that Clemente met the hometown girl who became his wife. When Roberto and Vera Zabala were married, the governor of Puerto Rico was a guest of honor. When it came time for the births of each of the three Clemente sons, Roberto insisted that Vera return to Puerto Rico so that they would be born on Puerto Rican soil. Roberto loved his homeland.
Clemente dreamed of creating a sports center for the young athletes of Puerto Rico, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
His hope was to teach kids the virtues of hard work and personal integrity that would improve their chances of success in life. As an unintended benefit, the Sports City provides a venue for Puerto Rico's premiere athletes and teams to make the major leagues and prepare for international competitions.
The Roberto Clemente Sports City in Carolinaunder the direction of his wife Vera and son Luis Robertoprovides a wide array of programs true to Clemente's dreams. It features a baseball stadium, practice fields, a swimming pool with an accessible entrance, and a fully equipped gymnasium. Programming over the years has produced a long list of success stories both in life and in sports, including future major league stars Roberto and Sandy Alomar, Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, and Ruben Sierra. Plans and fundraising for renovations and expansion are currently underway.
On December 23, 1972, a massive earthquake devastated the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. 7,000 people died and thousands of others were injured. More than 250,000 people were suddenly homeless.
Roberto lost many friends in the quake. He had spent most of November in Nicaragua managing a Puerto Rican all-star team in the Amateur Baseball World Series tournament. He felt the threat to his many colleagues, thousands of fans and friends.
Clemente accepted the honorary chairmanship of an earthquake relief committee and used local media to appeal for help. He worked day and night, even soliciting donations door to door. The relief team raised $150,000, and gathered and shipped nearly 26 tons of food, clothing and medicine by air and sea. Then came reports from Managuathe corrupt regime of General Anastasio Somoza was intercepting the deliveries.
Roberto wanted to make sure the food and medicine got to the people who needed it. On New Year's Eve, he helped load an aging DC-7, then boarded the flight.
"When your time comes, it comes; if you are going to die, you will die,' Vera remembered him saying. "And babies are dying. They need these supplies."
One of the DC-7's engines exploded almost immediately after take-off. There were two more explosions, then a fourth.
The search for survivors, and then remains, lasted nearly two weeks. Piñones Beach was overrun. Fans stood hour after hour watching search crews. They took private boats out to place wreaths upon the water. Manny Sanguillen, a close friend and Pirate teammate, spent three days diving the shark-infested depths in his search for Roberto. The pilot's ruined body was eventually recovered. The remains of the two crewmembers, Clemente, and his friend, Rafael Lozano, were never found.
An FAA investigation revealed a history of mechanical problems on the DC-7, that it was overloaded by 4,000 pounds, and did not have a qualified co-pilot or flight engineer. Clemente did not know any of this, though he had some concerns about the plane.
Yet he flew, and the moment the plane plunged into the heavy Atlantic seas, Roberto's story ascended to mythic status. He became hero to an entire nation.
Around the world, private citizens and government officials eulogized Clemente, organized special memorial services, raised funds for the relief effort, and for Clemente's lifelong dream, Sports City. The Mayor of Pittsburgh, Peter F. Flaherty, declared the observance of "Roberto Clemente Memorial Week." The President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, praised Clemente and made a personal donation of $1,000 to the earthquake victims of Nicaragua.
Clearly, the legend of Roberto Clemente was written long before his death. He wrote it with his life. But the way Clemente died underscored the way he lived and lifted his image to icon.
Roberto Clemente's name graces a modern baseball stadium in Carolina and the Coliseum in San Juan, keeping his memory alive in his hometown. These gestures might be expected. But they are only the beginning.
Clemente's name has been used for stadiums, schools, hospitals, and highways in Puerto Rico, the United States, Nicaragua, and places as distant as Germany.
After his death, Major League Baseball established an award that bears Clemente's name, recognizing the player who, besides being a good athlete, emulates Clemente's philanthropy and humanitarianism.
In Puerto Rico an award in his name is given at public schools to those who excel as athletes, students, and citizens.