Once upon a time there lived a baseball player who ran as swiftly and gracefully as a jaguar, who could perform magic without taking special “beans” and who spent his off-season helping humanity. It seems like a fairy tale, but fairy tales have happy endings. Roberto Clemente had no such thing. He died as he lived; a hero to millions of little boys and grown men alike. If Pete Rose possessed 10% of the character that Roberto Clemente had, his fat face would be staring at visitors inside the Baseball Hall of Fame right now.
Roberto Clemente was born poor in Puerto Rico on August 18, 1934. Even though he was the youngest of seven children, Clemente excelled and overachieved like a firstborn. His blazing speed was showcased in track and field and his amazing arm won him javelin competitions. But, like so many other little boys of the time, baseball was Clemente’s passion. What kids today don’t realize is that you don’t need to get your parents to buy you hundred dollar shoes and other fancy equipment to become a sports legend. Roberto Clemente didn’t learn to play baseball by using Louisville Slugger bats; he used branches from a tree to hit magazines rolled up so they were tight and hard as baseballs. In order to build up the muscles in his throwing arm, he continuously squeezed a simple rubber ball. Roberto Clemente made it to the bigs not because he had the best equipment, but because he combined passion with perseverance. His reward was a 1954 contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Hard as it to believe now, Clemente stayed with the Pirates throughout his career.
When Clemente came along Major League Baseball was still dominated by white guys. The site of a Puerto Rican on a team today seems a natural, but back then it was jarring. As a result, Clemente had to face many of the same jeers and slurs faced by Jackie Robinson a few years earlier. On the baseball field, however, all things can be forgiven if you produce. And Robert Clemente could produce. Over the next eighteen years, Roberto Clemente shined as one of the most athletic players ever. Not only could he hit, but he could catch and throw as well as anyone playing the game. How good was he? Consider that he won twelve Golden Gloves for his defense over the course of his 18 season career. To watch Clemente catch some base runner fool enough to run on him was a thing of beauty. But Clemente could also hit. His career batting average surpasses the magical .300 number. And the last hit of his career was also a magic number: it was his 3,000th career hit.
Despite the success in America, Roberto Clemente never forgot his roots. He was a tireless humanitarian, always striving to help out those less fortunate. On December 21, 1972 a massive earthquake hit the city of Managua, Nicaragua. The city was devastated, with thousands either dead or left homeless. To nobody’s surprise, Roberto Clemente grew passionate over the news that supplies were not arriving in a timely fashion. His anger fueled his desire to personally help those who were not being helped and so he organized a relief effort resulting in contributions of supplies. Clemente stepped into the DC-7 plane along with those supplies and headed for Nicaragua. Not long after takeoff the plane suddenly lost altitude and crashed somewhere into the water. His body was never found.
To their everlasting credit, the Baseball Writers Associated voted to waive the five year waiting period mandated before allowing them to vote a player into the Hall of Fame. Roberto Clemente was inducted posthumously in 1973 with some of the most impressive numbers in the Hall. A .317 batting average, 240 home runs and 1,305 RBI. In 1984 the USPS issued a commemorative stamp in his honor. And in 1999 The Sporting News ranked Roberto Clemente number 20 on its list of 100 Greatest Baseball Players Ever. Ray Liotta stars in the movie Chasing 3000, which is about the journey of two brothers as they travel to Pittsburgh in hopes of seeing Clemente get his 3000th hit.