Roberto Clemente, the baseball legend from Puerto Rico, is back in the news these days, for different reasons. He set a sports and a humane path to follow by fans from all backgrounds. Let me tell you my personal recollections of this great man and how he marked my early youth.
A statue of the Puerto Rican great was unveiled in Roberto Clemente State Park in New York City in late June, on it there is plaque which states the date of his 3,000th hit and a large GOYA logo. The logo sparked outrage among the public to such a point that a petition was started to have it removed.
The logo was seen blatant publicity for the food company.
As a graduate of Duquesne University, my alma mater, where I spent probably the best years of my life, I receive the hard copy of the Alumni Magazine and quite often news from The Alumni Relations office: “Bulletin from our Bluff.” Recently I read this:
“Duquesne University announced today the establishment of a $1 million Roberto Clemente Endowed Scholarship, created to honor the legend’s outstanding contributions to the city of Pittsburgh, his commitment to diversity and social justice, and for his heroic humanitarian efforts. It is the first scholarship in higher education to be named for Clemente.
“Roberto Clemente lived his life by a set of core values that are perfectly aligned with those that guide the mission of Duquesne University,” said Duquesne President Dr. Charles J. Dougherty. “His work to promote diversity, social justice and care for those less fortunate are the true pillars of his great legacy.”
Reading this, of course, brought back memories. Roberto Clemente landed in Pittsburgh at the same time I did: he hailed from Puerto Rico and I from Spain. The newscasts then were full of Roberto Clemente, Roberto Clemente, Roberto Clemente, because, after all, he was the star player with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. He remained with the Pirates for 18 years.
There were only a handful of Hispanics in Pittsburgh in 1955, who, by the way, were not called Hispanics but Spanish. Roberto Clemente was Spanish, a Puerto Rican. He had to fight discrimination even then, as a Puerto Rican and as a Black, and that is why he favored minorities and fought discrimination. In Pittsburgh everybody loved him.
How could I ever forget 1960, when the Pirates won the World Series –one of the most storied World Series of all time– and the city went truly berserk; the police had to cordon off the Golden Triangle to stop more crowds from pouring in. “How sweet it is, how sweet it is” was the chant from the sport announcers, repeated non-stop for hours on end. It still rings in my ears. But of course, all that was just yesterday.
Roberto Clemente Walker (1934-1972) was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico and died in a plane crash on his way to Nicaragua to help earthquake victims. The first Hispanic player to reach 3000 hits (including 240 homeruns), he was involved with charity work in Puerto Rico and Latin America. Clemente was a gentle man, proud of his Hispanic heritage and stood up for minority rights. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor, Presidential Citizens Medal, Congressional Gold Medal, United States Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame, among many other awards, and the Baseball Hall of Fame, where his name in the plaque appears in the Spanish order: Roberto Clemente Walker.
Clemente met his accidental death 41 years ago, when there were few Hispanics in the US. Today’s generations of Hispanic sports lovers and baseball fans can look up to an exceptional human being, a fantastic player and a humanitarian. And that is why Duquesne University has seen it fit to honor his name in the best manner possible, by setting up a one-million-endowed scholarship for Hispanic students. It does not surprise me: I could not expect less from my Alma Mater.
All Hispanics should feel proud of Roberto Clemente. I do.