A pair apart
“He led America by example. He reminded our people of what was right and he reminded them of what was wrong. I think it can be safely said today that Jackie Robinson made the United States a better nation.” – former American League President Gene Budig, on Jackie Robinson’s legacy
“He gave the term ‘complete’ a new meaning. He made the word ‘superstar’ seem inadequate. He had about him the touch of royalty.” – Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, eulogizing Roberto Clemente
Last time out, we looked at the current state of the Hall of Fame and how to manage inductees across a complex and often murky history. There’s a common thought that the Hall of Fame is baseball’s highest honor, and by all rights, it is. But in point of fact, there’s one honor baseball has, through its actions, placed above the Hall. It’s the most exclusive honor in American team sports. It’s reserved for only the truly transcendent, for players whose impact exceed the bounds of the game. It is, at this writing, an honor roll of one. As of this season, I’d argue, it should be a club of brother pioneers.
Retiring a number is the highest honor a team can give a player. It speaks to the fact that no one can carry the weight bestowed upon those digits. As we wait this summer to retire #7 for Pudge Rodriguez among those honored in Arlington, baseball can find a way to honor a father figure of Puerto Rico – one who, outside of Jackie – did more to shape modern baseball than any player.
In baseball, throughout the game, Jackie Robinson’s #42 carries a weight of history and a height of glory no one else can bear or reach. Roberto Clemente’s #21, for reasons only a little less complex, should hold the same weight. Let those two stand forever, as brethren hallmarks of history and legend. Let generations speak, in wonderment and awed whispers, of the things they did, but also of the men they were.
The one true man
“He knew he had to do well. He knew that the future of blacks in baseball depended on it. The pressure was enormous, overwhelming, and unbearable at times. I don’t know how he held up. I know I never could have.” – Duke Snider, Baseball Hall of Famer and Robinson’s teammate (1947-1955)
“Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.” – Jackie Robinson
Currently, one number is permanently retired throughout Major League Baseball: 42.
The reasons deserve (and have fostered) books worth of examination. The simple version is that in 1947, after a distinguished collegiate athletic career at UCLA and honorable service in the U.S. Army stateside during WWII, Jack Roosevelt Robinson broke an unspoken but iron-clad barrier in what was then (in name only) the “National Pastime. He suffered more in his first season than most men could undergo in a lifetime, all for playing a game. Through his first three seasons, he held to a promise most of us would never have endured: he would have the courage not to fight back.
He won the first ever Rookie of the Year award (which now bears his name) at age 28; was an MVP, batting champion, and an All Star at 30; made 6 All Star teams in a 10-year career that did not include much of his prime; and was a .311 career hitter and the first man of color ever inducted into Cooperstown.
He was also never the best player on his own team, much less the league, during his brief Negro League career. That well-expounded tale may have done as much as anything to advance the march of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and (as of this writing), 33 other exclusively Negro League colleagues to the Hall of Fame beginning in 1971.
Changing a nation
He was the first baseball player awarded both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Of him, Martin Luther King, Jr., said to his teammate and fellow trailblazer, Don Newcombe, “Don, I don’t know what I would’ve done without you guys setting up the minds of people for change. You, Jackie, and Roy (Campanella) will never know how easy you made it for me to do my job.”
Consider, at the time of Jackie’s signing with the Dodgers, the following events were still years in the future:
- 9 years before the Supreme Court outlawed “separate but equal” laws with the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.
- 11 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and move to the back of a bus in Birmingham, Alabama
- 12 years before the “Little Rock nine” were accompanied by federal troops to attend Central High School in Little Rock
- 18 years before the March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial
- 64 years before a black man took the oath of office as president
In 1997, Bud Selig and Major League Baseball took the long overdue step of retiring #42 throughout baseball. It hangs in every Major League ballpark, and no man has worn it since the grandfathered-in Mariano Rivera hung up his spikes after the 2013 season.
Fittingly, his epitaph has inspired and strengthened men ever since his untimely passing from diabetes complications in 1972:
”A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
The Puerto Rican pioneer
”Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.” – Roberto Clemente
As Pudge Rodriguez can readily attest, Jackie was not the only forerunner to rise in the pre-expansion, post-war era. Another hero emerged from the cane fields of Puerto Rico some 63 years ago. He died 45 years ago, on a mission enabled by but far above his place on the field.
His impact, if not his path, was nearly as monumental as Robinson’s.
Like 42, his number 21 should hang forever from facades, never again to take the field; like Robinson, the man who wore it carried a legacy too great for mere ballplayers, however great, to bear.
A complicated grace
Writers and critics called Roberto Enrique Clemente moody, thought him aloof, and considered him a hypochondriac; perhaps most offensive to him, the press insisted on calling him “Bobby” deep into his career. He faced this slight, like many others, defiantly: “My name is Roberto,” he insisted.
Of the more spiteful labels, few fit. Clemente’s teammates more than adored him; Manny Sanguillen, the star catcher on the Pirates early 1970s contenders, said of his best friend, “People saw Roberto as a great ballplayer and humanitarian. He was also a great father, husband, teammate and friend.” His hypochondria was rooted in reality. He had a bad back that he played through more often than not, and as anyone who has suffered from back problems can attest, its impact was felt throughout his magnificent body, from a neck he twisted and craned oddly in the on-deck circle to ankles and feet constantly bothering him.
Through it all, he played, and with an intensity that blazed vividly in stark contrast to baseball’s staid tones; his joy and flair truly inspired generations of Puerto Rican and Latin players that would follow him. His will was immense; fittingly, he was a Private, First Class in the Marine Corps from 1958 to 1964.
“If (Roberto) Clemente were a football player, he’d make Ray Nitschke look like a pussycat,” said Pirates psychologist Dr. Thomas Tutko.
“…The strangest hitter in all baseball”
On the field, he vied with no less than Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson for claim as the game’s greatest right fielder. Both Aaron and Robinson had considerably more power, but as an all-around player, it was generally agreed by his peers that Clemente stood apart. He was a man of his conditions, primarily, his home park, cavernous Forbes Field. “Clemente has the misfortune of playing in a big park. If he played in a smaller one, there’s no telling how many home runs he’d hit,” said Aaron.
No less a pitcher than Sandy Koufax found him confounding.
“There’s only one way to classify Bob Clemente and that’s as the strangest hitter in all baseball. Figure him out one way and he’ll kill you another. You can be having your best day against everybody else and he’ll treat you as though you had nothing. It’s so hard to say what he’s going to hit or what should be thrown to him,” said Koufax.
Even today, many who saw him play consider his arm unequaled. Roaming the expanse of Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, with the right field foul pole a mere 300 feet from home, he was deadly. Countless were the times he launched on-the-fly throws from that corner to third base or home. Even in the deepest part of Forbes Field – 436 feet in deep right center field – Clemente’s arm was a threat; he still holds the career record for assists by a right fielder (266) in the modern era (since 1920).
His most well-known throw came in the 1971 World Series, when he let loose a one-hop strike from more than 300 feet in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium to Sanguillen to freeze speedy Mark Belanger at third.
“You could never capture the magnificence of the man.”
Not given to hyperbole, Vin Scully said of the rockets Clemente launched from right, “Clemente could field the ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania.” The Pirates’ general manager for most all of Clemente’s career, Joe E. Brown, echoed the refrain of so many who have seen the a truly remarkable player dominate even among the game’s greats; of Roberto, he recalled, “He grows and grows over time. He doesn’t diminish… The sad part is that there are not enough TV pictures of him. He made so many great plays that people can only talk about,” Brown said, “You could never capture the magnificence of the man.”
Joe Morgan, probably the greatest all-around player of the 1970s and unparalleled as a second-baseman, said, “Over and over again, I have said Willie Mays is the greatest baseball player I ever saw. But Mays always says Roberto Clemente was the greatest player he ever played against. And other players have agreed with his opinion.”
At the plate, he was like a dancer, light and lithe, then coiled as a cobra set to strike. He struck with a ferocious line-drive swing that knew no limits. No less than Juan Marichal—pitching great, contemporary, and second only to Clemente as a trailblazer for Hispanic players—marveled at what can only be called Clemente’s “plate coverage.
“The big thing about (Roberto) Clemente is that he can hit any pitch,” said Marichal. “I don’t mean only strikes. He can hit a ball off his ankles or off his ear.”
The envy of heroes
Even in his time, he was the envy of contemporaries. His teammate, pitcher Steve Blass, said of Clemente, “He was the one player that players on other teams didn’t want to miss. They’d run out of the clubhouse to watch him take batting practice. He could make a 10-year veteran act like a 10-year-old kid.”
When needed, he could crush the ball to all fields. In the power-laden 1971 All Star Game, he rocketed a slider from Mickey Lolich deep into the right-center field upper deck. It was classic Clemente; a tremendous weight shift and dive into the ball; his marvelously educated and powerful hands staying back; and a violent slash to the ball off a firm front side – with his back foot itself a foot off the ground at contact.
“The longest ball I ever saw hit to the opposite field was hit off me by Clemente at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1961. It was a fastball on the outside corner, and he drove it out of the park – not just over the fence, he knocked it way out. I didn’t think a right-handed batter could hit it out of the field just at that point but Clemente did,” said Koufax.
The 1971 All-Star game portended the show he would put on in that year’s World Series, where he dominated October as the great Oriole Brooks Robinson had done the year before. In that Series, before a worldwide audience, he more than made up for a disappointing performance in his only other World Series in 1960 (for him, disappointing meant hitting just over .300, with all his hits singles). In the ’71 Fall Classic, Clemente slashed .414/.452/.759, with two doubles, a triple and two homers, including a crushing blow in Game 7 in Baltimore that all but took the last of the heart out of the Orioles:
He was the first Latin superstar, opening a door that others surged through to make the game eminently more rich, dynamic, and ultimately global. And yet, it was off the field, like Robinson, where Clemente’s influence was most felt.
He quite literally gave his life to others; when a devastating earthquake hit Nicaragua in late 1972, he organized relief flights from Puerto Rico. But corruption and a thriving black market was hampering the relief efforts. He knew they would not take from him personally – he was aware of the weight of his personality, even if he did not dwell on it – so he accompanied the supplies himself.
On December 31, 1972, he boarded a supply plane at San Juan International airport with four other men. The four-engine DC-7 piston-powered plane crashed moments after takeoff; it came down in heavy seas a mile and a half from shore.
Sanguillen came to the site of the crash on a Coast Guard boat the next morning. “The day of the crash I was in Puerto Rico,” Sanguillen said. “I went with the divers out into the ocean. It was really rough. I said, ‘I’m gonna dive.’ They gave me a tank and [scuba gear]. I went down. I saw barracuda and sharks. Big sharks. I got scared and pulled on the rope and they pulled me up.”
Despite intensive searches by officials, Clemente’s body was never found.
Of honors and the honored
The honors came fast. In 1973, the Commissioner’s Award, for players’ community and charitable work, was named for Clemente; the Roberto Clemente Award is presented annually.
The Hall of Fame called him to its roll of honor the same year.
In 2003, President George W. Bush posthumously awarded a Medal of Freedom to Clemente.
The Clemente award is truly humbling to those nominated, and treasured by those who win. Al Leiter parlayed a solid major league career into a standout place as an analyst on MLB Network. But it was his Roberto Clemente Award in 2000 that stands out: “Roberto Clemente was a legendary figure both as a player and a humanitarian. I have long been aware of his heroic efforts on behalf of others, and to have my name associated with his is a very special honor.”
Two years later, a man destined for Cooperstown, Jim Thome, echoed those sentiments. “This is a tremendous honor,” Thome said of being named the 2002 Roberto Clemente Award winner, “to be considered in the same class as Roberto Clemente. He is a hero and role model for all of us who play the game and strive to be as good a player and person as he was.”
There is something fitting about that last statement; Thome emphasizes Clemente as a player, but saves the last word – the word of honor – for the person that he was. When a man with a career .317 average and 3,000 hits in the most pitching-dominant era that modern baseball has ever known—is constantly cited more prominently for the man he was, even beyond his great skills as a player, it transcends role model, and echoes “hero” through the halls of history.
Our better selves
We look to heroes to find the better parts of ourselves. We may not match them, but in the trying, we become all the better for it.
Jackie knew. Roberto understood. Far before their time, both slipped the bonds of earth to touch a place on high.
But before they were gone, oh, how they lived, and showed us how to live better in so doing. For that, they deserve a place higher; the burden of their legacy is too great to place on any man’s shoulders.
Let both their numbers, like their stories and their legacies, stand apart—on high.