In honor of today’s Google Doodle about the incomparable Roberto Clemente, I’m posting one of my favorite photos of him, at the Polo Grounds as a rookie in 1955, by the accomplished sports photographer William Jacobellis.
For the career Pirate, the accolades are many – 15-time All-Star, 12 Gold Gloves (tied with Willie Mays for the most ever by an outfielder, and accomplished in 12 straight seasons, while playing both in RF and CF), 4 batting titles (with 13 seasons batting over .300), NL MVP in 1966, and 2 World Championships (1960 and 1971), his performance in the 1971 Fall Classic so exceptional that they couldn’t help but name him MVP (batting .414 with 12 hits including 2 HRs, 2 doubles and a triple, with a .759 slugging and 1.210 OPS), and he was certainly Pittsburgh’s Mr. October, batting a career .318 in 26 post season games. His last feat was reaching 3,000 hits, on his final regular season at-bat of the 1972 season.
Impressive by any measure, but more so that the Puerto Rican native was one of the first Latin American MLB players to accomplish many of these feats, including the first to start for a winning WS club, the first to win NL MVP, and also the first to win a WS MVP. Sadly, he was also the first Latin American player to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, in 1973, after his untimely death due to a plane crash while on a humanitarian mission to Nicaragua on New Years’ Eve, 1972. Having learned that earlier aid supplies flown in had been commandeered by the corrupt local government, he decided to accompany this particular flight to ensure the supplies would be delivered to where they were needed. The plane, short on personnel and well over weight capacity, crashed off the Puerto Rican coast soon after takeoff, with no survivors.
In 1973, MLB renamed the Commissioner’s Award the Roberto Clemente Award, which continues to be awarded annually to the player that most exemplifies not only exceptional baseball skills but also a commitment to charity work. Also, momentum continues to build to retire Clemente’s #21 in perpetuity throughout MLB in honor of his achievements and how his life has inspired others.
While experiencing racism in his early career (certainly in his rookie year of 1955, above), he stated “I don’t believe in color, I believe in people.” I’m sure most baseball fans would agree that we all believe in Roberto Clemente, and his commitment to both excellence on the baseball diamond and charity to those less fortunate. The last words are best left to his long-time Pirates fans, who often shouted as they cheered him on – ¡Arriba Roberto!
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