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Roberto Clemente: Images, Identity and Legacy
Samuel O. Regalado
To cite this article: Samuel O. Regalado (2008) Roberto Clemente: Images, Identity and Legacy,
The International Journal of the History of Sport, 25:6, 678-690, DOI: 10.1080/09523360801972537
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Published online: 08 Apr 2008.
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Roberto Clemente: Images, Identity
and Legacy
Samuel O. Regalado
From the end of the Second World War until the mid-1950s, major league baseball in the
United States experienced change to its profile that both impacted the game and
characterized the new multicultural environment beyond the field of play. The most
celebrated event came in 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke baseballs color barrier and
ushered into the national pastime racial integration. Robinsons triumph also opened the
door for Latin Americans of color and soon thereafter, baseball aficionados saw their
growing presence in the game. But resistance to these changes also appeared. Teams
integrated slowly and sportswriters often ridiculed Latinos who had difficulty with the
English language. Outside of the game, Latins who hoped to join the mainstream
redefined their own identity. Roberto Clemente stepped into this complicated milieu and
while his notoriety came from a brilliant baseball career, his life sewed as a microcosm of
the Latino experience in a new transnational arena.
Roberto Clemente did not come to the United States mainland to pioneer social change.
He came to pursue his dream of success in the major leagues. Driven by his competitive
spirit, he left Puerto Rico in 1953, carrying with him the credentials for baseball
greatness: a keen batting eye, sprinters speed, defensive quickness and a powerful
throwing arm. Moreover, his tremendous self-confidence augmented his athletic skills.
Through the course of his career, Clementes achievements on the field of play led to his
recognition as one of the top players in the history of the game. There isnt anything he
cant do, proclaimed the Sporting News in a 1968 article about Clemente. He can hit,
hit with power at times, run, throw and there just isnt a better fielder. [1]
In 1955, Roberto Clemente, after one year as a minor leaguer in Montreal, made
his major league debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 18 seasons, the future Hall of
Famer was the 1966 National Leagues Most Valuable Player, won four batting titles,
appeared in 14 All-Star games, and collected 12 consecutive Gold Glove awards. He
also helped to lead the Pirates to two world championships in 1960 and 1971. On
Samuel O. Regalado, California State University, Stanislaus. Correspondence to: [email protected]
The International Journal of the History of Sport
Vol. 25, No. 6, May 2008, 678 690
ISSN 0952-3367 (print)/ISSN 1743-9035 (online) 2008 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/09523360801972537
those stages, he hit safely in all 14 games, including a stellar .414 batting average in
the 1971 classic; a series in which he earned the Most Valuable Player award. [2]
But Clemente had other credentials as well: a generous heart, compassion and a
sense of outrage at social injustice. Clemente also knew, as evidenced in a 1971
interview, that social responsibility and leadership in the Latino world accompanied
his stature. Lots of kids will try to imitate me, and maybe I will have the chance to do
some good for people, he told the New York Times. [3] But his apprenticeship on the
path to greatness had its pitfalls as it developed in an age when other Latins (and
African Americans) in baseball endured the difficult world of racial discrimination,
prejudice and the negative stereotyping of Spanish-speaking people. Clementes
emergence into stardom also illuminated the internal conflict Puerto Ricans, in their
transition from island to mainland, encountered regarding race and identity. Thus on
the three fronts player, living symbol and posthumous legend Roberto Clementes
presence and legacy challenged the perceptions mainstream Americans then held of
Latins and, for Puerto Ricans on the mainland, reminded them of the delicate balance
between race and class.
Since 1898, when Puerto Rico came into the United States as a commonwealth,
islanders who migrated to New York City discovered that assimilation was a difficult
chore. But, while adaptation to the culture of the larger American mainstream made
practical sense, they remained steadfast in the devotion to all vestiges of their heritage.
Protecting those traits were essential components in the survival of their enclave in the
larger urbanized arena. By the 1950s, the components for what Virginia SanchezKorrol called solid communities were the persistence of the Spanish language,
customs, and habits for the maintenance of a shared identity as Puerto Ricans. [4]
Another part of the Puerto Rican lexicon included Americas national pastime.
Baseball played a significant role in the Puerto Rican identity. Since the game first
appeared on that island in the late nineteenth century, Puerto Ricans saw baseball as a
galvanizing influence on their overall identity. With a history that reached back into
late nineteenth century, Puerto Rican baseball was an important part of the islands
heritage. Also, in so much as many of its legendary players came from across class and
racial lines, as well as the fact that many American black stars competed there, Puerto
Ricans from all walks of life connected with the game in one manner or another. [5]
Many Latinos who left their homes and relocated in the United States continued to
embrace baseball. As was the case with Puerto Ricans, baseball symbolized an aspect of
the old culture which they romanticized. When one of their own found success in the
professional game, their romance was often euphoric. Latinos, who worked in varied
manufacturing firms or as rural workers in the agriculture industry, were people of
limited resources and education and occupied the lowest rungs in US society, related
to the Latino player whose roots were much the same as their own. When a player
spoke with pride of his culture and homeland, Latins from his homeland living in the
United States beamed. Such proclamations gave them the incentive to endure and
overcome the pitfalls they faced in their struggles to establish themselves in the United
States. And to bear witness to the success of their brethren on the baseball diamond
Roberto Clemente 679
reminded them of all that was good about the culture and overall identity. It is for
reasons like these that Roberto Clemente was so important. [6]
Contrary to the notion that all Latin players emerged from impoverished
backgrounds, Clemente, born in 1934 near San Juan, Puerto Rico, came from a
family of modest means. His father, Melchor, was a foreman at a local sugar mill. It is
worth noting that Melchors ability to sustain his family with a degree of comfort was
remarkable given that by 1934 Puerto Rico had yet to fully recover from a devastating
hurricane two years earlier, experienced widespread hardships due to the Depression
and was in the midst of a nationalist uprising. Like other youths with his upbringing,
baseball stole Clementes heart and he played in the San Juan sandlots armed with a
bat fashioned from the branch of a guava tree, a glove [that] was improvised from a
coffee bean sack, and [a] ball [that] was a tight knot of rags. [7]
During his youth Clemente also experienced his first lessons in race relations. Since
the early years of the twentieth century, San Juan, like other Caribbean cities, was a
major hub for barnstorming teams and players from the United States looking to
make extra money during the winter months. Blacks, all Puerto Rican baseball
aficionados knew, were then barred from playing in the big leagues. But San Juan was
far from the major-league-segregated borders and, in these circumstances, blacks
competed against whites on level terms. Among the African American ballplayers
who visited the island, Clemente most admired Monte Irvin, an outfielder for the
New York Giants who was among the first blacks in the major leagues and later
entered the Hall of Fame. Clemente considered race as irrelevant in determining the
quality of an individual. I dont believe in colour, I believe in people, he defiantly
touted in his early years as a big leaguer. [8]
But Clementes idealism on race was, even among Puerto Ricans, an anomaly.
Colour in fact did serve as an important factor in the Puerto Rican establishment of
class and, by extension, social and economic status. On the surface, race in
Clementes homeland was not problematic. Since its days as a colonial entity under
Spain, blacks in Puerto Rico, by virtue of slave protection laws, the practice of
compadrazgo (godparenting), and varied socio-economic opportunities based on
merit, had earned some degree of latitude and acceptance not found on the North
American continent. Thus, in Puerto Rico, no local or regional laws barred blacks
from public accommodations. Nor did Puerto Rico have a history of lynch mobs or
other institutionalized forms of violence against blacks.
Clementes take on race was not entirely one that lent itself to an unrealistic vision
of a colour-blind world. Baseball in Puerto Rico, as opposed to that found in the
United States mainland, was a platform for racial integration both on and off the
field. Puerto Rican players of colour frequented many public accommodations and,
of course, competed with whites on the diamond. This latitude was not exclusively
reserved for Latinos. Notable black ballplayers from the US, when on tour in Puerto
Rico, stayed at the lavish LaFrance Hotel in San Juan. Some, such as Negro Leaguer
Dick Seay, even settled there. [9] Black stars such as Willard Brown and Monte Irvin,
through their achievements and public freedom, painted a picture of complete racial
tolerance on the island. Clouded by this seeming utopia, Clemente and his Latino
680 S. O. Regalado
contemporaries never fully grasped the depth of discrimination that so shocked them
during their early years in el norte.
Yet though Puerto Rico did not have an extended period of black slavery and nor did
it maintain overt racially segregated laws and customs, race was a factor when it came
to class. Largely as a result of Spanish rule in the years before 1898, whites were ranked
considerably higher than blacks on the island. People of prominence were either of
European descent or made convincing arguments to that effect. By the 1960s, as a new
middle class emerged, so, too, did society on the island become more racially stratified.
While a Mans class determines what colour he is in Puerto Rico, in reality those
historical traits were not consistently practised. [10] Admission to certain societies
and clubs, social acceptance by some groups of middle- and upper-class people, and
particularly marriage, are seriously hindered for a person who is identified as colored,
contended Joseph P. Fitzpatrick. [11] Even Pedro Zorilla, who sat at the top of the
islands baseball echelon during Clementes upbringing, was white. The reality of race
and society on the island did not escape the attention of those affected. If I was back in
San Juan, I wouldnt have any office job, recalled a black Puerto Rican migrant in New
York City during the 1950s. You dont see girls of my colour in an office unless
theyre cleaning up or something. [12] Indeed, Vic Power, the ever-observant major
league star of the 1950s and 1960s, confirmed that You can go anywhere that you want.
. . . But the funny thing about it is if you go to a lot of places like a bank or hotel, the
white Puerto Ricans they get the jobs. [13] While racial barriers were less apparent in
the commonwealth, on the mainland they were far more overt.
Puerto Rican blacks like Clemente were not ignorant of racism in the United
States. Stories of racial discrimination were abundant among those who had spent
time in the states and had returned to the island. In the US by the 1950s, challenges to
Jim Crow had emerged. As the decade evolved, the movement for civil rights gained
increased momentum. Prior to the Second World War, proponents of segregation
were comforted by the fact that no one in the three branches of government had an
appetite to change the status quo. However, in less than a decade following the end of
that war, segregation came under heavy assault. Almost in succession, the executive
and judicial branches adopted policies and rendered decisions which shot holes into
Jim Crow. Those actions helped to stimulate what was once a grass roots desire for
civil rights into a full-fledged movement. [14]
Events in baseball, of course, played a role in the racial dynamics of the era. The
integration of the major leagues, for example, occurred seven years in advance of the
landmark US Supreme Courts decision, Brown v. School Board of Topeka, Kansas
(1954). Jackie Robinsons entry and subsequent success in the major leagues
rightfully won praise from proponents of integration who concluded those gigantic
strides in race relations had been accomplished. But these successes did not come
without a price. On the baseball diamond, for example, Robinson hardly got a free
ride. Throughout the 1947 season, disgruntled segregationists dogged the Brooklyn
rookie with racial slurs on a regular basis. In the days following the 1954 decision,
proponents of keeping the United States a segregated country did everything they
could to prevent legal integration from attaining success. [15]
Roberto Clemente 681
Old stereotypes also re-emerged in this period of racial stress. People of colour,
many believed, lacked intelligence and ambition. Popular images of slow-witted,
watermelon-eating blacks created negative perceptions of a people haunted by
centuries of racism. But Latinos, too, bore the brunt of such unflattering portraits. As
television increased its impact during the 1950s, in an effort to win audiences for its
sitcoms, producers routinely drew from old images to draw cheap laughs. The halting
English spoken by Desi Arnazs Ricky Ricardo character on I Love Lucy, for instance,
a characterization seen as charming by many viewers, did little to advance any notion
of Latino virtue. Ricky as an object of mockery and mimicry was one of the series
recurring thematic elements, observed historian Louis A. Perez, Jr. [16] Indeed, in one
episode, Lucille Balls Lucy character, concerned about the Cubans broken English,
even pleaded with him not to speak to their newborn until hes 19 or 20. [17]
Roberto Clemente began his major league career in this difficult time. Not entirely
naive about the racial dynamics of the United States, Clemente, in advance of going
to the mainland, often muttered his displeasure about the injustice towards blacks
within an earshot of those around him. Any thoughts of launching racial change were
usually quelled by elders such as his mentor, Pedrin Zorilla. Theyve been like that
for two hundred years. Youre going there to play ball. Thats all. [18]
Despite early warnings regarding the racial environment in the states, Clementes
experience with players who were prone to use racial epithets in their lexicon proved
difficult. The derogatory images of Latinos, as exhibited in the mainstream media and
sports pages in the newspapers, added to his displeasure and fuelled a temperament
that journalists often described as rage. Described by The Sporting News as a person
with the hot blood of defiance, the proud Puerto Rican did not accept his lot
quietly. [19] Lots of times I have the feeling people want to take advantage of me,
especially the writers, he argued. They talk to me but maybe they dont like me so
they write about me the way they want to write. [20] These sorts of encounters with
the press staff were common. Often he concluded that his being black and Puerto
Rican tainted the medias perceptions of him. [21] Clementes most ardent defenders
were his fellow Puerto Ricans. His hometown paper, The San Juan Star, commented:
Clemente is a black Puerto Rican. That makes him doubly dubious. His native
tongue is foreign to button-down America, and so is his colour. He has felt as
much. He has frequently complained that other Puerto Ricans and blacks as well
as himself have been skirted for endorsements of products and media
commercials. [22]
But the Stars defence of a black Puerto Rican belied the fact that once on the
mainland, race to Puerto Ricans was not the subtle matter that it been back on the
island. On the mainland, Puerto Ricans, argued immigration historian Oscar
Handlin, found themselves in a dilemma, for colour, which was of slight importance
back home, was crucial [in the US]. [23] Handlin observed: The colored Puerto
Rican wished above all to avoid the stigma of identification with the [American]
Negro. [24] The colored Puerto Rican, observed sociologist Joseph P. Fitzpatrick,
682 S. O. Regalado
is identified primarily as Puerto Rican, not as a Negro. [25] Racially apathetic on
social matters, Puerto Ricans who had migrated to the mainland also came to practise
its racial principles of segregation. So determined were some Puerto Ricans to display
themselves as white that they often avoided any participation in the growing civil
rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Fear of being categorized as blacks
stigmatized many of the darkest Puerto Ricans who were often the most reluctant to
learn English, noted Fitzpatrick. [26] Their reluctance to racially categorize
themselves was so strong that even though the 1950 United States census included
a section of non-white and white Puerto Ricans, a decade later the federal
government no longer listed those designations. [27]
Balancing the concerns of race, as defined by mainland standards, and their Puerto
Rican identity was not easy. During the 1950s, in an effort to offset migrant anxieties
in advance of moving northward, the Puerto Rican Department of Education, in a
series of pamphlets entitled Emigracion, prepared islanders as best they could for their
forthcoming cultural shock. [28] Among its guidelines came a warning not to
contaminate ourselves with the prejudices of some Americans. [29] Emigracion went
on to firmly state that There is nothing more terrible to see than a Puerto Rican in
the United States who is contaminated by the prejudice there. He begins by attacking
the American blacks, and winds up attacking his own Puerto Rican brothers. [30]
Cubans of colour faced similar travails. Having migrated from a country where
miscegenation was historically common, the racial prejudice that they encountered in
the United States, like the incoming Puerto Ricans, was daunting. But two factors
distinguished them from their neighbours in Puerto Rico. First, prior to and after the
1959 revolution, few black Cubans migrated to the United States. Indeed, some 90
per cent of all Cuban refugees were white. [31] Second, those who did, unlike the
Puerto Ricans, landed in segregated dwellings even in Cuban neighbourhoods where
they faced discrimination from Cuban American landlords. [32]
Cubans, however, were selective in their prejudice. For instance, Orestes Minnie
Minoso, a black Cuban, held a place of distinction among his countrymen. While
stateside baseball fans viewed Minoso as the happy-go-lucky player, Cubans viewed
him as a serious-minded, generous, and honest man who gave everything he had.
[33] Thus, within Cuban circles, Minoso, like other players of colour who had
achieved success, had reached the level of whiteness. But while whiteness among
Latinos in their homelands was more about class than it was about race, in the United
States blacks from Latin regions faced a more difficult hurdle. That hurdle, Clemente
came to understand, was augmented by generations of misperceptions regarding the
Latino people and culture.
These boundaries gave Roberto Clemente greater incentive to succeed. In doing so,
the Pittsburgh outfielder emerged as a symbol for not only Latin recognition but also
Puerto Rican achievement. Indeed, by the mid-1950s, only the actress Rita Moreno
had earned any positive visibility from the American public. For many in the United
States, Puerto Rico had no profile other than those images of Latin people built upon
decades-long myth. Hence, Clementes earlier colour blind declarations were as
Roberto Clemente 683
much pronouncements of pride for his heritage as they were comments about race.
His Puerto Rican identity far exceeded any concerns about ethnicity. Language,
culture and tradition were the ingredients that fed into Clementes consciousness. So,
too, did Puerto Ricans on the mainland respond to him not as a black islander but as
a hero from their homeland. Clementes growing notoriety in the 1950s and 1960s
not only greatly tempered the negative profile of his people but also bridged the
uncomfortable gap between white and non-white Puerto Ricans in their stateside
enclaves. Most of all, he never wavered from the commonwealths most important
rule: Everyone is first a Puerto Rican and only second a member of a particular racial
group. [34]
Though he contemplated retirement after the 1971 championship season,
Clemente decided to play the following year in part to continue his quest to defuse
the negative images of Latinos in professional baseball. At that point, given his many
successes, the great outfielder increased his campaign on behalf of the Spanishspeaking quarter of the big leagues. Clemente contended in a 1972 interview that the
writers, at first, they thought Latinos were inferior to the American people. Now they
know they cant be sarcastic about Latinos. Which is something I have fought all of
my life. [35]
Clemente, however, did not live to see the fruits of his labours. On 31 December
1972, while escorting humanitarian aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, his plane
crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico. The baseball star and four others perished.
Eulogies to Clemente poured in immediately after the crash.. Clemente had the
touch of royalty, declared baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn. [36] We have lost
not only a great baseball player but a very wonderful human being added Pirates
general manager Joe Brown. [37] From the Puerto Rican community in New York
City, one shocked admirer grieved: It is a terrible thing. He was trying to help people
in Nicaragua when it happens. [38] Roberto Clemente lived nobly, gloriously and
with generosity. He fulfilled a high destiny for his family and for his people,
proclaimed a grief stricken Puerto Rican in San Juan. [39]
In April 1973, just months after the tragic plane crash, the Baseball Writers of
America voted to induct Clemente into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The induction came
five years before the traditional period of entry and, in keeping with Clementes career,
did not occur without controversy. Some believed that early induction was not
necessary alleging that special privilege could only hurt his legacy. [40] However,
Larry Caflin of the Boston Herald maintained that there could be no better candidate
to be the pioneer than Clemente to represent Latinos in the Hall of Fame. [41]
Following Clementes posthumous induction, the Pirates struggled to regain their
emotional equilibrium. Hes gone, said pitcher Dave Giusti, and theres not a thing
we can do about it. And it may not be wise to talk too much about it. [42] Slugger
Willie Stargell added that well miss the man more than the ballplayer. There are a lot
of men going around saying theyre great, but there arent many good men left. [43]
Clemente is still on the ball club. His spirit belong[s] here. You know how great he
was in the outfield. And he gives his life for somebody he dont know, catcher Manny
684 S. O. Regalado
Sanguillen marvelled. [44] The Pirates completed the 1970s as one of the most
competitive clubs in the National League. Only once after Clementes death did they
fall below second place in the Eastern Division standings. The Pirates captured three
division titles, and, in 1979, climbed back into the World Series and won the title. [45]
By then, Clementes legacy had gained considerable power beyond baseballs
diamonds. Immediately after his death, a relief-aid organization for the Nicaraguan
earthquake victims called the Roberto Clemente Memorial Fund came into existence.
[46] President Richard Nixon, an avid baseball fan, was among those who set the tone
for the contributions. In fact, after having donated $1,000 from his personal fortune,
the president brought executives from the Pirates to Washington and together they
initiated the fund. [47] Donations quickly grew to $350,000. [48] Other eulogies
followed. On 4 April 1973, Cardinal Luis Aponte Martinez of San Juan celebrated a
special mass in Brooklyn to honour Clemente. The service drew 2,500 people. [49]
Five days later, the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra performed at a Robertos
Youth City Benefit Concert. Nelson Briles, a former teammate of Clemente, was the
vocal soloist. [50]
In the next few years hundreds of other testimonials to the fallen star took place. In
1973 Major League Baseball renamed its Commissioners Award, an honour extended
to the ballplayer whose humanitarian efforts were notable, the Roberto Clemente
Award. Years later, Sammy Sosa, a Dominican who admired Clemente and donned
his number (21), won the award in consecutive years, 1998 and 1999. The Pittsburgh
Pirates created a Roberto Clemente Award of their own, for reasons similar to that of
the major league baseball version. Outside baseball, the United States Postal Service in
1982 issued a Roberto Clemente commemorative stamp. In Puerto Rico, its largest
indoor sports arena adopted the name Roberto Clemente Coliseum. Moreover, several
schools were named to honour the great ballplayer. City officials in San Juan
christened the street where his home stood as Calle Roberto Clemente. [51]
Over the decades Clementes legacy has continued to grow. Several books about his
life emerged, including an extensive and poignant biography written by David
Maraniss, a . [52] In 1999, Bob Cranmer, chairman of
the Allegheny County Commissioners, announced that Pittsburghs Sixth Street
Bridge, which spanned the Allegheny River and connected the city to the Pirates new
PNC Park, would be named Roberto Clemente Bridge. In 2002 Major League
Baseball Commissioner Allan Bud Selig, proclaimed 18 September to be Roberto
Clemente Day. [53]
Among the impressive testimonials, one that was far more modest than the others
appeared. During his lifetime, however, the Pirates star had made clear his desire to
create a sports city for disadvantaged youth. As early as 1967, Clemente shared his
blueprint for this project with reporters:
The biggest thing I want to do is for the youths . . . for the kids. When I am ready to
quit baseball, I will have my sports centre. It will be only a little thing to some but
to me it will be the most important thing in the world. [54]
Roberto Clemente 685
This project was so important to the great outfielder that shortly in advance of
attaining his 3,000th hit, a record held by only 25 players in the history of the big
leagues, he confided to his manager, Danny Murtaugh, that the most important
moment of his life was not to be the hit, but the creation of his sports centre: I have a
project going in Puerto Rico for the underprivileged and I have made so much
progress with the political men in our country that Im beginning to think my dream
will come true. [55]
Despite much early momentum in the wake of Clementes death, his Ciudad
Deportiva Roberto Clemente (Roberto Clemente Sports City) struggled for stability.
The project trudged along for the remainder of the 1970s and into the next decade.
Though the Puerto Rican government initially allocated 300 acres for its development
of the project, Ciudad Deportiva Roberto Clemente attempted to survive largely on
personal donations. By 1985 little had been accomplished. Clemente would be
terribly angry, reporter Dick Young reflected after he toured the grounds. [56] In
the late 1980s, Vera Clemente, the outfielders widow, attained corporate help.
Finally we are on the right course, again, she commented. [57] Luis Mayoral, a longtime Spanish-language sportscaster and close friend of Clementes, added: With the
support of private business we will work miracles here in the next three years. [58]
For many, Clementes legacy already had contributed mightily to the miracles of
those who followed him. By the end of the 1990s, three major leaguers Carlos
Baerga, Ruben Sierra and Ivan Rodriguez were alumni of Clementes centre. Many
other Puerto Ricans in professional baseball trained there. Indeed, almost 30 years
into its existence, Clementes dream had been achieved. Moreover, thanks to an
annual government donation of $784,000, the institution grew to offer a variety of
recreational facilities, which went well beyond baseball. My goal is to carry out my
fathers mission at the Sports City, announced Luis Roberto, the current executive
director of the facility. [59]
Clementes legacy, perhaps most importantly, found expression in a newer
generation of Latinos in the major leagues. Those who came into the big leagues in
the years following Clementes death expanded baseballs cultural horizons still
further. Moreover, mainstream audiences and the press responded to the
achievements of Latinos in a manner unseen during Clementss early years. Luis
Tiant, Fernando Valenzuela, Pedro Martinez and Sammy Sosa, to name a few, were
arguably heroes on a national level to many people beyond the Latin community.
Indeed, Sammy Sosas momentous 1998 home-run race with Mark McGwire
catapulted the Dominicans prestige to an unprecedented level for Latinos. Since
Clementes death, Latin players have captured five Cy Young awards; four Rookie of
the Year trophies; eight Most Valuable Player awards, and captured ten batting
championships. Finally, five Latinos have followed Clemente into the United States
Baseball Hall of Fame. [60]
Heightened recognition for Latin players also came as a result of an increase in the
Spanish-language media in the United States. Only a generation ago, the national
Hispanic media landscape was a spare one, populated by a handful of old-line
686 S. O. Regalado
community newspapers, low-wattage AM radio stations and one struggling television
network, a recent article stated in the Washington Post. By 2000, the reporters noted,
Spanish-language television stations are top-rated in major cities. [61] The increased
visibility also included Spanish-language broadcasts of major league games. Saddled
with a lack of recognition from the English-speaking press, Clemente, in his era, had
little recourse but to struggle in his relationships with the mainstream press corps. In
the years following his passing, Latino players no longer face such limited options in
advancing their own notoriety. Indeed, with the increase of the Latin media came an
increase in Spanish-language advertisers who routinely selected major league stars to
sell their products. [62]
Through it all, Clemente was not forgotten. For me he is the Jackie Robinson of
Latin baseball, observed Ozzie Guillen, a Venezuelan who came up to the big leagues
in 1985. [63] Puerto Rican baseball star Ivan Pudge Rodriguez, born in 1972,
explained: I saw Roberto in videos and [my father] told me about his life and
personality. Roberto is a hero in Puerto Rico. Expanding his thoughts, the star
catcher declared: To every Latin American Roberto is a hero; in Venezuela, Panama,
Santo Domingo, everybody knows Roberto. [64]
Roberto Clemente left his home in 1954 to chase a dream in the major leagues. By
1972, he was the gauge for success that Latin players and others used to measure their
own careers. His stamp upon the game he loved was unquestionable. His constant
hustle inspired his teammates throughout his career. Theres the old man out there
busting his ass off on every play and every game. Look, Im twenty-five. If he can play
like that, shouldnt I? said Gene Clines of his teammate in 1972. [65] But Clementes
goals evolved into a larger mission beyond baseball. As his prominence grew, so did
his sense of obligation to his brethren. By insisting over and over that the Spanishspeaking son of a sugar cane worker is as good a man as the native son, Clemente
helped reshape our concept of the Latin American player, writer Robert Heurer
explained. [66]
Clementes prominence also helped to bring the Puerto Rican identity, particularly
for those who had migrated onto the mainland, into greater focus. That a black man
became the islands favourite son resonated among the islanders who were abroad.
Clemente was an outspoken ambassador for Puerto Ricans and an outspoken defender
of blacks on and off the island. In this respect, he bridged several uncomfortable gaps
Puerto Ricans faced in their quest to both assimilate and maintain their heritage
amidst an English-speaking mainstream. His success in that endeavour resonated in
the years following his untimely death and his spirit provided motivation to those
Puerto Rican players whose time came well after the plane crash that took his life.
His legacy was also built on his celebrated challenges to undermine the old and
inaccurate perceptions of Latinos, particularly during an era in which the United States
mainstream struggled with the issue of race. Time and again, the English-speaking
media, either by virtue of sports journalists or entertainment, profiled Latinos in
derogatory manners. Indeed, in 1956, the US government even launched an
immigration policy called Operation Wetback. Thus, with virtually no clout among
Roberto Clemente 687
the powerbrokers, Latinos were in need of a voice that might challenge the status quo.
As Clemente realized, his outspoken approach, combined with his skills as a ball player,
were tools needed to alter those unfounded images. This was his formula, one which
inevitably accumulated dividends. During his career and in the years following his
death Puerto Rican Orlando Cepeda and Dominicans Felipe Alou and Pedro Martinez
took Clementes lead and stepped forward on behalf of Latino ballplayers. Outside
baseball, too, the seeds of Clementes repeated statements of Puerto Rican pride began
to bear fruit. Writer Virginia E. Sanchez Korrol observed that, by the 1980s, Puerto
Ricans on the mainland had nurtured a strong sense of self and reaffirm[ed] their
solidarity with Puerto Ricans in the island. [67] Additionally, though the massive
growth of the Spanish-language media in the United States occurred after his passing,
his legacy, as translated in their broadcasts and in the print press, remained a
gargantuan gauge that measured Latino success, both on and off the field. As the scales
of perception tipped in his direction during his final years as a player, Clemente
summed up his career-long efforts: My greatest satisfaction comes from helping to
erase the old opinion about Latin American and black ballplayers. [68]
[1] Les Beiderman, Clemente The Player Who Can Do It All, The Sporting News, 20 April
[2] For a biography of Clemente see Musick, Who Was Roberto?
[3] New York Times, 24 Sept. 1971.
[4] Sanchez Korrol, From Colonia to Community, 81.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Regalado, The Minor League Experience of Latin American Baseball Players. See also
Regalado, Viva Baseball!, 17881.
[7] Regalado, Viva Baseball!, 118.
[8] Ibid., 70.
[9] Rogosin, Invisible Men, 164.
[10] Kitano, Race Relations, 150.
[11] Fitzpatrick, Puerto Rican Americans, 105.
[12] Wakefield, Island in the City, 39.
[13] Regalado, Viva Baseball!, 71.
[14] There are several studies that chronicle sport and segregation. Tygiel, Baseballs Great
Experiment, and Miller and Wiggins, eds., Sport and the Color Line, among those most relevant
to the subject matter of the essay.
[15] See Tygiel, Baseballs Great Experiment.
[16] Perez, On Becoming Cuban, 217.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Musick, Who Was Roberto?, 75.
[19] The Sporting News, 11 Oct. 1961.
[20] Lou Prato, Why the Pirates Love the New Roberto Clemente, Sport, Aug. 1967, 36.
[21] The Sporting News, 19 April 1969.
[22] The San Juan Star, 4 Nov. 1971.
[23] Handlin, The Newcomers, 60.
[24] Ibid.
688 S. O. Regalado
[25] Fitzpatrick, Puerto Rican Americans, 109.
[26] Wakefield, Island in the City, 41.
[27] Fitzpatrick, Puerto Rican Americans, 101.
[28] Wagenheim, The Puerto Ricans, 290.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Daniels, Coming to America, 375.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Echevarria, The Pride of Havana, 28990.
[34] Mills et al., The Puerto Rican Journey, 7.
[35] C.R. Ways, Nobody Does Anything Better Than Me in Baseball Says Roberto Clemente,
The New York Times Magazine, 9 April 1972.
[36] Newsday (New York), 2 Jan. 1973.
[37] Ibid.
[38] New York Times, 3 Jan. 1973.
[39] San Juan Star, 2 Jan. 1973.
[40] Regalado, Viva Baseball!, 153.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Roberto Clemente file. Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, NY.
[43] Ibid.
[44] Ibid.
[45] Finoli, The Pittsburgh Pirates.
[46] The Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), 26 Jan. 1973.
[47] The Sporting News, 20 Jan. 1973.
[48] The Star-Ledger, 26 Jan. 1973.
[49] The Daily News (New York), 4 April 1973.
[50] Ibid., 9 April 1973.
[51] The New York Times, 22 Feb. 1976.
[52] Maraniss, Clemente. Maranisss narrative is a thoughtfully written account of the players
career and his immediate world.
[53] The Great Roberto Clemente-Latino Legends in Sports, available online at http://, accessed 27 Aug. 2003.
[54] Prato, Why the Pirates Love the New Roberto Clemente, 82.
[55] Arthur Daley, Sentimental Speed-Up for Roberto, The New York Times, 22 Feb. 1973.
[56] Dick Young, Clemente Complex is Getting New Life, New York Post, 25 Nov. 1985.
[57] Ibid.
[58] Ibid.
[59] Gabrielle Paese, Commemorating the 30th Anniversary of Roberto Clementes 3,000 Hit,
Puerto Rico Herald, 27 Sept. 2002, available online at
2002/vol6n39/PRSportsBeat0639-en.shtml, accessed 29 Sept. 2003.
[60] Information compiled from Gillette and Palmer, The 2006 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia.
[61] Frank Ahrens and Krissah Williams, Spanish-Language Media Expand, Washington Post, 11
Aug. 2003.
[62] Regalado, Viva Baseball!, 3rd edn, 21819.
[63] The Orlando Sentinel (Florida), 31 March 2002.
[64] Interview with Ivan Rodriguez. 23 June 1994, Anaheim, California.
[65] Regalado, Viva Baseball!, 151.
[66] Robert Heurer, Clementes Legacy for Latin Ballplayers, The New York Times, 2 Jan. 1983.
[67] Sanchez Korrol, From Colonia to Community, 235.
[68] Syracuse Herald-American, 25 April 1971.
Roberto Clemente 689
Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life.
New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.
Echevarria, Roberto Gonzalez. The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1999.
Finoli, David. The Pittsburgh Pirates. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2006.
Fitzpatrick, Joseph P. Puerto Rican Americans: The Meaning of Migration to the Mainland.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1979.
Gillette, Gary and Pete Palmer, ed. The 2006 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia. New York: Sterling, 2006.
Handlin, Oscar. The Newcomer: Negroes and Puerto Ricans in a Changing Metropolis. Garden City,
NY: Anchor Books, 1962.
Kitano, Harry H.L. Race Relations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991.
Maraniss, David. Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseballs Last Hero. New York: Simon and
Schuster, 2006.
Miller, Patrick B. and David K. Wiggins, ed. Sport and the Color Line: Black Athletes and Race
Relations in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Mills, C. Wright, Clarence Senior and Rose Kohn Goldsen. The Puerto Rican Journey: New Yorks
Newest Migrants. New York: Russell & Russell, 1967.
Musick, Phil. Who Was Roberto? A Biography of Roberto Clemente. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday,
Perez, Jr., Louis A. On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture. Chapel Hill, NC:
University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Regalado, Samuel O. The Minor League Experience of Latin American Baseball Players in Western
Communities, 19501970. Journal of the West XXVI (1) (Jan. 1987): 667.
. Viva Baseball!: Latin Major Leaguers and their Special Hunger. Urbana, IL: University of
Illinois Press, 1998.
. Viva Baseball! Latin Major Leaguers and their Special Hunger. 3rd edn. Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 2008.
Rogosin, Donn. Invisible Men: Life in Baseballs Negro Leagues. New York: Atheneum, 1985.
Sanchez Korrol, Virginia E. From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York
City. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983.
Tygiel, Jules. Baseballs Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1983.
Wagenheim, Kal. The Puerto Ricans: A Documentary History. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1973.
Wakefield, Dan. Island in the City: Puerto Ricans in New York. New York: Cornith Book, 1959.
690 S. O. Regalado

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