Forty years later, Clemente's legacy continues to grow
Roberto Clemente has been gone longer than he lived.
He died in a plane crash 40 years ago Monday, New Year's Eve, after putting his 38 years on earth to extraordinary use. He left behind 18 Hall of Fame seasons with the Pirates, images of a distinct style and demeanor on and off the field, and a body of humanitarian work authored by a conscience rarely displayed anymore.
Yet perhaps an equally unique aspect of Clemente's life and death is that his legacy remains powerful and instructive, and it might be expanding.
Think of how the city and world have changed since Dec. 31, 1972, when his DC-7, an airplane too old and too small yet bearing supplies for Nicaraguan earthquake victims, crashed into the Caribbean Sea just off Puerto Rico. But Clemente remains alive to Pirates fans, even though those who saw him play would be approaching at least 50.
“The mythic aspects of baseball ... usually draw on cliches of the innocent past,” David Maraniss wrote in his 2006 biography, “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero.” Clemente's myth, he continues, “arcs the other way, to the future, not the past, to what people hope they can become.”
Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, recalls speaking to a third-grade class and mentioning the names of great Pirates players. Honus Wagner drew blank looks. Even Willie Stargell, a more recent legend, produced only slight recognition.
“But when I mentioned Roberto Clemente, four or five hands shot up,” she said.
About 30 public and private schools are named for Clemente, though, curiously, none in Western Pennsylvania. The Roberto Clemente Foundation is based here. The Roberto Clemente Bridge links Downtown with the North Shore's PNC Park and Roberto Clemente Memorial Park. Even in Mannheim, Germany, kids play on a Roberto Clemente Field.
More than a dozen books and a PBS documentary focus on Clemente, and he inspired movies and plays (including a musical called “DC-7, The Roberto Clemente Story”). Another film is in the works.
A Roberto Clemente Museum in Lawrenceville opened six years ago. People still want to know about the man, his life and baseball career — how he carried the torch for Hispanics and other minorities, athletes or not, demanding respect and fairness, and how he assisted those away from the game, usually children, the disabled and the underprivileged.
Even today, tributes to Clemente continue.
Those who knew him knew the talented ballplayer was a complicated person, buoyant, prickly, sometimes difficult. He could almost simultaneously display joy and anger, compassion and resentment, grace and fury.
In 2004, a New York nonprofit planned to fly supplies to Nicaragua on the 32nd anniversary of Clemente's death to fulfill his mission. Instead, the effort coordinated by his son, Roberto Clemente Jr., was diverted to assist victims of the South Asia tsunami and earthquake.
Major League Baseball has a Roberto Clemente Day — the only other player so honored is Jackie Robinson — and a Roberto Clemente Award for humanitarian achievements.
“This is the most meaningful thing I could ever win,” Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw said as the 2012 recipient, a year after winning the Cy Young Award.
A minor league team in Lorain, Ohio, a place with no connection to Clemente, held “Roberto Clemente Night” in July. A recent PiratesFest featured an $1,800 oil painting and less expensive artworks with Clemente's likeness, along with Clemente drinking glasses and plates, baseball cards, photographs, replicas of the ticket to the game in which he got his 3,000th hit, root beer cans, CDs and DVDs, a cassette recording of “The Ballad of Roberto Clemente” and more.
Two years ago, capping the Pirates' 50th anniversary celebration of the team's 1960 World Series triumph, Major League Baseball Network screened a film of the decisive Game 7 that ended with Bill Mazeroski's game-winning home run.
The audience at Byham Theater naturally erupted over that, but “the only person who really stirred the crowd was Clemente,” said veteran broadcaster Bob Costas, the emcee. “He didn't really have a big seventh game. But he'd make a catch and they applauded. They showed him on the on-deck circle and they applauded. They applauded every single time they saw him.”
Playing right field during a golden age of outfielders such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson and other stars, Clemente wasn't necessarily the best. But he was “distinctive,” said Costas, and that endures.
“He had a presence that went beyond the average major league ballplayer,” said Pirates broadcaster and ex-pitcher Steve Blass, who gave the eulogy at Clemente's memorial service. “Not only the way he played, but the way he handled life.”
Born poor in Puerto Rico, baseball's first Latino superstar earned iconic stature with Hispanics. He became an inspiration to succeeding Latino ballplayers “not just because he was in the first generation of Hispanic stars but because he carried himself with that dignity and pride,” Costas said.
“He stood for something beyond athletic excellence. We use the word, ‘hero,' all the time in sports but even before that flight to Nicaragua that never got there, there was something about Clemente that was in a sense heroic. And if not heroic, then deeply admirable.”
On Dec. 23, 1972, Pittsburghers went bonkers over the Steelers and Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception. Then Clemente died and “the shoulders of Pittsburgh slumped,” Blass said. Costas said Clemente's death “amplified what he was in life.”
Said Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig: “I keep saying that baseball is a social institution with great responsibility, and I keep thinking of Clemente. What he did was beyond heroic. Whether or not he should have gotten on the plane, it's not important. He was going to do the right thing.”
In his hometown of Carolina, a lasting monument is the 304-acre Ciudad Deportiva (Sports City) Roberto Clemente, an athletic and educational facility for kids. Clemente's wife, Vera, and her sons assist in its operation. In the larger scope, the family serves as keepers of the flame, with educational and charitable ventures.
“His following keeps growing,” said photographer Duane Rieder, who converted a firehouse into the Clemente Museum, crammed with artifacts he collects.
“It started out quiet and small,” Rieder said of the museum, “and now the phone rings off the hook and we get emails every day, people requesting tours.”
We might learn even more about Clemente. Rieder said elderly Puerto Ricans who knew Clemente feel compelled to share stories he made them promise they would never tell. “They're nearing the end of their life and they don't want to take them to the grave,” Rieder said.
One such tale involves a cousin of Vera's named Jacob, who used a wheelchair. As the story goes, Clemente during a family gathering took Jacob aside “and started working on him,” and he has walked ever since, Rieder said.
The story sounds fantastic but Vera Clemente confirmed the gist of it, noting that Clemente's chronic back and neck ailments gave him insight into dealing with maladies. He apparently had natural chiropractic skills.
“He had big hands, very strong hands and fingers, and he knew what to do,” Vera said. She said Clemente had a post-retirement goal of opening a free health clinic in Puerto Rico for the poor.
Sometimes his projects were smaller. In Pittsburgh, Rieder said, Clemente frequently read to the blind and performed other acts of kindness in secret.
“He was always trying to help people,” Vera Clemente said. “He would help people on the side of the road if they had car trouble, even if he didn't know them. He did it from his heart. He never talked about it.”
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7810.