Two Icons: Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente

B MacCorrespondent IMarch 30, 2009

PITTSBURGH - JULY 7: Fans look over Roberto Clemente memorabilia during opening day of Fan Fest for the Major League Baseball 2006 All-Star game at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center July 7, 2006 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images)

I was typing up my Gen Ed (short for General Education) English paper on icons, when I remember my paper was on Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente. I figured I would post it here and let you the readers think about how these two legends of the diamond are true icons of American culture.

I did use other sources and information that I did borrow, so I will give credit to those whose information and articles I used to help me write this essay.

This great nation has had its share of icons. Some of these icons are born and bred American, and some icons are born and bred elsewhere around the world. Many of these so called “icons” are not icons at all but rather “anti-icons.”

“Anti-icons” are “figures magnified to larger than life proportions not because they really are larger than life but precisely because they aren’t outstanding at all” (Massik and Solomon 712).

As Jake Brennan, a lifestyle commentator for states, “one of the only ways to get attention consistently is to shock people in new and ‘interesting’ ways” (Massik and Solomon 729). Two real American and Non-American icons are Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente.

Robinson and Clemente are no the prototypical sports icons. No. They pioneered not only social change but cultural change as well.

Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente pioneered social and cultural change in the United States and around the world. This social and cultural change was not just in baseball alone, no, but rather in society as well.

While both icons were prolific and legendary players in their own time, hence the fact that both Robinson and Clemente are in Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Hall of Fame in Cooperstown New York.

Both players/icons faced tremendous challenges along their career paths. Both pioneered said social and cultural change by methods that would seem different to most people, but were very, very, similar in nature.

The majority of challenges faced by Robinson and Clemente were through racial and cultural dogmas and stigmas by the general public. Both players in reality did not want to pioneer social changes, but rather just to achieve their own personal success at Major League Baseball.

Jackie Robinson, full name: “Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born in the town of Cairo, Georgia in 1919 to a family of sharecroppers” (Estate of Jackie Robinson). Robinson was a four sport star at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

While at UCLA, he “was the first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football and track” (Estate of Jackie Robinson). The context of how Robinson became an American cultural icon lies in the roots of World War II United States. Prior to becoming a social and cultural pioneer he was in the army.

The United States Army was at this point starting to become desegregated, thanks to “the Roosevelt administration ordering non-discrimination in war-related industries” (Kelly 1011).

After being court-martialed for relations to objections with incidents of racial discrimination, and after being honorably discharged in the midst of a global war, came home and played professional baseball.

Major League Baseball never had an African American ballplayer prior to 1947. In 1947 it is a well known fact that Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. Jim Kelly in his 2005 article entitled: Integrating America states that “Jackie Robinson was the first black American known by most of white America” (Kelly 1012).

Robinson’s work ethic in the face of daunting challenges earned him the adulation of his teammates. According to Kelly, “the theme continually, was that the first man across the colour line could not fight back.

"He had to have the courage to take abuse, again and again, to suffer the indignities and injuries, even the spiking and knockdowns, without antagonistic response” (Kelly 1020).

Kelly states in another article that “Jackie Robinson’s transcendent status in American culture is no surprise, then. He is not only a piece of American history but a vehicle for the idea of it, specifically when he becomes one of ‘us’, not ‘them’, for US citizens” (Kelly 1040). “His suffering won over the hearts and minds” (1041) Kelly states.

This is important to Robinson’s cultural figure because it makes white America sympathetic to similar trials and tribulations that their families endured as immigrants. As a tribute to Robinson, Major League Baseball retired his number. Robinson’s number is the only one retired by all 28 teams.

Roberto Clemente was born in 1934 in Carolina, Puerto Rico. Clemente’s work ethic is almost as well known as his humanitarian side. Samuel O. Regalado states that “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” (Regalado 678).

Clemente was more than a prolific hitter of his day, he had other “credentials as well: a generous heart, compassion and a sense of outrage at social injustice” (Regalado 679).

Regalado states in his article, that in a 1971 interview that Clemente had with the New York Times, “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'".

Clemente endured the negative stereotypes of Spanish speaking people and persevered at his craft. Clemente was a rare individual; he believed that race was irrelevant in determining the quality of a person. “I don’t believe in colour, I believe in people” Clemente would tout his remark (Regalado 680).

This speaks volumes of Clemente’s personality, and ideology. Prior to the 1972 season’s commencement, Clemente had thought of retiring, but he decided to return for the 1972 season to “continue his quest to defuse the negative images of Latinos in professional baseball” (Regalado 684).

Roberto Clemente never got to see his hard work pay off. On New Year’s Eve of 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” (Regalado 684).

The general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Joe Brown said, “We have lost not only a great baseball player but a very wonderful human being” (Regalado 684).

Some of the other things said about Clemente were, “Roberto Clemente lived nobly, gloriously and with generosity. He fulfilled a high destiny for his family and for his people” (Regalado 684).

Five months after the crash the Baseball Writers of America voted to induct Clemente into the Baseball Hall of Fame (Regalado 684). Clemente was a very modest and humble individual.

“‘Why in America,’ he would ask, ‘if someone tells you, you are a good ballplayer, must you say, you know, ‘Aw shucks’ so you can end up hearing it three times?’” (Collier 34). When somebody would compliment Clemente, he would say “Thank you very much. Yes, I am proud of what I do. I think I am the best in the game” (Collier 34).

Clemente and Robinson were two of the greatest players to live and play. Their actions on and off the field changed American history, culture and society. These two icons made it possible for a generation and future generations of Americans and non-Americans like to play and enjoy baseball.

Both players have foundations and awards aplenty. The character that these ballplayers and icons alike displayed is one of strength, courage, and pride. Future generations would adopt their style of ball playing and life.

To those articles I used:


Works Cited

Collier, Gene. "Pride and Petualance." The Sporting News 28 Dec. 1992: 34-34.

Kelly, John. "Exclusionary America: Jackie Robinson, Decolonization and Baseball not Black and White." The International Journal of the History of Sport 22 (2005): 1035+.

Kelly, John. "Integrating America: Jackie Robinson, Critical Events and Baseball Black and White." The International Journal of the History of Sport 22 (2005): 1011+.

Maasik, Sonia, and Jack Solomon. "Celebrities Who Aren't Really Celebrities." Signs of Life in the USA Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006. 729.

Maasik, Sonia, and Jack Solomon. Signs of Life in the USA Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006.

The Official Site of Jackie Robinson. 29 Mar. 2009 .

Regalado, Samuel O. "Roberto Clemente: Images, Identity and Legacy." The International Journal of the History of Sport 25 (2008): 678+.


    Yawkey Way Name Change Approved by City Panel

    MLB logo

    Yawkey Way Name Change Approved by City Panel

    Milton J. Valencia

    Analyzing Early-Season Buzz Around Every MLB Team

    Pittsburgh Pirates logo
    Pittsburgh Pirates

    Analyzing Early-Season Buzz Around Every MLB Team

    Jacob Shafer
    via Bleacher Report

    The Most Overrated Stars of Baseball

    MLB logo

    The Most Overrated Stars of Baseball

    Zachary D. Rymer
    via Bleacher Report

    Scherzer Is Running Away with MLB's Pitching Race (For Now)

    MLB logo

    Scherzer Is Running Away with MLB's Pitching Race (For Now)

    Zachary D. Rymer
    via Bleacher Report