Roberto Clemente: Baseball's Last Hero

Charlie CoxCorrespondent IDecember 29, 2008

As a foreword to writing this article, I would like to thank David Maraniss, author of "Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero." Maraniss' biography provided insight to the last hero to grace the game.


Roberto Clemente—arguably the greatest player on and off the field, the martyr of baseball, its last hero.

A stellar outfielder compiling 12 gold gloves, 12 All-Star selections, four batting titles, two World Series titles, a World Series MVP, a Babe Ruth award, an MVP title in 1966, and exactly 3,000 hits in 18 seasons, Clemente is also, oddly, the only player to hit a walk-off-inside-the-park-grand slam.

Clemente was also involved in charity work in Puerto Rico and Nicaragua until he was tragically killed in an aviation accident on the way to aid earthquake victims.

Clemente was born Aug. 18, 1934 in Carolina, Puerto Rico, the youngest of seven siblings. Clemente struggled in childhood, working from a young age to help his family. An interest in baseball was sparked in him and he played against the neighboring barrios.

Clemente was later recruited by Roberto Marin to play shortstop for a softball team. Clemente then went to play in an amateur league at the age of 16.

Roberto began his professional career when Pedrin Zorilla offered him a contract with Santurce Crabbers. Zorilla desperately tried to hide Clemente by making him a bench player to prevent him from signing with a professional team.

Clemente hit .288 the following year as the leadoff hitter and signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers' AAA team in Montreal, where Clemente received the same treatment: no playing time. Max Macon, the team manager, treated him "more like a baby than bonus, protected from the world, often hidden in the dugout," as Maraniss states.

Clemente's biggest struggle thus far, however, was racism. Despite being Puerto Rican he was discriminated against while Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella faced Jim Crow segregation.

Clemente's biggest enemy early on was Montreal Gazette writer Dink Carroll, who constantly criticized him in the newspaper.

However, despite the attempts to hide Roberto, the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him in the first round with the first overall pick in 1954, over second overall pick Willie Mays.

Clemente finished his rookie season in Pittsburgh, hitting .255 and battling media and inner-team racial tensions.

Clemente then finished the '50s, in 1959 leading the Pirates to their first winning season since 1949.

Clemente didn't play winter ball like the rest of the league. Roberto instead enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Reserves, spending six years of military commitment as an infantryman.

The rigorous conditioning and military training kept him in shape throughout the winter. Clemente remained in the Army Reserves until 1964, but this did not slow down his play.

In 1960, Clemente hit .314 with 16 home runs, earning a spot on the All-Star roster. He also led his team to a pennant and World Series title over the New York Yankees. Clemente hit safely in all seven games.

In 1961, Clemente was elected as the starting right fielder for the National League All-Star team and led the team to a 10th inning walk-off double to win 5-4 over the American League. Clemente also earned his first batting title of his career.

The following season Clemente struggled with a back injury, hitting .255 for the first quarter of the season before returning hitting in 33 out of 34 games, improving his average to .340. Clemente earned a third consecutive All-Star selection as a pinch hitter.

For the rest of the 1960s, Clemente hit over .300. He was also awarded the MVP in 1966. From 1961 on, Clemente did not go a year where he did not earn a Gold Glove or all-star selection.

In 1971, Clemente led the Buccos to another World Series championship over the Baltimore Orioles, who had won more than 100 games during the season. Clemente hit .414 and earned the World Series MVP award.

Clemente went on to struggle during the 1972 season, plagued by injuries and missing 60 games. However, Clemente still managed to hit .312 in the season. On Sept. 30, 1972, Clemente doubled off the wall against the New York Mets' Jon Matlock for his 3,000th hit. There was no show, no stopping of the game. Clemente humbly removed his helmet, waved to the crowd, and kept playing.

The following offseason, Clemente left for Managua, Nicaragua on New Year's Eve to aid earthquake victims. Clemente's plane never made it, crashing off the coast of Islas Verde, Puerto Rico.

Clemente was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1973 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. The Roberto Clemente Award is given out every year to a player who displays humanitarian effort.

Clemente, a hero on and off the field, and a symbol for persevering through discrimination and overcoming hate, left his mark on the game as the greatest player ever to play. Bud Selig said it best at the 2006 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh: "Roberto was a hero in every sense of the word."