I first saw Roberto Clemente in 1955 when he was a 21-year-old outfielder playing for the Santurce Crabbers, a Puerto Rican Winter League team. My family had just moved from Dodger-less Los Angeles so that my father could take an assignment as a plant supervisor in Carolina, Clemente’s birthplace.
Little did I, a baseball hungry youth, realize that Winter League ball would be the bomb, and that my memories of those warm winter nights watching Clemente patrol the outfield would be, decades later, more vivid than any of the hundreds of major league games I’ve since seen. During the five years I watched winter ball at Sixto Escobar Stadium, Henry Aaron, Roy Campanella, Orlando Cepeda, Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax were among the shining stars.
Puerto Rican league baseball was anything but, as some might imagine, a winter vacation. For the players that included established major league stars like Clemente’s Hall of Fame teammate Willie Mays, Negro League standouts like Bob Thurman with his great “Big Swish” nickname, and emerging minor leaguers like New York Giants’ catcher Valmy Thomas, the first Virgin Islander to break into the bigs, they wanted to win if for no other reason than to avoid the fans’ wrath.
Fans passed the hat to reward players who got a game-winning hit. But those who committed a game-losing error only dared exit the clubhouse hours later, lest irate fans await them. Since winter league games were played only on Saturdays and Sunday, fans had all week to get fired up. When the hometown favorite lost, fans took it poorly, and engaged in socially unacceptable behavior.
On weekends and during my vacations, I worked at the Carolina plant, and there learned about Clemente from the employees who had been his boyhood friends. At noon, the workers crossed the street, and ate a rice and beans lunch.
I gradually learned Spanish and, as I sat around the table, heard firsthand tales of Clemente growing up in Carolina, a baseball Hall of Fame superstar in the making. The topic was always Clemente; during the summer, his Pittsburgh Pirates’ exploits, in winter months, his Puerto Rican league accomplishments.
At a Brooklyn Dodgers’ tryout held at Sixto Escobar, Clemente’s talents stood out. Then-Dodgers’ scout and future general manager, Al Campanis, filed his report, and graded Clemente, just 18, as “A” or “A+” in every key baseball skill: throwing, fielding, hitting, power and base running.
Campanis excitedly telegraphed Dodgers’ ownership to advise them about Clemente. The text: “Will mature into a big man. Attending high school. Has all the tools. Good looking prospect. Has written to the commissioner requesting permission to play organized ball.”
If anything, Campanis’ report was an understatement. During his 15-year winter league career, and batting against top flight pitching, Clemente hit .323. And in 18 years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Clemente batted .318 and reached the coveted 3,000 hit mark.
Coincidentally, in 1961, I was a University of Pittsburgh freshman. I arrived too late to participate in Pittsburgh’s delirium after the 1960 World Series upset of the Mickey Mantle-led New York Yankees. But during my four college years I was a Forbes Field regular, and saw Clemente win three of his four batting titles, and four of his 12 Gold Gloves.
Clemente’s story has two final chapters. One is well-known, the other less so. On a stormy 1972 New Year’s Eve night Clemente, on a humanitarian mission to Nicaragua, boarded a mechanically deficient DC-7 piloted by an unqualified crew. Moments after taking off from the San Juan Airport, the plane crashed, killing all onboard.
Clemente has been an inspiration to millions, and since his death, “The Great One,” as he is called in Pittsburgh, received immediate induction to the Hall of Fame, the Congressional Medal of Freedom, and has had streets, schools, statues, bridges and postage stamps dedicated to him. In 1999, The Sporting News named Clemente as baseball’s 20th greatest player.
Above the steps leading from the Pirates’ clubhouse to the field hangs a sign with this motivational Clemente quote: “When I put on my uniform, I feel I am the proudest man on earth.”
Only 38 when he died, Clemente may have gone on to greater achievements, on and off the field, if fate hadn’t taken him too early.