The Complete Gamer
How Roberto Clemente Molded the Modern Ballplayer
By: Marty Winkler
The resume is, of course, deserving to be in the Hall of Fame:
- 2-Time World Series Champion
- 1966 National League MVP
- 15-Time All-Star
- 4-Time National League Batting Champion
- 12 consecutive Gold Gloves
- 3,000 Hits
- Lifetime .317 Batting Average
Reporters would talk about his swagger while he played. How he would glide into second base after hitting a double.
Teammates wanted to be near him. Upcoming players wanted to be like him. Young children wanted to be him.
Former Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said, "He gave the term 'complete' a new meaning. He made the word 'superstar' seem inadequate. He had about him the touch of royalty."
"He", of course, is Roberto Clemente.
"There was something magical about him," recalled Duane Rieder, Executive Director of the Roberto Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh. "Growing up, everyone wanted to be Number 21. He was larger than life."
Clemente made his Major League debut on April 17, 1955 at just 20-years old. He played across 18 seasons, showing off immense talent with both his bat and his glove. Not since the days of Babe Ruth had one ballplayer become the icon of his team, his town, and his sport all at once.
"Once you saw him, you were hooked," said Rieder.
While Clemente could steal the hearts of baseball fans on the field, he was more than capable of filling those hearts off of it.
"Clemente was all about helping kids, helping people, and leaving an impression," exclaimed Rieder. "He knew that would inspire that next generation to be like that themselves."
It was Clemente's willingness to give back that is his greatest legacy. And what lead him on one of his greatest humanitarian efforts, but also the one that took his life.
On December 23, 1972, an earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale struck Nicaragua, killing 7,000 people and leaving 250,000 more without a home. Clemente immediately sprang into action, accepting an honorary chairmanship of a newly formed relief organization and raised $150,000 and gathered over 25 tons of food, medical supplies, and clothing.
Reports came out that the Nicaraguan government was not allowing these supplies to be distributed, so Clemente decided to travel to Nicaragua himself to oversee the efforts.
Clemente's flight departed from San Juan, Puerto Rico at 9pm on December 31, 1972. The plane, ill-equipped and overweight, never made it out of San Juan air space, crashing into 30 feet of water off the coast of Puerto Rico. Everyone on the plane lost their lives, and Clemente's body was never recovered.
Clemente once said, "I want to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all he had to give"; A quote that teammates, family, and friends remembered fondly upon his death.
Today, 47 years after his death and 85 years after he was born, the game's legends and current stars continue to follow the path he left behind.
Former All-Star outfielder Carlos Beltran was one of the most feared hitters in baseball during his playing career. And he used the fame and financial status that came with his on-field success to open the Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy in Puerto Rico. After winning the Roberto Clemente award in 2013, Beltran cited Clemente as the inspiration for his own community service.
"I always wanted to be like him," remembered Beltran. "Having the opportunity to play baseball and having an opportunity to give back."
Beltran himself is a native of Puerto Rico, which is where Clemente's impact is still felt the most. He continues to be an inspiration not for being the first Puerto Rican to make it to the Majors, an honor that belongs to Hiram Bithorn, but for showing kindness to anyone and everyone from all walks of life.
St. Louis Cardinals Catcher, Yadier Molina was honored with the Clemente Award last year and he recalled his father telling stories about Clemente growing up. "He was even better outside the lines," Molina recalled. "Those words stuck in my mind."
Molina's brother, Bengie, echoed those sentiments in his book Molina: The Story of the Father Who Raised an Unlikely Baseball Dynasty.
"Clemente was so spectacular on the field and so noble off it," Molina writes. "[He] was all the evidence [my father] needed to support his belief that baseball beat out religion six ways to Sunday in turning out strong, decent men."
Even players who may be too young to be fully familiar with Clemente's story understand his importance to the game. Houston Astros Shortstop, Carlos Correa is one of baseball's youngest stars, winning Rookie of the Year in 2015, a World Series in 2017, and is already Houston's all-time home run leader at shortstop. Born 22 years after Clemente's passing, Correa still finds inspiration in both Clemente the player, and Clemente the person.
"The passion, the way he played, the way he went about his business every single day," exclaimed Correa. "The people he helped, the lives he impacted by everything he did off the field."
That word, passion, can summarize the legacy Clemente left behind. Passion for the game. Passion for doing things the right way. Passion for the people that you meet.
In a world where it is very easy to concentrate on one's self and only one's self, it is comforting to know that one person is still able to inspire so many to do good, even half a century after that person has passed.
Clemente had a simple, but poignant belief in what it meant to be alive: "Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don't, then you are wasting your time on Earth."
Clemente left a blueprint on which all ballplayers can build their own complete legacy. But, of course, you don't have to play baseball in order to leave a legacy of kindness.