The evening of Dec. 31, 1972 not only changed the world of Major League Baseball, it would also be the source of inspiration and heartache for generations of baseball players, particularly those born in Latin-American countries. That fateful evening, Roberto Clemente, right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, would lose his life after a plane stocked with medicine and aid packages chartered for Nicaragua crashed off the coast of San Juan.
Clemente, undoubtedly among the greatest to ever play the game of baseball, is fondly remembered for his powerful defensive presence on the field, as well as his activism in favor of Civil Rights and his charity work apart from the game. Most importantly, however, he was – and remains – the pride of Puerto Rico.
First signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, Clemente was sent to the Montreal Royals (Triple A affiliate at the time), where he was mostly shelved despite his defensive and batting prowess, in an effort to keep him from being drafted. After moving to Pittsburgh, he was subject to ridicule by peers and the American press, with his accent being the butt of endless jokes. He was often called lazy for complaining about his chronic back pain and criticized when he took credit for leading his team to victory. Throughout an 18-year career, Clemente was under-appreciated by writers, owing to his race and ethnicity. In the end, as in all tragic plays, the world saw greatness before its eyes and did not realize it until the hero was no more.
Clemente’s life remains, to this day, the representation of what it means to be Hispanic in America. The values we bring to this great nation – hard work and personal responsibility – values America claims to embrace, are oftentimes met with dismissiveness. Our desire to integrate into society is met with jokes aimed at our accent and pattern of speech. The significance our collective culture has in our lives and communities is met with indifference.
Today, Major League Baseball celebrates Roberto Clemente’s life and contributions with a humanitarian award and a league-wide celebration in the month of September. Hundreds of schools across the country are named after the Puerto Rican legend. Nearly half a century after his untimely death, we owe Roberto Clemente Walker an eternal debt of gratitude, if anything else, for his choice to endure so much discrimination. Because of this, in due time, a child from even the poorest community could have the chance to walk the ground he broke. We owe Clemente a debt of gratitude for being a towering inspiration to us all.