Although Roberto Clemente (1934–1972) is best known today as a baseball legend, he was also a committed advocate for fairness and justice both on and off the island. The first Latino to enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Clemente played for the Pittsburg Pirates from1955–1972 and collected numerous awards, including four National League batting titles, two World Series Most Valuable Player Awards, and 12 Gold Glove Awards—all during a time when racial tensions loomed large in the field and nationwide and American sports leagues were just beginning to desegregate. As a politically engaged Puerto Rican black man, Clemente was dedicated to advancing civil and human rights through his everyday actions and more ambitious long-term projects. He spent his off-seasons involved in community work in Latin America and the Caribbean, and was committed to using baseball to educate, inspire, and uplift communities. Clemente’s biggest ambition was to build Ciudad Deportiva, a sports complex for disadvantaged families in Puerto Rico where children and teens could develop through sports, which was completed after his death.
Clemente’s anti-racist activism and resistance took many forms. Although sports journalists tried to diminish Clemente by mocking his accent and attempted to Anglicize his name as “Bob,” he refused to be whitewashed. Whenever he had the chance, Clemente affirmed his identity by asserting his given name “Roberto” and addressing his family in Spanish on local news networks. Despite the fact the his team’s fan base was largely white, Clemente overtly challenged racism in Major League Baseball. When Martin Luther King was killed, Clemente was able to convince and mobilize his team to reschedule the1968 season opener, which had been scheduled for the day after King’s death. He also fought against Jim Crow practices. At that time, when sports teams toured, it was also the expectation that black players remain on the bus while their white teammates ate at restaurants, waiting for them to bring back food. However, when the Pittsburgh Pirates trained in the South, Clemente demanded that the Pirates provide him and the other black players a station-wagon so they could go to restaurants that served blacks. These seemingly small actions brought issues of social inequality to audiences that had little reason to confront them.
Clemente’s struggles on and off the field extended to his international activism. His ethics of love and hospitality may be best exemplified through his dedication to providing humanitarian aid to Nicaragua after the 1972 earthquake in Managua. Once he discovered that the food and aid that was planned to be delivered to Nicaragua was being confiscated by the Somoza dictatorship, Clemente immediately mobilized to raise over $150,000 in cash and clothing, which he planned to personally deliver to the Nicaraguan people. Clemente worked twenty hours a day during the earthquake relief drive, even sacrificing his Christmas to oversee donations. Clemente, however, was never able to deliver the supplies as the plane he boarded crashed before reaching Nicaragua. Despite his untimely death, throughout his life, Clemente challenged racial barriers, and worked arduously to create a more equitable world for blacks, Latinos, and Afro-Latinos.
For further reading, Adrian Burgos Jr., Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), David Maraniss, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2006), and Bruce Markusen, The Team that Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburg Pirates (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2006).
In his own words: Roberto Clemente’s last interview, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFEH5nxSoKc&t=5s