45 Years of Winners
Last September marked the 45th anniversary of Roberto’s legendary 3,000th hit. It was one of baseball’s most triumphant moments, the crown jewel of an incredible career. But for Roberto it wasn’t all about the glitz and glamor, the records broken and games won. It was about the service. He once said that he wanted “to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all he had to give.” He didn’t say “played as hard as he could” or “signed the most lucrative contracts.” His statement wasn’t specific to baseball. He was a ballplayer, that was his craft and profession. But he considered himself, first and foremost, a servant of humanity. It was in honor of that legacy that, in 1973, the Roberto Clemente Award was established and given to Al Kaline. The award was renamed from the Commissioner’s Award, which had been given to Brooks Robinson in 1972 and Willie Mays (a long-time rival of Roberto’s) in 1971. It’s been given every year since to players who have shown remarkable commitment to the values that Roberto embodied.
Remarkably, 44 of the 49 players to receive the award over the years are still with us today. Almost all of them are retired, of course, but they are still around and doing good work for their communities. We hope to have as many of them present as possible for the Clemente Hall of Fame dedication ceremony in November. Some of these players, since receiving their awards, have gone on in the intervening years to exhibit deficiencies in character that Roberto certainly would not have approved of. It’s worth noting that such cases are exceptions, and most of these men have shown themselves to have exemplary character, at least in public. If anything, those exceptions serve as case studies to show that it’s always a mistake to hold up entertainers and athletes as paragons of virtue. Roberto himself wasn’t perfect, nobody is. What matters is the effort put in to use your platform to make the world a better place. That’s what we’re celebrating with our Hall of Fame. Our hope is that we can help cultivate the next generation of world-changers.
Kept in a Place of Honor
So what exactly is the award? It’s been given out for nearly 50 years, but it doesn’t get as much publicity as, say, the Cy Young Award. So what makes it stand out among the many (some would say too many) awards the MLB gives out each year? The Clemente Award is the only MLB award not based on field performance. Make no mistake, the recipient is always an outstanding player, but this is not a statistics award. It’s intended for athletes who embody Roberto’s values on the diamond and in the community. Because of that, it stands out as unique (because it is) and is simultaneously easy to ignore during the blitz of press that always comes with the end of the World Series. But while its media footprint may be relatively small, it has established itself as one of the sport’s most prestigious awards. Albert Pujols received it in 2008, and he devotes an entire page to it on his foundation website. It occupies a place of honor in his home, centralized on his mantlepiece away from his many other awards, and he shows it off to anyone who visits. Last year, Anthony Rizzo was similarly honored and expressed a similar sentiment: “It’s the greatest award you can win… This will go front and center in front of anything I’ve ever done on the baseball field.”
A Higher Calling
When asked what question he would ask Roberto if given the opportunity, Albert immediately responded: “Why did you go? Why did you get on that plane to serve those people in Nicaragua who you did not know and had never met?” We think he nailed Roberto’s hypothetical response: “ ‘Because it was my responsibility.’ I feel the same way. It is my responsibility.” Roberto didn’t commit himself to service because he thought it would make him seem like a better person. He didn’t even do it out of some vague notion of “the right thing to do.” He recognized very specific oppressions and sufferings in the world (none of which have been eliminated since), and was compelled by a higher power to do what he could to make it right. It was his responsibility, and we are all called to use our talents to answer that same call. None of us are exempt.