roberto's story
THE JOURNEY BEGINS

Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker is one of the greatest athletes and humanitarians of the 20th century. For the people of Puerto Rico he is one of the ultimate symbols of national pride, not just for the records he set but for the lives he touched with his activism and with the simple power of watching someone from your community achieve excellence without compromising their character.

Born August 18, 1934 to a laundress named Luisa Walker in Barrio San Antón, Carolina, he went from loading trucks on a sugarcane plantation for his father, Melchor Clemente, to beginning his career with the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League at just 17 years old.

Roberto Clemente and prospect Junior Gilliam in 1952-53 season with Santurce Cangrejeros.
Photo: JCD Collection

A MOTHER’S EXAMPLE

Roberto’s all-around talent for sports was visible early on. He excelled in the high jump and javelin throw at Vizcarrondo High School, and there was talk that he might be good enough for the Olympics. But baseball was his true passion, and he could often be seen with a rubber ball in hand, flexing to improve his grip.

Sports commentators often invoked industrial imagery when describing Roberto’s arm; it was a “gun,” a “rifle,” a “weapon” renowned for its laser precision and raw power. He would often claim that his mother Luisa had just as powerful an arm as his, which is actually believable given her life of arduous manual labor. Despite having little time for herself, she gifted her son with a lifelong passion for baseball.

A Son in Reflection
by Dick Perez

MAJOR LEAGUE HERO

Roberto’s professional idol was Monte Irvin, a pioneering black left-fielder and first baseman who wintered in Puerto Rico, playing for the San Juan Senators. Roberto and his friends would carry the Senators’ bags for them and get into the field for free. Monte remembered the youngster fondly and gave him a ball and glove as gifts, though he didn’t see him play until much later.

The combined influence of Monte and Luisa inspired Roberto to pursue his baseball dream, and his javelin experience was visible in how he understood the physics of the ball and his body. He certainly made an impression when the Dodgers sent Al Campanis to Puerto Rico to scout for talent.

Brooklyn Dodgers tryout August 1952. The person with the
Dodgers shirt is Al Campanis.
Photo: Benny Agosto/JCD collection

A BRAVE CHOICE

At Campanis’s urging (he called Roberto the “best free-agent athlete I’ve ever seen”), the Dodgers offered Roberto a $5000 salary with $10000 bonus to sign with them in 1954. Melchor told a local newspaper that, if the Dodgers didn’t pay him sufficiently, Roberto would study engineering in Mayagüez instead.

Sensing an opportunity, Luis Olmo of the Braves approached Roberto with a $30000 offer. He went to his parents for advice, and Luisa recommended that he sign with whoever he gave his word to first. By staying true to his word and signing with the Dodgers, the 18-year-old Roberto built his professional career on an honorable foundation.

Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame

DODGING OBSCURITY

It was a rough and frustrating journey from the Dodgers to the Pirates, and to fame. An arcane rule was in effect at the time that basically stranded young signees on the bench for entire seasons. Even though they risked losing Roberto in the offseason draft, the Dodgers assigned him to the International League during the ’54 season, playing for the Montreal Royals.

Later, Roberto stated to the press that he believes the Dodgers “hid” him in Montreal, which has become the conventional understanding. But Roberto’s talent was already well-known to the drafting community, and the Dodgers had to outbid the Giants, Braves, Red Sox, and Cardinals to sign him in the first place.

Photo: JCD Collection

THE MONTREAL SEASON

In all probability, the deciding factors were experience and race. Roberto was very “green,” very new when he was signed, and the Dodgers’ pool of outfielders was crowded. He had bypassed normal Minor League tiers without having a chance to hone his skills in them.

There was also concern in the office that “too many minorities” on the field may upset white players and fans. The situation was such that, had Roberto stayed with the Dodgers, he could have been lost in the team’s dense pool of talent and we wouldn’t be talking about him today. In Montreal, Roberto had so few opportunities to play that he struggled to perform consistently, and press reports from the time rarely mention him.

Roberto Clemente in 1954-55 Winter season with the Santurce Cangrejeros. Photo: JCD Collection

ENCOUNTERING PREJUDICE

When the team traveled to Richmond, Virginia for games, Roberto encountered Jim Crow laws for the first time when the black players had to stay at a separate hotel. There was no segregation in Canadian baseball, at least not officially, and he had grown up idolizing the Negro League players who would play on the island in winter.

In the Deep South, he quickly learned that these great players were being deliberately ignored by many Americans, 8 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line. It was an awakening he would never forget.

Bob Thurman, one of the best all time players in Puerto Rico,
with Roberto Clemente in 1954-55 season. Photo: JCD Collection

THE PITTSBURGH TRADE

Though the Dodgers wanted to keep him, it was the Pittsburgh Pirates who had first pick in the offseason draft due to their record low performance that year. Clyde Sukeforth was in Montreal on behalf of Branch Rickey, the man who signed Jackie to the Dodgers and had become the Pirates’ new general manager.

Sukeforth was blown away by what little of Roberto he got to see, and made sure he was at the top of their priority list. Branch Rickey Jr. was sent to the drafting meeting, where he crushed the dreams of every suit in the room by selecting Clemente.

Roberto Clemente wears the Pittsburgh Pirates flannel for the first time at the Santurce Cangrejeros clubhouse. Photo: JCD Collection

THE LEGEND OF 21

Later he received his iconic 21 jersey, in which he would dominate the game throughout the 60’s and inscribe the number into sporting legend forever. It was a mythic time, and the rhetoric used to describe him reflects that. One announcer remarked that “Clemente in the outfield was an epic poem,” putting him in a class with the ancient heroes of Homer and Virgil, while teammate Dick Groat observed that he “was built like a Greek god.”

The prologue of David Maraniss’s definitive biography is titled “Memory and Myth,” and books about Clemente are notoriously spotty in their balance of truth and fiction. In a period perceived as a second “dead-ball” era, it was easy to see top performers like Mays, Aaron, Mantle, and Clemente as titans.

Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame

FALLING IN LOVE

Unlike the heroes of antiquity, Roberto didn’t leave his family out of the quest. He and Vera Zabala grew up in the same area at the same time, but they didn’t meet until three years after his first World Series win. The first time their paths crossed, her brother was giving her a ride and they passed Roberto in his white cadillac.

She recognized his face from the paper, while he didn’t notice her at all. Roberto was a well-established hometown hero, so in theory he could have swept her off her feet with his wealth and star status. He wasn’t that kind of man, and she wasn’t that kind of woman.

Photo: JCD Collection

an eternal match

The second time, the tables were turned. Roberto saw Vera on the street, making a trip to the drugstore, and he asked the clerk who she was after she left. From there he courted her respectfully after seeking out her parents’ approval. The Zabalas were suspicious at first, but it became clear that Roberto was somehow uncorrupted by his celebrity.

The wedding in November 1964 was a national event, with thousands lining the streets to see the procession. Roberto Jr. would come into their lives in 1965, followed by Luis in 1966 and Enrique in 1969.

Photo: JCD Collection

THE NEXT GENERATION

By the end of his career, Roberto had joined the esteemed 3,000-hit club, won four batting titles, twelve Gold Gloves, two World Series, a National League MVP award, and a .317 lifetime batting average. He struggled with sleep deprivation, and told his friend Luis Mayoral that “If I could sleep, I’d hit .400 every year.”

But for him it was never about the awards, or the stats, or the fame. It was always about service, making the world a better place. He was capable of bearing the huge weight of representing Puerto Rico and larger Latin America in the eyes of the white world, and he took that responsibility very seriously.

Photo: JCD Collection

greatest day of my life

Managing the San Juan Senators, the team he had carried bags for all those years ago, was a highlight of his later life. His heart was always for his community, as he showed after the 1971 World Series when he addressed Luisa and Melchor in Spanish on TV:

“En el día más grande de mi vida, para los nenes la bendición mía, y que mis padres me den la bendición en Puerto Rico.” “On the greatest day of my life, to my children [I give] my blessing, and [I ask] that my parents in Puerto Rico give me their blessing.”

Photo: JCD Collection

EL TERREMOTO

The 1972 holiday season was a dark one for Latin America. On December 23, a vicious earthquake struck at the heart of Nicaragua, just two weeks after Roberto and the Senators had been there for the Amateur World Series. The movement of the quake was horizontal, like something had woken up beneath the earth, and the cathedral clock in Managua jolted to a stop at 12:27 AM.

As the aftermath worsened, Roberto heard that shipments of supplies he’d sent to the country had disappeared in the chaos. He insisted on seeing the next shipment there himself to ensure that the Somoza regime distributed the aid appropriately. It was December 30, and the flight was scheduled for the morning.

Photo: JCD Collection

premonition

The boys were sleeping at the Zabalas’ house. Robertito, 7 years old at the time, was always nervous when his father flew and often attempted to hide his plane tickets. As Abuela Zabala was tucking him in, he eerily told her that he thought the plane was going to crash. She told him everything would be fine, as any grandmother would.

Tragically and unforeseeably, she was wrong. The plane was overloaded and crashed into the ocean immediately after takeoff. It was one of the most surreal days in Puerto Rican history. Not only did Robertito have his premonition, but both Vera and Melchor had dark feelings that something was wrong, and those feelings were confirmed as the news spread through the island and the press.

Photo: Donald Sparks

LOOKING AHEAD

In only two decades, from his first games at Sixto Escobar Stadium on the Isleta de San Juan to the horror off the coast of Piñones, Roberto built a legacy that has lasted to the present day. His body was never found, but his presence is powerfully felt on the island to this day. Schools, streets, parks, and other landmarks bear his name.

Here at the Roberto Clemente Foundation, we believe in Roberto’s power to affect powerful change today. He may not be with us, but we can carry on his legacy into the future.

Photo: JCD Collection

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