Forty years ago today, MLB superstar Roberto Clemente died. We reflect on his legacy. Originally published July 2011 on Obit-Mag.com.
When Derek Jeter notched his 3,000th hit this weekend, he followed it up with another at his next at-bat. In one game, Jeter leap-frogged ahead of Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates star of the 1960s and 1970s, and became 27th on the all-time career hit list. Surely Jeter will rise higher in those rankings. With half of this season left and more years on his contract, the Yankee captain has more in his bat, diminishing power notwithstanding. He will further burnish an already stellar resume, something that Roberto Clemente was never able to do.
This is a March 1972 photo showing Pittsburgh Pirates' Roberto Clemente. (AP Photo)
Clemente, perhaps the most iconic Latino player in the history of the sport, is stuck at 3,000. At his last plate appearance of the 1972 regular season, he hit a stand-up double that minted his membership in that hallowed club of hitters. But it would be his last regular season hit.
The Pirates lost in the first round of the playoffs that year, and Clemente died in a plane crash that December while airlifting relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
At opening day last season 28.3% of MLB roster spots were filled by Latinos. Clemente wasn't the first Latino to play in the big leagues, but he was the first Latino player to be named league MVP, the first Latino player to start on a World Series-winning team and the first Latino World Series MVP. Like Jackie Robinson before him (and, to a lesser degree, Ichiro Suzuki after him), Clemente blazed a trail of ethnic expansion in the big leagues.
In the 2006 biography Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero, Washington Post staffer and author David Maraniss wrote that Clemente felt like a "double nigger." As a black Puerto Rican playing in white working class Pittsburg, he felt alienated. But even if the challenge of playing in a less accepting time left him temperamental and pouty, Clemente was, by all accounts, a superlative and gentlemanly sportsman. His death in the midst of humanitarian work redoubles that impression.
Furthermore, his death at the threshold of statistical greatness can be viewed as a metaphor for achievement that cuts in two ways.
For 18 seasons, Clemente played fantastic baseball. His lifetime batting average stands a solid .317. He peppered his 3,000 hits around the field with an array of deft and crafty swings (some attribute Clemente's approach to hitting as a result of constant neck pain he experienced, inhibiting his power but favoring timing). On the defensive side, his rocket-like throwing arm and range as an outfielder made him a formidable asset with his glove. He was a swift baserunner to boot.
Roberto Clemente is the gatekeeper of the 3,000 club. Each new initiate shares, in some fundamental way, his qualities as an athlete. In a twisted reading of baseball history, this seems somehow appropriate. His powers are frozen in time like a latter version of the runners depicted in that great John Keats poem, "Ode to a Grecian Urn."
Though beauty and truth are at times indistinguishable, they often oppose one another. There was nothing Romantic about Clemente's tragic death. When he died, there was little talk of his waning power as an athlete. He was 38 years-old, but his production hadn't precipitously dropped. For baseball purists, the heart-wrenching side of Clemente 's demise is the potential, even as an 18-year veteran, that was cut off. What other records would he chase? Could he win another batting title? Four-thousand hits? Could he eclipse the then all-time leader in hits, (the terrible racist) Ty Cobb?
For those who appreciate prominent citizens who aren't shy about working for others, respecting heritage, and being bold in the face of adversity, the tragedy of Clemente's death is less about numbers and more about what he could have accomplished after baseball. If he was a hero in Pittsburg, he was a god in Puerto Rico.
When Derek Jeter rounded first base on Saturday, the Tampa Bay Rays first baseman tipped his hat to the Yankee captain. The pageantry and show of respect for the milestone was shared by opponent and teammate alike. These moments of on-field theater, of recognition, don't happen often. The resonance of a hat tip or applause from a rival is of particular salutary merit.
Jorge Posada, Jeter's longtime teammate, was the first player to hug the beaming shortstop, after he touched homeplate--Jeter's 3,000th hit was a homerun. Posada, like Clemente, is from Puerto Rico. When the next player reaches 3,000 hits (Washington National's Puerto Rican catcher Ivan Rodriguez is the closest active player to the milestone), it might be worthwhile to consider that moment of on-field celebration as a tribute to Roberto Clemente too. He might be stuck at 3,000 hits, but he lives on in the potential of his sport to transform power into grace, ballplayers into icons.
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