Clemente a Player Involved On and Off the Diamond
By LEONARD KOPPETT
The way Roberto Clemente died had more to do with the way he had lived
than all the spectacular baseball statistics for which, in due ourse, he will be
enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Few men, if any, have played professional baseball better than Clemente
during his 18-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. And few players put as
much passion into other aspects of life as he did.
Not halfway through his 39th year, he was personally involved in a mission
of mercy, trying to relieve the suffering of strangers caused by an earthquake
in a country he had previously visited only briefly. Most athletes, or anyone
else earning nearly $200,000 a year, as Clemente did, lend their names,
financial support or even their exhortations to some worthy cause and let it
go at that. But Clemente had to go in person.
This capacity for involvement characterized him as a ballplayer and helped
generate some of the misunderstandings that made him a controversial
But in the end--the brutally abrupt end--his baseball skills remained the
achievement of his life and the reason his personality mattered to so many
Made 3,000 Hits
He made exactly 3,000 hits, and only 10 players in more than 100 years
major league baseball had made more. He won four National League batting
championships and a most-valuable-player award. He helped his team to
victory the only two times it reached the World Series. His career batting
average was .317, highest of all active players with at least a few years of
In addition he was acknowledged as one of the greatest fielders of his
with an exceptionally strong and accurate throwing arm, and a first-rate
base-runner. As the "complete player," his only peers as contemporaries were
Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, each of whom got greater recognition because
they hit more home runs.
Clemente was Puerto Rican and black, and fiercely proud of his identity.
status as a national hero in Puerto Rico stemmed as much from his outspoken
expression of such pride as from his baseball feats. Other Puerto Ricans had
won baseball glory, but few had made such explicit demands for respect and
A High School Star
His destiny was baseball from the start. He was born on Aug. 18, 1934,
Carolina, the San Juan suburb that remained his home. He was the youngest
child in a large, financially comfortable family. His father was a foreman on a
sugar plantation, and his plans for Roberto pointed toward engineering.
But while still in high school at 17, he was playing baseball so spectacularly
that he was given a $500 bonus to join the Santurce team in the Puerto Rican
League, in which professionals from the States also played. In his third
season, the winter of 1953-54, he hit .356, and the major league scouts had
In 1954 there was still an unspoken quota system limiting the number of
players a team would use, although Jackie Robinson had already completed
seven seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers. There was also a distinct set of
prejudices about "Spanish-speaking players." And there was a "bonus rule"
that forced a major league team to keep on its active roster any player to
whom it had paid more than $4,000 for signing--a deterrent to giving bonuses
to a player not ready to play in the majors immediately.
But Clemente's talent was so evident that all three deterrents were
disregarded. After some bidding, the Dodgers landed him for $10,000
outright and a $5,000 salary to play for their Montreal club. That meant he
could be drafted by another team for $4,000 after the 1954 season.
There are conflicting versions of what happened next. The facts are that
Clemente played part-time for Montreal, batted .257 and was drafted by
Pittsburgh, which had first choice because it finished last in 1953.
Pirates Weren't Fooled
The Dodgers had won the pennant in 1953 by a huge margin and couldn't
have signed Clemente without a bonus. They knew, they said afterward, they
would lose him in the draft, but it was worth the money to keep him from
signing with the New York Giants, who already had Mays. The idea of a
Mays and Clemente playing side by side was too frightening for the Dodgers
Another version is that the Dodgers hoped to sneak Clemente through the
draft by not playing him much (to hide his ability) and by loading the Montreal
roster with other attractive draft picks. But the Pirates, under the direction of
Branch Rickey, who had left Brooklyn three years before, were not fooled.
Clemente started the 1955 season with a Pittsburgh club that had lost 317
games in three years, finishing last each time. He was not yet 21 and was
among a half-dozen young players who were to make Pittsburgh a World
Series winner by 1960--Dick Groat, Bill Mazeroski, Roy Face, Vern Law,
Don Hoak and Bill Virdon, now Pittsburgh's manager.
Clemente's bitterness about nonrecognition dates to the 1960 season. A
member of that team, he felt unjustly neglected when so much of the praise
was heaped on others who had done no more. For the next decade, during
which he won his four batting championships and the M.V.P. in 1966, a
feeling of being unappreciated marred his satisfaction with increasing fame and
Recognition finally came in full measure in 1971. By then the acknowledged
leader of the Pirates, he led them into the World Series and, as underdogs, to
a dramatic seven- game victory over Baltimore. He hit .414 in that Series, but
was even more dominating by his involvement in key plays and was finally
hailed by the widest possible audience for what he had been all along: a player
of all-around excellence second to none.
By that time he was deep into his dream of building a "Sports City" in
Rico to encourage children and youngsters to play. It was a project that
needed financing but could not provide profit--quite different from the usual
"baseball school camp."
He had been to Nicaragua for an amateur baseball tournament. That was
enough of a tie to impel him to head a relief committee after the earthquake
last month, interrupting his activities with baseball for youngsters. His
organization collected $160,000 and tons of supplies in a week.
He could have stayed home with his wife, Vera, and their children, Roberto
Jr., 7; Luis, 5, and Ricky, 4. He almost returned to them from the airport
when the takeoff was delayed several hours. But he decided to go.
He had expected to be back in time for a New Year's Eve party and a
meeting today with Joe L. Brown, the Pittsburgh general manager, who was
coming to him with his 1973 contract.