Clemente — Baseball's Last Hero

By Chuck Fiebernitz | Jun 14, 2012
Photo by: MLB Roberto Clemente Walker

We have all seen on television or even in person a lot of talented major league baseball players.  The greatest of the bunch always seem to just stand head and shoulders above all others the moment they step on to the field.
One of those elite players was Roberto Clemente, one of the game’s greatest rightfielders for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Clemente was a Latino legend, who tracked down balls in the gap that were bound for an extra base hit, gracefully ran down a deep fly ball and threw an incredible rocket to the catcher to cut down the runner. He used every moving part of his body as he raced around the bases at full speed, legging out another extra base hit or going from first to third or racing home on a single from second.  He was electrifying with his knack for bad-ball hitting and he had all the natural skills as every baseball fan enjoyed watching him play.
Clemente was born in San Anton in Carolina, Puerto Rico, and excelled in track and field, winning medals in the javelin throw and short distance races. However, his real love was baseball.
At the young age of 17, Clemente was discovered by Al Campanis, a scout for Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers. We all know the story that Rickey was responsible for breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier by signing African American player Jackie Robinson.
But few know the fact that Rickey continued to set new standards for the color barrier when he drafted Clemente, the first-ever Hispanic player, and then signed him for a reported $5,000 monthly salary and a $10,000 signing bonus in February, 1953. But he never got to play a single game in Brooklyn or Los Angeles.
Rules of the time required a team signing a player for a bonus and salary of more than $4,000 to keep him on the major league roster for two years or risk losing him in the off-season draft.  Many bonus players in baseball during this period were kept at the major league level, sitting on the bench for two years rather than developing in the minors. The Dodgers, however, chose to develop Clemente and he spent the 1954 season with the Montreal Royals in the International League, even though it meant they might lose him at the end of the season.
And the Dodgers did, despite their strenuous efforts to keep Clemente’s profile low. But the keen eye of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ scouting bureau discovered Clemente and  promptly selected and signed him for $4,000 on Nov. 22, 1954.
In his first Major League season with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1955, Clemente had a solid rookie season batting .255 with five homers and 47 RBI. He built upon that foundation and batted .311 in his sophomore season. After that, Clemente hit above .300 for the next 12 seasons.
In his pro career, he got over 200 hits four times (1961,64,66,67), hit over .350 three times (1961, 67, 70), led the league in batting four times and won 12 consecutive gold glove awards.
During his career, no other Latin American had ever achieved the numbers and recognition like Clemente did. But fame was elusive for one of the greatest players because of his Hispanic background.
According to reports, Clemente believed privately that Latino players could never get a fair shake from the media and the American fans. His only M.V.P. award came in 1966, despite dominating the entire decade and the ultimate slap in the face came when Major League Baseball selected a “Player of the 60s.”
Clemente was overlooked and received only a handful of votes, while Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax was named “Player of the 60s” by an overwhelming margin.
It was often said by baseball writers and players that Clemente played “something close to the level of absolute perfection.”
Please, don’t misunderstand me. Clemente received many awards for his on-the-field performance. As a matter of fact, in his 18-year career, he received every possible award given in Major League Baseball.
But what he accomplished on-the-field wasn’t properly recognized in postseason awards by the writers.
But what wasn’t ignored was Clemente’s off-the-field efforts as a humanitarian, which solidified his greatness. He had a passion to help children through sports.
Unfortunately, it took his tragic death in a plane crash on the last day of 1972 to propel him into the same category as one of the greatest players of all-time.
Nearly three months after his death, the Baseball Writers Association of America held a special election for the Baseball Hall of Fame. They voted to waive the five-year waiting period for Clemente, due to the circumstances of his death, and posthumously elected him for induction into the Hall of Fame, giving him 393 of the 420 available votes, or 92 percent of the vote.
But somehow I find that so terribly shameful for the writers that even after his death, the passionate and graceful Clemente, baseball's last hero, couldn’t get 100 percent of the vote.