This post first appeared on BaseballDigest.com
For a game that celebrates important milestones, it is appropriate that Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente sits among the greatest ballplayers of all time with exactly 3,000 career hits. At the time of his sudden death at the age of 38 on the New Years Eve of 1973, Clemente was coming off his fifth straight season with a batting average above .300, and thirteenth time overall for his career. There’s no mistaking that Roberto Clemente would have surpassed 3,000 hits and built upon an already impressive resume had his life not been cut short.
That being said, Roberto Clemente’s impact on Major League Baseball and the importance being involved in humanitarian activities has grown tremendously since December 31st, 1972, when Clemente died while escorting supplies to Nicaragua, which had been devastated by an earthquake. Roberto Clemente, in more ways than one, has established himself as a benchmark for excellence on and off the field for future ballplayers.
Born on August 18th, 1934 in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Clemente reached the major leagues as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates at the age of 20. For a franchise coming off its third straight eighth place finish Clemente offered a glimpse of potential, even if the team finished in eighth once again during his rookie season.
Bart Ripp of the Daily Iowan wrote about the ‘gifted player and extraordinary man’ that Roberto Clemente was in a March 1973 issue. Click here to check it out!
Over the first five seasons of his career, he solidified himself as the every day right fielder. During the off seasons, Clemente played in the Puerto Rican Baseball League. However, a major change in his off season regiment had an impact on the rest of his career. During the off season before the 1959 season, Clemente served with the United States Marine Corps Reserves, which added ten pounds to his frame and contributed to his .296 average during the 1959 season. The off season change proved beneficial, and he continued as a member of the corps through 1964. Beginning in 1960, Clemente hit above .300 eight times and won four NL batting titles along the way.
As Clemente was arriving on the national stage, he was carrying the Pirates with him. For the first time since 1927 the Pirates were facing off against the American League in the Fall Classic, and for the first time in 45 years the Pirates became kings of baseball when they defeated the New York Yankees for their third franchise title. Clemente earned his first of fifteen All-Star nods during the 1960 season, and the first of twelve consecutive Gold Glove Awards.
From 1960 to his final season in 1972, Clemente hit .329 over that span. Over the course of his career, he averaged 200 hits, twice leading the league in that category. Frankly, the right fielder ranked among the top 10 every year in most offensive and defensive categories throughout his career. He secured his only MVP Award in 1966, in the midst of a four year span where he hit a robust .335.
In a September 1971 issue of Baseball Digest, Roberto Clemente tells George Voss about the ‘Game He’ll Never Forget’. Click here to read all about it!
With the new decade, the Pirates returned to the postseason in three straight seasons, culminating with a World Series victory over the 101 win Baltimore Orioles in 1971. Clemente did his part with a .342 season average and a .414 average in the World Series. Though he played in just 102 games during the 1972 season, Clemente showed as a 38 year old that he was far from being finished as a ballplayer at the major league level. His final at bat came on September 30th, 1972; and he stroked a double to left field. He came around to score the first run in a 2-0 victory over the New York Mets.
On December 23rd, 1972, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck Managua, Nicaragua, killing 5,000 people, injuring 20,000 more and leaving a quarter million homeless. Clemente organized efforts to send supplies to the victims, and encountered a government that was stockpiling foreign aid instead of ensuring the supplies reached victims. After three failed flights with supplies Roberto Clemente boarded a plane overloaded, bound for Nicaragua, on December 31st, in hopes of ensuring supplies reached their intended destination. Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico.
Roberto Clemente’s body was never recovered, despite efforts by even his long time friend and teammate Manny Sanguillen, who dove off the coast of Puerto Rico on the day of his funeral services. Less than four months after his death, the Baseball Writers Association of America held a special election to waive the five year waiting period to induct him into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Since 1973, Roberto Clemente has been posthumously honored in several ways. Perhaps the biggest honor Clemente has received(next to the three Presidential Awards) is the renaming of the Commissioner’s Award presented by Major League Baseball each year to a player in his honor that “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team”. Clemente’s legacy also lives on with his his, Roberto Clemente Jr., who established the Roberto Clemente Foundation in 1993.