Updated: Sep 8, 2020
Few players in Major League Baseball history are more universally respected than Roberto Clemente. On the diamond, he was equally skilled at the plate and in the field, winning four batting titles and 12 Gold Gloves in his 18-year career. Off the field, he is remembered for his contributions to humanity, particularly to those in need.
Clemente’s love of baseball began in his native Puerto Rico, where as a kid he watched both American and Latin stars play in the Winter League. When he reached high school, his athletic talent attracted the attention of pro scouts, who were especially impressed with his running ability and throwing arm, the latter of which being developed by throwing the javelin.
At 18, Clemente was offered a contract to play for the Santurce Cangrejeros of the Puerto Rican League. After some initial growing pains, he became one of the league’s most promising young players, which brought further interest from Major League scouts.
On February 19, 1954, Clemente was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers for a $5,000 salary and $10,000 signing bonus. Facing a crowded outfield in Brooklyn, he spent the season playing for the Dodgers’ minor league affiliate in Montreal. Since Clemente signed for more than $5,000 and was not on the Major League roster in 1954, he was exposed to the Rule 5 Draft following the season. Much to the Dodgers’ disappointment, he was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates and former Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey for only $4,000.
The Pirates knew they had received great value in Clemente. That value rose even further after a successful Winter League season in which Clemente won the league championship on a star-studded Santurce team featuring Willie Mays and Don Zimmer. The Pirates prospect was ready for the big leagues.
Clemente became a starter in right field early in his rookie season of 1955. At the plate he hit a respectable .255 with five home runs and 47 RBIs in 124 games, but it was his play in right field that really impressed, as he led all National League right fielders with 16 assists.
Already one of the NL’s rising defensive stars, Clemente just needed to improve at the plate. He did just that, raising his average 56 points to .311 in 1956, while adding seven home runs, 60 RBIs, 30 doubles and seven triples.
A back injury hampered Clemente in 1957, forcing him to miss 43 games and dropping his average to .253. He rebounded to hit .289 in 1958, while also leading the NL in outfield assists with 22. In 1959, an elbow injury cost Clemente another 49 games, but he still managed to hit .296 with 50 RBIs.
The 1960 season proved to be a breakthrough for both the Pirates and their young star. After finishing in last place in Clemente’s rookie season, Pittsburgh gradually worked its way up the standings, posting winning records in both 1958 and 59. It all came together in 1960, as the Pirates won 95 games and the NL pennant.
The Pirates advanced to the World Series for the first time in 33 years, and Clemente was named an All-Star for the first time, setting career highs with a .314 average, 16 home runs, 94 RBIs and 89 runs. The Pirates won the World Series in dramatic fashion, as Bill Mazeroski hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 against the powerful New York Yankees. Clemente hit .310 for the series, and had a hit in all seven games.
In 1961, Clemente won his first batting title at .351 and his first of twelve straight Gold Gloves in right field. He also had 23 home runs, 89 RBIs, 100 runs, 201 hits and a .949 OPS, and once again led all NL outfielders in assists with 19. The following season, he set a career high with 27 outfield assists, while hitting .312.
The Pirates All-Star was now firmly established as one of the best all-around players in baseball. His spectacular catches and laser throws had been a staple since his rookie year, and now he had joined the ranks as one of the game’s elite hitters. His ability to hit any pitch in any location made him a nightmare for opposing pitchers.
Clemente’s plate prowess was on full display in 1964-65, as he won back-to-back batting titles, hitting .339 and .329 respectively. The next season he won NL MVP, hitting .317 while setting career highs with 29 home runs, 119 RBIs, 105 runs and 342 total bases. He won his usual Gold Glove, and led all NL outfielders with 17 assists.
Even though he finished third in MVP voting in 1967, Clemente had arguably his best year. He won his fourth batting title with a career-best .357, and also set personal highs with 209 hits and a .400 on-base percentage. He added 23 home runs, 110 RBIs, 103 runs and a league-leading 17 outfield assists.
The next three seasons saw Clemente continue his excellent play at the plate and in right field, but nagging injuries forced him to miss a total of 108 games from 1968-70.
After losing to the Cincinnati Reds in the NL Championship Series in 1970, the Pirates were back on top in 1971. Pittsburgh won 97 games and defeated the San Francisco Giants 3-1 in the NLCS to advance to the World Series for the first time since 1960.
Clemente was outstanding as usual, hitting .341 and winning another Gold Glove in right field. He saved his best for last, though, hitting .414 with two home runs and a 1.210 OPS in the Pirates’ 4-3 series win over the 101-win Baltimore Orioles. Clemente was named World Series MVP for his efforts, which included the decisive home run in Game 7.
The next season left only one goal for the 37-year-old Clemente: getting to 3,000 hits. An intestinal bug and a heel injury plagued the Pirates star throughout 1972, leaving him 30 hits shy of 3,000 entering September. That’s when Clemente got hot, getting 29 hits by September 28. On September 30 against the New York Mets, he hit a double off the left field fence in Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium for number 3,000.
Even after rising to stardom in the states, Clemente continued to participate in the Winter League. He not only wanted to perform in front of his native Puerto Ricans, he also felt a connection to the other countries in Latin America, including Nicaragua.
On December 23, 1972, a major earthquake struck Nicaragua’s capital city of Managua. Clemente organized a relief effort to bring emergency supplies to the country, and decided to go along on one of the cargo planes.
On December 31 at approximately 9pm, the plane carrying Clemente began to experience trouble. The pilot tried to return to the San Juan airport in Puerto Rico, but the plane crashed about one mile off shore in the Atlantic Ocean. Clemente and four other men on the plane were dead.
The following Spring, Hall of Fame voters held a special election for Clemente, waiving the usual 5-year waiting period required for eligibility. On March 20, the late Pirates star was elected to the Hall with 92.7 percent of the vote. Also in 1973, the Commissioner’s Award, which honors players for their contributions both on and off the field, was renamed in Clemente’s honor.
The final numbers on Roberto Clemente the ballplayer are impressive: a .317 average, 3,000 hits, 240 home runs, 1,305 RBIs, 1,416 runs, 440 doubles, 166 triples and 266 outfield assists. The numbers on Roberto Clemente the human being are immeasurable. His charitable acts helped countless individuals during his lifetime, and his legacy of giving will continue to inspire future generations of players and humanitarians.