Johnny Pesky, the late Boston Red Sox player and manager for whom Fenway Park’s right field foul (really, fair) pole is named, said he’d seen but one hitter who could get solid wood on the ball as well as his friend and teammate Ted Williams.
That person was Roberto Clemente who played 18 years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, beginning in 1955. His career and life ended at the end of 1972.
On New Year’s Eve Clemente, putting compassion ahead of caution, boarded a faulty cargo plane loaded with supplies for earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Shortly after takeoff from San Juan, Puerto Rico, the plane crashed in the Atlantic Ocean and the body of the 38-year-old baseball star was never recovered.
Four times he had been named National League batting champion. He was league MVP in 1966 and World Series MVP in 1971. Repeatedly, he won Gold Gloves from 1961 to 1972, and often led the league in “assists” — meaning that his rocket arm in right field caught many runners trying to take another base.
Clemente was hailed widely for both his athleticism and humanitarian efforts. He received numerous commendations and was deservedly voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
However, his treatment as a young player coming from his native Puerto Rico to the states was far less dignified and truly shameful. When Clemente left the island to play professional baseball in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization he experienced unexpected discrimination based solely on skin tone — something African Americans here had long experienced.
Years earlier, as a starting pitcher for the Chicago Cubs in 1942, Hiram Bithorn became the first Puerto Rican to play in the major leagues. That was five years before Jackie Robinson “broke the color barrier.” But there was a big difference: Bithorn had light skin like all the other players in the majors.
Slugger Vic Power became the first Puerto Rican to play in the American League. But due to his dark skin, he received a different reception.
While racism is a most serious matter, Power was known to confront it with his quick wit. A long-told story from the 1950s recalls Power entering a diner and being told by the waitress, “We don’t serve Negroes,” to which he replied: “That’s OK, I don’t eat Negroes; just bring me some beans and rice.”
Clemente received similar treatment to earlier professional baseball players with dark skin, especially during spring training in Florida where black players were excluded from social activities and forced to live in homes or dingy hotels away from the training complexes.
Also, in the ’50s, white players received signing bonuses that averaged six times what was paid to black and Latino players, according to David Maraniss, author of Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero. This biography, which I read over the holidays, was my primary source for this writing.
Recognizing Clemente’s talents, the Dodgers tried to hide him in their minor league system by not playing him when visiting scouts were in attendance. But the ever-shrewd Branch Rickey — yes, the former Dodgers boss and instigator of Jackie Robinson’s 1947 appearance — had taken charge of the Pittsburgh Pirates and acquired Clemente in the Rule 5 draft following the 1954 season.
In Fort Myers, the spring training home to the Pirates beginning in 1955, Clemente and other black players were subjected to the humiliation of Jim Crow segregation. While white players and their families enjoyed golf, swimming and other resort activities, Clemente was sent to a poor black neighborhood where, culturally, he had little in common other than coming from meager means and the color of his skin.
The hard-throwing outfielder was shy by nature, but his “sense of fairness” took over, according to Maraniss. He declared to himself that he would be “treated as a human being.”
Some sportswriters described him as moody, intense or aloof. Clear double standards existed: white players who showed emotion were “fierce competitors” while darker-skinned teammates would be deemed showboating. Even Clemente’s basket catches, much like those by Willie Mays, were panned in the press.
After the Pirates defeated the Yankees in the amazing 1960 World Series — which featured Bill Mazeroski’s dramatic walk-off home run — not all the heroes were not treated equally.
As Maraniss tells it, the Fort Myers Booster Club threw a big welcome luncheon at the start of spring training in 1961 to celebrate the reigning world champions. The big event drew the governor of Pennsylvania and the commissioner of baseball as well as other dignitaries, along with the Pirates manager and some star players.
Clemente — the only player to hit in all seven games of the series — was not on the invitation list. As Maraniss noted, Clemente would not have been admitted into the Hideaway unless he was a waiter or dishwasher.
Black Pirates players were also excluded from viewing a film at a downtown theater that highlighted the 1960 World Series — as well as the annual Pirates golf tournament at the Fort Myers Country Club.
Wendell Smith, the groundbreaking African-American sportswriter who featured prominently in Jackie Robinson’s story, led the public campaign against training camp segregation.
Not mincing words, Smith wrote in the Pittsburgh Courier to and for black stars of the Chicago White Sox who trained in Sarasota: “Despite all your achievements and fame, the vicious system of racial segregation in Florida’s hick towns condemns you to a life of humiliation and ostracism.”
Smith got specific, naming the acts of discrimination endured by black players in contrast to their white teammates — included living and eating away from the team, the inability to catch a cab to the training facility, needing special permission to meet with their own manager at the team hotel, and being unable to bring their families to Florida to share in the spring training experience.
The Pirates camp experience in Fort Myers — where Clemente reported — was considered even worse for black players.
Regarding spring training 1961, Maraniss wrote of Clemente: “Here he was, a star player on the world champions of baseball, a reservist in the U.S. Marine Corps, still treated like a second-class citizen.”
Clemente and other dark-skinned players, who broke into major league baseball in the ’50s, would be forced to stay on the team bus while the white players enjoyed a meal in a nice restaurant. Their food came later when teammates would bring a burger or something else back to the bus.
Clemente, who was unfamiliar with such racial discrimination in Puerto Rico, saw the practice as insulting — what he considered to be “begging for food.” He told the other black players that anyone caught doing such a thing would have to fight him to get it.
It is gratifying to remember Roberto Clemente — deemed by biographer Maraniss as “baseball’s last hero” — for his gifted athleticism and the altruism that brought his earthly life to an early end.
But we need to remember more — especially this weekend. Racism is ugly, awful, sinful and inexcusable wherever and whenever it is found. It is not the will of God, yet it is not easily overcome. It lingers and even gets resurrected.
Maraniss noted that the racial discrimination faced by Clemente and his black teammates in spring training 1961 in Fort Myers — at the same time the team was hailed as world champions — came 14 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down separate-but-equal school segregation policies, five years after Rosa Park wouldn’t budge, and four years after Little Rock’s Central High was forcibly desegregated.
We must not be naïve nor dismissive due to progress that has been made: Racism is found not only in our history, but in the present — even empowered during this recent political season.
Once when asked to name his heroes, Clemente started his list with Martin Luther King Jr. — affirming King’s philosophy of nonviolence as the means to social change along with the need to give voice to the voiceless.
Later the two would get acquainted, with King even visiting Clemente at his farm in Puerto Rico. When King was murdered in April 1968, Clemente led player efforts to delay the start of the baseball season until after King’s funeral.
A younger black player for the Pirates, Al Oliver, considered Clemente a mentor and person of sterling character. He told Maraniss that Clemente “had a problem with people who treat you differently because of where you were from, your nationality, your color, also poor people…”
Well, Jesus had a problem with that too. We should all see that as a problem — and give voice to it.
[This image of Roberto Clemente hangs in my baseball-themed basement as a tribute to one who boldly and gracefully faced fastballs, misrepresentation and discrimination with a determined mind, grateful heart and helping hands.]