Thought about Roberto Clemente the other day, as I sold a modern baseball card of his from 2001 on eBay that had a piece of game-used bat embedded in the card. It only sold for $27, but the memories were priceless.
While baseball historians have done a splendid job of chronicling Jackie Robinson and his contributions to the game, it seems like fans born after the mid-60’s don’t always have an appreciation of Clemente’s greatness and legacy. The barriers in major league baseball for African-Americans in the early-to-mid 50’s were significant, but those same barriers applied to Latin American players and the culture of baseball took a long time to change.
Clemente started playing professional baseball in his native Puerto Rico at age 18 and a beautiful replica jersey of his hangs in my closet with the logo of the Cangrejeros de Santurce team that he played for in the Winter League of 1953-54. In 1954, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him to a contract, but instead of adding him to the major league roster (which was filled with star players), they attempted to slightly circumvent the rules of the day and sent him to their AAA team in Montreal. Can you even imagine a 19 year-old kid trying to acclimate to an environment where they spoke two languages he didn’t understand? And, Tommy Lasorda was one of his teammates, so a third language was probably also in play. The Dodgers tried to keep him under wraps and he only hit .257 in 148 AB’s, but the lowly Pirates had him on their radar. The Pirates were bad enough to have the first pick in the off-season Rule 5 Draft and Clemente was their choice on 11/22/54.
In Pittsburgh, Roberto was the starting RF from day one and played 18 seasons with Bucs making the NL All-Star team 12 times and winning 12 Gold Gloves for his defensive prowess. On the last day of the 1972 season, Clemente got his 3,000th major league hit and then tragically lost his life on December 31, 1972 when the plane he was on crashed into the sea on its way to bring relief aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
As a youngster collecting baseball cards, I remember that Clemente’s early cards in the 50’s always listed him as “Roberto”. Later, after he became a star, the Topps Company issued many cards that “Americanized” his name to “Bob”. Even writers and broadcasters seemed to think that this reference (and even “Bobby”) was appropriate despite the fact that it was always was a point of contention with Clemente. Imagine what would happen today if someone referred to Pedro Martinez as “Pete”.
If you don’t consider yourself an expert on Clemente’s legacy, here are a few quotes from this talented and compassionate Hall of Famer…
> “I was born to play baseball.”
> “I am from the poor people; I represent the poor people. I like workers. I like people that suffer because these people have a different approach to life from the people that have everything and don’t know what suffering is.”
> “I want to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all he had to give.”
> If you have a chance to accomplish something that will make things better for people coming behind you, and you don’t do that, you are wasting your time on Earth.”
> “When I put on my uniform, I feel I am the proudest man on Earth.”
> “A nation without heroes is nothing.”
In the field of collectibles, it appears that Roberto is finally getting the level of respect that he deserves. His Rookie Card from the 1955 Topps has been steadily climbing in value. The current book price for one in “Near Mint” (NM 7) condition is $6,750. Just recently, a Clemente RC in “Mint” (9) condition sold at auction for a record $478,000. Less than a year ago, one in that same condition brought $310,000. To give some insight into the scarcity component, the grading company has reviewed over 3,000 of these cards and only 11 have achieved a grade of “9”.
Better check that old shoe box in the attic. “Donaldo” will be waiting for your call.