Roberto Clemente Walker was born on August 18, 1934, in Barrio San Antón, Carolina, Puerto Rico. He was the youngest of seven children. His father was a foreman who oversaw sugarcane cutters and helped deliver sand and gravel for a construction company. His mother did laundry, ran a grocery store, and did other jobs on the sugarcane plantation. Roberto did odd jobs so he could help the family and buy himself a bicycle. Growing up, Roberto played baseball and participated in track and field. He won medals for the javelin throw and short distance races. Throwing the javelin strengthened his arm for throwing a baseball.
At age 18, Roberto joined a Puerto Rican professional baseball team, the Cangrejeros de Santurce, where he played with Willie Mays in 1954. That year, Santurce won the Caribbean World Series. Roberto was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954. He played on a minor league team for a season before being chosen in the draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He played outfield with the Pirates from 1955–1972. He was selected for the National League All-Star team 15 times, won 12 Gold Glove Awards, and had the highest National League batting average for four years. He was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1966 and the World Series Most Valuable Player in 1971. His career batting average was .317 with 3,000 hits, 240 HRs, and 1,305 RBIs.
“The Pittsburgh fans have fallen in love with his spectacular fielding and his deadly right arm,” wrote reporter Les Biederman. He could throw out players from over 400 feet. Roberto was offended by the racism in the United States. He had not experienced this growing up in Puerto Rico. During his first spring training in Florida, segregation laws meant that Roberto was often forced to find his own lodging and eat meals on the bus rather than joining his white teammates at hotels or on the beach. He became an outspoken advocate for his rights and the rights of others. He also became a union leader and defended players’ rights.
- He batted and threw right-handed.
- His nicknames were Bob or Sweetness.
- His first great sense of accomplishment was being able to give his parents a new house.
- He continued to play Caribbean baseball for fifteen seasons after joining the Pirates.
- Roberto became the first Hispanic player to reach 3,000 hits.
- In 1956, he scored an inside-the-park grand-slam home run to win a game for the Pirates.
- Roberto didn’t play winter baseball in Puerto Rico in 1958–59 because he had to fulfill a six-month military obligation with the United States Marine Reserves.
- He was the first Latin American player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
- Roberto Clemente was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress in 1973 for his “outstanding athletic, civic, charitable, and humanitarian contributions.”
- In 2002, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
- The Pirates retired his number 21 at the start of the 1973 season. The right field wall at the Pirates’ PNC Park is 21 feet high in his honor. The Pirates have a statue of Roberto outside PNC Park at the corner near the Roberto Clemente Bridge.
- Roberto was known for his humanitarian efforts. He helped people in need across the United States and Central America and held free baseball clinics for children in Puerto Rico. In 1972, an earthquake struck Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. Roberto had managed a Puerto Rican all-star team in Managua, and he had friends there. He became the honorary chairman of an earthquake relief committee that raised $150,000 and gathered nearly 26 tons of relief supplies. Tragically, on New Year’s Eve, he died when the plane he was on to deliver the supplies crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.
- His dream was to build Sports City in Carolina, Puerto Rico. In 1974, his family was able to build a baseball stadium, practice fields, swimming pool, and gym to help disadvantaged youth develop athletic skills and to teach them the virtues of hard work and personal integrity.
Some players who played there and later joined the MLB were: Roberto and Sandy Alomar, Juan Gonzalez, Bernie Williams, Ivan Rodriguez, and Ruben Sierra.
Normally, a player cannot be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame until at least five years after he stopped playing. An exception was made for Roberto, and he was inducted in 1973. After his death, Major League Baseball established the Roberto Clemente Award recognizing the player who combines outstanding skills on the field with devoted work in the community. Broadcaster Tim McCarver called Roberto, “the greatest right fielder of all time,” because of his precise and powerful throwing arm. Roberto once said, “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 this earth.” Roberto also said, “I want to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all he had to give.”