First Published 12/24/2022 ~ "CLEMENTE" ~ The Apostle James wrote, "What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled' without giving them the things needed for the body; what does it profit? So, faith by itself, if it has not works, is dead." Roberto Clemente gave his life putting these words and his Christian faith into action. As we celebrate another Christmas and the coming New Year, it is easy to get distracted in all the chaos modern Christmas brings. True Christmas is supposed to mark the birth of Christ Jesus and bring with it the peace that promise fulfills. This holiday season we also mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Roberto Clemente, one of baseball's greatest ever and one of the world's great humanitarians. On September 30, 1972, Roberto would hit a stand-up double, put his hands on his hips, look towards heaven and roll his neck in a fashion his fans would know well. He seemed to be savoring the moment. It was a long way from the Puerto Rican sugar cane fields he grew up working on in a family that struggled to provide. That hit would make him just the 11th player to reach 3000 hits, the first Latino to achieve the mark, and would be the last regular season hit of his illustrious 18-year career, all with the Pittsburg Pirates. Just three months later, he would perish in a plane crash bringing aid to the people of Nicaragua after an earthquake on December 23, 1972, killed thousands and left thousands more homeless in the Central American country. Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker was born on August 18, 1934, in Carolina Puerto Rico. He was an Olympic hopeful in track and field before focusing on baseball. Roberto would use that speed to run the bases with abandon in his easily recognizable style and shag fly balls with the grace of a ballet dancer to the delight of fans everywhere. He would run full steam, make the catch and slide to avoid his center fielder or the foul line wall. His baseball IQ seemingly always positioned him to play the carom in right field cleanly, returning the ball to the infield, often to third or home to prevent runners from scoring, without a bounce. From his debut in 1955 until his final season in 1972 he was arguably the greatest right fielder ever. A devout Catholic and a proud man, he would champion truth while fighting injustice on and off the field. Many white players would look at him only as black. Many black players would look at him as foreign. While in the South for spring training he would have to ride the black bus and wasn't allowed to stay in the whites only hotels or eat in the whites only restaurants. Sports writers would quote him phonetically trying to mimic his thick Spanish accent, something he considered an insult and a sign of disrespect. He and his wife Vera were told they couldn't afford the furniture they were shopping for by a salesman who only saw his color not knowing who he was. Like Jesus, Roberto was often misquoted and misunderstood, but he would persevere with his dignity. Lies are quick, but the truth is often slow. The truth, like cream and Clemente, would eventually rise. He would go from a quiet rookie to a respected team leader. On the field he was a 15-time All-Star who would amass 3000 hits, a career .317 average, 166 triples, two World Series (1960 & 1971) and four batting titles. Known for his cannon of an arm, baserunners knew they were never safe. He would lead the league in OF assist five times and DP's turned by a right fielder four times. His 12 Gold Gloves are tied with only Willie Mays for most by an outfielder. His 1966 MVP and his 1971 World Series MVP are both first for a Latino player. And in the history of baseball, he is the only player with an inside-the-park walk-off grand slam. However, it was when the lights went off at the park and the sports writers and the cameramen weren't with him, that Roberto Clemente truly went to work. Like Jesus, Roberto knew his true purpose was to the common people, not his celebrity. He would donate his time coaching and teaching kids all over the US and Latin America, including his home of Puerto Rico, the tools needed for not just baseball, but life. At his camps, before a kid swung a bat or put on a glove, he made sure to mentor them about being good children to their parents and good people in the world. Roberto would fight for social and economic injustices. He was generous with his time and donations. He had a strong sense of truth and empathy. He would take baseball equipment to sick kids and viewed baseball as a way of bettering the lives of kids everywhere. As a player, he would use his celebrity to gain support for what he called "the biggest ambition of my life." Clemente had a vision of a "sports city" where kids of all backgrounds could live for short periods of time. Clemente and his wife Vera had three sons. They would accompany him doing his offseason work. In the Fall of 1972, after the season ended, they would travel and fall in love with the people of Nicaragua. Roberto was coaching for Puerto Rico in the World Amateur Baseball Championships. It was here that Roberto and Vera befriended and paid for a little boy to fly to the United States and get the prosthetic legs he needed. Just a few weeks after the Clemente's returned to Puerto Rico the earthquake struck Nicaragua. Upon hearing the news, Roberto wasted no time. He would immediately gather a relief committee and work tirelessly, 14 hours a day, through Christmas Eve and Christmas and the week leading up to New Year's, gathering donations and supplies. He would run baseball clinics that week to solicit donations and use his celebrity to go on the radio and gather even more. In just that short time, his committee raised over $150,000 and 26 tons of food, clothes and supplies. He would lease two planes to get the things to Nicaragua. When he heard the Nicaraguan military was stealing supplies and donations, Roberto decided he had to go himself. He went home and said goodby to Vera and the boys. His oldest son, Roberto Jr., predicted the plane would crash. Roberto himself often told Vera he felt he would die young. With only a few hours left in the year, Roberto boarded the plane. There were rumors of it needing repairs. In addition, it was not properly loaded, and it was overweight by 4000 pounds. The plane labored to take off, an engine failed, and the plane crashed just moments and just offshore after takeoff. Five passengers, including Roberto Clemente were killed. He was just 38 years old. If you are ever fortunate enough to visit the Roberto Clemente Museum in Pittsburg, you will see a stained-glass likeness of Roberto making a catch in the outfield. The clouds in the glasswork form angelic wings on his body. By all accounts, Clemente was a good teammate, husband and father.
He was a faithful Catholic who made the world a better place. There was a movement to make Clemente a saint, but he fell a single shy of the "Catholic Cycle" and received the next closest honor, being named "blessed" by Pope Francis. In 1973, Roberto Clemente became just the second player to have the mandatory five-year waiting period waived and be elected to baseball's Hall of Fame posthumously, capping a career that gained him almost every award a player can win. Around the world there are more streets, bridges, parks, buildings, memorials, statues and ballfields in his name than could possibly be counted. The bridge, over the Allegany River, connecting downtown Pittsburg to the Pirates Park is the Roberto Clemente Bridge. A stadium in Masaya Nicaragua, the country he died trying to help, is now called Estadio Roberto Clemente. And the Puerto Rican Baseball League changed it's name to Liga de Beisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente and his image getting his 3000th hit is their logo. His son Roberto Jr., who predicted the plane crash, along with his two brothers, run the Roberto Clemente Foundation to this day. Baseball celebrates Roberto every September 15th with a day in his honor. Many players, from all teams, choose to wear his number '21' that day. The Roberto Clemente Award is given annually to the player who "best represents the game of Baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field." Every club nominates a player and that, in-and-of itself, is an honor. The Roberto Clemente Sports City, that he dreamed of, now exist. More than one million children have passed through including major leaguers Bernie Williams, Juan Gonzales and Ivan Rodrigues. When friends and family and teammates gathered in Puerto Rico just days after Clemente's death for the memorial, there was a notable person missing, Manny Sanguillen. Manny and Roberto where teammates for six seasons. Roberto took the young catcher under his wing and a strong friendship was formed. While the memorial was going on, Manny spent days swimming and searching the rough and shark filled waters where the crash took place. "There are no words to describe the appreciation, the gratitude, of knowing that my father's friendship meant so much to someone that he put his own life second. He wanted to find Dad with no regard for anything else. Nothing else was more important to him and that's priceless." said Luis Clemente. Manny Sanguillen would return to those waters a number of times to look for his friend, but Roberto Clemente's body was never found. As we celebrate Christmas and contemplate our New Year's resolutions, perhaps this year we can make a resolution that doesn't focus on losing weight or giving something up that benefits ourselves. Perhaps, this year, we can remember the words of St. James and make a resolution that benefits others like Roberto did. Roberto Clemente was often known to say, "If you have a chance to accomplish something that will make things better for the people coming behind you, and you don't do that, you are wasting your time on this Earth."