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Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente
Images: (from top to bottom) A young Clemente with his family in Puerto Rico. A map of Puerto Rico showing the location Clemente's hometown Carolina. The town square where Clemente and other teenagers gathered in the early fifties. Clemente was brought up in Carolina, a sugar-cane growing region on the outskirts of San Juan. A group of children peering through a wall at a baseball game. The legendary Pedrin Zorrilla, who signed Clemente and almost all the best Puerto Rican players of the time, in a moment shared with Willie Mays and Rubén Gómez. In the 1953-54 season, Clemente (second from left) was the youngest member and only Puerto Rican on the fearsome 'Panic Squad,' whose other members were Willie Mays, Buster Clarkson, Bob Thurman, and George Crowe.


The Life

In 1934, Carolina was a rural town in the depths of the Great Depression and on the edge of great change. Within the brief span of Roberto Clemente Walker’s life, the character of his hometown-and the entire island-would be transformed from rural-agricultural to urban-industrial.

Yet, at the time of Roberto’s birth-the fifth and last child of Melchor Clemente and Luisa Walker-farms and banks were failing, unemployment was high, and many Puerto Ricans were going hungry. Melchor’s job as a foreman in the sugar cane fields kept food on the Clemente table. The parents kept moral discipline-deeply rooted in religious beliefs-which was influential to Roberto throughout his life.

The values of his home became hallmarks of Roberto’s character. He never strayed from these as he navigated the perils of segregation, the challenges of professional success, and the persistent efforts to Americanize his personality and identity.

Caribbean Baseball Coming of Age

Baseball took Puerto Rico by storm. The game was introduced to the island toward the turn of the nineteenth century by young Cuban men and Puerto Ricans who had studied in the United States. Assisted by the efforts of talented American soldiers who helped raise the level of play, the game spread rapidly over the next twenty years. All of the larger towns and cities fielded teams that competed for the island championship. The first semi-professional tournament in Puerto Rico was played in 1938-39.

Baseball has a similar history throughout the Caribbean. Extensive Latin American amateur and professional leagues developed where the best teams could compete. Teams could play practically year round, moving from Mexico to Central America, to Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Prior to racial integration of the major leagues, stars from America’s Negro Leagues began to use their off-season to play in the Caribbean. They brought fresh talent and new excitement. The level of play rose to an extent that attracted white major leaguers wanting to hone their skills in the off-season. In 1947, the World Series Champion New York Yankees traveled to Puerto Rico for an exhibition game with the Ponce Leones… and were beaten.

Major league scouts scoured the Caribbean leagues for low-cost, high-impact recruits. As the first Puerto Rican players began to find their way into the pros on the mainland, excitement grew at home. By the early 1950s, when Roberto Clemente came of age, baseball fever in Puerto Rico had reached unprecedented heights.

Read more of Roberto's story>


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