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Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente
Images: (from top to bottom) Clemente playing baseball. A child looking at Roberto's statue.
 

Legacy

As a professional baseball player, Clemente ranks among the best of all time. He was, in baseball parlance, a “complete player” and his record proves it in multiples. In addition to the Most Valuable Player Award, Clemente received 12 Gold Glove Awards, 4 National League batting titles, 12 All-Star Game selections, 2 World Series Championships, and reached the 3,000-hit milestone. Only ten players in the history of the major leagues recorded 3,000 hits before Roberto. The highlight of his long and prosperous career came in 1971, when he earned the World Series MVP Award for his superb performance in the Fall Classic against the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles. Clemente batted .414, hit two home runs, and turned in several standout defensive plays to carry the Pirates to one of the most surprising results in World Series history. With a massive television audience witnessing the seven games of this historic Series, Clemente gained the kind of nationwide recognition that had eluded him throughout his career.

But there’s another Clemente record. It is written in cornerstones of schools, hospitals, and other public buildings, inscribed on monuments and statues, struck on coins, imprinted on collectibles and book covers — it is simply his name, Roberto Clemente, and it is evidence of his impact beyond baseball.

 

 
Roberto Clemente in March 1968.  

Citizen and Athlete

Clemente became known for his fierce ethnic pride and for his unusual capacity to bear a much larger identity—not just for Puerto Rico but for all of Latin America. It was a responsibility he embraced and carried with dignity and admirable grace.

He didn’t see himself as merely a representative of Latin America to the world through baseball. He saw his career in baseball as a way to help Latin Americans — especially underprivileged Puerto Ricans — make their lives better.

"Always, they said Babe Ruth was the best there was. They said you’d really have to be something to be like Babe Ruth. But Babe Ruth was an American player. What we needed was a Puerto Rican player they could say that about, someone to look up to and try to equal."
-Roberto Clemente
National League Most Valuable Player, 1966

 

 
Image: Roberto working with children at baseball camp in Puerto Rico.  

Philanthropist and Teacher

Clemente’s philanthropy was not calculated to gain public or private recognition. He simply wanted to help people in need. For some, his generosity was financial; with others he freely shared his chiropractic knowledge — learned as a result of his own back injury in 1954; and for many others, particularly children, Clemente’s kindness came as free lessons in the game of baseball.

Clemente always cared about children. Despite his busy schedule, he made time to hold baseball clinics for kids, especially for those from low-income families. He dreamed of building a “Sports City” where Puerto Rican youth would have ready access to facilities, coaching, and encouragement in many sports. It was another way of working toward a Puerto Rico that was healthier, happier, and fairer.

"Everyone knows I've been struggling all my life. I believe that every human being is equal, but one has to fight hard all the time to maintain that equality.
-Roberto Clemente

 

His Meaning

No single work of art can articulate the full meaning of Clemente’s life, but for Puerto Ricans, a cenotaph by José Buscaglia, installed in Carolina, may be the most encompassing expression.
Image: A bronze cenotaph honoring Clemente was unveiled at the Roberto Clemente Municipal Sports Complex in Carolina in 1998.

Traditionally, cenotaphs are funerary monuments dedicated to heroes whose bodies are not recovered from the field of battle. So the very genre of Buscaglia’s work honors Clemente as one who gave all for his country.

In the center panel, the lamb in Roberto’s arms is the lamb from the Puerto Rican coat of arms. In his life and death, Roberto lifted Puerto Rican identity to a new level in the world. The monument’s inscription reads "Son of Carolina, Exemplary Citizen, Athlete, Philanthropist, Teacher, Hero of the Americas and the World.

"I want to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all he had to give."
-Roberto Clemente

     
 

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