Three days after Hurricane Maria hit, baseball player Carlos Beltran and his wife Jessica donated $1 million to the relief effort. The contributions of many current and former players recall the deeds of another boricua nearly a half century ago.
In 1972, after completing his 18th season for the Pittsburgh Pirates with exactly 3,000 hits, Roberto Clemente took a Puerto Rican amateur team to Nicaragua. Shortly after the team’s return home, an earthquake devastated the Central American country.
Clemente mobilized a campaign that quickly raised cash (nearly $1 million in today’s value) as well as tons of clothing, food, and other goods. A call from relief workers convinced him to go to Nicaragua that New Year’s Eve to make sure the donations reached the neediest people. Clemente boarded a plane without knowing it was unsafe for flight. The plane crashed into the Caribbean Sea, killing all five passengers. Clemente was 38 years old.
Major league baseball responded by renaming its two-year-old Commissioner’s Award after the game’s first Latino superstar. Decades later, the Clemente Award is a permanent feature of MLB’s marketing program. Each fall, MLB honors a player who "best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team.”
The 2017 Award ceremony occurred before Game 3 of the World Series—five weeks after Maria delivered her knock-down punch. Sure, the award was based on philanthropy carried out before hurricane season. Yet MLB failed to respond to the emergency by offering specific ways that players, sponsors and fans could support Clemente’s beloved Puerto Rico.
MLB can make amends for this oversight by changing the 2018 Award’s guidelines to ensure that nominees from all 30 teams do something that benefits Puerto Rico. A repurposed Clemente Award could enable islanders to leverage the reputation of a fellow boricua who used his Hall-of-Fame career to champion social causes. It would also breathe new life into the memory of a man whose story embodies baseball’s multicultural past, present, and future.
Growing up in rural Puerto Rico, Clemente had little exposure to racism and no preparation for the condescension that would complicate his struggles to master the English language. In 1955, this 20-year-old entered a U.S. institution that had demeaned Latino ballplayers—mainly Cubans—for half a century.
Even as a rookie, Clemente feuded with veteran newspapermen who quoted him in pidgin English. This proud, intelligent and sensitive young man felt that his own U.S. citizenship should mean acceptance; certainly, it gave him every right to speak his mind. A demand for respect fueled his competitive drive.
Winning the 1971 World Series Most Valuable Player award became a badge of cultural honor. Generations of Latinos feel pride for Clemente’s post-game actions. On live network television, he expressed love for his parents and Puerto Rico—in Spanish.
Clemente’s moral courage crossed cultural lines. In 1968, he demanded the postponement of a game to mourn the death of Martin Luther King. In 1969, as the first Latino to represent a team on the player’s union, Clemente rallied his peers to endorse the reserve-clause court challenge which ushered in the era of free agency.
That leadership helped make possible the Clemente Award’s transformation into a showcase for multi-millionaire players’ philanthropy. What sealed Clemente’s humanitarian legacy was how he died. Unfortunately, the circumstances remain clouded in myth.
The most telling account appears in the 2006 book CLEMENTE: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero. Days after Clemente’s death, David Maraniss writes, a Pittsburgh delegation went to Washington for a meeting in the Oval Office.
A background memo presented to President Nixon claimed Clemente “was aboard the airplane because he had heard that a previous shipment [to Managua] had been diverted by profiteers and he wanted to make certain that the clothing and food reached the people in need.” Maraniss explains: “In citing ‘profiteers,’ the memo avoided saying that these were the sons and relatives of General Somoza, a great Nixon fan who had recently sent a letter of supporting the President for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
That corrupt government’s mistreatment of its people enraged Clemente, provoking him to forgo a New Year’s Eve celebration with his wife and three young sons. Yet, a sugar-coated explanation of his death caught on. I helped perpetuate that myth.
“He died bound for Nicaragua to help distribute relief supplies to earthquake victims,” I wrote in a 1983 New York column entitled “Clemente’s Legacy for Latin Ballplayers.” At the time, I was a freelance reporter using my own second-language skills to explore the mostly untold story of the game’s Spanish-speaking athletes.
I recall no conscious decision to avoid the political context of Clemente’s death which was by then an established footnote in the public record. (In 1979, a Nicaraguan revolution had toppled the Somoza dictatorship.)
What intrigued me was Clemente’s leadership of a generation of Latino players. His outspokenness enabled his peers—including future Hall of Famers Juan Marichal, Luis Aparicio, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Perez, and Rod Carew—to create a more accommodating climate in the game for those who followed.
Today, Latinos may be the game’s dominant force. Their remarkable success could shape a compelling narrative to sell the MLB brand in the global marketplace. Problem is, the “national pastime” has never quite figured out how to tell the story of its reliance on whatthey perceive as Spanish-speaking foreigners. In the 1980s, former MLB commissioner Happy Chandler said baseball has always treated “Latins like strangers and kept them at arm’s length.”
Clemente’s purposeful way of living has inspired me and many others. But let's get the story right about why he died and, in the process, help Puerto Rico help itself.
Undoubtedly, Clemente would applaud Cub first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s $4.4 million donation to a Chicago pediatric hospital. The action earned Rizzo the 2017 Clemente Award. He understood the award's significance, noting: “Obviously with what Roberto did, he kind of set the bar for all athletes, especially baseball players, in all of his charitable work, everything he did giving back.”
Roberto would be even prouder if MLB makes sure the 2018 Clemente Award goes to a player who exceeds the bar by serving his devastated homeland. Puerto Rican reconstruction means facing the problem of poverty head on with the same passion Clemente brought to his final act of social justice.