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Roberto the Great

How a boy from Puerto Rico changed baseball forever 

Illustration by Matt Herring

Before You Read: Check out our Background Builder slideshow

 

Todd Strand/Alamy Stock Photo

    It was the seventh and final game of the 1971 World Series. The scoreboard read 0-0. Over the loudspeaker, a deep voice boomed: “Number 21 . . . Roberto Clemente!” 

    The right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates stepped up to the plate. His team was expected to lose to the Baltimore Orioles. But Clemente promised his teammates they would win.

    Clemente had beaten tough odds before. As a Black man from Puerto Rico, he faced racism throughout his baseball career. His incredible talent was often overlooked. Yet Clemente’s pride in himself and his heritage never wavered. Now he wanted to show the world he was one of the best players.

    Clemente took a slow practice swing. Then he raised his wooden bat over his shoulder and waited. The pitcher wound up, ready to throw the ball. The sold-out crowd held its breath. 

    A moment later, the ball whizzed through the air . . .

    It was the seventh and final game of the 1971 World Series. The scoreboard read 0-0. Over the loudspeaker, a voice boomed: “Number 21 . . . Roberto Clemente!” 

    The right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates stepped up to the plate. His team was expected to lose to the Baltimore Orioles. But Clemente felt sure they would win.

    Clemente had beaten tough odds before. As a Black man from Puerto Rico, he faced racism throughout his baseball career. His talent was often overlooked. Yet Clemente’s pride in himself and his heritage never wavered. Now he wanted to show the world what a great player he was.

    Clemente took a practice swing. Then he raised his bat over his shoulder and waited. The pitcher wound up, ready to throw the ball. The crowd held its breath.

    A moment later, the ball whizzed through the air . . .

    It was the seventh and final game of the 1971 World Series. The scoreboard read 0-0. Over the loudspeaker, a deep voice boomed: “Number 21 . . . Roberto Clemente!”  

    The right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates stepped up to the plate. His team was expected to lose to the Baltimore Orioles, but Clemente promised his teammates they would win.

    Clemente had beaten tough odds before. As a Black man from Puerto Rico, he faced racism throughout his baseball career. His incredible talent was often overlooked. Yet Clemente’s pride in himself and his heritage never wavered. Now he wanted to show the world he was one of the best players.

    Clemente took a slow practice swing. Then he raised his wooden bat over his shoulder and waited. The pitcher wound up, ready to throw the ball. The sold-out crowd held its breath.

    A moment later, the ball whizzed through the air . . .

Jim McMahon/Mapman ® (Map); Helioscribe/Shutterstock.com

ALL ABOUT PUERTO RICO

WHERE IS IT?

Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean Sea. It’s located about 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, Florida.

3 FAST FACTS

  1. It is not a state or a country. It is a U.S. territory. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but cannot vote for U.S. president.
  2. Puerto Rico has two official languages: Spanish and English.
  3. It is a popular vacation spot known for its beaches, mountains, and rainforest.

WHERE IS IT?

Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean Sea. It’s located about 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, Florida.

3 FAST FACTS

  1. It is not a state or a country. It is a U.S. territory. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but cannot vote for U.S. president.
  2. Puerto Rico has two official languages: Spanish and English.
  3. It is a popular vacation spot known for its beaches, mountains, and rainforest.

WHERE IS IT?

Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean Sea. It’s located about 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, Florida.

3 FAST FACTS

  1. It is not a state or a country. It is a U.S. territory. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but cannot vote for U.S. president.
  2. Puerto Rico has two official languages: Spanish and English.
  3. It is a popular vacation spot known for its beaches, mountains, and rainforest.

Baseball Fever

    Clemente was born in 1934 in Puerto Rico. He grew up the youngest of seven children in a small farming town called Carolina. His parents worked hard. Young Clemente helped by selling water to men in the sugarcane fields. 

    Like everyone in Puerto Rico, Clemente  loved baseball. But he didn’t have money for equipment. So he carved a bat from a tree branch. He made a glove from a coffee sack. He and his friends used tin cans as balls. On weekends, they practiced all day—and didn’t care if they missed lunch.

    The hard work paid off. In 1952, at age 18, Clemente joined a pro team in Puerto Rico. Soon, Major League Baseball came calling.

    Clemente was born in 1934 in Puerto Rico. He grew up in a small farming town. His parents worked hard. Young Clemente helped by selling water to men in the sugarcane fields.

    Clemente loved baseball. But he didn’t have money for equipment. So he carved a bat from a tree branch. He made a glove from a coffee sack. He and his friends used tin cans as balls. On weekends, they practiced all day. They didn’t even mind missing lunch.

    The hard work paid off. At age 18, Clemente joined a pro team in Puerto Rico. Soon, Major League Baseball came calling.

    Clemente was born in 1934 in Puerto Rico. He grew up the youngest of seven children in a small farming town called Carolina. His parents worked hard. Young Clemente helped by selling water to men in the sugarcane fields.

    Like everyone in Puerto Rico, Clemente loved baseball. He couldn’t afford to buy equipment, so he carved a bat from a tree branch and made a glove from a coffee sack. He and his friends used tin cans as balls. On weekends, they practiced all day, barely noticing when they missed lunch.

    The hard work paid off. In 1952, at age 18, Clemente joined a pro team in Puerto Rico—and before long, Major League Baseball came calling.

Far From Home

Todd Strand/Alamy Stock Photo

Roberto, not Bob
Many of Clemente’s baseball cards listed him as the more American-sounding “Bob.” This upset him. He thought it erased his heritage.

    In 1955, Clemente joined the Pittsburgh Pirates. But he arrived during a terrible time in American history. The Pirates trained in the South. There was segregation in public places there. That meant Black players couldn’t stay at the same hotels or eat at the same restaurants as their White teammates.

    Clemente had never experienced that kind of racism. He was shocked. And as one of the only Latino players on the Pirates, he felt like even more of an outsider. 

    Clemente struggled to make friends. When he spoke English, sports reporters made fun of his accent. They couldn’t get his name right, so they started calling him “Bob.”

    Baseball was his only joy. Clemente made impossible catches. He ran the bases so quickly that even a small hit could lead to a score. 

    In 1960, Clemente helped the Pirates win the World Series. As he left the stadium, someone yelled, “There’s Clemente!” Cheering fans surrounded him. He had finally won them over.

    In 1955, Clemente joined the Pittsburgh Pirates. He arrived during a terrible time in American history. The Pirates trained in the South. There was segregation in public places there. That meant Black players couldn’t stay at the same hotels or eat at the same restaurants as their White teammates.

    Clemente had never known racism like that. He was shocked. And as one of the only Latino players on the team, he felt even more alone.

    Clemente struggled to make friends. When he spoke English, sports reporters made fun of his accent. They couldn’t get his name right, so they called him “Bob.”

    Baseball was his only joy. He made amazing catches. He ran the bases so quickly that even a small hit could lead to a score.

    In 1960, Clemente helped the Pirates win the World Series. As he left the stadium, someone yelled, “There’s Clemente!” Cheering fans surrounded him. He had won them over. 

    In 1955, Clemente joined the Pittsburgh Pirates—-but he arrived during a terrible time in American history. The Pirates trained in the South, where segregation in public places prevented Black players from staying at the same hotels or eating at the same restaurants as their White teammates.

    Never having experienced that kind of racism, Clemente was shocked—and as one of the only Latino players on the Pirates, he felt like even more of an outsider.

    Clemente struggled to make friends. When he spoke English, sports reporters made fun of his accent. Rather than learning to pronounce his name correctly, they started calling him “Bob.”

    Baseball was his only joy. Clemente made impossible catches, and he ran the bases so quickly that even a small hit could lead to a score.

    In 1960, Clemente helped the Pirates win the World Series. As he left the stadium, someone shouted, “There’s Clemente!” Cheering fans surrounded him. He had finally won them over. 

Something to Prove

    There was one group Clemente still couldn’t win over though: sports reporters. After the World Series, they voted for the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP). Clemente hoped to win. But the reporters ranked him eighth. When the results came out, he was deeply hurt.

    Clemente focused on improving his skills. Over the next several years, he got even better. And in 1971, he led the Pirates back to the World Series. This time, many Black and Latino players were part of the team. In the final game, Clemente stood at the plate. He watched the pitch fly toward him, and . . .

    Crack! 

    He hit a home run. The Pirates went on to beat the Orioles 2-1. Clemente was named MVP.

    After the game, TV reporters interviewed Clemente. He took the chance to talk to the world in Spanish. 

    “Before I say anything in English, I would like to say something for my mother and father in Spanish,” he said. 

    Clemente went on to tell them that it was the proudest day of his life. 

    There was one group Clemente still couldn’t win over, though: sports reporters. After the World Series, they voted for the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP). Clemente hoped to win. But the reporters ranked him eighth. He was deeply hurt.

    Clemente worked to improve his skills. He got better and better. In 1971, he led the Pirates back to the World Series. This time, the team had many Black and Latino players. In the final game, Clemente stood at the plate. He watched the pitch fly toward him, and . . .

    Crack!

    He hit a home run. The Pirates went on to beat the Orioles 2-1. Clemente was named MVP.

    After the game, TV reporters interviewed Clemente. “Before I say anything in English, I would like to say something for my mother and father in Spanish,” he said.

    Clemente told them it was the proudest day of his life. 

    There was one group Clemente still couldn’t win over, however: sports reporters. After the World Series, they voted for the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP). Clemente hoped to win, and he was deeply hurt when he learned that the reporters had ranked him eighth.

    Clemente focused on improving his skills. Over the next several years, he got even better—and in 1971, he led the Pirates back to the World Series. This time, many Black and Latino players were part of the team. In the final game, Clemente stood at the plate. He watched the pitch fly toward him, and . . .

    Crack!

    He hit a home run. The Pirates went on to beat the Orioles 2-1. Clemente was named MVP.

    After the game, when television reporters interviewed Clemente, he took the opportunity to talk to the world in Spanish.

    “Before I say anything in English, I would like to say something for my mother and father in Spanish,” he said.

    Clemente went on to tell them that it was the proudest day of his life. 

Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Team Leader  
Clemente (No. 21) celebrates a win during the 1971 World Series. He would later be named MVP. It was just one of the many awards he won during his 18-year career.

Giving Back

Courtesy of the Clemente Museum

A Life of Service  
For many years, Clemente gave free baseball lessons to kids in Puerto Rico. It was just one of the many ways he used his fame, money, and talent to help others.

    After 18 seasons with the Pirates, Clemente began to imagine life after baseball. He wanted to help others. Already, he gave free baseball lessons to kids in Puerto Rico. He donated money to feed hungry people. But he dreamed of doing so much more.

    In December 1972, Clemente had just returned from coaching a game in Nicaragua when an earthquake struck there. Thousands of people died. Many more were left homeless. 

    The baseball star sprang into action. On New Year’s Eve, he boarded a flight to deliver food and medicine. But right after takeoff, an engine failed. The plane plunged into the Atlantic Ocean. At just 38 years old, Clemente was gone.

    After 18 seasons with the Pirates, Clemente began to imagine life after baseball. He wanted to help others. Already, he gave free baseball lessons to kids in Puerto Rico. He donated money to feed hungry people. But he dreamed of doing more.

    In December 1972, there was an earthquake in Nicaragua. Thousands of people died. Many more were left homeless.

    Clemente wanted to help. He planned to deliver food and medicine. On New Year’s Eve, he boarded a plane. But right after takeoff, an engine failed. The plane plunged into the Atlantic Ocean. At just 38 years old, Clemente was gone.

    After 18 seasons with the Pirates, Clemente was imagining life after baseball. He wanted to help others. He was already giving free baseball lessons to kids in Puerto Rico and donating money to feed hungry people, but he dreamed of doing so much more.

    In December 1972, Clemente had just returned from coaching a game in Nicaragua when an earthquake struck there, leaving thousands of people dead and many more homeless.

    The baseball star sprang into action. On New Year’s Eve, he boarded a flight to deliver food and medicine to the people of Nicaragua—but right after takeoff, an engine failed and the plane plunged into the Atlantic Ocean. At just 38 years old, Clemente was gone.

The Story of 21

    People remembered Clemente as a hero, both on and off the field. He became the first Latino player in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Hundreds of schools, hospitals, and parks were named in his honor. Each year, Major League Baseball hands out the Roberto Clemente Award. It celebrates players who give back to their communities.

    Today, Clemente wouldn’t feel so alone in Major League Baseball. Latino athletes make up about 28 percent of all players. Once a year, Puerto Rican players wear Clemente’s number, 21, to honor him. “He represented all of us,” says Francisco Lindor of the New York Mets. “Now it’s our turn to represent him.” 

    Clemente died a hero. He became the first Latino player in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Schools, hospitals, and parks were named in his honor. Each year, Major League Baseball gives out the Roberto Clemente Award. It honors players who give back to their communities.

    Today, Clemente wouldn’t feel so alone in Major League Baseball. More than one-fourth of all players are Latino. Once a year, Puerto Rican players wear Clemente’s number, 21, to honor him. “He represented all of us,” says Francisco Lindor of the New York Mets. “Now it’s our turn to represent him.”

    People remembered Clemente as a hero, both on and off the field. He became the first Latino player in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Hundreds of schools, hospitals, and parks were named in his honor. Each year, Major League Baseball hands out the Roberto Clemente Award. It celebrates players who give back to their communities.

    Nowadays, Clemente wouldn’t feel so alone in Major League Baseball. Latino athletes make up about 28 percent of all players. Once a year, Puerto Rican players wear Clemente’s number, 21, to honor him. “He represented all of us,” says Francisco Lindor of the New York Mets. “Now it’s our turn to represent him.”

Paul Brennan/Shutterstock.com (Background); Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images (Carlos Correa); Eric Espada/Getty Images (Francisco Lindor); Doug Benc/Getty Images (Yadier Molina)

Following in his Footsteps 
Many of today’s Puerto Rican pros believe that Clemente led the way for them to be successful. They also say he inspired them to give back to their communities.

ACTIVITY: 
Finding Text Evidence

You’ve just read “Roberto the Great.” Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

You’ve just read “Roberto the Great.” Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

You’ve just read “Roberto the Great.” Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

Why did Clemente feel like an outsider when he first joined the Pirates?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Far From Home.”

Answer: Clemente felt like an outsider because there weren’t many Latino players on the team.

Why did Clemente feel like an outsider when he first joined the Pirates?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Far From Home.”

Answer: Clemente felt like an outsider because there weren’t many Latino players on the team.

Why did Clemente feel like an outsider when he first joined the Pirates?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Far From Home.”

Answer: Clemente felt like an outsider because there weren’t many Latino players on the team.

By 1971, how had the number of Black and Latino players on the Pirates changed?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Something to Prove.”

By 1971, how had the number of Black and Latino players on the Pirates changed?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Something to Prove.”

By 1971, how had the number of Black and Latino players on the Pirates changed?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Something to Prove.”

Today, about what percentage of Major League Baseball players are Latino?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “The Story of 21.”

Today, about what percentage of Major League Baseball players are Latino?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “The Story of 21.”

Today, about what percentage of Major League Baseball players are Latino?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “The Story of 21.”

Why do Puerto Rican players wear Clemente’s number once a year?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “The Story of 21.”

Why do Puerto Rican players wear Clemente’s number once a year?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “The Story of 21.”