PITTSBURGH, Pa. (WTRF) — What makes an athlete legendary?
Is it a pure game of statistics, marked by how many records the player set?
Or is it in how he charmed the fans with his charisma, capturing the imagination of the sports world?
In Roberto Clemente’s case it was both—a player of unique talent… with a heart for the underdog just as large as the heartbreak left by his sudden passing.
He’s known by the baseball world as the greatest player to step up to the plate in the ’60s.
But as the Roberto Clemente Museum in downtown Pittsburgh is fond of saying, baseball is only half the story.
His legend was built both when he wore the black and gold…and when he didn’t.
Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker devoted his life to baseball from the start.
Born in Puerto Rico, he worked his way up the territory’s baseball circuit, earning a Caribbean World Series win.
He made his way to the continental U.S. by way of the then-Brooklyn Dodgers, before Pittsburgh lucked out by taking him as their number-one Rule 5 draft pick.
“When they first see that he’s black, they’re like, ‘I’m not so sure.’ But then when they see him play and he played like the Pittsburgh people worked, right, Steel Town, hard-working people, and they saw him running hard and dig in and out and dive in. And when they were like, ‘Whoa, this is our kind of guy.'”Duane Rieder, Founder, Roberto Clemente Museum
The rest of his career is a story of winning over the minds of Major League Baseball…and the hearts of the Pittsburgh public.
He was statistically the best hitter of the 1960s, leading the Pirates to World Series wins in 1960 and 1971 and becoming MVP in ’71.
But even in his winning streak, he still had time for the young fans who idolized him, spending hours signing autographs and heading to children’s hospitals everywhere he went.
“He would tell the people at Children’s Hospital Blood Center, don’t send the journalists, don’t bring the cameras. I don’t want to be interviewed doing this.”Duane Rieder, Founder, Roberto Clemente Museum
Yet his outstanding life as a Pirate and as a man came to an end far too soon.
On December 31, 1972, he was flying to Nicaragua to give aid to earthquake victims when his plane crashed from engine failure.
Effort after recovery effort was never able to find his body.
Rieder says that as a 10-year-old baseball fan, Clemente seemed indestructible…and his death was incomprehensible.
“I’m crying and I’m walking around outside. It’s kind of a cold winter day. I’m walking around outside going, okay, the plane crashed into the ocean. He was a superstar. In my head he was the size of Shaquille O’Neal, right. He’s going to come swimming out of the water.”Duane Rieder, Founder, Roberto Clemente Museum
But Clemente’s was a life far more durable than the tragedy that ended it.
He started Sports City in Puerto Rico to give kids a leg up on their athletic dreams.
He coached years of San Juan’s professional baseball team.
There was even an effort to have him canonized as a Catholic saint.
Decades after his last at-bat, his spirit hasn’t faded, either in the town that raised him or in the city that adopted him as a Buc.
“You die twice, once your body and then second when people stop talking about you, you’re gone. Not Roberto Clemente. He’s going to live forever.”Duane Rieder, Founder, Roberto Clemente Museum