“I THINK HE WOULD BE PROUD OF SEEING HOW ATHLETES ARE REACTING."
A CONVERSATION WITH ROBERTO CLEMENTE JR. AND LUIS CLEMENTE ON ROBERTO CLEMENTE DAY
By Jerry Crasnick
Roberto Clemente Jr. was seven years old and his brother Luis was six when their father died in a plane crash while carrying earthquake relief supplies to Nicaragua on Dec. 31, 1972. In his book, “Clemente: The Grace and Passion of Baseball’s Last Hero,’’ author David Maraniss recalls the scene at the family home in Puerto Rico:
“The three Clemente boys, Robertito, Luisito, and Ricky, were brought back to the house in Rio Piedras the next morning. Everything was a blur, but there were a few images they would never forget. Parked cars line both sides of the street all the way up the hill. They are led across the little bridge from the sidewalk to the front gate. A big black bow is on the door. Military police stand at attention in the entry-way. The flags of Puerto Rico and the United States frame the doorway. The door opens into a sea of faces. Oh, there are the kids! And people rush up to hug and squeeze them. Finally they are taken into a bedroom with their mother and grandparents and their mom starts crying and holds them tight and searches for the words.’’
Forty-eight years later, Roberto Clemente remains a powerfully evocative figure among the Latino community and baseball in general. The Roberto Clemente Award is given annually to the Major League Baseball player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team.’’ A bridge in Pittsburgh, a state park in New
York and Little Leagues in Illinois and New Jersey are among dozens of sites named in his honor, and Clemente memorial statues and ballparks in the U.S. and his native Puerto Rico are testament to his greatness.
This year, for the first time, the entire Pittsburgh Pirates’ roster will wear No. 21 on Roberto Clemente Day, and all Puerto Rican players, managers and coaches will similarly be allowed to do so.
In conjunction with Clemente Day, Roberto Jr. and Luis recently sat down with the MLBPA and discussed their father’s impact on baseball and society, his activism off the field, and the enduring contributions of their mother, Vera, who died last November.
LUIS ROBERTO CLEMENTE: This 48 years basically is a testament to how much he accomplished in his short 38 years. It's amazing how we're still receiving emails from 13-year-olds letting us know that they’re a big fan.
We get them from Europe and other countries, and we’re still receiving these types of emails today. So that tells you his legacy lives on very strongly through all of that. Mom also did so much to continue after his passing.
ROBERTO CLEMENTE JR.: It truly is an honor to have the name Roberto Clemente and understand the meaning and the responsibility of that name -- what it means in the world of goodwill and being able to get to this point in time. What we’re living today -- having that legacy intact for all these years to be able to bring into the conversation of today -- it is amazing that his message still resonates to all of us. We're very proud of that.
ROBERTO CLEMENTE JR.: I truly believe that the moment he stepped foot on that stage after the 1971 World Series, that was the moment he (galvanized) the Hispanic community globally, because for the first time you had a Latino on top of the mountain. He spoke his native language and that connected everyone in Latin America to him. I believe that moment in history transcended generations and that moment in time. Obviously, he could play the game. He was one of the best in the game. But I believe that what he stood for and what he meant to the Latino players coming up -- protecting them and taking them under his wing -- that is also part of the storyline for generations to come. Fathers and sons will tell their players, and players will continue doing the same thing. It's something that has transformed into a fantastic meaning of what the name and the legacy means of Roberto Clemente.
LUIS ROBERTO CLEMENTE: I feel that the Latinos felt represented and there was a voice. I always say, 'Dad was an activist.' He spoke to what we felt about injustice. He never was asking to be treated better. He demanded to be treated equally, which is a big difference. And I think he gained a lot of supporters and fans that understood what he meant and what he represented. So that's why it went beyond Puerto Rico to the whole Hispanic community and he became a person and a leader that everyone can look up to.
ROBERTO CLEMENTE JR: I personally have had my own experiences with racism. When dad was playing and he came up, it was shortly after Jackie became the first African-American in the game. Things were tough then. But when you start looking at the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and all of those decades, I at some point was beaten because of the color of my skin. I had run-ins with the police because of the color of my skin. I know what the taste of asphalt is. I know what the smell and taste and the feel of it is, and I understand that there is a systemic racism.
When we talk about Clemente and Martin Luther King and what they meant for civil rights, I understand that today. What they said then is actually what we need to continue saying today. I’m passionate about it because I lived through it and I know all these players went through a lot more, because it was even worse than it is today. But there is still racism going on. The companies and all these big organizations need to wake up and make sure that down the line they can police their own values as a company, so we can move forward as a nation together.
LUIS ROBERTO CLEMENTE: Personally, I look beyond what the problematic situation is, and I feel everybody has a stake in this. As individuals, we shouldn't be waiting, expecting someone to do something. We have to say, ‘How can I do something and stop or prevent things from happening?’
There's always been racism. It is a very early beginning of our history. But at the same time, I feel there are other countries that are very jealous of how we live as United States citizens. And the fact that we can get on our cell phones and make a reservation and travel wherever we want to, that bothers a lot of people. So given racism -- given the differences that have always been there -- I feel that there are (people who are succeeding in pitting us against each other), and we're not seeing it. We're not stopping to understand and believe what is truly going on, because you have demonstrations that accomplish the point. But then you have additional riots and other things that shouldn't have been part of it, but totally provoke the different situations economically. There are other people that would love to see us lose our smile and the life that we're customarily living. Having us fight against each other is a strategy larger than what we're looking at, and we are the ones that need to put a stop to it. It’s not about taking sides. It’s about each one of us evaluating internally, ‘What am I going to do to make this happen?’ I think that’s the first step.
ROBERTO CLEMENTE JR.: I truly believe with everything that's been going throughout these years, he would have been saying many things for a long, long time. He started talking about it from the get-go when he got to the major leagues and he never stopped. So imagine if he had the time after playing ball, being able to focus on his mission of justice for all, he would have certainly made a change.
LUIS ROBERTO CLEMENTE: I feel he would probably be gathering all these associations and spearheading a movement. I think he would be proud of seeing how athletes are reacting. Taking action is more than just wearing a shirt or just saying something. It’s actually taking action on it. I think he would be supportive, but he would also make sure the message gets across in a way that will resonate. He was a pacifist as well. It was not about starting riots or anything like that. He was very direct and that was his point.
ROBERTO CLEMENTE JR: He led with actions. And obviously that showed in ‘68, when he spoke with his African-American teammates on the Pirates and said, “I'm not playing because of the Martin Luther King assassination on the day of his funeral.’ He himself was able to lead by example.
ROBERTO CLEMENTE JR.: When I was broadcasting for the Yankees, I had Congressman (Charles) Rangel in the booth at Yankee Stadium, and he said, ‘I want to start a movement to retire No. 21.’ After that, a lot of groups started getting together. We always thought it was a great way of showing your support as a fan. But as a family, we never really got involved with that movement. But it (recently) kind of hit me and I said, ‘You know, it is just a service and 21 deserves to be retired for the right reasons.’
The year 2020 has brought us 20/20 vision as a humanity, and I hope we’re able to find that mutual point of understanding and meaning of hope. I think we need a movement like this for our people and for humanity. I believe it's time for Major League Baseball to step up and get it done.
LUIS ROBERTO CLEMENTE: Having the Pirates wear 21 is a first step. Already, people here in Puerto Rico are so proud of what's going to happen on September 9th. It’s going to be historical. Joey Cora, who's on the team, is extremely proud because he freezes the number 21 in songs when they talk about that. And there's a song that says, ‘When they question our identity, all we say is we are all wearing 21 on our backs.’ The nation of who we are as Puerto Ricans is Roberto Clemente. So his character, everything he stood for, that's what we’re made of. And to retire the number, there are plenty more reasons to do that. There should be no excuses if we present it the right way. At this point, I truly believe we can get to that point eventually. It's going to take some conversations, but we'll see if this is a big start.
LUIS ROBERTO CLEMENTE: I spent the most time with her because I was working hand-in-hand with her on Sports City and here living in Puerto Rico as well. I did a tribute to her at the sports museum in the city of Guaynabo in Puerto Rico. What you see in these walls is a 10-year timeline to show what our efforts have been.
Mom was Major League Baseball's goodwill ambassador. And I always say dad's light was so bright that it tends to overshadow her accomplishments. Mom was such an incredible person and she did so much for others. She would not even want to occupy a space where she was present so other people could actually have it. She didn't want to bother you, just so you could occupy that space.
That's how she was. She never wanted anything for herself. She would be at a doctor's appointment and she would excuse herself like she was going out to the bathroom or something and she would not return. And she would be outside in the hallway because she felt we took enough time from the doctors while there were other people waiting in a waiting room. That's who mom was. And she did so much for the new generations, for students, for anyone who she didn't even know and she just met. They would come and talk to her about a certain situation, and she would make it her own and make sure to do something for that person. That's how we grew up. She always said she wanted to raise us the way (our father) would have wanted. And I think she succeeded on that. That's why we continue to do what we're doing today.
ROBERTO CLEMENTE JR.: Talk about being blessed with having our father leave us the legacy that he left us. We are more than fortunate. We were also blessed to have a mother that I can only say was humble. She was holy as she was the salt of the earth. There are so many people that she touched. There were tour buses going by the house taking pictures and she happened to be walking out. Or (she would talk to them) when they were inside the house having coffee. These are elements of who she was as a woman, but she was a humanitarian as well. And that has to be celebrated and we will continue to celebrate her life. We had something planned here in Pittsburgh, but obviously COVID stopped everything in its tracks. But this is something that’s going to continue as long as we’re alive. Her legacy is as strong as that.
MLBPA: Marvin Miller was going into the Baseball Hall of Fame this year, but the ceremony was postponed until next summer because of COVID. Can you speak to your father’s relationship with Marvin, and the broader ramifications of what the union meant to him?
(A 1969 MLBPA meeting in San Juan, P.R., is generally regarded as the first step toward free agency for players).
ROBERTO CLEMENTE JR.: It's unfortunate that we're not going to be able to get to Cooperstown this year. I had dinner with Marvin Miller multiple times, and he never stopped telling me the importance of our father for the union, for the association. He said, ‘If it wasn't for your father, it would have taken a lot longer, because of (how hard) your father was actually pushing.’ That's when everyone was on a flight to meet in Puerto Rico, and they started the movement to get everything done. A lot of players don't know this, but he was the first (Latino) player rep in the Players Association. Everyone voted him to be representing them with the league. And that is something that we're very proud of. I think it's time for us to have this conversation of being able to work together for the same mission for the players, for their rights and to make sure that everyone's protected.
LUIS ROBERTO CLEMENTE: Certainly there is evidence of what dad was able to accomplish. I found a telegram granting an opportunity to participate in a meeting (in Puerto Rico), and it was establishing a precedent because no other player had been granted that opportunity. They were making sure for him to understand it, and at any given moment he could have been interrupted and that was going to be the end of his participation. So just reading that telegram, you say, ‘Wow, this was heavy stuff going on with him becoming the first player's rep.’
We’ve been discussing this recently. I think we have to do more with the Players Association than has been our previous involvement. We're very excited about this. There are issues we feel are important, and we can see how we can be involved in a way that we can be another tool.
ROBERTO CLEMENTE JR.: I believe that there is room to grow and be able to share our own experiences for the young players. Being involved with Major League Baseball on the non-profit and charitable side, the philanthropic side. Being able to go around the world and touch people and take programs to places in those countries. It's important for players to understand they have a platform once they're in the major leagues and they need to use that for the better, for the good, and inspire them to look up to Clemente and all the guys that have won the award for their work in the community. That’s something they need to emulate and be able to continue.
For our mother, I'm trying to do something here in Pittsburgh to get some statues of her and the Clemente Bridge. That’s something that shows the involvement of the wife and the women in baseball, and their (importance) to the baseball family that we sometimes overlook.