The city of Pittsburgh is constantly evolving, building upon its storied past with an ever-present eye towards the future. And no facet of the Steel City better embodies this notion than its love affair with its sports teams. But, while the Steelers might make the most headlines and are certainly adored, it’s the Pirates that best exemplify Pittsburgh, displaying its proud past and hopeful future. Despite the team’s roster of countless heroes, many feel that Roberto Clemente stands head and shoulders above all others, even nearly a half century since his passing.
Although born in Puerto Rico, Clemente has become synonymous with the City of Pittsburgh, emblematic of a tough, broad-shouldered but agile and graceful city. A hall of famer who possessed mad skills with both the bat and glove, he roamed right field for the Pirates for 18 seasons, playing in 15 all-star games and winning 12 consecutive Gold Glove awards.
Impressive statistics aside, Clemente is perhaps best known as one of the most caring, philanthropic and kindhearted individuals ever to call Pittsburgh home. The youngest of seven children, Clemente knew what it was like to grow up not knowing when the next meal would be. From an early age, he worked alongside his father in Puerto Rico’s vast fields, loading massive trucks with sugarcane. Work and family encompassed the majority of life for most of his childhood, until baseball came knocking on his door.
Displaying a remarkable, natural ability for the sport as he began high school, Clemente took to baseball as if it had been embedded in his DNA. He was clearly better than all of the other players, including the adults. At 16, Clemente was recruited to play with a traveling municipal squad, an opportunity that directly led to a professional contract (his first) with the Dodgers’ winter league team two years later. Although the Dodgers clearly understood what they had in the young phenom, the Pirates, a perennial cellar dweller at that point in the early 1950s, exercised the right to draft the unprotected prodigy, changing the course of baseball history.
Clemente would spend the next two decades rewriting Pittsburgh Pirate record books, winning over an entire city in the process. His relentlessly positive outlook on the game and life itself helped break down color barriers that were still in place at the beginning of his career, gradually removing the racist undertones he felt all around him. Since Clemente was both Latin and a player of color, he was confronted by many of the same hostile environments as other trailblazers like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, only without the benefit of having English as his native tongue.
As his legend began to grow, Clemente used his spot in the public eye to draw attention to the underprivileged of Latin America. To that point, when Nicaragua suffered severe casualties from a massive earthquake in December of 1972, Clemente sent three plane loads of emergency supplies to the victims in Managua. Soon after, however, he learned that each had been intercepted by corrupt officials, never reaching the victims. Hoping his popularity would help the situation, he personally chartered a plane and loaded it with more supplies on New Year’s Eve. Tragically, shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed into the ocean due to a mechanical failure, killing Clemente and all other passengers on board.
Since his sudden passing, Clemente’s status in the city he loved has only grown in stature and scope. As evidenced by the statue just outside PNC Park, Clemente, though not a Pittsburgh native, is forever interwoven with the local fabric, a constant point of hope and pride for everyone who calls the Steel City home.