Ken Burns Classroom

Roberto Clemente

Ken Burns Film: Baseball: The Tenth Inning

Collections: Postwar United States (1945-1970s)

Subject: Social Studies

Grade Level: 6-12

1934–1972

Roberto Clemente Walker was an outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 through 1972. Born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, he broke National League records, leading the league in batting four times and hitting a remarkable .317 over 18 seasons. Anoutstanding right fielder, he won the Golden Glove award for 12 consecutive years. But Clemente is perhaps best remembered for his devotion to charity work, a task to whichhe committed himself during the off-seasons—and in which he was engaged when he died.

The son of a sugarcane worker, Roberto distinguished himself as a ball player in high school. He signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers upon graduation and played with their minor league team, the Montreal Royals, for one season. The following year, 1955, he made his major league debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He hit his stride in the 1960s, collecting 3000 career hits and 240 homeruns, and distinguishing himself in the right field. He was the first Latino player to win a World Series as a starter (1960) and to be named the National League MVP (1966) and the World Series MVP (1971).

Clemente was proud of his Puerto Rican heritage. During much of his career, he was often called “Bob Clemente” by the media and MLB personnel, though he clearly preferred Roberto—a name that contemporary sportscasters claimed was “too exotic.” When presented with the MVP trophy following the 1971 World Series, he addressed the cameras in Spanish, asking for his parents’ blessings.

In late 1972, Clemente was in Nicaragua, managing an amateur baseball team. After he’d returned home for the holidays, a major earthquake leveled Managua, killing 5,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. Clemente immediately began organizing aid from San Juan. When he learned that the aid was being diverted by the Nicaraguan military, Clemente—determined to get the aid through—decided to accompany the relief flight himself. Overloaded by 5000 pounds, the plane crashed into the sea after takeoff. Its wreckage was never found. The only member of Clemente’s team not to attend his memorial service was Manny Sanguillen. Clemente’s close friend had chosen instead to dive into the waters where the plane had crashed in an effort to retrieve his teammate’s body.

The following March 1973, Clemente became the first Latino player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the usual waiting period having been waived. Today, MLB presents an annual Roberto Clemente Award to the outstanding player who devotes his time to community work, along with a donation check to a charity of the player’s choosing.

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