Pittsburgh, Pa. (WTAJ) – On Sept. 15, Americans remember Roberto Clemente as a selfless humanitarian and one of the greatest players to ever live, but to his son, he was simply “dad.”
“He was a lot of other things that people don’t know. Dad spent a lot of time playing the harmonica, playing the organ, making ceramics. He was a poet,” said Roberto Jr. in a recent interview with Nexstar’s WTAJ.
Clemente was born on Aug. 18, 1934, in Puerto Rico. Unable to afford a glove or bat, Roberto Jr. says that didn’t stop his dad from playing ball.
“At the time you would get cardboard or anything to make a glove…tree branches for bats, cans for balls, so you used anything in your imagination to play the game. He truly believed that God put him on Earth to play baseball.”
Clemente’s love and dedication to the game would get him signed to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1955. With unmatched talent, you’d think he’d be an immediate catch in the U.S., but that wasn’t the case.
“It was rough, not only the culture shock but also racism. There was a lot of that at the time,” said Roberto Jr.
According to the founder of The Clemente Museum Duane Rieder, the Pittsburgh newspapers were cruel to Clemente, mocking his broken English.
“When he would say, ‘I hit the ball,’ it sounded like heat, so they would actually spell it like heat. I really think it was a prejudiced thing, that a lot of the white writers just had it out for him and they weren’t going to give him a break“ said Rieder.
Roberto Jr. said his father also faced disrespect when it came to his name.
“They wanted to Americanize Roberto as Bob. Even his Top Cards baseball cards have Bob, so he spoke out about it. He said my name is Roberto Clemente.”
Clemente was a proud Puerto Rican, and his name was his identity, of which he wasn’t going to let anyone strip him or anyone after him.
“A lot of people told him, ‘Be quiet, they’re going to send you down,’ but he said, ‘No, if I see injustice, I have to speak up, I have to fight it,’ and that’s what he did. He wanted to represent his people, the minority people, and he put those people on his back to be able to make sure they were respected as well,” said Roberto Jr.
That demand for respect would finally be given once people realized what Clemente could do on the field. As a right fielder, he played his heart and soul out each game.
“Everything he did was special. The way he walked. The way he ran…,” said Clemente Jr.
Roberto Clemente would become the first Latino to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, as well as the first Latino to collect 3,000 hits.
“I call him the gatekeeper of that club. He stayed at 3000. So anyone going in the club has to go through him so he’s keeping the gate,” said Roberto Jr.
Clemente also won four batting crowns, 12 glove awards and led the Pirates to the World Series Championships not once, but twice, being named most valuable player of the 1971 World Series.
Another feat was meeting his soulmate, Vera Clemente.
“My father and mother have an unbelievable love story. They’re both from the same town, Carolina. And Dad was already an established major league baseball player. A veteran, 10 years already in the league… a bachelor. No one had caught him yet until he saw my mother. And the first day he saw her, he went to my grandmother and he said, ‘Mom, I found the woman I am going to marry her.’ She goes, “What’s her name?’ ‘I don’t know her name. but I’m going to marry her,’ and 10 months later, they were married,” said Roberto Jr.
Roberto Jr. attributes his mom’s cooking as another reason his dad was so good at baseball.
“I truly believe there was a correlation when mom was here in Pittsburgh when he was playing and when she was not. Obviously, he was eating Puerto Rican food when she was here. When she was gone, there was no Puerto Rican food to be found, so I’m pretty sure the batting average suffered a little bit.”
Vera and Roberto Clement would go on to have three kids, Roberto Jr., Luis Roberto, and Roberto Enrique.
“He was so proud to be Puerto Rican. Mom had to fly back to Puerto Rico for myself and my two brothers to be born in Puerto Rico. I was born at 11:55 p.m. on Aug. 17, five minutes before his birthday, so I was his birthday present in 1965,” smiled Roberto Jr.
Family and helping others is what Roberto Jr. said came first in his dad’s life, with baseball coming in second.
“When you talk about the name what it means. The meaning of Roberto Clemente is goodwill.”
Off the diamond, you’d find Clemente taking baseballs and gloves to sick children or holding baseball clinics free of charge for underprivileged kids, truly living up to his name. It’s what he would die doing.
Roberto Jr. said on Dec. 31, 1972, he went to say good morning to his father, who would be leaving for Nicaragua to deliver food and medical supplies after an earthquake shattered the country.
“I actually told him not to get on the plane because the plane was going to crash. I was 7 years old,” Jr. said.
Still, Clemente was set on going, feeling the pain of his fellow Latinos. But he’d never make it to Nicaragua — his plane would crash into the Atlantic Ocean.
His teammate and best friend, Manny Sanguillén, rushed to the crash site to help look for him.
“As soon as I got in, it felt really strong like a tsunami. I said, ‘God, you have to help me,'” Sanguillén said in Spanish.
Despite searching for days, Clemente’s body was never found.
“He was so kind and he had love and passion for everyone that even the sea didn’t want to give him back,” said Sanguillen.
Devastation was felt around the world, but Roberto Jr. said he realized that’s how his dad needed to go.
“If he had gone any other way, perhaps people would have never noticed the person that he truly was.”
A life lost too soon, Clemente’s legacy will last forever, as he continues to inspire even today.
Pittsburgh Pirates’ Johan Oviedo calls Clemente his role model.
“For every Latin kid, it’s definitely one of the big heroes that we have,” Oviedo said.
Teammate Josh Palacio, who is Puerto Rican himself, echoes the same feelings.
“Roberto used his money, he used his platform, he used his influence to help people who were really in need. Like what we do here is fun, it’s a game, but there’s life out there, and people are going through some tough things. So, definitely look up to him for that,” Palacio added.
Clemente’s legacy of love and service is carried on by his three sons through the Roberto Clemente Foundation. The organization allows them to continue spreading their father’s goodwill to the world through disaster relief and youth baseball clinics.