Roberto Clemente Walker: The First Hispanic Player Elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame
Hispanic culture in sports holds a unique place in Major League Baseball. Spring training has arrived here in Sarasota, where the Baltimore Orioles (former St. Louis Browns at old Sportsman’s Park) make their home for the season. Spring training is always exciting since you get a chance to see the new rookies as well as the veterans up close on the field getting in shape and demonstrating their talent.
It is an atmosphere of competition and hustle as both veterans and rookies work to ensure their spot on the major league roster. Mostly it is exciting because you see the players who really love the game – show it by their performance and that, other than pure talent, is what makes a player great – a player like Roberto Clemente Walker.
As a young child and St. Louis Cardinals fan, I remember seeing Mr. Clemente play at old Sportsman’s Park, and then later at Busch Stadium. Between Clemente and Willie Stargell, you could always expect some exciting baseball – Roberto scraping out a hit and Willie launching an “artillery shell” onto the right field roof in Sportsman’s Park. Clemente sprang across right field to catch a ball like each game was a playoff, and if the ball was anywhere close; he caught it.
Roberto’s very last game was against the St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburg Three River Stadium on October 3, 1972. He did not play that game though, because from time to time he had to recover from injuries.
He was near the end of his 18 year career (38 years old), but he still had a lot mileage to go on those legs and strong arm. They labeled Roberto early on as a “bad ball” hitter because he swung at balls out of the strike zone and got hits. Tim McCarver, a former St. Louis Cardinals catcher who played against Clemente and who knows a bit about good throwing arms, says about Clemente: “Some right fielders have rifles for arms, but he had a howitzer.”
Forty years ago, Roberto Clemente, one of the best players in the history of Major League Baseball, shortly after takeoff on the evening of New Year’s Eve 1972 from Puerto Rico, died in a plane crash on his way to deliver aid to the people of Nicaragua. It was a great loss for Major League Baseball and even greater loss for humankind.
The story goes that Clemente had contributed aid to the people of Nicaragua and organized fundraisers to gather the needed materials. There were rumors that the Somoza regime had confiscated most of the aid and little of it was distributed.
Of course, when Roberto saw a challenge, he hit it straight on, just like those “bad balls” he got at the plate. He decided to escort the much-needed aid on a cargo plane to ensure delivery because he was concerned that the aid was not reaching the people of Nicaragua.(Click to read Focus on Nicaragua)
Roberto Clement and Lou Gehrig have the distinction to the be the only players in Major League Baseball history elected by special election to the Hall of Fame without the mandatory 5-year waiting period. In 1973, the National Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Clemente in a special election to honor his contribution to baseball – the first Latin American/Hispanic baseball player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.