He’s a household name to Latino baseball fans and often referred to as a hero, gone too soon.
The legacy of Roberto Clemente is still treasured today, proven nearly 50 years after his death.
In Central Florida, the community pushed to rename Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Orange County. In fact, the Orange County School Board unanimously voted to rename the facility Roberto Clemente Middle on Sept. 21, coincidentally during Hispanic Heritage Month.
Advocates for the name say it honors the diverse population of the school while giving students an example of what they can aspire to be.
The value of his name goes beyond the Latino community’s baseball star.
Read below to learn more about Clemente and his impact.
Becoming baseball’s most prominent Afro-Latino
The Baseball Hall of Famer is notable for his impressive talent on the diamond. During his career, he broke barriers, becoming the first Latin American player to collect 3,000 career hits in September 1972.
The Puerto Rican accomplished this feat before his untimely death on Dec. 31, 1972, when his plane crashed as he was delivering earthquake relief supplies to Nicaragua. The cargo plane crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico and his body was never found.
Though Clemente’s career was cut short, he is often seen as an example of how one could be accomplished and humble.
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Clemente was born Aug. 18, 1934, in Carolina, Puerto Rico. The son of a sugarcane worker, Clemente began his professional baseball career just after finishing high school. His passion led him to sign a deal with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and he played with their minor league team, the Montreal Royals, for a season. The next year, he went to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates and made his major league debut in 1955, helping the Pirates win the World Series in 1960 and 1971.
Clemente established himself as one of the top all-around players in baseball, according to History.com. His talent was recognized on the field, but out of the dugout, he struggled with injuries and a language barrier. As an Afro-Latino, he said he had to navigate professional baseball with two strikes against him: being Black and not being from the U.S. mainland. This led him to continue breaking racial and ethnic barriers in baseball and within society.
“I don’t believe in color. I believe in people," he said in 1972. "I always respect everyone, and thanks to God, my mother and father taught me never to hate, never to dislike someone because of their color. I didn’t even know about (racism) when I got (to the United States).”
Off the field, Clemente continued to work to create a more equitable society. Often described as Major League Baseball’s most beloved humanitarian, he spent much of the offseason doing charity work.
He always made time to hold free baseball clinics for children, especially for those from low-income families, and Clemente often spoke of his dream of building a venue in Puerto Rico where children with athletic aspirations could have access to facilities, coaching and other resources. Clemente felt sports could impact various aspects of life, helping to create a healthier, happier and fairer society.
“Always, they said Babe Ruth was the best there was. They said, ‘You’d really have to be something to be like Babe Ruth.’ But Babe Ruth was an American player. What we needed was a Puerto Rican player they could say that about -- someone to look up to and try to equal," Clemente said as he was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1966.
En route to Nicaragua
Some of Clemente’s charitable work had taken him to Nicaragua, so Clemente was particularly distressed when he learned that very little aid was getting to victims of a devastating Dec. 23, 1972 earthquake near the capital of Managua. More than 7,000 people died and about 250,000 people were suddenly homeless.
The issue was personal to Clemente as reports reveal he lost many friends in the earthquake. He had previously spent time there managing a Puerto Rican all-star team in the Amateur Baseball World Series tournament.
Clemente decided to collect supplies on his own, but reports revealed Nicaragua’s corrupt government was intercepting deliveries. Clemente organized a way to personally deliver the goods to those who needed them the most, but the plane he would use was known to be faulty.
One of the engines exploded almost immediately after take-off, according to a crash report. There were two more explosions, then a fourth. An FAA investigation revealed a history of mechanical failures and said the plane was overloaded by 4,000 pounds.
Crashing off the coast of Puerto Rico, crews spent two weeks searching for survivors. Manny Sanguillen, a close friend and Pirates teammate, spent three days diving the shark-infested depths in his search for his friend. Clemente’s body was never recovered.
Keeping his legacy alive
After his death, Major League Baseball established an award that bears Clemente’s name, recognizing the player who, besides being a good athlete, emulates Clemente’s philanthropy and humanitarianism.
In Puerto Rico, an award in his name is given at public schools to those who excel as athletes, students and citizens.
Finally, in 1973, Clemente was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, becoming the first Latino to be awarded the honor. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.