A hero’s civil rights story

Roberto Clemente, circa 1968

Roberto Clemente, circa 1968


The news of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — April 4, 1968, in Memphis — shocked and horrified many people. Among those most effected was Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star Roberto Clemente, who, as a black Latino from Puerto Rico, experienced the sting and shame of racial discrimination in the United States.

During his first seven spring trainings in Florida, he could not stay with his teammates in their whites-only hotel. Reporters quoted him in his broken English and went along with broadcasters and American teammates who, against Clemente’s wishes, Anglicized his name and referred to him as Bob or Bobby.

Clemente, who’d met with King years earlier at his farm in Puerto Rico, shared King’s desire for social, racial and economic justice. Both men died before their 40th birthday but have left timeless legacies.

Clemente had deep respect for King and the civil rights movement. After King’s death, Clemente met with his teammates, 11 of whom were African-American, and convinced them all to push to have their opening day game moved from April 8 to April 10. King was buried April 9. This extraordinary act was typical of Clemente.

Clemente would have turned 81 today, Aug. 18. Happy Birthday wishes to my first, only and enduring hero, baseball or otherwise. His magnificent skills as a baseball player drew me to him. The eloquence of a life magnificently lived has held my attention.

He demanded of himself the highest standards of conduct — he served from 1958 through 1964 in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve — and thought of other people ahead of himself. He is well-known for this admonishment, “If you have the chance to make things better for people coming behind you and you don’t, you are wasting your time on earth.”

What follows is a short essay I wrote in October 1996 for The Cincinnati Enquirer, on the 25th anniversary of Clemente’s time in the national spotlight, the 1971 World Series.


The Cincinnati Enquirer

Childhood heroes can last a lifetime.

Maybe it’s because most of us don’t become presidents and cowboys and actors and baseball players when we grow up. Or maybe heroes remind us of a time when Mom and Dad did our worrying for us, leaving us free to dream.

Memories of one of my heroes, never really that far away, have surfaced during baseball’s post-season.

It was 25 years ago this month when one of the all-time greats not only led his team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, to a World Series title but also won my heart.

I was 9 and just learning the finer points of baseball, and here was a man, Roberto Clemente, playing the game to perfection.

Clemente batted .414 during the seven-game series against Baltimore. He ran the bases as if running for his life, fingers spread, veins tensed and visible in his neck.

And that arm. He controlled the game from right field. Catching the ball, twirling almost full circle, planting his right foot, firing to the infield. Baseball ballet.

Images of Clemente burned through the northern Illinois winter. I’d look across the ball fields – only the thin brown stubble of grass interrupting a blanket of snow – and see myself playing with his passion.

The snow finally melted.

The brown grass turned green.

My friends welcomed the new season by mailing baseball cards to players for autographs. Almost every card they bought went into an envelope with a form letter.

I didn’t get into this habit. I’d rather be playing. But I made one exception.

In May 1972, I pulled a Roberto Clemente card from a sweet-smelling pack of Topps.

I took a pencil and, in oversized cursive, wrote a letter:

Dear Mr. Clemente,

You are my favorite baseball player of all time. I am your biggest fan in my town. Please sign this baseball card and mail it back.

Your friend, Mark Curnutte

About a month later, I got a reply. Inside a Pirates envelope, I found a team photograph of Clemente and my card, autographed in ink.

But in the shuffle of boyhood, I lost track of the picture and card. I last remember having them on the front porch, where I was showing them off to friends.

Later that year, I learned it was a loss I couldn’t recover.

On the last day of the 1972 season, Clemente collected career hit No. 3,000, a double off Jon Matlack of the New York Mets, in what would be Clemente’s last regular-season at-bat. I saw it on TV.

The cheers of September turned to tears in December.

Two days before Christmas, an earthquake rattled the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, leaving hundreds dead and thousands injured and homeless. Clemente organized a mercy mission from his native Puerto Rico to deliver emergency food and medicine, most of which he collected himself. He joined the crew for its New Year’s Eve flight.

The overloaded cargo plane got off the ground in San Juan but went down minutes later in the Caribbean. Clemente’s body was never found. He was 38.

The posthumous honors were many. Major League Baseball’s humanitarian citation is called the Roberto Clemente Award. The mandatory five-year wait after retirement was waived for Clemente when he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973. A year-round sports camp and school in San Juan, a project Clemente started, was finished.

While heroes of childhood are remembered, they often are reduced. There is a difference, we learn as adults, between fantasy and reality.

But Clemente is more of a hero to me now than ever.

He played each inning as though it were his last. No wasted time. No wasted motion.

I can’t help but compare Clemente to one of today’s marquee players, a man who shares his first name, Roberto Alomar.

With Alomar, one has to ignore his behavior to appreciate his performance. Not Clemente. The greatness of the man surpassed even the greatness of the athlete.

Mark Curnutte, who wore Clemente’s No. 21 on his baseball and softball jerseys, is an Enquirer features reporter.

Epilogue: In May 2006, while in Haiti for three weeks, I would escape at night into the biography “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero.” Author David Maraniss, in the 2005 book, quotes Clemente’s response to warnings that he not speak out against American injustice.

“They say, ‘Roberto, you better keep your mouth shut because they will ship you back,'” Clemente said. “[But] this is something from the first day I said to myself: I am in the minority group. I am from the poor people. I represent the poor people. I represent the common people of America. So I am going to be treated like a human being. I don’t want to be treated like a Puerto Rican, or a black, or nothing like that. I want to be treated like any person.”

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