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Roberto Clemente, baseball player and devoted philanthropist died in a plane crush on New Years Eve 1972, carrying aid to Nicaragua

Goran Blazeski

Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker was born on August 18, 1934, in Barrio San Anton, Carolina, Puerto Rico, to Don Melchor Clemente and Dona Luisa Walker. He was the youngest of seven children.

As a young boy, he helped his father, who worked on a sugar farm and also managed a grocery store. Young Roberto showed interest in baseball early in life and at the age of 17, he was playing for the Santurce Crabbers of the Puerto Rican Baseball League.

He signed a deal with the Brooklyn Dodgers the following year, and played with their minor league team, the Montreal Royals, for a season. In 1955 the Pittsburgh Pirates took Clemente for their team where he made his major league debut. In the 1950s Clemente, a black Puerto Rican, was shocked when he experienced racism in America, but he wasn’t discouraged and was even more motivated to continue.

Clemente in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, 1958

Clemente in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, 1958

He quickly became known for his powerful throwing but he struggled with injuries early in his career. He had suffered for years from pain caused by an automobile accident. In the winter of 1958-1959, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves  and spent six months as an infantryman. There he gained a great deal of physical strength from the tough training regime.

Things changed for Clemente in 1960 when he led the league with a .314 batting average, 16 home runs, and 94 RBIs. He earned his first All-Star berth and helped the Pirates beat the New York Yankees to win the World Series – the national baseball championship. Clemente hit .310 during the series.

He improved even more in 1961. That season he led the league in batting at .351, had more than 200 hits for the first time, scored 100 runs and batted in 89, and posted an outstanding .559 slugging average. He went on to win a Gold Glove every year for the rest of the decade and was also selected to the All-Star team every year.

Roberto Clemente - PNC Park. Photo Credit

Roberto Clemente – PNC Park. Photo Credit

He became one of the top all-round players in baseball and in 1966, Roberto Clemente won the league’s Most Valuable Player award.

On November 14, 1964, he married Vera Zabala. They had three children.

A statue of Clemente outside of PNC Park in Pittsburgh. Photo Credit

A statue of Clemente outside of PNC Park in Pittsburgh. Photo Credit

He once again helped his team win the World Series in 1971, batting .414 with two home runs to help Pittsburgh defeat the favored Baltimore Orioles. He won the World Series Most Valuable Player award. In 1972 he became the first Hispanic player to reach 3,000 career hits and the eleventh major league player to reach that plateau at the time.

Clemente wasn’t just a baseball player, he was also a devoted philanthropist. It was December 23, when a major earthquake struck Managua, Nicaragua, killing thousands of people. He organized an aid effort to help thousands of homeless earthquake victims. When he was informed that the corrupt Nicaraguan government was not getting the supplies to the victims he decided to accompany the relief himself.

Roberto Clemente's number 21 was retired by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1973. Photo Credit

Roberto Clemente’s number 21 was retired by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1973. Photo Credit

It was New Years Eve when Clemente and four others boarded a plane for Nicaragua. Unfortunately, the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after take-off. Everyone on the plane was killed, and Clemente’s body was never recovered.

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On March 20, 1973, Roberto Clemente became the first Latino player to be included in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Pittsburgh Pirates removed Clemente’s number – twenty-one – from their team.