Baseball’s Last Boricua Saint

A Personal Reflection on the Life of Roberto Clemente Walker

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Photo: Thwip! (Formarly Macwagen), flickr

In August of 1934, a boy by the name of Roberto Clemente Walker was born in the city of Carolina, Puerto Rico. As an enthusiastic young boy who grew up to love baseball, rooting for teams like the San Juan Senadores, it was said: “[Clemente’s] first bat was fashioned from the branch of a guava tree, a glove [that] was improvised from a coffee bean sack, and [a] ball [that] was a tight knot of rags.” By the time he was a teenager, Clemente was playing softball and showing off his incredible arm in front of peers.

It would not be until 1954 that Clemente would try out for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Though making the cut and signing with the team, he never left their farm system in Montreal; the team kept him in the minor leagues. There, he played for the Triple-A Montreal Royals, where he was kept a secret to the public eye.

But why stay with a team who does not want to play you? Certainly, Clemente had all the right mechanics to be a great baseball player, but still, as a team manager, would you unveil your secret weapon to the world, or keep it a secret, so no one will notice? Ultimately, the latter is exactly what the Brooklyn Dodgers did with Clemente. Therefore, he left the Dodgers’ farm system and took a risk by signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates as their starting right fielder.

As a result, he went on to play a total of 18 seasons with the Pirates, going on to become the team’s most memorable player. According to Baseball-Reference.com, he accomplished many feats during these years, such winning the Gold Gloves Award twelve times, the Batting Title four times, and becoming the National League’s MVP in 1971. Today, he is one of baseball’s greatest legends.

Yet, while Clemente’s baseball career was glorified with outstanding numbers, he was more than just a player – he was also a humanitarian. According to a piece in HuffPost Religion, there is a petition to canonize the Boricua hero for his humanitarian work. The article states director Richard Rossi is pushing to have Clemente recognized as a Catholic saint through the promotion of his latest film, Baseball’s Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories. Though what Rossi hopes to accomplish with the help of x-rays and medical records, is to verify Clemente’s incredible healing touch toward sick children he visited in hospitals.

I find this to be absolutely interesting because, according to the Catholic Church, in order to be considered a saint one must be a devoted Christian, have lived a saintly life, and have performed two miracles. I cannot say for sure if Roberto Clemente meets the requirements of being a saint, but by looking at his life and what he has done for others, the evidence is extremely compelling.

Of course, my indecision should not serve to discredit what Clemente has done for people.

Clemente grew up during the Great Depression in the early 1930s in Puerto Rico and had a father who devoted his time to cutting sugarcane in the fields. He knew of the harsh labors of life and respected those who shared that fate. Therefore, as Clemente grew older, he had a respect for the simpler things in life. He didn’t care for the riches of baseball – what he did care for were his adoring fans.

During his time in Pittsburg he often involved himself with community outreach programs. In addition, during the off-season, he would go back home to Puerto Rico where he taught kids the fundamentals of baseball. Even more, Clemente would travel to the city of Managua in Nicaragua, where he helped manage a Puerto Rican all-star team during the Amateur Baseball World Series held there.

According to his wife, Vera Clemente, Nicaragua had a special place in his heart:

“[Roberto Clemente] liked Nicaragua because it looked like the old days in Puerto Rico when we didn’t have so much progress. He said the people on the farms still used animals, and it reminded him of when he was a little boy. And when we traveled through the country he liked to visit with the people and learn more about the way they lived. The common people, he just liked to talk with them.”

But then tragically, in 1972, on the 31st of December, the world stood watch as one of baseball’s great players was taken away by the coastal waters of San Juan in a plane crash, en route to his beloved Nicaragua. The daunting realization following Roberto Clemente’s death brought out the true essence of his spiritual symbol. His death served to immortalize his dedication to serve the poor. What he died striving for was more than just important to him, it was an opportunity to help those in great need, and an opportunity to do something bigger than baseball.

At the time of his death, he was traveling to Nicaragua to deliver medical supplies to post-earthquake victims. According to Smithsonian records, as part of the earthquake relief committee, Clemente managed to “[raise] $150,000, and [gather] and [ship] 26 tons of food, clothing and medicine by air and sea”, but due to the threat of the supplies being intercepted by the corrupt Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, he decided to deliver the supplies himself. As a result of his call to duty, the plane he traveled on was overloaded with supplies, causing the engines to explode, and the plane to plummet upon take-off.

Ultimately, what needs to be considered in terms of the life of Roberto Clemente is the man who he was off the baseball field. Confronted by his deeds and his Christian faith, Clemente felt if it was his time to die, so be it. According to Clemente’s wife, Vera, he told her, “When your time comes, it comes; if you are going to die, you will die.”

So, in regards to the question, should Roberto Clemente be considered a saint?. What I will say is: Being viewed as a saint can be considered simply symbolic. Although I can not determine if Clemente accomplished two miracles in his life-time, he was definitely a devoted Christian and lived a saintly life, exemplified with his words that: “If you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on earth.”

Clemente can most definitely be considered a saint since he was a civil servant to his fans, the people of Nicaragua, and more importantly to the people of Puerto Rico. Clemente had a wondrous, warming heart toward those who had very little to offer but a simple smile of gratitude. Considering what Clemente did during his time on Earth, not as a player, but as a humanitarian for all people, there is no doubt in my mind, Clemente is a man worthy of sainthood.

In memoriam of the baseball great, I dedicate this poem to his life sacrifices:

Oceanic Saint
taken by the coastal waters
of Isla Verde,
your soul continues to rest.
blessed you are
within every brush of a wave
we see your image of light, a
oceanic saint, prayed for by
fellow followers of a
holy retreat.
your soul continues to rest.
a messenger of God’s will, there
in the transparent blue
forever
your heart continues to
rest.

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Gabriel José Maldonado

Poet, Gabriel José Maldonado (also known as Neo-Literato) was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He is a graduate student at Bank Street College of Education, where he majors in Museum Education. In his spare time, he loves writing poetry and taking photos throughout his travels. In the future, he intends to pursue a career in preserving Hispanic and Latina/o cultures, because being Puerto Rican has made him proud to spread our culture through the arts. 

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