Passion for Baseball Legend, Roberto Clemente

Article excerpt

When Duane Rieder speaks about Roberto Clemente, his passion for his boyhood hero spills out like a child examining a new baseball mitt.

"This is probably the best single signed ball on planet Earth," Rieder, 46, owner and curator of the Roberto Clemente museum in Lawrenceville, said of the baseball commemorating the closing of Forbes Field on June 28, 1970.

Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates' famed right fielder, penned a message on it to Joe L. Brown, then the club's general manager: "I hope Three Rivers Stadium will treat you as well as Forbes Field treated me. With great admiration and respect, Roberto Clemente."

Rieder anticipates getting word as early as next week on his federal application seeking nonprofit status for the museum. If approved, the commercial photographer and Clemente archivist has bigger plans for former Engine House 25 on Penn Avenue.

The two-story converted firehouse houses a large and fascinating collection of artifacts and memorabilia -- items ranging from Clemente's Social Security card, union card and a business suit to the last jersey he wore.

"There are a few pieces at auction I'd just love to get," Rieder said.

He envisions a statue out front, signs enhancing the museum inside and out, acquisition of even more rare items and a row of flags -- including one representing the baseball hero's native Puerto Rico -- flying over the sidewalk.

"I want to make it so everybody can enjoy it and see these things, and I want to make it affordable," said Rieder, who hopes grants, donations and possibly a sponsoring partner will provide enough money to let the museum stand on its own.

"Right now, if we do a private tour, I charge $20 a person. That's a little steep for the average Joe."

Clemente became the first Hispanic player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973. He died in a plane crash off the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico, on Dec. 31, 1972, while attempting to deliver aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims. His body was never recovered.

Vera Clemente, Roberto's widow, said in a telephone interview from Puerto Rico that she and her family plan to visit the museum often and help promote it.

"We are really pleased, especially that it's in an old fire station," she said.

The setting honors Roberto's legacy, she said. …