Magazine article The Progressive

Celebrate Clemente

Magazine article The Progressive

Celebrate Clemente

Article excerpt

In sports, we are very fond of celebrating anniversaries. In baseball, where history is treated with the care of a museum curator, even the most obscure of "famous" dates are given their due. That's what makes the silence over one upcoming anniversary particularly puzzling.

It's been forty years since the great Pittsburgh Pirate Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente smacked the last hit of his career--an even number 3,000.

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Then on December 31, 1972, Clemente died in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico as he attempted to deliver humanitarian goods to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua.

Previous efforts to send aid had been repeatedly disrupted by the looting guards of U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. One aid worker was able to get the corrupt military to back off when he said, "Do you realize who sent this? Roberto Clemente!" That led the graceful icon with the rocket arm to believe, even though he had a crippling fear of flying, that he needed to arrive with the next shipment of supplies.

The rest is tragedy.

Clemente's legend has only grown in time. He is rightly recognized as the first superstar of Latino descent. He's also someone who crossed over to mainstream fame without "crossing over." He resisted efforts by Pittsburgh management to rename him "Bobby Clemente." He was bilingual but never shied from addressing the white, blue-collar Pittsburgh fans in Spanish. He led a union effort in 1968 to delay the start of the season following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. "He changed the whole world" by giving voice to people of color, Clemente said of King, according to David Maraniss's 2006 biography of the ballplayer.

This is a particularly apt year to celebrate Clemente, given that his team, the Pirates, have a winning record for the first time in nineteen seasons. …

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