Time for Cle­mente to take his place be­side Robin­son

Base­ball should honor player by re­tir­ing his jersey

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS BRIEFING -

Roberto Cle­mente’s body was never re­cov­ered, but his lega­cies as a ballplayer and a hu­man­i­tar­ian live on.

I’m not sure which one looms larger, at times.

Base­ball’s first Latin Amer­i­can su­per­star died on a mis­sion of mercy in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico nearly 38 years ago.

He was proud, pas­sion­ate, out­spo­ken. He re­fused to ig­nore in­equities and in­dig­ni­ties around him, and not just those that per­tained to base­ball, ei­ther.

When re­lief aid to Nicaraguan earth­quake vic­tims fell into cor­rupt hands shortly af­ter a Christ­mas Day dis­as­ter, Cle­mente boarded a pis­ton­pow­ered air­craft filled with food, wa­ter and sup­plies, and a prom­ise to de­liver them per­son­ally. The 38-year-old star right fielder of the Pitts­burgh Pi­rates kissed his wife, Vera, and three young boys good­bye. It was New Year’s Eve 1972.

The ’72 base­ball sea­son had ended hap­pily with Cle­mente col­lect­ing his 3,000th hit to be­come only the 11th ma­jor lea­guer and first Latino player to reach the mile­stone.

Now he was aboard a DC-7 loaded down with re­lief aid, tak­ing off from San Juan In­ter­na­tional Air­port just af­ter 9 p.m., and headed to the cap­i­tal city of Managua, Nicaragua.

The plane climbed, banked once to the left, then went down in choppy wa­ters less than two miles off­shore.

The pi­lot had tried to ra­dio for help … but too late.

What isn’t too late is for Ma­jor League Base­ball to do the right thing and re­tire Cle­mente’s No. 21. Jackie Robin­son’s No. 42 was re­tired by base­ball in 1997.

Please, let’s not have an­other 50-year wait to make good on base­ball his­tory.

These two men faced sim­i­lar strug­gles against racial prej­u­dice in a sport that was slow to make amends, fi­nally did, and now has what I be­lieve is an obli­ga­tion to dis­play Nos. 42 and 21 side-by-side at ev­ery ma­jor league ball­park.

Both men ex­hib­ited a strong so­cial con­science and an im­pen­e­tra­ble set of ideals.

Both were hu­man-rights ad­vo­cates and trail­blaz­ers for racial equal­ity.

Both en­dured death threats be­cause of the color of their skin, as did Hank Aaron be­fore break­ing Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974.

Cle­mente was sup­posed to die on Sept. 29, 1972 — one day be­fore he col­lected hit No. 3,000. A let­ter sent anony­mously to the Pi­rates, care of Cle­mente, read:

“On Septem­ber 29th, Fri­day at Three Rivers Sta­dium in the top of the sec­ond in­ning you will be shot while play­ing right field.

P.S. Did you ever get shot with a shot­gun be­fore”

Cle­mente didn’t flinch. P.S. Cle­mente never flinched.

He was a .317 ca­reer hit­ter. Chis­eled body. Re­gal man­ner­isms. A gazelle in right field. A can­non for an arm. All the cliches fit.

“If you have a chance to ac­com­plish some­thing that will make things bet­ter for peo­ple com­ing be­hind you,” Cle­mente once said, “and you don’t do that, you are wast­ing your time on Earth.” He lived by those words. Just as Jackie Robin­son was the right man to break base­ball’s color bar­rier in 1947, Cle­mente was a pi­o­neer for proud Lati­nos a decade later.

To­day, MLB ros­ters are roughly 28 per­cent His­panic play­ers, with a heavy Dominican Re­pub­lic dom­i­nance. Cle­mente opened doors for Puerto Ri­cans, Cubans, Venezue­lans, Mex­i­cans and Do­mini­cans alike.

Latin Amer­i­can play­ers of the ’50s and ’60s were fre­quently mocked for how they spoke English, crit­i­cized for their fre­quent flam­boy­ance on the field, even ac­cused of tak­ing some­one else’s job by play­ing on the cheap.

Cle­mente was the first Latin Amer­i­can player to (1) win a Most Valu­able Player award, (2) crack the 3,000-hit bar­rier and (3) be voted into the Base­ball Hall of Fame. Only he and Lou Gehrig were ex­empted from Coop­er­stown’s five-year wait rule.

Cle­mente won four bat­ting ti­tles, 12 Gold Gloves and two World Se­ries rings, and al­ways looked as if he slept on a bad pil­low when he stepped to the plate or took his po­si­tion in right field.

MLB an­nu­ally rec­og­nizes one player for his off-field con­tri­bu­tions with what was re­named the Roberto Cle­mente Award in 1973.

Now it’s time to take the next step. Base­ball isn’t lily white to­day be­cause of ma­jor break­throughs by Nos. 42 and 21, each in his own un­yield­ing way.

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