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Remembering Roberto Clemente as a Black man who fought against racial injustice

Pittsburgh Pirates' outfielder Roberto Clemente is seen.
Pittsburgh Pirates’ outfielder Roberto Clemente is seen, March 1968.
(Associated Press)

Every major league player born in Puerto Rico, including the Dodgers’ Kiké Hernández and Edwin Ríos, will have the option Wednesday to wear No. 21 as part of the league’s annual celebration of Roberto Clemente.

Nearly 50 years after his death, Clemente remains the most revered figure in Puerto Rico and a Latin American icon. He was a Hall of Fame outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates and beloved humanitarian. He died a hero at age 38 when his plane overfilled with aid en route to earthquake victims in Nicaragua crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico on New Year’s Eve 1972.

But often overlooked in the yearly commemoration is Clemente’s activism as a Black man who spoke out, frequently in his second language, against racism in the United States during a career that paralleled the civil rights movement.

Clemente, a U.S. Marine Corps reservist, admired Martin Luther King Jr. and spent an afternoon with him at his farm in Puerto Rico. He denounced the segregation he confronted during spring training in the Jim Crow era of the South and pushed for the Pirates to make changes to better accommodate Black players.

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When Clemente reported to Pirates spring training in Florida for the first time, Black players usually had to wait on the bus for their white teammates to bring them back food from restaurants after games. Clemente despised the routine. He threatened to fight any Black player who took the food, according to David Maraniss’ biography of Clemente. He requested separate transportation and the Pirates eventually provided a station wagon for the Black players.

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He openly denounced his second-class citizenship while learning a new culture and becoming one of the greatest baseball players of his generation.

“It’s incredible when you have a Hall of Famer with not only that trajectory in baseball, but in humanitarianism and his willingness to fight for human rights,” former major leaguer Carlos Delgado said in Spanish during a telephone interview. “He had great pride and integrity as a Black Puerto Rican and Latino, claiming his place in a very, very complicated environment.

“You look at it now and I can’t even imagine what it was like in the ‘60s to be Black in a clubhouse with mostly white people, with white reporters constantly bothering you, making fun of your accent.”

Delgado is a Black Puerto Rican. He was six months old when Clemente died, yet grew up idolizing him. To honor Clemente, he wore No. 21 in five of his 17 seasons — one with the Toronto Blue Jays and four with the New York Mets — in the majors and would’ve worn it more if he could have.

Along the way, the former All-Star first baseman followed Clemente’s footsteps by using his platform to take a stand. In 2004 with the Blue Jays, Delgado protested the American military’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan by not standing for “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch.

“Sometimes you have to understand there are bigger things than you, bigger things than the game,” Delgado, 48, said. “As an athlete, you have a platform with a lot of followers. You can push positive things, you can push movements and support movements.”

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It was a controversial act in a sport that had long discouraged people from taking social or political stands. That changed this season. Players across the majors have spoken out against systemic racism and police brutality following the death of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake. Last month, the Dodgers were among six teams who refused to play their game out of protest after a police officer shot Blake in Wisconsin.

The Dodgers are known as the franchise of Jackie Robinson, who didn’t break the color barrier just for Black Americans, but for the Black diaspora, including the hundreds of Black Latinos who have followed.

It could’ve also been the franchise of Clemente. The organization signed an 18-year-old Clemente out of Puerto Rico in 1952, but lost him to the Pirates in the 1954 Rule 5 Draft. Clemente went on to become a National League MVP, World Series MVP, 15-time All-Star, four-time batting champion, and 12-time Gold Glove Award winner. The right fielder boasted one of the strongest arms in history and finished his career with 3,000 hits.

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He did it all as a Puerto Rican, a Latino and a Black man whose life remains celebrated decades later and whose number, like Robinson’s No. 42, might one day be retired across the majors.

“I hope that we can continue the conversation, that we can tell future generations: ‘Look, this is Roberto Clemente. These are the values and integrity we want representing us,’” Delgado said. “That’s the most important thing. Values, discipline and respect never go out of style.”


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