But he was also an activist and civil rights leader. Clemente's legacy places him alongside athletes who spoke out during the 1960s and 70s era of America's racial reckoning.
And as the 19th annual Roberto Clemente day comes at a time when America is facing an awakening on systemic racism, we should remember that what Clemente did off the field was just as important as what he did on it.
As a player who faced stinging Jim Crow discrimination
during spring training in Florida with the Pittsburgh Pirates, as well as a cool reception in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Clemente was not shy about calling out discrimination.
Even up to his last interview in October 1972,
he talked about being racially profiled at a New York furniture store, where employees initially refused to show him their best merchandise before they found out who he was. He also described how he fought against the indignity that Black players faced -- like when he refused to have food brought to him on the team's bus because he and his other Black teammates couldn't dine with their White teammates at segregated restaurants.
Two months later, on New Year's Eve, Clemente died in a plane crash
while he was trying to bring humanitarian supplies from his homeland to Nicaragua after a major earthquake.
On Wednesday, all Puerto Rican players in Major League Baseball have the opportunity to wear number 21, commemorating the 19th annual Roberto Clemente Day.
Players like Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals and Eddie Rosario of the Minnesota Twins wore it on Tuesday because their teams were not scheduled to play on Wednesday. All the players of the Pittsburgh Pirates including Puerto Rican third base coach, Joey Cora
, will be wearing it.
The last major leaguer to wear Clemente's number throughout his career was Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets' All Star outfielder Carlos Delgado, who was also outspoken as a proud Black Puerto Rican. Delgado wore the number in five of his 17 seasons.
Long before Colin Kaepernick gained national attention by kneeling during the national anthem as a member of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, Delgado protested the 2003 US invasion of Iraq by remaining in the dugout while "God Bless America,
" was played during a 2004 game, drawing loud boos in Yankee Stadium.
Delgado recently told the Los Angeles Times he idolized Clemente's "humanitarianism and his willingness to fight for human rights."
He imagined how difficult it must have been for Clemente to "be Black in a clubhouse with mostly white people, with white reporters constantly bother you, making fun of your accent." In this way, Delgado was reminding us of the doubly daunting reality of being both a cultural "foreigner" and a Black person.
The one time I saw Clemente play in person was as a kid at Shea Stadium, with my father, a staunch Yankee fan who constantly regaled me with stories of Puerto Rican players like Orlando Cepeda. My father saw Cepeda, Clemente and lesser known Latino players like the Yankees' Hector Lopez, who was born in Panama, as reflections of his desire to connect his Latino-ness with his new life in New York City.
But Clemente's legacy has also inspired players from Latin American nations, like Dominican Republic-born Sammy Sosa, who played for the Chicago Cubs and called Clemente a hero and kept a figurine of him in his locker.
Indeed, he was a hero and a symbol of talent and integrity. He became the first Latino to be inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame. His tragic death made him a martyr, an unquestioned hero to Puerto Ricans who aspire to nationhood despite their territorial status, and Black Latinos whose story of double-discrimination
, long obscured, is rapidly coming to the forefront.
In his last interview,
Clemente talked about how inspiring Martin Luther King Jr. was, the change King brought and the voice he gave to poor people of color.
"I grew up with people who really had to struggle to live," Clemente said. Because he never forgot that, Clemente devoted his life to giving a voice to them, cementing a legacy that cannot be forgotten.