Roberto Clemente’s family keeps his legend alive

The surviving members of the Roberto Clemente and Jackie Robinson families respectively are regularly introduced as baseball royalty. It’s rightly deserved.

“It is recognition of our parents,” says Luis Roberto Clemente, one of Roberto and Vera’s three sons. “We in a very humble way accept it.”

 Roberto Clemente’s widow Vera and son Luis Roberto Photo by Onika Nicole Craven
Roberto Clemente’s widow Vera and son Luis Roberto
Photo by Onika Nicole Craven

Jackie Robinson’s story is legendary and well known: His uniform number is forever retired by every Major League Baseball club. Chadwick Boseman and Nicole Beharie played Jackie and Rachel Robinson in 42.

“We are very proud of the film. It was a powerful movie. I love the love story of my mom and dad. My mom loved it,” says Sharon Robinson of her mother Rachel, now 92.

But the story of Roberto Clemente, who died in a 1972 plane crash three months after hitting his 3,000th hit, doesn’t seem to have as much renown.

“We were born in the same town, but he was older than me,” says Vera Clemente of her late husband, who adds that she at the time didn’t follow baseball and was unaware of her future spouse’s eventual Hall-of-Fame stature. “He was famous when I met him.”

The Brooklyn Dodgers originally signed Clemente in 1954, almost a decade after they signed Robinson, but the organization “was trying to hide him” to keep other teams from seeing his talent, says Luis. “No one told him [of these plans] so he was about to give up baseball because he didn’t like what he saw. When the [Pittsburgh] Pirates acquired him, it was not easy for him at the beginning.”

“I understand the first few years were hard times,” remembers Vera Clemente of Roberto, who played his entire career with the Pirates (1955-72) and adopted Pittsburgh as his family’s “second home.”

Roberto was as much an activist as a ballplayer, continues his son — the White American media often called him “Bobby.” To others he was simply Black. “He was able to break a lot of barriers,” says his wife.

“He always was adamant about accepting the way things were supposed to be. He always spoke his mind,” says Luis of his father, who often told his teammates, “‘I am not asking to be treated better — I’m asking to be treated equally.’ That was his motto.” He fought against injustice: “If we are not good enough to be served in those places, then that food is not good enough to feed our soul.”

“People would listen to him, and he became a leader and people started following him,” Luis adds—his visionary father helped plant seeds for the eventual MLB players’ union. “He was ahead of his time.”

Luis was around six years old when his father died. “I always remember him as a very happy guy around the house,” he reflects. “I always kept my feet very, very steady on the ground” and mostly avoided the unrealistic expectations oftentimes placed on the son of a famous athlete.

He eventually took on that mantle graciously — being Roberto Clemente’s son. “I don’t have to be a baseball player to be his son.”

Roberto Clemente’s legacy, though sometimes overlooked, is well secured — both he and Robinson are forever cemented in Cooperstown.

On her husband’s legacy: “The way he died was the way he lived — helping people,” says Vera. Clemente’s plane crashed on its way to bring aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. “He always was helping people. He was about people.”

She wants Roberto Clemente always to be remembered “as a good human being.”

Next: A couple of local baseball “legends”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com