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“Arriba Roberto!” SI Vault, 1992

… A man“greater than his game”

To think that Roberto Clemente arrived in Pittsburgh by luck. The reality is that if the team had not been so horrible back in the mid-1950s and finished in last place, they might not have had the greatest player in their history — arguably.

In addition, to make things worse, his first Pirates manager, Fred Haney, made this comment about the potential of the future Hall of Fame:

"He's an adequate fielder, has a great throwing arm but I am a little concerned about his hitting."

Steve Wulf, “Arriba, Roberto!” Sports Illustrated, December 28, 1992

Haney was fired shortly after that, and Roberto went on to record a lifetime batting average of .317, knock out 3,000 hits, win four batting titles in the 1960s, and play in the all-star in 15 of his 18 seasons.

That is just one of many interesting tidbits in the great SI story about Roberto that came out just about 20 years after his untimely death.

The sub-title for this piece read,

On New Year’s Eve in 1972, Robert Clemente undertook a mission of mercy. His death that night immortalized him as a man greater than his game.

Steve Wulf, SI, December 28, 1992

Yes, the important point is that this man was indeed greater than his game.

The Dodgers' cluelessness led to the “miracle”

Clemente was discovered by a legendary Brooklyn Dodgers scout, but the team made a major error when they sent him to their AAA team.

And this led to the “miracle” engineered by the great Branch Rickey that gave the Pirates a shot at Roberto for just 4,000 bucks,

By the time Clemente was 18, people were coming to watch him play. One day a Brooklyn Dodger scout named Alex Campanis—yes, that Al Campanis—held a tryout for 71 players, one of whom was Clemente. After Campanis watched them all hit and throw and run, he sent the other 70 home. "He was the greatest natural athlete I have ever seen," Campanis has said.

The Dodgers eventually offered Clemente $10,000 to sign, and he agreed. But the Dodgers elected to put Clemente on their Triple A roster, which meant he could not be promoted during the season and that he could be drafted by another major league team at the end of the '54 season. The last-place Pirates did just that, selecting him first for $4,000. Pirate general manager Branch Rickey delighted in stealing Clemente away from Rickey's former club and denying them an outfield of Clemente, Duke Snider and Carl Furillo.

Steve Wulf, SI, December 28, 1992

In his rookie season in 1955, he played right field and hit just .255, but then showed his true ability a year later when he hit for .311, one of 13 times he hit above that special number in his 18-year career.

The measure of the man

The story of what happened that terrible New Year’s Eve when the plane that he had secured to take relief supplies to disaster-torn Nicaragua were a true reflection of what a quality man Roberto was. A great father, husband, but also a humanitarian.

The SI story tells so many tales, some that only those who love the man and have read his biographies know. One of them harkens back to a Father’s Day in America when he sat down in Forbes Field and wrote a poem to his boys in answer to the card that they had sent him on that special day,

Quièn Soy?—Who Am I? Let me write it down for you."

Who Am I?

I am a small point in the eye of the full moon. I only need one ray of the sun to warm my face. I only need one breeze from the Alisios to refresh my soul. What else can I ask if I know that my sons really love me?

Steve Wulf, SI, December 28, 1992

Roberto was proud of his family and proud of his ethnicity, but the ride in the Major Leagues in the 1950s for black and Hispanic players was hardly smooth. He had to battle against a media that could, quite frankly, be considered a little racist.

Latin players were demeaned

The truth is that Clemente was not afraid to speak out at times, and he could not articulate the English language that well. Calling it ethnocentrism would be an understatement.

The first point that the SI story notes is his being overlooked in the MVP voting in 1960,

The slighting of the Latin player by American writers was never more evident than after the 1960 season. The Pirates won the pennant that year as Clemente hit .314 with 16 homers and 94 runs batted in, and then in the World Series they stunned the heavily favored New York Yankees.

The MVP of the National League that season was Pirate shortstop Dick Groat, who hit 11 points higher than Clemente but had only two homers and 50 RBIs. Clemente could live with Groat's selection—he was, after all, a teammate—but he was deeply stung when he found out that he had finished eighth in the voting.

Steve Wulf, SI, December 28, 1992

As a young fan of 13 that year, I was thrilled that Dick Groat won the MVP. However, Roberto eighth?

The next year Clemente hit .351 with 23 home runs, but he did not win the MVP until 1966, five years later. He hit .317 with 29 home runs and 119 RBIs, finally earning that elusive award given by the writers.

“I play like Roberto Clemente”

The story also talks about an interview by a New York Giants broadcaster in which he tried to compare Roberto — unfavorably — to Willie Mays,

Clemente may have been only a rookie, but he had already developed his fierce sense of pride. A New York Giant broadcaster, interviewing him after a game, tried to pay Clemente compliment by saying, "You remind me of another rookie outfielder who could run, throw and get those clutch hits. Young fellow of ours name of Willie Mays."

After a suspenseful pause Clemente replied, "Nonetheless, I play like Roberto Clemente."

Steve Wulf, SI, December 28, 1992

Perhaps the great tribute in that story came from one of his friends,

"The size of his hands was exceeded only by the size of his heart. One of my lasting memories of Roberto is also my last. Four days before he flew off to Nicaragua with relief supplies for the earthquake victims there, he was at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, moving bags of goods, cartons of clothes.

He could have just lent his name to the relief effort or done a public-service announcement. But there was Roberto, pardon the expression, working his ass off, and he had this look of determination. The same look he wore on the field at Three Rivers Stadium."

Steve Wulf, SI, December 28, 1992

For a half-hour of joy, read the entire SI piece:

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