The story of Pittsburgh Pirate baseball legend Roberto Clemente’s death on Dec. 31, 1972, is well-known, even outside sports circles. Clemente was on a humanitarian mission to help Nicaraguan earthquake victims. It was rumored that Somoza’s soldiers were stealing donations and blocking relief efforts coming in from outside the country, but Clemente was prepared to deal head-on with the corrupt officials. The plane, though, was overloaded and in poor shape, and it went down off the coast of Puerto Rico. Clemente’s body was never recovered.
The story of Roberto Clemente’s life takes on many dimensions, and that depth is well- documented in the current exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center, Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente. The biographical exhibit, on loan from the Smithsonian Institute, is small but thorough, and doesn’t resort to the easily taken sentimental view. Clemente’s determination, courage and passion made him a fierce competitor on the field, but his world was not insular or selfish or limited to baseball. He never forgot his roots as a poor boy in Puerto Rico. He was constantly giving back to the island, Pittsburgh and beyond.
On the field he was sublime. His throwing arm is still the standard to which strong-armed outfielders are compared. He was an exceptionally fast runner who made spectacular plays in right field and used his speed to hit 166 lifetime triples, the highest total of any player who started his career after 1950. He was a line-drive hitter who once hit a ball so hard that it broke Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson’s leg.
I idolized Clemente as a boy, and the awe has only increased after my visit. I now have a better understanding of how Clemente evolved as a person, especially after watching the exhibit’s signature piece, Roberto Clemente: A Touch of Royalty. The rare 1975 film, 26 minutes long and narrated by Jose Ferrer, is on display along with a short reel of highlights of the 1971 World Series. The movie is a reminder of a time when artists made films about sport, without sacrificing the subject matter.