He is the son of one of the most beloved heroes in the history of major league baseball.
His father, a 15-time All-Star, 12-time Gold Glove winner and two-time World Series champion broke racial barriers by becoming the first Latino player ever to notch 3,000 hits. On top of that, he was known for his love of helping people through charitable outreach. A remarkable man whose life was cut short but whose passion for baseball and humanitarianism lives on through his family.
The son would follow in his father’s footsteps, embarking on a promising professional baseball career of his own, until a series of injuries sidelined him for good. Faced with this adversity, he struggled to discern the next stage for his life, until a chance encounter with a youth baseball team in his native Puerto Rico set him on a new path as a coach, philanthropist and sportscaster.
This December will mark a somber anniversary, as it has been 50 years since Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, the famed #21 of the Pittsburgh Pirates, passed this life during an ill-fated relief mission to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua. I sat down with his eldest son Roberto Clemente, Jr. to reflect upon what he’s learned about creating cohesive teams and the insights he’s gained from a career of helping disadvantaged youth, as well as the lessons he’s gained from continuing his father’s legacy through the foundation started in his name.
We are closing in on the 50th anniversary of your father’s untimely passing, yet his legacy and impact endure. After all this time, what do you see as some of the most important elements of his legacy and what it has meant for the world?
CLEMENTE, JR.: I truly believe that throughout the years his humanitarianism has overshadowed who he was as a player. Not everyone is a baseball fan, but for a lot of people, when they hear and understand the story of Clemente, they become a Clemente fan.
I truly believe that on December 31, 1972, we lost a great baseball player, but a legend was born. His legacy is more than just baseball. It’s built upon the way he lived his life, and the stories we hear from the local people in Puerto Rico and Nicaragua, as well as in Pittsburgh, of the things that he did to help people and give of himself for his brothers and sisters in the community. I think that is what has carried that legacy. I also believe that after the accident, there’s no doubt that my mother had the most influence in really keeping the flame alive because of the way she lived her life.
She was dedicated to continuing their dream of having a sports city in Puerto Rico. By her grace and how she interacted with people, how she impacted people, those things were another extension of my father. Because of that, I think that definitely has been a catalyst for continuing his legacy and making it as strong as it is today.
As the first Latino ever to get 3,000 hits in the major leagues, he felt a responsibility. When that happened, the first thing he did before he stepped over the line, he told himself, “I’m not only representing Puerto Rico and the Caribbean; I’m representing the minority people and the people who are suffering injustice in society.” He wanted them to have a voice. That’s what he did.
When he reached second base, he stopped for a moment and a photographer took a picture of him that was captured for eternity. It meant so much in terms of the pride that he felt, that he was carrying everyone with him.
Your father helped break racial barriers in professional baseball, and many ballplayers are indebted to him. Though he challenged the status quo, teamwork and cohesion were also important to him. Can you share what you’ve learned about how he balanced the two, and what aspiring innovators and pioneers can take away from his example?
CLEMENTE, JR.: One thing that you must be is someone who has empathy, someone who can sit down and understand. You have a team; you have different characters and different personalities. If you’re going to be a leader, you need to understand each and every one of them and how to really get the best out of them. He was really good at that because he cared. You must be focused on what the team’s mission is, have that clear mission on where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. You have to lead by example.
When he came to Pittsburgh, he was very young, and it took him a while to get acclimated. Obviously, he didn’t speak the language very well. That is something that he took as a challenge, to be able to learn and acclimate himself to the culture. They put him in The Hill District, which was where all the African Americans lived, but coming from Puerto Rico and speaking a different language, he had to deal with an overall culture shock.
He told himself, “Okay, so this is what’s going on. Let me figure out how to make it work, and how I can be of help, how I can actually help this team win.” That’s what he did. He grew, he matured by really watching those who he felt were impactful. He took the best qualities of those people and put it all together in a package, and then he led them by example to their goal.
As a team leader he created that persona where they looked at him and said, “Wow, this is a true character. This is a guy who’s really doing the right thing and not playing games with it.” He was really serious. He was someone who definitely knew that he was here for a purpose.
We all need to find that purpose, that passion. I always say you might have a job, but perhaps you are thinking it’s not the right one. If you think it’s not the right one, it’s not the right one. You better go find your passion because that’s where you’re going to have fun. It’s not going to be a job; it’s going to be something that you love to do, and that’s what he did.
Humanitarianism has been a big component of your father’s life as well as yours. You recently served as the global ambassador for Food for The Hungry, a global non-profit focusing on serving the most vulnerable countries; and you’ve been very involved in Major League Baseball’s RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program. Can you speak to why charitable endeavors are so important to your mission?
CLEMENTE, JR.: I’ve been very lucky to be the son of Roberto Clemente, but I’m super proud of being Vera’s son. This woman lost her husband at age 30 with three sons, and she led this family by showing us how to care for others. I always say I was raised by Mother Teresa. That’s how I feel personally, and the good feelings of helping people less fortunate than myself actually saved my life. I feel like it’s the only thing that kept me alive during my childhood.
As you can imagine, December 31, 1972, was very traumatic. I told my father not to get on that plane because I thought it was going to crash. I grew up feeling guilty that I didn’t do enough to stop him from getting on that plane. Three months after the accident, I fell victim to abuse by people outside my family. For me, those two experiences really took away my childhood. The only thing that kept me happy and balanced was helping others. It was the only thing that was actually good in my life at that time. Being able to help other people through humanitarian efforts kept me going.
I believe once you experience that feeling of being able to help people, it’s such a great feeling and you want to continue feeling it over and over and over. There are a lot of people who are givers, and those people are usually not good receivers. I’ve learned to see the blessing of allowing people to help you. If someone wants to give you something or help in some way, you bless them by receiving their help with gratitude. It took me a long, long time to learn that.
You’ve made the pivot from professional ballplayer to successful businessman and philanthropist. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way, especially as it relates to culture and trust?
CLEMENTE, JR.: When a team trusts each other, they will start to love each other, and it becomes a family. Once you have that culture, it’s something you cannot hold back and it’s exciting because you can feel the energy within everyone acting as one.
I’ll give you an example. I inherited an American Legion team of teenagers from a buddy of mine. He was coaching them at the time, and he kept calling me at home. I had just gotten hurt playing for the Baltimore Orioles, my back was in pain, and I didn’t want to talk to anyone. It was the end of my professional playing career, but he was very persistent. “Listen, I need you to come and talk to my team.” For like four weeks, every single day he kept on calling.
Then he used the word that actually made me get out of bed. He said, “Can you please help me?” That word – “help” – triggers something in me. It’s something about the way I grew up watching both of my parents. Anyone who needed help, they were there to help. When my friend said “help,” I said, “Well, I’ll go and check out your team.” When I got there, I was the only one in the stands. I’m watching them practice, and I can tell you it was a scene out of the Bad News Bears. They were so bad.
After practice, we sat down and he said, “I need your help. Come Thursday, and let’s see if we can help them get better.” I showed up on Thursday, and one of the kids is calling out to me, “Coach, come here, please.” I’m thinking, “I’m not your coach,” but I go over to him. The kid has the equipment bag with him, and he says, “Coach Luis said this is your team now.” My friend just took off. He left the bag, dropped off the team, and disappeared. It’s Thursday night with these guys coming to practice, and I’m the only one there for them. Luis never came back, so I inherited this baseball team.
To make a long story short, I started conducting practices for them. At first, I had to break things down and focus on the fundamentals; we didn’t even do the normal things like hitting in practice because they weren’t ready. We had to get the foundation right to be able to grow and stack up on top of that.
I came to learn that of the 18 kids on the team, 17 were involved in criminal activities. I had to defuse gang fights during games; I had to act as a bridge between gang members and build respect so they would learn to work together. I created a whole relationship among the team. I took away all the guns and taught them to focus on baseball and what we needed to do. This team became a family because we were doing things together, and they were really looking at how much I cared for them.
The respect factor is key. Because if you don’t have respect, then you don’t have trust. If you don’t trust who’s leading you, then it’s not going to work. By doing so, I took this team to the championship game. We lost in extra innings, but this was a team that initially had no business being part of a championship game because they were horrible. They trusted me, and they went through the whole process of actually caring. They became a great team. That’s why I truly believe that you must have trust.
After decades as a philanthropist and someone heavily involved in youth sports, what are some of the key lessons you’ve learned in helping shape the leaders of tomorrow?
CLEMENTE, JR.: When I talk to young people, I always make the point that we are all brothers and sisters. I say, “Show me your index finger. Now look at it. What do you see? Those lines make you very unique because no one in the world can match that fingerprint. Whatever you touch, make sure you touch it in a positive way. You can be of impact in your school and your community.”
I think that if we can all do that, we would definitely have a great change towards a better today and a better tomorrow. That’s how my father left his mark, not only on baseball, but outside the game as well. He left a legacy and a name. It is something awesome for me to be able to utilize now to open doors for organizations, to help people and to be their voice because of it.
Make sure that when you touch something, touch it in a positive way, because you’re leaving your family’s name behind.