Profile is a series of brief biographies on noted Pennsylvanians.

On New Year’s Day, 1973, Vera Clemente stood vigil on Piñones Beach, east of Puerto Rico’s San Juan Airport. When it became known that her husband, Roberto Clemente, died in an air­plane crash during a humanitarian mission, the memory of “The Great One” would touch people from the Keystone State to South America. Clemente gave Pittsburgh and baseball eighteen years and became the greatest right fielder in the game’s history. Among players who credited Clemente as a mentor was teammate and Pittsburgh Pirates star Willie Stargell (1940-2001).

His abilities made him an incredible athlete highly respected by opposing players. Most notable among Clemente’s incredible athletic abilities was his powerful throwing arm that could retrieve a ball in the corner of his right field position and nail a runner attempting to make it to third base, or home plate. His records include the eleventh major lea­guer to reach three thousand hits; first Hispanic Hall of Famer; Most Valuable Player in 1966; national batting champion four times; batting average above .310 in thirteen seasons; selected to twelve All-Star games; averaged .362 batting in two World Series; twelve straight Golden Glove Awards; and led the National League in outfield assists five seasons. Clemente still holds several Pirates records – total games played, at-bats, hits, singles, and total bases.

Roberto Clemente Walker was born August 18, 1934, in Bario San Anton, Carolina, Puerto Rico, the youngest of four children of Melchor, a sugar cane plantation foreman, and Luisa Clemente, man­ager of the plantation grocery store. Living among people who labored hard for the barest of necessities, he developed empathy for the disadvantaged and throughout his career helped poor children in Puerto Rico and in Pittsburgh. By seventeen, he earned forty dollars a week and a four-hundred-dollar signing bonus playing for the Santurce Cangrejeros of the Puerto Rican Winter League. In 1954, Brooklyn Dodgers scout Al Campanis (1916-1998) arranged for the twenty-year­-old Clemente to join the club’s top minor league team in Montreal. The Dodgers attempted to keep Clemente a secret until after the players’ draft and he was rarely allowed to play. Management had to convince the disappointed player not to return to Puerto Rico.

The Pittsburgh Pirates finished last in the National League in 1954 and, unfortunately for the Dodgers, enjoyed first pick in the draft. Thanks to Pirates scout and Hall of Fame pitcher Branch Rickey (1881-1965), on November 22, 1954, at a price four thousand dollars, Clemente was destined for Pittsburgh, where he played most of his career at Forbes Field.

Roberto Clemente frequently grew frustrated when overlooked by the media. The language barrier prompted some to perceive him as aloof, but those closest to him disagreed. Tony Bartirome, former Pirates player and trainer, remembered him as “one of the funniest guys I’ve ever been around in my life. Some people think of him as serious and solemn, but they didn’t really know him.” Clemente expressed as much pride in his Puerto Rican heritage as he had in his American citizenship. Although he learned to communicate in English, journalists often repeated his grammatical mistakes in print, which embarrassed him and caused misunderstandings among the press and the players. Clemente complained that sports writers often edited comments to correct such errors for the American players, but not for him.

In 1960, the Pittsburgh Pirates stunned the sports world by defeating the heavily favored New York Yankees in the World Series. Clemente was overshadowed by Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski whose dramatic ninth inning home run won the final game. Some players resent­ed Clemente for not joining the hoopla in the locker room with his teammates. Instead, he celebrated with the fans. Many players avoided spectators and autograph-seekers, but Clemente happily obliged fans, commenting, “I want to be with the people who pay my salary.”

In October 1971, the Pirates returned to the World Series. Clemente had a national television audience of sixty-one million viewers who witnessed an incredible display of fielding, throwing, batting, and running. Baseball Commis­sioner Bowie Kuhn observed that Clemente was finally getting the respect he deserved. Pennsylvania claimed a “first” when the first World Series night game was played in game four, but it was game seven that proved more important. Clemente hit a home run in the fourth inning and Stargell, his pro­tege scored in the eighth to defeat the Baltimore Orioles. Roberto Clemente was voted Most Valuable Player.

Clemente’s last regular season at-bat was on September 30, 1972. Although he had been nursing injuries, he did not disappoint fans, who watched the first His­panic to reach three thousand hits. When the Pirates lost the pennant to the Cincin­nati Reds, teammates remember Clemente’s magnanimous gestures in the locker room, encouraging each, “Keep your head up. We are still a great team.”

Less than three months later, on December 23, 1972, an earth­quake killed thousands in Nicaragua. Clemente appealed to Puer­to Ricans for relief donations. After he heard rumors that profi­teers were selling supplies to vic­tims, Clemente decided to forego New Year’s Eve observances with his family, a sacred tradition for Puerto Ricans, and to personally deliver relief to the victims. Moments after leaving San Juan Airport at 9:15 P.M. on December 31, the propeller-driven DC-7 crashed into the Caribbean Sea a mile and a half off shore, killing all five on board, including the thirty-eight-year-old Clemente. Investigators determined that improperly loaded supplies shifted on takeoff. Unknown to Clemente, aviation officials had tried unsuccessfully for months to shut down the airline operator for numerous violations. Clemente’s body was never recovered.

Waiving a normal five-year waiting period, the National Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Clemente just eight months after his death. (In 2000, the Hall of Fame took unprecedented action and recast Clemente’s plaque from “Roberto Walker Clemente” to “Roberto Clemente Walker” to conform to the Puerto Rican custom of placing the mother’s surname at the end of the name.) From Pennsylvania to Puerto Rico, many schools, parks, recreational facilities, streets, bridges, and athletic centers are named after him. Baseball’s annual Commissioner’s Award, recognizing a player who best exemplifies sportsmanship and community involvement, was renamed the Roberto Clemente Award in 1973. In 1999, Clemente was named to major league baseball’s “Team of the Century,” the same year Allegheny County rechris­tened the Sixth Street Bridge in Pitts­burgh in his honor.

Clemente’s widow, the former Vera Cristina Zabala, and sons Roberto Jr., Luis Roberto, and Roberto Enrique, have worked to keep his memory alive. Clemente had dreamed of building a center to help the poor in his native Carolina. On March 18, 1973, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico donated more than three hundred acres to develop Roberto Clemente Ciudad Deportiva (Sports City). Thanks to the Clemente family, major league baseball, and private contributors, Sports City promotes education and athletics to improve the lives of disadvantaged Puerto Rican children.

Clemente’s impact on Pittsburgh also continues. In 1993, his eldest son, Roberto Clemente Jr., founded the Roberto Clemente Foundation in the city the baseball great’s family still considers its second home. Through baseball, softball, community service, and educational opportunities, the foundation is helping underprivileged teenagers in the Pittsburgh area find a better life. Clemente’s number “21” jersey has been retired, but not his inspiration.