Todays post was written by Matthew DiBiase, archives specialist at the National Archives at Philadelphia.
December 31 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of baseball legend Roberto Clemente.
Roberto Clemente was un gran pelotero, a great ball player who could hit for average, power (when necessary), steal bases, field, and throw.
To this day he is revered and worshipped by the people of Puerto Rico (where he was born and raised and resided during off-seasons). His stature as a baseball player remains so enormous that to this day Hispanic ballplayers refuse to wear the number 21 (Clemente’s jersey number) in deference to his memory. The moment he spoke in Spanish to his family after the Pirates won the 1971 World Series remains an iconographic moment in Hispano-American sports history.
From 1955 to 1972 Clemente played right field for the Pittsburgh Pirates, playing in 2433 games with a lifetime batting average of .317%. He won the National League batting title four times in 1961, 1964, 1965, and 1967. Roberto Clemente’s fielding and throwing abilities were astounding. From 1961 to 1972 Roberto won the Golden Glove award and (as of 2022) is second all-time in career assists by right-fielders.
Clemente played in All-Star games from 1960 to 1967.
Roberto Clemente helped the Pittsburgh Pirates win the 1960 National League pennant World Series title.
Clemente was playing in his 13th season when a local Pittsburgh sports publication Pittsburgh Weekly Sports published an article on August 4, 1967, alleging that Clemente got into a fist fight with teammate (and future Baseball Hall-of-Famer) Willie Stargell because Stargell allegedly took exception to remarks Clemente allegedly made about Stargell’s playing habits.
Roberto Clemente took exception to these allegations and on September 14, 1967, he (through his attorneys) filed a civil complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania against Carrol Cook, Sanford Padwe, James O’Brien, and James Dunn (who were the owners and publishers of Pittsburgh Weekly Sports, claiming that the August 4, 1967, article was libelous and defamatory while seeking $1,000,000 in punitive damages.
The four defendants were slow in responding to Clemente’s civil complaint and were twice reminded by the Clerk of the Court in October 1967 and January 1968 that they needed to legally answer Roberto’s complaint or else have the case ruled in Clemente’s favor.
On February 13, 1968, the defendants formally answered Clemente’s civil complaint denying all of Roberto’s allegations.
The case dragged on for two more years with no progress whatsoever until on July 21, 1970, the attorneys for both sides informed Judge Gerald Weber that a potential settlement could be made and asked for a continuance to that effect which was granted.
On October 27, 1970, both sides informed Judge Weber that the case was settled and requested that the civil action be dismissed (which it was).
In the years that followed the civil suit Roberto Clemente played in All-Star games from 1969 to 1972; and helped the Pittsburgh Pirates win the 1971 National League pennant and World Series title. Roberto performed exceptionally in the 1971 World Series, getting 12 hits in 7 games, batting .414% while earning MVP honors. Roberto Clemente played in 14 World Series games and got a hit in all 14 of them. His 14-game World Series hitting streak is the second longest in Major League Baseball history.
In 1972 Clemente became the 11th man in Major League baseball history to get 3,000 hits.
On December 31, 1972, Roberto Clemente died in a tragic plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico. He was attempting to airlift food and medical supplies to the victims of a massive earthquake that rocked Nicaragua. His body was never found. Roberto Clemente became the third man in Major League Baseball history to be inducted into the Baseball Hall-of-Fame without the mandatory five-year waiting period.
Major League Baseball honored his memory by renaming the Commissioner’s Award the Roberto Clemente Award that is awarded annually to the player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement, and the individual’s contribution to his team.
In 1973 the Pittsburgh Pirates retired his number 21 and when PNC Park (where the Pirates play their games) was opened in 2001 the right field wall was built exactly 21 feet high in honor of Roberto Clemente’s number 21.
There are public parks, buildings, streets, and ball parks throughout the world named after Roberto Clemente.
His legacy to the game of baseball endures forever.
The records featured in this blog post are located at the National Archives at Philadelphia. Interested in learning more or reviewing the records? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for further research.
Case discussed in this post:
Roberto Clemente v. Carroll H. Cook, Sanford Padwe, James P. O’Brien, and James G. Dunn, individually and doing business as Pittsburgh Weekly Sports, Civil Case No. 67-1106, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (Series NAID: 565161), National Archives at Philadelphia.