Clemente overcame societal barriers en route to superstardom
While we think of Roberto Clemente as a true superstar, one of the greatest players of the 1960s, the early years of the decade brought with him a number of difficulties. Some involved his relationships with the media. Others involved his Pittsburgh Pirates teammates.
In the early years of his career, Clemente was one of the few Latino or Black players on the Pirates. He was a man who felt little in common with most of his teammates. He was also quiet and reserved, and did not socialize with many of the other Pirates after games. The young Clemente was not yet the spirited team leader and spokesman that we would come to know.
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“It makes him sound like he’s dumb,” Nellie King once said in complaining about the practice. “And you know he was a very intelligent man… I don’t know why the media did that. It sure made him seem less than intelligent. I mean, how would you like to go to Puerto Rico, [speak Spanish], and have guys quote you the way you sound?” It was a practice that some writers continued as late as 1971, nearly to the end of Clemente’s career.
For Clemente, it was just another in a series of roadblocks that he faced during the 1960s. Somehow, he pushed aside those problems, using them as motivation to become a better and more refined player. Over the course of the decade, he would win four batting titles and a much-desired MVP Award. By the end of the 1960s, there was little doubt that Clemente had become one of the game’s superstar outfielders, a player mentioned in the same conversation as the likes of Aaron and Kaline and Mays and Robinson.
All that was left to achieve was another world championship, one that would come in 1971.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum