I wasn't alive when Clemente was. His tragic passing came a decade before me. I grew up with stories about the man - the legend - or as my dad says "The Great...ROBERRRTO!" rolling his Rs in a way I never could.
The connection was alive in my family even without him there. As a kid I always wanted to wear No. 21, and the one subject in school in which I actually tried was Spanish. It was always fun to speak the language with my grandmother, as I'm sure it was helpful for Clemente to hear his native tongue his first days in a foreign land.
August was the 12th anniversary of my grandfather's passing. Of the many family stories we have of him, the ones I always kept revolve around Clemente. He never spoke negatively of him, as one could imagine, and he never included Spanish pronunciation of his name. Never the proper "Ro-BEAR-to," or "Clem-EN-tay," it was Ruh-BURT-o, and Clemenney.
It wasn't a sign of disrespect, but remnants of an era I, fortunately and unfortunately, did not experience. Race was far less sensitive of a subject in the brutal world of the 1960s. My grandfather likely had little to no exposure to people of color. A blue collar man his whole life, uneducated but intelligent, a stint in the military brought him to his wife, Elsa, in Puerto Rico, and eventually, my father, who was born in San Juan.
As Homer points out in his amazing historical piece, Clemente came to Pittsburgh, and upon learning my grandmother, Elsa, a native of the same Puerto Rican village, was there, sought her out for assistance in navigating the foreign, English-speaking world of Pittsburgh. My grandparents were married at that point, and were raising my father on the North Side of Pittsburgh.
My grandfather was racist in the sense he noticed the color of people's skin. While I don't pretend to be a historian, the culture seemed to be that way in those days. Obviously there were much worse acts of atrocity going on back then, and I'll never know if my grandfather saw Clemente as a man, or a black/Latino man, but what I remember is he spoke of him in the most glowing of terms.
Clemente may have been different from himself in my grandfather's eyes, there was clearly an overwhelming sense of admiration and respect.
I learned what a hero was through Roberto Clemente. And I learned that through my grandfather.
I remember being in early elementary school, and our teacher leading a discussion-on-the-carpet about heroes. We went around the room in alphabetical order saying who our heroes were. The girl in front of me said Dan Gladden, a former Minnesota Twins outfielder. Her reasoning was he stole a base or made a catch or something like that. I said Roberto Clemente, because he had 3,000 hits and died bringing emergency supplies to a different country that needed his help.
I remember how proud I was to say it, and how my teacher explained to everyone in the class how that is an example of a hero.
While that piece of it was true, what I always think of when I hear Roberto Clemente's name is my grandfather, the friendship that seemed impossible during an age of racial and cultural divide, and how a staunchly proud man of color and a culturally blinded man who married a Spanish woman from Puerto Rico built a friendship that couldn't possibly have been understood in those days.
Maybe sports really is the great common language.
In later years I would learn of how proud Clemente was of his heritage. He didn't just prove people's perceptions of people of color wrong; he advanced upon the entire issue of race like a soldier in the field, and attacked it with the same power and fury behind each rocket he fired from the cannon he had instead of a right arm.
Clemente succeeded in an extremely difficult game at an extremely difficult time. He didn't mope or sulk or smile at "No coloreds allowed" signs, he essentially told the owner through his words and his actions, "Eff you."
Jackie Robinson may have broken the color barrier in baseball, but Roberto Clemente set C-4 to the notion blacks and Latinos couldn't be community leaders, couldn't speak against racism and couldn't help those in need while being an elite-level player for a dynasty. To this day, baseball historians will argue whether the game has seen a better outfield arm. At a time where weights weren't lifted, Clemente was in peak physical condition at all times. It was if his mental toughness contributed to his rock-like, wiry frame.
Why Clemente's number wasn't retired by Major League Baseball, and Robinson's was, is beyond me.
I always felt God put Clemente in Pittsburgh for a reason. The city's love and admiration of the man may have started because of his talents as a baseball player, but there's a beautiful city icon named after him because of who he was as a man. The issue of racism may still exist world-wide, but the Roberto Clemente Bridge isn't black or white; it's yellow, depicting a color that unites all who have ties to the city.
The celebration of his 3,000th hit is much more than than an accomplishment very few have ever had the skill, determination and longevity to have accomplished. It's about a global icon in the fields of humanitarianism, charity and heroism.
To me, it's about a proud man of color and my white grandfather striking up a friendship at a time when whites and blacks weren't really friends. It's about the lessons my grandfather taught me about race without even mentioning the concept. It's about people helping people.
It's about real heroes.