When baseball legend Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash in 1972, on a mission of mercy to victims of a Nicaraguan earthquake, the world not only lost a great man, but someone with extraordinary dreams. Well before his passing, Clemente had plans to open up clinics, schools, charities, and an ambitious sports complex in his native Puerto Rico, to help rescue underprivileged and misdirected youth. His sudden death appeared to end all that. But—as so often happens—God brings triumph out of tragedy, and in the years that followed, he did just that.
Today, many of Clemente’s most ambitious plans have come to pass, including a magnificent 304-acre Ciudad Deportiva (Sports City) in his native city of Carolina, overseen by his family and friends. The scope of Clemente’s legacy has become global, with his name attached to countless institutions, awards and events. What is less well known is where Clemente’s inspiring vision actually came from: his profound Christian faith.
In my last column, I spoke about Clemente’s Christian witness, noting how impressive it was, but how frequently it goes overlooked. There is much more to be said.
Christ became a reality in the future star’s life during his earliest days. Roberto’s mother, Luisa, was a Baptist and his father, Melchor (named after the magi king), a Catholic; and Roberto was raised a Baptist and became a practicing Catholic later on, spurred in part by his marriage to his wife Vera (1964) in the Catholic Church.
Fr. Alvin Gutierrez—who ministered to the Clemente family in Pittsburgh—told me that years ago, he was in contact with a parish priest in Puerto Rico, who sent Fr. Gutierrez a copy of Roberto’s baptismal certificate, revealing that Roberto had been baptized in the Catholic Church. He was thus Catholic from the very outset of his life, not just when he became a teenager or after he was married, as has occasionally been reported. However, Roberto deeply appreciated his mother’s Evangelical faith and love, and he reflected it as he matured, remaining strongly ecumenical throughout his life.
Despite the central importance of Christianity to Clemente, many who write or speak about him downplay or ignore it. Consider, for example, the American Experience series video on Clemente put out by PBS. This 2008 production manages to devote sixty minutes to Roberto’s life and career without once mentioning God or Jesus Christ. It is a curious documentary—trying to cover his whole life, while omitting its most important aspect. To make matters worse, the documentary struggles to capture what motivated Clemente, depicting him as a mysterious introvert. After the narrator informs us that Clemente “had some eccentricities,” David Marannis, his most recent biographer, comments:
Clemente was kind of New Age before there was New Age. He was an incredible masseuse. He was constantly taking different proteins and odd concoctions of shakes to try to stay healthy. He believed in mystical connections between life and death and people who were no longer around.
Yet those closest to Clemente—his family, pastors and friends—have made clear that Roberto was a committed Christian, who grew into a full-rounded Catholic, and that is what decisively shaped his life. To mistake Clemente’s serious nature with an eccentric mysticism is to miss the whole meaning of his life.
Much has been made of one incident in which Clemente reportedly repelled a fan who wanted an autograph. Marannis writes of it, “In the ledger of his life, here was a day for the case against sainthood.” But Duane Rieder, head of Pittsburgh’s Clemente Museum, has investigated the incident thoroughly and disagrees, believing it has been misrepresented, and that Clemente was only trying to protect himself and the fans around him. “I believe Roberto Clemente still has a chance for sainthood,” he said, providing many examples of his acts of charity.
“He was not just a great ballplayer, but a very compassionate human being,” Frank Thomas, Roberto’s Pittsburgh teammate, told me. The PBS documentary claimed that “besides baseball,” Clemente had little in common with his teammates, but Thomas quickly corrected that, pointing out the commonality of their faith. Thomas, like Clemente, is a Catholic (one of his sons is a priest), and was an outstanding ballplayer himself: a three-time all-star, Thomas was the first Pirate ever to make the cover of Sports Illustrated.
There are far more important things in life than sports, as enjoyable as they can be, and Clemente knew that well. During the 1972 season, when he was asked if he expected to get his 3,000th hit that year, he said: “Well, you never know. . . . because God tells you how long you are going to be here, so you never know what can happen tomorrow.”
A short time later, Clemente was taken to his eternal home—but not before obtaining hit 3000—his very last during a regular season game—to round out an elegant career.
One of the few modern books about Clemente to highlight his faith is Wilfred Santiago’s, 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente, which tells his life through captivating drawings and an accompanying narrative. Among the memorable images is a portrait of Clemente’s mother cradling her young son in her arms, saying, “All of our blessings are not due to any merit of ours, but only because of God’s goodness,” emphasizing Christ’s kingdom. In a recent interview, Santiago said he was “not a religious person,” but felt an obligation to depict Clemente accurately:
“I know as a society Puerto Ricans are very religious . . . mostly Catholic Christians. Being in the United States and looking back, it seemed like there was more religion than I thought, and a lot of the values that Clemente had, whether it’s his eagerness to help people he thinks are in need or help sick kids or other things, these are pretty much values inculcating him into [Puerto Rican] society itself because they are values that are taught by the Christian faith.”
Clemente’s devoted mother, Luisa, told biographer Kal Wagenheim that Roberto had a favorite Christian hymn as a boy, which he continued to sing and play on the organ of his home for his family, as an adult. It went like this:
“Solo Dios hace el hombre feliz. Solo Dios hace el hombre feliz . . . Todo se acaba. Solo Dios hace el hombre feliz.”
“Only God makes a man happy. Only God makes a man happy. . . . Life is fleeting. Only God makes a man happy.”
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
PBS’s American Experience: Roberto Clemente (DVD)
Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero by David Maraniss
Clemente!: The Enduring Legacy by Kal Wagenheim
21: The Story of Roberto Clemente by Wilfred Santiago
History, Identity and Baseball: Wilfred Santiago Tells “The Story of Roberto Clemente,” by John Seven, Feb. 22, 2011, Publishers Weekly.
Remembering Roberto: Clemente Recalled by Teammates, Family, Friends and Fans by Jim O’Brien
“Forty Years Later, Clemente’s Legacy Continues to Grow,” by Bob Cohn, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 29, 2012.
MLB Video Tribute to Roberto Clemente
The Roberto Clemente Museum
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