Roberto Clemente: Baseball’s Last Hero


It was on this day in 1972, that baseball great Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash while delivering food and water to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. He has canceled all plans to celebrate the new year, opting instead to be a ray of hope for victims in need and in desperation. He was already a baseball legend before that tragic day, but now he was an immortal. Please enjoy this post from John Bernhardt who reviewed the must read book, “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero” for us this past summer.  – Joe D. 

The new GM was cool and manipulative in his transactions, meticulous with his records, formal in his speech, stingy with his money, interested equally in a player’s psychological disposition and his ability to learn an elusive hook slide.

This GM’s world could be studied, categorized, and explained. Good things did not fall upon people, or baseball clubs, by accident. Worthwhile doesn’t generally just happen. Luck is a fact, but should not be a factor. Good luck is what is left over after intelligence and effort have combined at their best. Luck is the residue of design.

So what is the design? The club was in a downward spiral when he arrived. He strongly believed when they got better it would not be through luck. He expanded the number of minor league affiliates and started stockpiling them with young players underscoring his belief that, in baseball, the surest way to get quality was through quantity. He spent what seemed to him was a huge sum on prospects. He tried to rid the team of popular players who in his opinion could never take his new franchise to a championship.

When I found this account, it read like a slice of a sports column written by Mike Vaccaro, Adam Rubin, or Joel Sherman about the Met General Manager Sandy Alderson. I couldn’t help but think of the Met General Manager. The parallels were obvious, resembling a blueprint of sorts for the path the Met GM has followed over the past three years.

In fact, the piece is an adaptation of sorts from “Clemente,” a fascinating and enlightening biography written by David Maraniss, describing the strategies employed by Branch Rickey when he was hired to turn around the fortunes of a dreadful Pittsburgh Pirates franchise in the first half of the 1950’s.

I simply substituted ‘the new GM‘ for places where David Maraniss had used Branch Rickey and sliced and diced a tad to hide the identity of the man being described. Do I have any deep perspectives or nuggets of wisdom to add to the comparison. No. I just thought it was interesting how circumstances from two completely different baseball eras could draw parallels that appear to align so neatly.

In Rickey’s case his strategies to transform the Pirates did not find success during his tenure as GM. That’s not intended as an indictment of Sandy Alderson. I’m just stating facts. And, I’m one of those battered Met fans who’s loyalty is sometimes challenged because I still believe Sandy Alderson has administered wisely. With some enlightened moves this off-season and a little bit of luck,it’s possible we could begin to see a measurable difference next summer.

In Branch Rickey’s case, his work in Pittsburgh was not all for naught. Buried in that stockpile of young prospects Rickey brought to the Iron City were some baseball gems, and the one that shone the brightest, a guy named Clemente. Those gems did help turn around the Pirates fortunes to eventually bring the Bucs the World Series title they coveted, but not until Rickey had departed.

St. Louis Cardinals vs Pittsburgh Pirates

What I do know is that David Maraniss is a marvelous writer who weaves together Roberto Clemente’s story into a compelling can’t-put-the-book-down read.

Another fascinating comparison I read was Clemente’s prescription for breaking out of a batting slump. Maraniss paints Clemente as an intelligent man with a restless mind that was constantly considering life. With a blend of logic and superstition,

Clemente came up with theories about everything.

One of those theories explained how baseball batters could shuck a batting slump. As Maraniss describes it, Clemente was adamant that the way to break out of a batting slump was to make sure you got at least three hacks at the ball every time you batted.

The Pirate great reasoned that using his theory with 4 at-bats in a game, the percentages shifted your way. All you needed was one good contact with ball to bat out of the twelve tries to get a hit.

Elegantly simple. If you want to break out of a slump try swinging at the ball. I loved it. What a contrast to the sabermetric world that governs the baseball world of today.

The Clemente story takes me back to a baseball world I studied using baseball cards when I was a kid. I adored Clemente. Why? Our birthdays fell on the same calendar day of the year. That was a big deal to a kid who loved baseball. I can remember scouring my cards to find somebody born on August 18. When I finally found the guy it was the great Roberto Clemente.

Maraniss reintroduces you to so many names from the past, and helps you expand your understanding of baseball’s prejudice and discrimination against all people of color. It’s a great read.Check it out.


About John Bernhardt 156 Articles
MMO Minor League Analyst John Bernhardt is a retired public school teacher and administrator, who still coaches high school baseball. Growing up in a Yankees household, Bernhardt was an ardent Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra fan. When the Yankees fired Yogi in his first season as the Bomber manager, curiosity turned to passion when the Mets signed Berra as a player/coach and he has pulled for the Mets ever since. In retirement, John writes the sports for a local weekly, The Catskill Mountain News and hosts Tip-Off, a Friday morning sports hour, from 8:00-9:00 on WIOX, 91.3 F.M.
  • Bo Beck

    I have a major problem with this article. The last baseball hero no a baseball hero yes. When baseball went on strike and when they came back fans were not showing up. And the little that did were only there to rag on their teams. Until Cal Ripken Jr started getting closer to breaking the iron man record.

    Every stadium he went to was mobbed. Cal would stay at least 2 hours after games to sign autographs. I should know I was at every ballgame without Cal baseball does not make a come back. The last hero was Cal Ripken Jr.

  • My wife and I took a spontaneous trip to Pittsburgh from our Central PA home this summer. I love that city. We had only been there once together, and she had no idea how awesome Clemente was and how much I admired the guy. There’s even a few over-excited pics of me on the Clemente Bridge.

    I don’t know if he was baseball’s last hero, but he was awesome at baseball, and even more awesome at life and serving others. True Hall of Famer in any generation.

  • Hotstreak

    Technically you are right because Roberto Clemente was a hero, period.

  • metsin20

    Wow! One guy signed autographs and one guy died trying to save suffering peoples’ lives. What a comparison……NOT.

  • Bo Beck

    See it’s people like you the take things and twist them read the headline “Baseball’s last hero”. Ripkens chase of the record brought fans back to the game. When fans were done with the Billionaire vs Millionaire battle ended.

    He brought life back to a disappearing fan base. With no fan base there is no baseball. Stop twisting words no one is comparing what the two did but to ignore what Ripken and his chase for that record did for baseball is stupid and naive.

  • Joey D.

    Hi Bo Beck,

    I think you are misunderstanding the feeling expressed by metsin20 which I share as well. You are right that Cal Ripkin is a person to be admired for the type of individual that he is but understand it would have been more appropriate to discuss Ripkin at a different time rather than to bring up what he did when talking about Roberto Clemente who was killed while doing an errand of mercy that took him away from his family.

    This was typical of Clemente and he gave of himself for others throughout his life which often took him away from his family and included large personal financial donations at a time when baseball players were well paid but not anything like they are today, when after two years in the majors a kid makes more than the equivalent Clemente did in his final season.

    There are public figures who should be looked up and admired like Ripkin but “hero” is a word that should be used for police people, fire people, those in the military, the doctors who save our lives and those who give onto others. I had a friend who was a lot like Clemente. He was a member of the Peace Corp when younger, became a doctor and each year went back to Africa to volunteer his services to help the less fortunate. About 12 years ago he was on a flight in Ghana with his teenage daughter. They were in an old converted army plane that was trying to land in a storm. Upon touching ground, the plane split in half. My friend was sitting in the part where the plane split and fell to his death, his young daughter looking on in horror. He died like Clemente, trying to help others on a mercy mission.

    That is why I have to say that while your intentions were sincere and of course you were not at all trying to compare the two, that the more appropriate time to bring up Cal Ripkin, even if in terms of being some sort of “hero” would not be during a discussion about Roberto Clemente. Like my friend, he gave of his life trying to help others. I wish they both did not meet with such tragic endings for that would not take away them being called heroes, or in the field of baseball, Roberto truly being called “Baseball’s Last Hero”.

  • Bo Beck

    I understand what is being said said, and yet again I will bring up the misleading part and that’s the title “Roberto Clemente: Baseball’s last Hero”. Gives off the impression that it has to do with the game on the field. Not outside of baseball.

    People act like i’m taking away from Clemente
    when in all actually i’m giving him true credit. I
    fought over in Iraq for four years and am sick and tired of hearing professional athletes use the word war to describe a game they have just played.

    I think it’s a disgrace to throw baseball in front of hero when speaking of Clemente. Yet if you are talking about baseball and the games hero’s you have to throw Ripken in there without a doubt. Don’t mix the two your disgracing what Clemente did otherwise. As you both state he is a hero period.

    You need to separate game and reality. In my eyes if you say baseball’s hero’s you should be referring to what the man did in his baseball uniform. I think you seriously downplay what he did off the field by using Baseball’s last hero.

  • Joey D.

    I remember when the Hall of Fame Committee voted to waive the five year eligibility requirement so Roberto Clemente could be voted in immediately. If I recall correctly, there was only one sports writer who voted against the waiver of the rule – Dick Young. He stated he wanted it so Clemente would earn his eventual election by fighting it out on the ballot like others, which he was sure Roberto would do.

    Sometimes unusual and unique things are done under extraordinary circumstances. Having followed Young and seen how vicious he could not just to Tom Seaver and indifferent to social problems in America (he once called poverty the ability to only afford a black and a white TV) and Jackie Robinson’s claim that he was a racist, Young might have failed to recognize that simply because he did not have the heart inside of him to care.

  • Bo Beck

    Joey I have to disagree the man wrote Baseball’s last hero which in turn speaks to baseball not general life. If the title read Hero not including the part that read’s baseball then you would be correct.

    Let’s not confuse the two as we both stated the word hero should never be used for an athlete. What Clemente did came off the diamond and he wasn’t in a uniform. To write baseball’s last hero is a dishonor to the man.

    A hero, a human being children could look up to and these acts came away from baseball. No bat, no glove, all heart, compassion, intelligence, love, and just flat out a Hero!. Using baseball takes away from the man and unselfish acts he made as a civilian.

  • Joey D.

    Hi Bo Beck,

    I understand your point – the wording makes it appear his being a hero was within the context of baseball. My immediate impression, however, was that it was one who was indeed a true hero who just happened to be connected to the game.

    There is, of course, no such person as a baseball hero but heroes who happened to play baseball. Jackie Robinson is a hero not because he played baseball but because he risked his life and subjected himself to torment so to be at the forefront of the civil rights movement in which baseball was only the means for slow social change – not a voluntary contributor.

    You are indeed one we should all look up to with utmost respect for risking your life in the Middle East for us. Know when I use the word “hero” for you and your comrades it is not meant to be empty but with true sincerity for sacrifices and danger you voluntarily placed yourself into. Glad you are home safe.

  • lovemymets

    I remember Roberto Clemente hitting his 3,000 hit off of Jon Matlack of the NY Mets in the latter part of the 1972 season at Shea Stadium, and when interviewed afterwards about eventually retiring from baseball, he said, “you never realize how much you miss something until you don’t have it anymore.” That’s exactly how I feel about Roberto Clemente, the best all-around player I’ve ever seen in my 40+ years of watching baseball. Not only could he hit, but what an arm!! The fastest man in baseball at the time, Lou Brock, would think twice about scoring on a sacrifice fly that was hit into the right field corner. Clemente’s arm was THAT good. What a phenomenal player — the box scores didn’t do him justice (and neither do the highlight reels) — you had to see him play to appreciate him. Incredible ballplayer.

  • Pike Miazza

    I hate to rain on the whole “hero” talk on Roberto because I don’t know him & barely saw him play, but legend on the island of PR is that he was doing this missionary trip to Nicaragua because he wanted to check on the welfare of a

    girlfriend that he had in that country and was hitching a ride there w/the supplies.