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He Played Each Game as If It Were His Last

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.


In both Puerto Rico and Pittsburgh, more than four decades after his untimely death at the age of 38, the name of Roberto Clemente brings a smile to almost every face.

Clemente is number 21 in this “Real Heroes” series — the very number on the jersey he wore during all 18 seasons he played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, from 1955 to 1972.

He was one of the greatest right fielders in baseball history. He could run, hit, and throw better than almost anybody who ever played the game. Black and Puerto Rican by birth, he transcended race, nationality, and culture to become American Major League Baseball’s first Latino superstar.

Growing up in western Pennsylvania in the 1960s, I heard his name every day, always wrapped in glowing admiration. He had so much talent and character that Pulitzer Prize–winning author David Maraniss could write a 400-page biography of him, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero.

The youngest of seven siblings, Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker (in Spanish, the last name is the maternal family name) was born in 1934 in Carolina, Puerto Rico. As a young boy, he worked in the sugar cane fields with his father. “I learned the right way to live from my parents,” he said years later.

I never heard any hate in my house. I never heard my father say a mean word to my mother, or my mother to my father, either. During the war, when food was hard to get, my parents fed their children first and they ate what was left. They always thought of us.

The Clemen…

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