Friday, September 15, marked the first-ever statewide commemoration of Robert Clemente Day in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, occasioning various events throughout the state to honor the late Black Catholic baseball star.
The celebrations followed the passage of House Resolution 58 in the Pennsylvania General Assembly earlier this year, encouraging the celebration of Clemente’s legacy of activism, philanthropy, and near unparalleled on-the-field prowess with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Though the bill has been stalled in the State Senate for at least the second consecutive year, Clemente’s family gathered with local and state officials to pay tribute to the Puerto Rican slugger at Friday night’s matchup between the Pirates and the New York Yankees at PNC Park.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Clemente’s induction into the Hall of Fame following his tragic death at 38 in a plane crash while delivering humanitarian aid to victims of the 1972 Nicaragua earthquake.
Clemente Day, which marks the start of National Hispanic Heritage Month, has since been celebrated throughout Major League Baseball (MLB) since 2002, with players wearing Clemente’s #21 as a jersey patch. All players at the game in Pittsburgh donned full #21 jerseys.
“While it is a Major League Baseball-wide celebration, it means so much more to us here in Pittsburgh and to the Pirates organization," said Pirates team president Travis Williams, during an event with the Clemente family outside the stadium on Friday morning at the Clemente statue.
Williams was joined by the Pittsburgh City Chief of Staff Jake Wheatley, Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald, State Senator Devlin Robinson, and State Rep. Aerion Abney, who respectively issued official proclamations. (A rep for Robinson noted, however, that such proclamations are often not officially adopted in the legislature, as is the case with Clemente Day.)
Also on hand for the morning event were Clemente’s sons Roberto Jr., Luis, and Roberto Enrique, who spoke about their father’s impact on the game and internationally for Hispanic baseball players—being the first Latino enshrined in Cooperstown.
"Fifty years after he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, we thank the State of Pennsylvania for celebrating him statewide," said Roberto Jr., who was honored alongside his brothers at the game later that night.
On Thursday, the family—via the Roberto Clemente Foundation—hosted their annual gala at the Senator John Heinz History Center and Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, where Pirates greats Andrew McCutchen and Harold Reynolds were inducted into the foundation’s own hall of fame.
Born in 1934, Clemente was one of the earliest Black players in the MLB, drafted to the Pirates in 1954. Despite the racism he faced throughout his career, Clemente dominated the league throughout the 1960s and 70s—winning 12 Gold Glove Awards, making the All-Star Team 15 times, and winning NL MVP in 1966 and World Series MVP in 1971 (the second of his two championship seasons).
Clemente has since become the namesake of Puerto Rico’s premier pro baseball league, as well as a number of monuments and institutions around the world—reportedly the most of any athlete in history.
Clemente is also thought to be one of the few Black Americans eyed for sainthood in the Catholic Church, however unofficially. The evangelical filmmaker Richard Rossi infamously claimed in 2017 that a miracle had occurred via Clemente’s intercession, following his release of a 2013 film on Clemente’s life and years of overtures to the Vatican.
No official canonization cause has yet materialized, but Clemente remains a figure of unique devotion in some Catholic circles, with memorial Masses celebrated annually in Newark, New Jersey, where the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart hosts such liturgies with bishops in tow.
The most recent Clemente Mass, held in December, commemorated the 50th anniversary of Clemente’s death and featured supporters calling for his number to be retired throughout the MLB. That move, which has the support of both houses in the Pennsylvania legislature, is yet to be enacted in the big leagues.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.
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