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Webinar on late MLB star Roberto Clemente set for Thursday evening

A devout Catholic MLB Hall of Famer, one of the first Black players in the league, will be the subject of a roundtable discussion tonight with historians and admirers.

Pittsburgh Pirates players honor Roberto Clemente Day with special jerseys during a game on September 15, 2020. (USATSI)

WASHINGTON — On Thursday evening, an online event will celebrate the life and legacy of one of professional sports’ most recognizable athletes and philanthropists, the late Puerto Rican slugger Roberto Clemente.

The Life and Legacy of Roberto Clemente,” co-hosted by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, honors the 50th anniversary of Clemente’s last appearance in a Major League Baseball game. The MLB also celebrated Roberto Clemente Day on September 15—the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month—and September 30th marked the 50th anniversary of his 3,000th hit, achieved during the final at-bat of his career.

“Join us for this discussion exploring Clemente’s record-breaking career on the field and his incredible legacy off the field,” reads an announcement from the NAF, which is hosting the event in conjunction with its “All American: The Power of Sports” exhibit at the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC.

The display, which opened on September 16, is free and open to the public in the museum’s Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery, featuring “more than 75 items including original records, artifacts, and photographs.”

Baseball features in much of the exhibit’s offerings, as do a number of items related to Black history in the United States.

“Sports unite people, teach values, and inspire hope and pride. In the United States, sports have powered efforts to bring citizens together, shape them, and project a vision of what it means to be American,” the museum said.

“But sports convey power to athletes too—power to break social barriers and protest injustice.”

Born Roberto Clemente Walker in Puerto Rico in 1934, Clemente was one of the earliest Black players in the MLB, drafted to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1954, the same year the team signed its first African-American, Curt Roberts. Clemente would debut with the team the next year, and the two connected over their shared experience of anti-Black racism.

Clemente would go on to dominate 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).

A devout Catholic, Clemente also excelled off the field throughout his career, spending his offseasons engaged in charity work with various nonprofits. After the 1972 season, in which the Pirates were eliminated late in the playoffs, Clemente died tragically in a plane crash while delivering supplies to Nicaragua following a devastating earthquake. He was just 38 years old.

In 1973, Clemente was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, after the usual five-year waiting period was waived. He 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.

He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 2003, and this year was honored with an additional “Roberto Clemente Day” by the city of Pittsburgh, also on September 15—the same day three US senators introduced an official resolution to recognize Clemente’s legacy “as a prominent Afro-Latino baseball player who had to overcome racial and linguistic discrimination.”

Additionally, during the World Series each year, the MLB bestows the Roberto Clemente Award on a player known for exemplary service to the community in addition to their superior play on the field.

A Clemente devotee speaks during a Mass held in his honor at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, New Jersey in 2012. (Mark J. Bonamo)

Clemente is also 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 subsequent overtures to the Vatican concerning a possible cause for canonization.

Despite Rossi’s claims of support from Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles, the current president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, no official cause has materialized, perhaps in part due to jurisdiction. (Rossi was originally told by the Vatican to take the matter to the Archdiocese of San Juan, which covers the region where Clemente was born and died.)

Even so, Clemente remains a figure of unique devotion in some Catholic circles, with memorial Masses celebrated annually in his honor in places like Newark, New Jersey, where the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart hosts such liturgies with bishops in tow.

One of Clemente’s biographers preceding the canonization controversy, Bruce Markusen, will be present for Thursday evening’s online dialogue with the NAF, joined by the foundation’s vice chair Rodney E. Slater, and Clemente’s fellow Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez, whose family also hails from Puerto Rico.

Those interested in attending the free webinar, which will begin at 5pm ET, can register here.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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