A young Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1960s

Roberto Clemente debuted with the Pirates on April 17, 1955, wearing uniform number 13, in the first game of a doubleheader against the Brooklyn Dodgers. At the beginning of his time with the Pirates, he experienced frustration because of racial tension with the local media and some teammates. Clemente responded to this by stating, “I don’t believe in color.” He noted that, during his upbringing, he was taught to never discriminate against someone based on ethnicity.

Clemente was at a double disadvantage, as he was a Latin American and Caribbean player who knew very little English, and was Black, being of African descent. The year before, the Pirates had become the fifth team in the NL and ninth in the major leagues to break the baseball color line when they hired Curt Roberts who debuted with the team. This was seven years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line with the Dodgers. Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, Roberts befriended Clemente and helped him adjust to life in the major league, as well as to get used to life in the Pittsburgh area.

Rookie Season

Clemente had to sit out several games during his rookie season, due to a back injury suffered the previous winter in Puerto Rico, when a drunk driver rammed into his car at an intersection. He finished his rookie season with a .255 batting average, despite trouble hitting certain types of pitches. His defensive skills were highlighted during this season.

The following season, on July 25, 1956 in Forbes Field, Clemente hit the only documented walk-off, inside-the-park grand slam in modern MLB play. Clemente was still fulfilling his Marine Corps Reserve duty during spring of 1959 and set to be released from Camp Lejeune until April 4. A Pennsylvania State Senator, John M. Walker, wrote to US Senator Hugh Scott requesting an early release on March 4 so Clemente could join the team for spring training.

Posted by R. McKay on July 30, 2019
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