When he passed away at 38 years of age, while still active in the Major Leagues, Roberto Clemente had already accumulated all the merits necessary to be the first Latin American player with a plaque in the Cooperstown Hall of Fame.
But the tragic death of the legendary Puerto Rican player in a plane crash on December 31, 1972, while transporting aid to the victims of the earthquake that had struck Nicaragua a week earlier, thwarted the possibility that the Carolinense would continue to pursue one of his goals later. Retirement: Being one of the first black managers in MLB history.
Clemente, whose lavish rundown included 3,000 hits (440 doubles, 240 home runs, and 166 triples), 94.8 WAR, 15 All-Star game invitations, 12 Gold Gloves, four batting titles, two World Series rings, a World Series award. MVP and a .317 lifetime average in 18 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was elected to Cooperstown on a special ballot the year after his death.
Since then, 10 other Latin Americans have received sports immortality for their performance in the Major Leagues: Puerto Ricans Orlando Cepeda (1999, via the Veterans Committee), Roberto Alomar (2011), Iván Rodríguez (2016) and Edgar Martínez (2019); the Dominicans Juan Marichal (1983), Pedro Martínez (2015) and Vladimir Guerrero (2017; the Panamanians Rod Carew (1991) and Mariano Rivera (2019); the Venezuelan Luis Aparicio (1984) and the Cuban Tany Pérez (2000).
Although he hit .345, .352, .341 and .312, respectively, in his last four seasons, Clemente couldn’t play more than 138 games in his last five years, so he knew his wonderful career was about to end. It was best to start preparing for the next phase.
With that in mind, “El Cometa de Carolina” agreed to lead the San Juan Senators in the 1970-71 Puerto Rican winter baseball season, now named after him, and although the journey was relatively successful, the experience did not give him it left a very pleasant flavor.
Photo of the legendary Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente in their leadership roles in Puerto Rico (Cangrejeros de Santurce and Senadores de San Juan) The photo was taken in the opening game of the 1970-1971 season. Hiram Bithorn Stadium, 1970. Information: Néstor Duprey. pic.twitter.com/oM2zYVcLdp
– Ricardo Olivencia (@ ricardoolivenc1) April 4, 2020
“No gray hair, but I lost some hair. They wanted to kick me off the island because my club finished second,” Clemente told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the following spring.
Clemente, who was activated as a player in the second half of the winter season, led the Senadores to a 37-30 mark and the house advantage in the semifinal, against capital rivals Cangrejeros de Santurce, who were Directed by the legendary Frank Robinson.
The Cangrejeros, who had finished third during the regular series, defeated Clemente and the Senadores in six games in the semifinal and the Criollos de Caguas in seven games to win the crown.
“Clemente was intense and strict, he expected the best, and he demanded the same from his players as he demanded himself,” said Jorge Colón Delgado, a prominent historian of Puerto Rican baseball. “Everything I’ve heard, from players who were under his command and rivals who faced him, is positive. Everyone agrees that he had the basic tools to try to be a manager in the MLB,” Delgado added.
Clemente announced his retirement from the Puerto Rican league and focused on preparing for the summer. He wanted to connect the 118 hits that separated him from the 3,000 mark in the majors, something he achieved with a double in the fourth inning of the game on Sept. 30, 1972, against the New York Mets. It was the last regular season shift of his life.
When he returned to Puerto Rico, instead of trying to coach in the winter league, Clemente signed a contract with a telecommunications company to give baseball clinics to youngsters throughout the country and accepted the responsibility of guiding the national team that participated in the XX Amateur Baseball World Series, held in Nicaragua from November 15 to December 5.
With Clemente at the helm, Puerto Rico went 9-6, to tie with the Dominican Republic and Taiwan for sixth place in the tournament. Cuba beat the United States in the final to win the gold medal. Meanwhile, Nicaragua defeated Japan in the match for third place.
Less than a month after the Amateur World Series concluded, Clemente died trying to return to Nicaragua. He never had an official farewell as a player, much less the opportunity to try to continue his major league career as a manager.
“Possibly he would have been a manager, although not necessarily the first black,” Delgado said. “It must be remembered that Frank Robinson, who had been his rival in the Puerto Rican league, was further ahead in the process of being the first African-American manager. But most likely, Clemente was going to be the first Puerto Rican manager of the Major Leagues,” added the historian.
In October 1974, two years after Clemente’s passing, the Cleveland Indians hired Robinson as the first African-American manager in the Major Leagues. Puerto Ricans had to wait for four decades, until June 23, 2010, when Edwin Rodríguez replaced Cuban Fredi González at the helm of the Miami Marlins.
Since Cuban Mike González replaced Frankie Frisch at the helm of the St. Louis Cardinals in the last 16 games of the 1938 season, 19 other Latin Americans have coached in the MLB, including Puerto Ricans Rodríguez, Sandy Alomar Jr. (interim), Alex Cora, Dave Martínez and Charlie Montoyo.
Cora and Martínez won the last two editions of the World Series, with the Boston Red Sox (2018) and Washington Nationals (2019), respectively.
Rico Carty with the leader of the San Juan Senators, Roberto Clemente, in the 1970-71 season. pic.twitter.com/DEDVAPWc1w
– Jorge Colón Delgado (@JColonDelgado) September 1, 2019
Carlos Beltrán was named manager of the New York Mets at the end of 2019, but months later, before making his debut, he reached an agreement to separate from the team following his role in the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal. An episode that also led to a one-year suspension for Cora.
Cora was the bench coach and Beltran the designated hitter for those Astros who won the World Series.
Long before all that, Clemente worked to be the first.
“One of the aspects that symbolize the life of Clemente is that for him there were no obstacles when he proposed something. He demonstrated that throughout his career in baseball and his life in general,” said Delgado.