Today’s Google doodle celebrates Puerto Rican baseball legend Roberto Clemente in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. Clemente, widely regarded as the greatest defensive right fielder in the history of baseball with possibly the greatest arm the game has ever seen, was a complete player who finished his career as a member of the elite 3,000 hit club. He was also a venerable humanitarian who died tragically at the age of 38 on New Year’s Eve in 1972 while personally delivering relief aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims.
Clemente was born in Barrio San Anton, Carolina, Puerto Rico, in 1934. He was the youngest of seven children. Raised in poverty, he grew up working Puerto Rico’s sugar fields alongside his father during the Great Depression. However, Clemente was a superb athlete, and as a teenager was an Olympic hopeful as a track and field star. Baseball was his first love, however, and at age 18 he signed to play with Santurce, where he served as their leadoff hitter for three years.
In 1954, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Clemente and sent him to play with their Triple-A affiliate in Montreal. Clemente initially struggled with the adjustment to a new climate and language but became close friends with fellow Dodgers hopeful and future manager Tommy Lasorda. Clemente was further frustrated by the Dodgers’ efforts to hide him from other teams, fearing that he would be selected in that winter’s Rule 5 Draft. All of their machinations were for naught, however, as the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Clemente in the first round that November.
Clemente made the major league roster the next season, and the rest is history. According to his Baseball Reference page, Clemente would play for the Pirates his entire career, leading the team to two world championships while batting.317, including four National League batting titles. He won the 1966 National League MVP Award, was a 15-time All-Star, and a 12-time Gold Glove Award winner.
On September 30, 1972, Clemente came to the plate for his final at-bat of the season. He had 2,999 career hits. He hit a double off the Mets’ Jon Matlack into the left-center gap to become the newest member of baseball’s 3,000 hit club. It would be the final regular season at-bat of his career.
On December 23, 1972, Nicaragua was hit by a massive earthquake. A humanitarian who had often done charitable work in South America, he began to arrange emergency relief flights to Managua. When Clemente learned that the first three flights he sent were diverted by corrupt government officials, he decided to accompany the fourth flight. The flight crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near Puerto Rico, killing everyone on board.
Google’s tribute to Clemente marks an homage to an extraordinary man who we lost far too soon.