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Remembering Roberto Clemente as a Black Man who Fought Against Racial Injustice

Every major league player born in Puerto Rico, including the Dodgers’ Kiké Hernández and Edwin Ríos, will have the option Wednesday to wear No. 21 as part of the league’s annual celebration of Roberto Clemente.

Nearly 50 years after his death, Clemente remains the most revered figure in Puerto Rico and a Latin American icon. He was a Hall of Fame outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates and beloved humanitarian. He died a hero at age 38 when his plane overfilled with aid en route to earthquake victims in Nicaragua crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico on New Year’s Eve 1972.

But often overlooked in the yearly commemoration is Clemente’s activism as a Black man who spoke out, frequently in his second language, against racism in the United States during a career that paralleled the civil rights movement.

Clemente, a U.S. Marine Corps reservist, admired Martin Luther King Jr. and spent an afternoon with him at his farm in Puerto Rico. He denounced the segregation he confronted during spring training in the Jim Crow era of the South and pushed for the Pirates to make changes to better accommodate Black players.

When Clemente reported to Pirates spring training in Florida for the first time, Black players usually had to wait on the bus for their white teammates to bring them back food from restaurants after games. Clemente despised the routine. He threatened to fight any Black player who took the food, according to David Maraniss’ biography of Clemente. He requested separate transportation and the Pirates eventually provided a station wagon for the Black players.

He openly denounced his second-class citizenship while learning a new culture and becoming one of the greatest baseball players of his generation.

“It’s incredible when you have a Hall of Famer with not only that trajectory in baseball, but in humanitarianism and his willingness to fight for human rights,” former major leaguer Carlos Delgado said in Spanish during a telephone interview. “He had great pride and integrity as a Black Puerto Rican and Latino, claiming his place in a very, very complicated environment.

“You look at it now and I can’t even imagine what it was like in the ‘60s to be Black in a clubhouse with mostly white people, with white reporters constantly bothering you, making fun of your accent.”

Read entire article at Los Angeles Times