Roberto Clemente is a baseball legend and a humanitarian who lost his life in the service of others. But he also left behind lasting images of a baseball Adonis, who for over a decade, wore what I think just might be the finest major league uniform ever.
[Small bias alert…] I spent my early youth in western Pennsylvania and was introduced to major league baseball at fabled Forbes Field. If I close my eyes tight enough, I can still taste the hot dogs and smell the freshly-mown grass. But the sight that still remains burned into my memory is that of a graceful, powerful gazelle of a right fielder with a rocket arm and a hustling approach to the game that had no off switch. He wore number 21, but to Pirate fans, he will always be number 1.
Roberto Clemente was the ultimate role model for a kid from Pittsburgh and a tragic hero. On December 23, 1972, a magnitude 6.2 earthquake in Nicaragua caused the deaths of 10,000 people and left nearly 300,000 homeless in its aftermath. Eight days later on New Year’s Eve, Roberto Clemente boarded a DC-7 jet in his native Puerto Rico. The chartered aircraft was too heavily loaded with relief supplies that he intended to personally deliver to quake survivors in Managua. The overweight jet never attained sufficient altitude and crashed into the ocean shortly after takeoff, killing Clemente and four others. His body was never recovered.
The tragedy cemented his legacy as the greatest Pittsburgh Pirate of all time and arguably the greatest player in the history of the sport. But that image of Clemente in his black sleeves and white jersey vest trimmed with Pirate gold, and the number 21 stitched below his heart, remains one of the most poignant and iconic images in the history of major league baseball.
From 1957-1970, the Pirates were the definition of old school baseball uniforms. Their white jersey vests were perfectly sculpted to emphasize short- or long-sleeve black undershirts. The uniform pants were the embodiment of classic baseball–cut to mid-calf length and highlighted by gold-striped black stirrups and white socks. Subtle gold striping and tasteful borders on their uniform numbers and lettering were capped off by a solid black lid with the distinctive gold Pirates “P”.
When the perfect physique of Roberto Clemente was added to the overall package, the end result was one of the finest and most memorable images in the history of the major leagues, not just in Pittsburgh, but in all of America.
As a little leaguer who idolized Clemente, he was my hero, plain and simple. I watched #21 own the vast outfield acreage, tracking down fly balls with his nonchalant basket catches. I watched him rifling frozen ropes to third base from deep in the right field corner. I watched him explode out of the batter’s box, hustling down the first base line, even on a tapper back to the pitcher. And I watched him carry two overachieving Pirates teams on his back to bring home a pair of World Series Championships to the Steel City.
Then I watched him tip his cap to all of us after his 3,000th and final hit just three months before leaving us forever. I can still get teary-eyed watching that replay.
So, you’re probably thinking #mancrush? Maybe just a little. But it’s very okay for grown men to still have heroes. Especially ones that make you feel like a kid again. Gracias y Despedida Roberto. Thank you and farewell.