Roberto Clemente's legacy lives on

It's hard to imagine a baseball player who won an MVP Award, played for two World Series champions, earned 12 All-Star Game berths, received 12 Gold Glove Awards, won four batting titles and accumulated 3,000 hits whose legacy was even bigger off the field than on.

But that describes Roberto Clemente.

For all his accomplishments as a player, Clemente honored his role as a community leader and a citizen of Puerto Rico even more. He wanted to be a player all Latin American players would try to emulate.

"Always, they said Babe Ruth was the best there was," Clemente once offered. "They said you'd really have to be something to be like Babe Ruth. But Babe Ruth was an American player. What we needed was a Puerto Rican player they could say that about, someone to look up to and try to equal."

Clemente surpassed that. All players, active and retired, whether they're from Puerto Rico, somewhere else in Latin America, or anywhere in North America, for that matter, know about Clemente as a Hall of Fame player and as an ambassador and humanitarian in the way he lived his life.

"As a player he was arguably the best of his generation," said MLBPA executive director Tony Clark, who supports the retirement of his uniform No. 21. "He did not shy away from his potential to be a difference maker for all Latin players, and he used his status in the game to open the doors for others to follow through.

"To this day, and despite having last appeared in a Major League Baseball game nearly 45 years ago, Roberto Clemente's legacy -- on and off the field -- continues to inspire generations of young men to become baseball players, not only in Puerto Rico but throughout Latin America."

People who saw him play will never forget the way Clemente rolled his neck as he slowly dug into the back outside corner of the batter's box; the way he seemingly "stepped in the bucket" while reaching out to lace line drives all over the field; or the way he ran down balls in the right-field corner, whirled and fired strikes to all bases.

But they will also remember the dignified and selfless way he conducted himself off the field, representing the people of Puerto Rico proudly and tirelessly through his commitment to community service wherever and whenever it was needed -- for schools, hospitals, and public health initiatives around the world.

It was on a charitable mission on New Year's Eve in 1972, just months after his 18th season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, in which he collected his 3,000th hit, that he died.

Clemente, who was also the Pirates' player representative in the Players Association at the time, had arranged for flights to bring supplies to Managua, Nicaragua, following a Dec. 23 earthquake that had devastated the capital city.

But when the 38-year-old outfielder found out that supplies from the first three flights hadn't reached the earthquake victims, he decided to accompany the fourth flight in hopes that his presence would help ensure delivery of the supplies.

The Douglas DC-7 cargo plane, however, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico, shortly after taking off.

On March 30, 1973, the Hall of Fame held a special election to induct Clemente, foregoing the usual waiting period.

To this day, fans and players, even those who weren't alive when he died, honor his memory.

"Clemente was a humanitarian who played the game of baseball," Clark said. "When Roberto was taken from us, at just 38 years old, the sport not only lost a champion, it lost a hero."