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Martin Luther King Jr. & Roberto Clemente Connection: How MLK Impacted the Puerto Rican Baseball Legend's Life

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First Posted: Jan 20, 2014 03:30 PM EST
Roberto Clemente
The "Great One/El Magnifico," Roberto Clemente played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1955-1972) and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1973. (Photo : Facebook/Roberto Clemente)

Nobel Peace Prize-winning, African-American Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. impacted many lives, but he also had a great influence on Latinos who also faced racial discrimination -- including Puerto Rican baseball legend Roberto Clemente, who was both black and Latino.

Dubbed the "Great One ('El Magnifico')" Clemente was a Spanish-speaking, Afro-Puerto Rican who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1955-1972). He was also "one who sought equality despite the disparity between Puerto Rico's easygoing acceptance of all, and America's hardline segregation regarding race, language and culture during the 50′s," according to MLB for Life.

Clemente, who considered King, "a personal hero," was also bothered by the treatment of his friend and fellow Afro-Puerto Rican who also played in the American League, "El Gran Senor" Vic Power

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Power, "the flashy-fielding Kansas City Athletics outfielder was dragged off the team bus one spring by the local authorities for buying a Coke from a whites-only gas station. Clemente despised the humiliation, internalizing it as if it were his own. Power tried to calm Clemente down with his wit and humor by recalling a conversation he had with a server at a Jim Crow-esque restaurant. 'We don't serve Negroes,' said the waitress. Power was relieved and replied, 'That's okay. I don't eat Negroes. I just want rice and beans.'"

Clemente, who was elected posthumously into the MLB Hall of Fame in 1973, "battled against discrimination from day one in America and was outspoken about the inequities he faced."

"During his first seven years at Pirates Spring Training in Florida, he was not afforded the comfortable amenities a downtown hotel offered. Instead, Clemente was confined to living with a black family in the Dunbar Heights section of Fort Myers. When the Pirates held its annual spring golf tournament at the local country club, Roberto and the other black teammates were excluded," MLB for Life adds.

"As if that was not enough disrespect, while his white teammates dined at roadside restaurants on Grapefruit League road trips, Clemente would have to remain on the team bus. Fed up with such atrocities, he finally coerced the Pittsburgh Pirates front office management to allow the black players to travel in their own station wagon. Clemente said that enduring the unjust racial divide during spring training was like being in prison."

It's important to note that during Clemente's professional career (from 1954 to 1972), he did however witness a significant change in both Major League Baseball and American society.

"He was an intelligent and politically-charged activist who marched in the street protests of the 60′s and spent time with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. when the civil rights leader visited him at his farm in Puerto Rico," MLB for Life reports. "He had a strong connection to King as the humanitarian witnessed firsthand the black freedom struggle from the Montgomery Bus Boycotts to the urban ghetto rebellions and from Rosa Parks to the Black Panthers."

According to Latino Rebels, Clemente's shared passion and belief in social and economic justice is discussed in the definitive book on Clemente's life, as well as in this blog post from Common Dreams. David Maraniss quotes Clemente's feelings about King in his 2005 biography of the Hall of Fame outfielder:

"When Martin Luther King started doing what he did, he changed the whole system of the American style. He put the people, the ghetto people, the people who didn't have nothing to say in those days, they started saying what they would have liked to say for many years that nobody listened to. Now with this man, these people come down to the place where they were supposed to be but people didn't want them, and sit down there as if they were white and call attention to the whole world. Now that wasn't only the black people but the minority people. The people who didn't have anything, and they had nothing to say in those days because they didn't have any power, they started saying things and they started picketing, and that's the reason I say he changed the whole world..."

Clemente was born Aug. 18, 1934 in Carolina, Puerto Rico and died on Dec. 31, 1972 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but his impressive records and legacy live on.

"Roberto Clemente Walker's pride and humanitarianism won him universal admiration. Despite an unorthodox batting style, the Pittsburgh Pirates great won four batting crowns and amassed 3,000 hits. He was equally brilliant in right field, where he displayed a precise and powerful arm. Clemente earned National League MVP honors in 1966, but achieved his greatest fame in the 1971 World Series, in which he batted .414," according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Clemente earned 12 consecutive Gold Glove Awards for his excellence in right field.

"Some right fielders have rifles for arms, but he had a howitzer," said Tim McCarver, former professional baseball catcher and sportscaster.

Tragically, Clemente's life ended at the young age of 38 -- he was the victim of a plane crash while flying relief supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims.

Besides his physical talent, Clemente, parallel to King, lived and died for the greater good of his people and will always be remembered for his impact in the United States and abroad.

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